music wars

There`s a new column in our regional Catholic newspaper, The Prairie Messenger. `Mad Trad Corner` is written by Dorothy Cummings McLean about her passion for the Latin Mass and traditional devotions. The debut of the column caused quite a stir in this mostly liberal newspaper. I admire the editors of the PM for introducing us to her well written and often entertaining voice. But, it can also be a judgmental voice, as in her column of December 1st. In her enthusiastic promotion of Gregorian Chant, she wrote the following,

Now that I am married to a member of a church choir devoted to plainchant and traditional polyphony, I can laugh at the great contrast between the splendid music provided by St. Michael’s Choir School and the ragbag of folk tunes, pop songs and borrowings from the Protestant hymn tradition that characterized the parish churches of my youth. Never again will I wilt before the screeches of a cantor robbed of her Broadway dreams nor the bellows of a tenor under the impression that he is Pavarotti at the Met. I am free, free at last, from the tyranny of guitars, drums, clapping and the St. Louis Jesuits. Safe in the embrace of the extraordinary form of the mass, I can worship with the music prized by the Second Vatican Council.

Huh? I love guitars, drums, clapping and the St. Louis Jesuits….and the Monks of Weston Priory, David Haas, Marty Haugen, Carey Landry and many more! Their songs lift my spirits, bring fond memories of the past and inspiration for the present. And I love when a truly beautiful voice leads us in song. I marvel when gifts so freely given are freely shared for the glory of God and in the service of the community.

It’s an old and worn joke, “what’s the difference between a liturgist and a terrorist?” The answer, “ you can negotiate with a terrorist.” There’s truth in the groaner. The ideological divide between Trads and Libs is glaringly present in the music wars. Why can’t we just get along? Why can’t we have the freedom to worship with the music that sends our spirits soaring, without saying it’s the only way, the best way, or most Catholic way? Beauty in music, as with all art, is in the eye of the beholder. As a mother of five, I`m forced to live with this fact. My family’s music tastes range from classical (me), to country, indie, old school rock, and even screamo punk.  (I count the invention of the iPod as one of God’s great blessings!)

I love Gregorian chant, but I also love being immersed in other cultures. I’ve been at a Kenyan mass so full of color, dance, rhythm, and glorious harmonies that it sent shivers down my spine and tears to my eyes. I’ve felt my whole body smile at the joyous songs and lilting melodies of Latin American liturgies. I’ve experienced the soul-lifting grace of a hula performed during a mass of Aloha in Hawai’ i. I’ve been in official masses in Rome where the grandness of the basilicas were matched by the grandness of sound pouring from choirs and orchestras.  The immensity of God is glorified in the diversity of worship styles of God’s people. It’s our smallness that tries to place and enforce liturgical boundaries. And, it’s a really small person that obsessively focuses on the rightness and wrongness of each detail in our worship.  But, that’s another rant waiting to be written!

And, what about those “worn-out warbles from Glory & Praise”? Many of these songs are scripturally based. This is what I admired the most about this genre of Catholic music. There is substance to the words, and a pleasant melody that you can carry in your head and heart. How many times have you heard a scripture passage and had a song come to your mind? Few of us bother to memorize scripture passages. But, we easily absorb songs and retrieve them in times of joy and sorrow. They become our prayer. As St. Augustine so wisely said, “a person who sings, prays twice”.

6 thoughts on “music wars

  1. Answer: Because we aren’t usually free to worship with the music that makes our spirits soar (by which I assume you mean our souls soaring towards God in loving worship, not our minds being carried off in a Dionysian ecstasy). Catholics are usually at the mercy of their parish cantor’s or band’s own whims.

    Music can be, not just an aid, but an impediment to prayer, as I have experienced too often when the cantor sings well past his or her retirement date or range, or in a secular style, or with little skill. Some bands play at ear-threatening decibles. Some choirs sing frankly non-Christian material. And I could name one cantor in Montreal who sang off-beat on purpose to mess with the organist, whom she clearly–to every musician in the congregation–disliked.

    By tyranny, I meant exactly that. Parishes are very rarely allowed the traditional music of the kind praised and marked out for preservation by the Second Vatican Council. Instead, parishes in Canada sing the (often bowlderized) hymns in” CBW III” and/or “Glory& Praise” in and out of season. In place of the (perhaps sentimental) Catholic hymns popular before 1950, or the ancient, classic hymns by Catholics that have been collected over two millennia, we are inexorably tied to a style considered fresh and new 45 years ago.

    I do not advocate throwing away” Glory & Praise,” especially as the Baby Boom and Baby Bust generations will indeed hang onto “Eagle’s Wings” etc. with all the nostalgia of the aging for their youth, but I do encourage choir directors and congregations to follow the wishes of the Second Vatican Council in regard to the timeless musical treasures of the Church. Goodness knows why the Anglicans seem to prize them so much more than we do these days.

    As a matter of fact, I enjoy “Praise and Worship” music when it is done very well by talented musicians who understand both music and worship. There is an excellent “Praise and Worship” service on Sunday evenings at Toronto’s Newman Centre. It is not, of course, in the Catholic musical idiom, but I enjoy it–at the Newman– all the same. When I recently heard a choir in Edinburgh sing a “Praise and Worship” hymn popular at the Newman as if it were a dirge, I still had to smile, thinking of my friends back home. Needless to say, however, I greatly regretted having been too ill to go to my usual Mass that morning.

    My central point was that we have a marvellous treasure in traditional Catholic music, one praised to the skies by the Second Vatican Council, one suited to ordinary parishes, so we ought not to have to go to Rome (or Edinburgh) to receive it.

    Thank you very much for reading! I don’t mind being called judgmental, for judgment, according to Fr. Bernard Lonergan, S.J., is a necessary component of knowledge.

    1. Dear Dorothy,

      Thank you so much for your response! As you can see, this blog is in its early days. I was wondering if anyone out there had `ears to hear`what I had to say. I was thrilled that you were the first to help get a dialogue going.

      I agree wholeheartedly that music can be an impediment to prayer. Many years ago, (too many!), I attended a music workshop with Carey Landry. I had a preconceived image of him as this jolly singer of children`s songs. But he gave us a stern lecture about badly performed music being liturgically incorrect. We were told that no music is preferable to bad music. Amen! My vision of purgatory was developed during many squirming Sunday mornings. In this vision purgatory is a never-ending mass with a long-winded, rambling homilist and an out-of-tune choir stuck in a dirge tempo. Oh, and we would be in the middle of a heat wave with no air-conditioning in sight!

      I`m glad that you don`t advocate throwing out `Glory and Praise`. We of a certain age need our baby-boomer tunes! And, I don`t advocate throwing out the more traditional music. But, what might be traditional in the centuries old eyes of the Church, may not be traditional for all peoples. After all, the more historically classical liturgical music came from a European culture. I wonder if it can ever become a truly global musical genre in these post-colonial times?

      We speak of traditional vs. modern. For most of us in the pews, perhaps it is more true to speak of the familiar vs. the unknown. The familiar is that which is rooted in our story, in our own being. There is an old Polish Christmas carol that our parish sings each year. I remember the melody from my own childhood and, yes, it gets my soul soaring. For me, that`s tradition!

      Thank you, again, for your thought-provoking response. I will continue to eagerly read`Mad Trad`. Consider me a `Mad Lib`with some deep Trad roots!

      with warm regards,


  2. I’d like to distinguish two issues: the quality of the music and the quality of the performance.

    You seem to agree that both pre- and post-Vatican II music, well-executed, are liturgically acceptable. Whose spirits they send soaring is a matter of liturgical integrity and spiritual taste. Many people can appreciate both types of music, at different times and in different settings. In France, the question of the music’s cultural origin is also compelling, as an increasing percentage of Sunday assemblies in many parishes is of non-European origin.

    Performance quality surely varies, regardless of the type of music. Dorothy, your anecdotes focus mainly on poorly performed post-Vatican II music. (Let’s assume that the case of the personal dispute being played out through church music is exceptional.) Yet, even the “ancient, classic hymns by Catholics that have been collected over two millennia” must sometimes be performed badly.

    Ideally, our parish leaders would take seriously enough the role of music in liturgy to call qualified people to this ministry. Ideally, they’d find music ministers who can adapt musical offerings to meet various liturgical needs and appeal to diverse parishioners. But we live in the real, messy world, so we sometimes have to deal with poorly adapted, poorly performed music. This situation, however grating, gives me a prime occasion to work on my Christian charity and humility, while I’m still firmly planted in the pew.

  3. Isabella, I appreciate your devotion to dialogue. I’m sorry to read (further above) of your greying, shrinking congregation. How do the young people of your community slake their spiritual thirsts?

    As for grinning and bearing bad music, bad art, bad everything just because it’s church, I think it was Mark Shea who came up with the amusing tongue-in-cheek proverb “Nothing is too crappy for God.”

    Sometimes when I consider the great trouble Eastern Catholics and Eastern Orthodox Christians take in their religious services, it gives me pause for thought. And it is fascinating reading devotees of the New Age on what ritual, beauty, incense, chant, etc. means to them and has meant for world religions in general. As yet I have not visited a synagogue with terrible music, and as yet Jewish children are praised and rewarded for learning and singing in Hebrew.

    Mary, my enjoyment of “Praise and Worship” is a guilty pleasure. I am not sure its rock-and-roll beats are appropriate to the beauty and solemnity of Holy Mass; Cardinal Ratzinger-as-was would emphatically say not. However, it might be enjoyed at other kinds of liturgical gathering. Today some people meet especially for Taize prayer, so I don’t see why those who enjoy P&W might not meet especially to sing and dance to it.

  4. Hi Dorothy,
    One of the realities of rural parish life, is that many young adults leave town for post-secondary education or job opportunities. So the graying is really felt in all aspects of town life. Happily, we have had a real revival in our parish and town life in the last two years due to a recent influx of immigrant workers at a local business. Many Filipino and Korean families have joined our parish community and given it a new richness and vitality.

    The latest Prairie Messenger arrived here yesterday. I thoroughly enjoyed both your Christmas articles: Mad Trad Corner, and your family Christmas story. Thank you, and continued blessings on all you do!

    Sending joy and peace across the pond…..and a very Happy Christmas!


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