View from the choir

I am a Catholic layperson and Secular Franciscan with a sense of humor. After years in the back pew watching, I have moved into the choir. It's nice to see faces instead of the backs of heads. But I still maintain God has a sense of humor - and that we are created in God's image.

Thursday, August 19, 2010

Contemporary Music at Church

A follow-up on a contentious topic.

I have read various Church documents related to music at Mass and in Church. I have read and heard various interpretations and commentaries.

My interpretation (one that conforms with a number of other's interpretations in the Church) is that contemporary music - including many contemporary instruments - are permitted in Masses. (Guitar comes under the "stringed instrument" category cited as permitted in the documents, by the way.)

Yes, the documents are clear that the organ, traditional hymns, chant, the traditional choir are to be given prominence in the music as a whole, but other styles and forms of instrumentation are clearly and specifically permitted. All instruments - whether organ or bells or guitar - have to be played reasonably well, there has to be due reverence, the hymns must fit the liturgical context.

Does that mean all songs are permitted? Absolutely not. Secular songs are not allowed (as many a bride and groom have found out when planning their wedding). It is not permitted to play a religiously-oriented secular song like "Spirit in the Sky" (even if I do like to crank up my car radio when it comes on on the oldies station). Some of the early efforts to clone secular music and church music in the 60s/70s are not appropriate and are not played. (Even though some critics keep citing songs that I haven't heard played in 40 years!)

But there are many contemporary hymns composed for worship and praise that are permitted and appropriate. "God of Wonders," for example, is uptempo, but is fine.

Does that mean all extreme forms of a particular musical style would be allowed? No. But "rock" is a vague term that includes a wide range of music - from folk rock to alternativerock to punk rock to heavy metal. Some extreme forms would not be appropriate under the guidelines - but that's not what we are talking about here (despite some folks' attempts to use stereotypes and blanket labels).

Looking more specifically at Rock of Faith.

We are not a separate entity. We are part of the continuum that is music ministry at St. Theodore's. We have to report to staff. We are subject to the staff. Our music choices are subject to staff approval. The hymns we play are selected to fit with the readings of the Mass for which we are playing.

The band includes people with a certain level of proficiency. Some have been playing for years - including professionally. We include people who have played in community orchestras, in the pit for musicals, at festivals, in bands, and, yes, in church choirs and "folk groups."

We pray when we practice.

We try to dress appropriately for Mass (not in just U2 tee shirts and ripped jeans).

We don't jump, dance around, etc.

We play hymns put out by Catholic liturgical publishers. The parish pays the copyright fees.

At St. Theodore's, there are three Sunday Masses - 156 for the year. Rock of Faith plays for 8 - 10 youth-related Masses each year. Even taking the 10 figure, that means we play for only 6.4 percent of the Masses. The other 93.6 percent of the Masses feature organ (the preferred instrument) or piano and either choir (about 19 percent) or a cantor (about 75 percent) employing a variety of hymns, including many classics. Thus at St. Theodore's organ and the classic hymns are given places of prominence, in conformity with the guidelines.

Because we play so infrequently, because it's always announced in advance, and because there are other options, any person who does not like the style of music we play can easily go to a different Mass. It is not shoved down their ears.

In the Church, there is room for variety. There are people who wear scapulars, say the rosary, join Secular Orders. There are other people who have no need or desire for such things. There are people who are devotees of St. Padre Pio or the Apparition at Fatima or whose homes and yards are full of statues and shrines. There are others who don't care for all of that. There are people who love the old Latin Mass, and others who find it boring.

We are the Catholic Church, and a catholic church. Not everyone has to agree on particular styles of worship, or spirituality or music, but as long as what is being does fits under the rubrics, as long as what is does is pastorally prudent, then it is allowed.

So if contemporary liturgical music is not your style, and if you have a choice, then just don't come to that particular Mass.

But as long as it conforms to the rubrics (which I believe it does as we are doing it at St. Theodore's) it is permitted.


Anonymous Daniel R. said...

You say that traditional, Vatican II-specified music should be given "prominence."

When was that last Gregorian Chant Mass at St. Theodore's?

You can't admit that something is the Rome-approved norm, then spend the vast majority (or even the totality) of your time focused on alternative worship styles. There's a norm - you stick with it for a reason. Of course we're a "catholic" Church. We are universal. What makes us universal is our uniformity. When you look at what the Pope is doing and what many "music ministries" are doing, there is a clear and non-disputed disparity.

You also went out of your way in the previous post's comment thread to say that you weren't referencing rock music at Mass. Now it's pretty clear that you are. I don't follow your logic.

10:09 AM  
Blogger Lee Strong said...

When was the last Gregorian Chant Mass at St. Theodore's? I don't know - you'd have to ask the music director that one because she predates me there (I moved to Gates and into the parish). I don't recall hearing about too many Gregorian Chant Masses at regular parishes around here period. I know we have done Gregorian Chant pieces on occasion. I've even sung it - with the choir and with Rock of Faith.

The point of my post was that alternative styles are allowed under the norms, and pointed out that our particular group only plays a small number of special Masses.

Again, my understanding and that of a number of perfectly respectable, devout people is that the group and the kind of music it plays in limited, special circumstances is allowed under the norms. (Other people have different interpretations, granted.) That was the point of the post - that's the logic. It's allowed.

As for "rock music," I pointed out that that is a vague term. There are all different kinds of "rock." What we play some folks might consider rock. I consider some of the songs "rock" in nature. But it is not rock in the sense of heavy metal or punk.

10:41 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I think the problem is that contemporary music can be found much more easier in our parishes than Gregorian Chant. But if one reads the documents, it shouldn't be that way. Chant should be found much more often.

12:09 PM  
Blogger Ben Anderson said...

we're making progress getting to the crux of the issue :-)

I don't have time to keep digging at the moment, but will continue when I get a chance.


9:41 PM  
Blogger Barb, sfo said...

You go!! I play in a folk group that plays every weekend. Just lost our bass/mandolin/harmonica guy since my son has headed off to college to play there, but we still have 4 guitars and 15 singers ranging from 8 to 61. We practice weekly. Our music is approved by the music director and chosen from the selections in the hymnal. Unlike the organists at church, we are all volunteers. Many of us have been doing this almost 30 years now. We're not fabulous, but people feel comfortable singing along, and this is what we want to happen. We're not there to perform, but to lead sung prayer!

If the church wants more chant, then there will have to be more trained (and probably paid) musicians to make it happen.

10:34 PM  

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