Sunday, September 12, 2010

Confessions of a Would-Be Reformer

Shall We Chant?

          Last-year’s-and-before’s heated debate over the way forward in matters liturgical [usus antiquior vs. reform of the reform] has given place in the last few months to less commentary in the blogosphere and seemingly more work on the ground on both sides of the aisle or altar. I fully agree with this approach of working patiently and quietly with people, because I think it indicates that some purposeful consensus building is taking place where it needs to take place, namely where liturgy is celebrated. Moreover, I have my doubts concerning the usefulness of cyberspace for inspiring the confidence of the people in the pews which is needed to move ahead in the reform of the reform. It goes without saying that the leadership of the priest in his parish is decisive for the reform and for communicating to the people the true sense of what divine worship is all about.
          Let me illustrate my point using the issue of liturgical music: most would-be reformers are at a loss as to how you get beyond banning parts of the hymnals presently available, should we want to make sense of St. Augustine’s teaching about singing being double the prayer. The hymn repertoire of most parishes is a mine field of provocations on the simple issue of good taste. Even my own people who join me here in the chapel for Mass sense the triteness of much of the music dished out in your average parish. There’s not much out there under the heading of hymnody which is worth salvaging. It cannot be denied that even Catholics took a wrong turn in the hymnody department at some point borrowing too heavily from the Protestant Reformation at the expense of things beautiful from previous centuries. Whatever happened to St. Ephrem the Deacon? Most people agree that our own Latin hymnody both Eucharistic and Marian, much of it from the Middle Ages, should be recovered. For that we must give the mandate to the experts and turn to something more within our own purview; let us turn to chant as the other wing or lung of liturgical song, the one which is more immediately or easily accessible, the more Catholic one. Besides the traditional Gregorian chants there are lots of vernacular settings easily accessible for those who are looking.
The good news is that chanting the responsorial psalm has already just about won the day in parishes far and wide. However, “joyful noise” still holds the high ground elsewhere by providing “traveling music” for entrances and exits, for gift and communion processions. Much as I am convinced that gifts ought not to be prepared and Eucharist prayers to be prayed “across the table” and in each others’ faces but rather together facing the Dawn from on High Who comes to visit us (ad Orientem), so too I believe that hymnody should be used much more sparingly for Eucharist. Chanting also the Entrance and Communion Antiphons is the right thing to do.
          I would never have come to this position had it not been from hearing the experience shared with me by a parish priest I respect. This man is no rigorist when it comes to liturgy, but like St. Joseph, “an upright man”, he was pained by what he saw around him in the parish to which he had recently been assigned and he moved with great sensitivity and respect for all those involved to correct it.
Father had inherited the usage in his parish of the parochial primary school coming and “taking over” daily Mass in the parish once per week during the school year. Besides the special skits for certain feasts and performances by the grade school band, this meant an ample dose of songs beloved of the music teacher of the school. Father noted several regrettable aspects of this weekly takeover: 1) that daily Mass was lost to the faithful souls who otherwise frequented daily Mass; 2) school parents came dutifully for every tense moment of their own child’s “performance” but not really for the Mass as they were too worried about supporting “Junior” or their little missy in his or her moment to shine; 3) even the best grade school band needs most of the year to prepare a recital; 4) the sixth grade girl altar servers had a field day in the sacristy each week mocking the school music teacher’s song choices (as she rehearsed them in church before Mass) which may have been as dear to a 40 year old as a rock anthem could be, but said nothing to overly wise 11 and 12 year olds.
          To remedy the situation Father offered the faculty a liturgy workshop, ample time for discussion and his own clear directives. In the light of a positive experience, guided by the diocesan liturgy director, with a simple piano accompaniment for chanted antiphons replacing two of the occasions for “traveling music” Father reclaimed the school Mass as a parish daily Mass: his faithful daily Mass folk were no longer disinherited once a week. With the new simpler format, no band concert or skits, it became a tasteful and organic experience to include the parochial school in a stress free parish liturgy which caused no parent or child anxiety. All were caught up in the Church’s life of prayer restored to the “noble simplicity” which the Fathers of the II Vatican Council had ordered up for the reform.
          Father and I didn’t talk about his Sunday liturgies, but the Mass Propers for Entrance, Responsorial and Communion could easily supplant the music choices of the last couple decades which never knew unanimous approval or even minimal emotional attachment because of the issues of musical taste involved or simply because lots of them borrowed melodies from Joan Baez and Bob Dylan, not everyone’s cup of tea (Kumbaya, my friends, kumbaya!).
          Someone might object: why chant? Why not just a better choice of hymns (the argument weighing tacitly, at least, on the side of variety in the music we sing)? On and off over the last thirty years I have been exposed to Mexican hymns. Apart from a certain variety in the melodies, the themes are all the same: people always marching hand in hand, always bearing the heat of the day, always coming up with grimy, sweaty and bleeding hands and always talking about labor and strife. Don’t show me an anthology; I’ve been through enough liturgies to know how limited the real choices are. If we are honest, the same can be said about the average parish’s repertoire of hymns in English (minus the labor and strife), albeit richer than most everyone but the Germans’ when it comes to the Christmas season. We have only to gain (and not just at a daily Mass) by opting for chanting the propers of the season.
          To achieve this end, beyond workshops and seminars, engagement is indeed the route to go. I surely hope that loving and courageous parish priests will do their part to see that more chants might soon enrich our liturgy, enabling us to reclaim space from the idiosyncratic and for God.

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