With the changes to the Mass less than a year away, it seems like a good time to address a topic that’s been bothering me for quite a while.
They’re called the liturgy wars, and they are as ridiculous as their name.
Latin vs. English. Organ vs. piano. Piano vs. guitar. Chant/hymn vs. “folk/contemporary.” Contemporary vs. Life Teen/praise & worship. The most visible battle lines in this war are drawn over music, and since music is my ministry, that is where I want to focus.
The liturgy documents state that “pride of place” belongs to chant, and that the organ is to be “held in high esteem.” They don’t say there’s no room for other instruments and genres at the Eucharistic table. There’s a good reason for this: The liturgy is for everyone, from every background, tradition and ethnicity imaginable. The documents are written to be inclusive. They provide options at every turn in order to reflect the spectacular diversity of the Church. We aren’t asked to conform to a single artistic aesthetic, because God works in all ages and all styles, and no one musical aesthetic can possibly reach everyone. (This post, though written for a non-Catholic church, makes this point well. )
There’s an unfortunate human tendency to take one’s personal musical preferences—a wholly subjective measure—and try to set them up as an objective ideal. I get it from members of my contemporary group, who turn their noses up at chant and organ, and I get it from so-called “traditional” Catholics online and in the parish, who use words like “fitting” and “dignified” to imply that contemporary musicians’ gifts are unwelcome in the liturgy.
This is simply wrong. Music and liturgy have the power to bring people together—as long as we don’t try to set up our own personal preferences as absolute truths by which everyone must live.
Early in my tenure as full-time liturgy/music director at our church, a woman told me that we shouldn’t use any music written after the death of Mozart, because everything written after 1791 is emotionally manipulative.
Aside from the gross ignorance of music history (music, by its very nature, is emotionally evocative; only the aesthetic changes as the ages pass), I have one overwhelming objection to this argument. Namely, it implies that the Holy Spirit stopped inspiring people at some point in history. How can you put God in such a tiny box?
I’m a contemporary musician, but I’m not here to argue that we replace chant and hymnody. They are beautiful, powerful forms of music, which I know and love after earning two degrees in flute performance.
I do, however, take issue with the assertion that guitars, drums and contemporary music have no place in the liturgy—because they, too, have beauty and power. In my son’s first four months of attending school Masses (at which they sing a wide variety of music), exactly two songs touched him enough that he came home singing them: Awesome God and On That Holy Mountain. You can’t deny the power of contemporary music to change hearts, just because it’s not your cup of tea.
In my 25 years serving as a Church musician, I’ve often felt that I have to prove that my love for contemporary idioms doesn’t automatically make me a cafeteria Catholic, a theological liberal. Those who are “faithful to the magisterium” cover a wide range of interests, charisms, and political philosophies—those who love the history of the Latin Mass as well as those who prefer the accessibility of English; those of liberal political leanings as well as conservative; working moms as well as stay-at-home; guitar players and contemporary composers (such as myself) as well as those who respond best to older forms of music.
There is room in our parishes—and in our hearts—for all styles and genres. The universality of the Church demands no less.
Ten pieces of music from across the ages that move me to worship:
- Pange Lingua
- Magnum Mysterium
- Ave Verum Corpus
- For the Beauty of the Earth
- All Creatures Of Our God and King
- I Heard the Voice of Jesus Say
- I Will Not Die
- God, You Search Me And You Know Me
- We Will Serve the Lord
- I See You
Kathleen Basi can be found writing at www.kathleenbasi.com.