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Thursday, June 20, 2013

An Open Discussion on Liturgical Music

...at some point we must get beyond the matter of taste and various technical issues and go a bit deeper: What is truly appropriate for Mass? How have we justified discarding the texts that the Church provides for us and replacing them with hymns that we choose according to criteria of taste and other subjective factors?

— Father B. Jerabek, from "Pop Music at Mass"

Fr. Jerabek has published a blog post on liturgical music that addresses the questions of whether it is appropriate to deviate from the texts of the Mass established by the Church and how melodies should be selected or composed for the texts chosen. At the end of the post, he references an article at the Crisis website by Jeffrey Tucker that discusses related questions. Mr. Tucker presents a brief sketch of the recent history of liturgical music that has lead up to the Life Teen subculture involving Masses in which one is likely to find a "rock group ... that sings music with repetitive words that have nothing to do with what’s in the liturgical books and accompanies that music with pop rhythms."

Because questions regarding liturgical music -- and especially those involving whether different musical styles and lyrics are appropriate, licit, or even moral within the context of the liturgy -- are of particular interest to me, I would like to open the floor to discussions on this topic. I will begin the conversation below with some thoughts from a reader, followed by my response. Please provide thoughts you have in the comment box below.

As a reminder of the sharp distinctions between the types of music being discussed, I have included below videos from two different Masses containing contrasting musical styles and texts. I will leave it to you to determine which falls into which category.


Patrick La Fratta said...

An anonymous reader responds:

"Fr. Jerabek makes a great point when he asks people to put aside their expectations for entertainment and reflect rather on the deeper meaning behind music and its lyrics. This is insightful and not something I’ve thought about like this before. Jeffrey Tucker does a good job of explaining the proper development of a congregation (namely of teens, but this can be broadened to adults and the whole church community), which in turn strengthens the community both in the now and in the future. (It kind of frightens me to think how trendiness has so much esteem and influence.)
Culture in this context may have 2 definitions: one definition being the founding structure of a group of people, and the other being the 'transient expressions' that ebb and flow as trends. The Life Teen culture (which my mind never understood even as a teenager, so I already have a bias) is trendy, whereas historically sacred movements (e.g., specific to music) arguably capture the essence and true value and expression of that culture outside of any trendy movements.

There is another question that comes up, however, that I still don’t have a grounded viewpoint on. There could be (and is) a third definition of culture: a group of people with a specific ethnic background. And I don’t quite know how to put these essential-culture arguments in place in these contexts. In the least, the words in sung songs would be different to comply with a different language.

This has come up for me especially within the last month since I have incidentally gone to Masses in 4 different languages each week, all Roman rite and all with different musical expressions. The Hispanic Mass was the most ethnically cultural in that its music was like an amateur mariachi band, which my Honduran friend admitted was playing songs that were at least a generation or 2 old. I found it interesting that it sounded significantly more trendy than I thought it ought, but I can’t say within a Hispanic mindset if this captures the essence of the culture or not--in which definition of 'culture' (trendy vs. essential) does this expression fall?

It is in the Roman rite, however, so there should be more uniformity in their music style than not, which I know. But when people with different language and ethnic backgrounds come together in the same Catholic rite, how do these trendy-culture-vs.-essential-culture guidelines apply? It is difficult for an uninformed churchgoer (like me) to answer this question when (1) songs are (or should be) built around the words and not vice versa, (2) one may not know the language, but (3) Mass is still valid without knowing the language. Is there a governing body that declares the essential culture of this ethnic culture vs. that ethnic culture? (And then this perplexity becomes even more fuzzy to me in the context of different rites, but this is a slightly different topic.)

One thing I know I really like about being Catholic is that we are so catholic (little c) and able to adapt all people--regardless of ethnic background--into Catholic spirituality. The main argument of these viewpoints, I believe, is that these ethnic cultures adapt more to sacred tradition than adapt sacred tradition to their ethnic culture (just like trendy culture should be adapted to essential culture and not vice versa). But then who decides that for all the different ethnic cultures? I would be curious to know if you have thoughts or references."

Patrick La Fratta said...

Thank you sharing for your thoughts. I see that the bulk of your response addresses the issue of deviations from established texts and conventional musical styles, where these deviations have resulted from differences in ethnicity or preestablished cultural history. While this is an interesting question, I believe it does not, strictly speaking, fall within the bounds of the discussion at hand. The discussion at hand is dealing with a case in which a subculture has risen from with a culture that has from its beginning had access to the established norms of the Church. I believe this does not fall into the case mentioned by Tucker that involves the Church “assimilating values of local culture.” Because the U.S. has from its beginning had access to the established norms of the Church, it would seem that cultures in the U.S. – for example, the ones in which we have been raised – would not qualify for such an exception. Hence, if there is an objection that parishes in the U.S. could make which would render them eligible for deviating from the norms of liturgical music established by the Church, I believe that such an objection would not be toward the end of qualifying for this exception.

None of this is to say that I am not interested in discussing the question of how to assimilate other cultures into the Church (and whether specific cultures – such as the Hispanic groups you mentioned – meet the qualifications referenced by Tucker). It is to say that the discussion at hand deals first and foremost with the general case of cultures in the U.S. having European roots, and secondly regarding the subcultures that have risen within them encompassing the teenage generation and their progressive forms of music.

Perhaps I could put it more simply in this way: I believe yours is a common objection to the claim that there is a proper form of music for the liturgy. The objection could be stated in a simplified form as follows: “Ah, well if there are such strict and 'proper' rules about music in the Mass, then what about places in Africa where they have never known about any such rules and have their own established norms about beauty and such? Does the Church just exclude them from celebrating the Mass?” To which I respond, “Intriguing question. Sounds like material for a dissertation or two. However, before I run off to my ivory tower, let me say a couple of things. First, we aren't Africa – we aren't even Mexico. We are a country with clearly established roots in European culture. Next, the question you've posed is a great one for experts in the areas of liturgy, aesthetics, anthropology, etc.: areas which I'd wager that most members of the Church – including myself – have little expertise. Is this not all the more reason to leave it up to the Church to address such exceptional cases that don't apply to us?”

Anonymous said...

Do you think I was mixing up Tradition and tradition with Catholic and catholic? I think so, but in the context of ethnic cultures, it's hard to tweeze the T/t's from the C/c's. (Does that make sense?) We were talking about this the other day in a Bible study and that concept caught my attention.

Patrick La Fratta said...

You may or may not be confusing Tradition with tradition or Catholic with catholic. Such complexities - including the determination of into which of the cultural categories that you defined a particular cultural feature of a people falls, whether such features are worthy of assimilation into Tradition, whether a governing body determines this, etc. are all very important questions and of interest to me. As you've alluded to, Tucker offers brief comments that would begin to form an answer for such questions:

"...there is an important proviso here. These features of the culture to be assimilated, according to the document, must be 'permanent values of a culture, rather than their transient expressions.'"

But, again, I believe such questions dealing with ethnicities, etc. are tangential to the main thrust of the inquiry posed above. How the Church responds to Life Teen does not - given the current cultural situation and history of the United States - necessarily involve the complexities you've raised. I am open to hearing disagreements on this point, but my main point here is that it seems imprudent to me to be addressing complexities that are not directly related to the question at hand. With respect to both those complexities and the issues under consideration with Life Teen, it is my opinion that deference to those in the Church with the authority, scholarship, and experience in dealing with such matters will be of prime importance.

Anonymous said...

Yes, I see that it is tangential. Also, this topic seems to be either impressively intricate or easily confusable by people like me!

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