Saturday, March 29, 2008

Washington Mass a Liturgical Disappointment?

"Brace yourself for the Pope's mass in DC", says Jeffrey Tucker (The New Liturgical Movement), responding to the Washingtion Diocese' announcement regarding its selection of music. Tucker pronounces the list -- "it includes mostly Gospel numbers, some rock/blues thrown in ("Jesus is Here Right Now"), together with the "Mass of Creation" Sanctus and Amen" -- "as skimpy as it is troubling."

At issue: the question of cultural diversity, personal creativity and Catholic universality as it is manifested in the musical selection:

The director Tom Stehle says that the music announced so far "represents our long Catholic and Christian tradition and the current diversity of our church."

I can't understand the implication that our diversity as Catholics is somehow "current" and not part of our past. This usually comes with the claim that the music of our past is bound up with Eurocentric sensibilities and unsuitable for a diverse age. Actually, a defining mark of true liturgical music is its universality over time and space, and chant and its elaborations certainly have that mark of universality about them. Its universality is one of the most remarkable discoveries made by musicologists who have looked at chant in the first millennium. And this feature is not only part of the history of chant; it is also an embedded melodic feature of Gregorian plainsong that it strives to transcend time and place.

All of this I learned from reading the Pope's own writings on liturgy and music.

Moreover--and this pains me to think of it--our current "multicultural" obsessions are more than a little insulting to racial minorities and especially African American Catholics. It is a caricature of the worst sort to assume that only Gospel spirituals somehow "represent" their culture and people, and to further imply that chant is somehow incomprehensible to them. I can only speak from my own experience in this regard: the African Americans in parishes I've worked in are among the most passionate supporters of authentic sacred music, precisely because it is an aid to prayer, which, after all, is the core of liturgical art.

From what we have seen so far, the music at the D.C. Papal Mass is not a progressive program. It is a pre-Benedict program with a utility-oriented lineup focussed on making some kind of cultural/political/sociological statement to someone (American Catholics? The Vatican? The Pope?) through the liturgy. There is no evidence of change, growth,and development toward ideals.

Let's hear it from the Pope himself -- an excerpt from The Spirit of the Liturgy (SF, CA: Ignatius, 2000), pp. 146-47:

In the West, in the form of Gregorian chant, the inherited tradition of psalm-singing was developed to a new sublimity and purity, which set a permanent standard for sacred music, music for the liturgy of the Church. Polyphony developed in the late Middle Ages, and then instruments came back into divine worship--quite rightly, too, because, as we have seen, the Church not only continues the synagogue, but also takes up, in the light of Christ's Pasch, the reality represented by the Temple. Two new factors are thus at work in Church music. Artistic freedom increasingly asserts its rights, even in the liturgy. Church music and secular music are now each influenced by the other. This is particularly clear in the case of the so-called "parody Masses", in which the text of the Mass was set to a theme or melody that came from secular music, with the result that anyone hearing it might think he was listening to the latest "hit". It is clear that these opportunities for artistic creativity and the adoption of secular tunes brought danger with them. Music was no longer developing out of prayer, but, with the new demand for artistic autonomy, was now heading away from the liturgy; it was becoming an end in itself, opening the door to new, very different ways of feeling and of experiencing the world. Music was alienating the liturgy from its true nature.

At this point the Council of Trent intervened in the culture war that had broken out. It was made a norm that liturgical music should be at the service of the Word; the use of instruments was substantially reduced; and the difference between secular and sacred music was clearly affirmed.

Homework: "Pope Benedict XVI on Sacred Music", compiled by St. Michael's Catholic Church in Auburn, Alabama