Wyoming Catholic College Students on Why Church Music Should Be Sacred Music

Wyoming Catholic College Students on Why Church Music Should Be Sacred Music

It is often assumed as a given that the only way to reach youths today with the message of Catholicism is to hand it to them on a platter of their own design, couched in the language of their world, with the soundtrack of their music. And while this approach has had its ephemeral successes, the once-promised mass conversion of young people to the Lord of the Dance has never materialized, with studies showing an accelerating exodus from all organized religion, including Catholicism, no matter how emotional and relevant we think we are making it. (I have frequently addressed what is wrong with the “deculturation” approach and why we should harness the uncanny “shock value” of tradition: see, for instance, hereherehere, and here.)

What I want to write about today is the fact that there is a quiet counter-witness rising up from the very same young people to whom things like LifeTeen and the charismatic renewal are supposed to appeal, even though they often do not. Now I am not saying that these youths are the norm (if only!), but only that they represent a greater thoughtfulness and spiritual hunger than our society, and all too often, I’m afraid, our Church, believes to be possible in men and women their age.

So, then, to the quotations I would like to share. In the final examination for my music course at Wyoming Catholic College, students wrote essays in which they tried to express why contemporary styles of music are not appropriate for the liturgy. While most of what they said was a rehashing of Pope Pius X and Benedict XVI (not a bad thing—would that we had more rehashing in a world of forgetfulness), there were certain statements that struck me as well said and full of wisdom. Here are a number of passages I transcribed from their handwritten finals.

Man should be struck dumb with wonder at the immortal freshness of Christ’s unimaginable sacrifice and wish only to sing what is most like the choir of angels. Bringing in “rock Masses” or Praise and Worship not only fails to grasp the solemnity of the event, but turns it toward the people, who at that moment should be emptying themselves to God. … Far beyond accenting the participation of the individual, sacred music must aid men in decentering and forgetting themselves, so that they can melt like wax into the fire of the divine romance.

Another student made a similar point about the incurving trajectory (incurvatus in se, as St. Albert the Great says of self-love) of what is fashionable to our own generation and reflective of our preoccupations:

Instead of coming to worship God and conform oneself to His rationality, popular styles are necessarily the expression of a particular community. This quality encourages worship to cease movement towards God and reflect back to the congregation: it is their music, their choice, their expression of their emotions toward their God. Such action is not worship, but self-indulgence.

(One has to admit that this student has put a finger on a problem that is now endemic to the Latin rite, with its option-ridden and pluralistic Novus Ordo and the availability of the Tridentine Mass as well as the Anglican Ordinariate, namely, that how we worship as Roman Catholics becomes a matter of choice rather than something inherited, accepted as a given. But discussion of this point surely belongs to a different post than the present.)

Another student:

The mysterious nature of the liturgy keeps us from comprehending it, but also draws us closer because of the beauty and depth.  If we destroy this sanctity through a desire for acceptance by contemporary culture, then we have abandoned the great mystery.

And another:

Arvo Pärt’s music now contributes to the manifestation and diffusion of God’s holiness, artistry, and universality.

Could this not be said of all worthy sacred music? Its three qualities, as St. Pius X defined them in Tra le Sollecitudini, end up being a means by which God’s own perfect possession of those qualities is made known in the world.

Yet another:

Thus, “relevant” music should not bow to the influences of the century, but rather the truly relevant music of the liturgy ought to influence the people of the century to refocus and worship the presence of the Lord within the Mass.

I like how this student redefined relevant as that which is inherently so, and therefore informs and impresses itself on people, to make them relevant, in a way, to it, and to the Lord it announces. We are the ones who are clay in the potter’s hands, and we need to be reshaped until we are relevant to God, rather than the other way around.

A different student had written in similar fashion:

Far from seeking a temporary, debatable, and always shifting “relevance,” church music must retain within itself elements that will keep it relevant to tradition.

That’s a striking thought: our practices themselves, summoned to the court of truth, must defend their own relevance to the tradition we have inherited. If they are foreign to it, in tension with it, at oblique angles to it, they lose and tradition wins.

Another student, drawing on insights of Ratzinger:

Liturgical music must reflect the knowledge that liturgical action is an historical, cosmic, and mysterious reality. Pop music rejects the notion that sacred music takes part in a rich history which draws from its past as it develops. It also ignores the notion that worship is larger than any one person, any one group, or any one time; it drives all sense down into the particular alone. Finally, pop music treats worship as something to do, not as something to receive. In other words, the use of popular styles directly undermines the approach to God in the most insidious way possible; it preys on the congregation’s own enthusiasm and emotion towards their God and shuffles it back into themselves.
The sacred, far from needing help from modern styles, remains relevant: it is a conduit to universal truths. With its ground in transcendent reality, true sacred music needs to shake off modernizing influences like dust from its feet.

I find in the foregoing words an admirably precise critique of popular musical styles in the liturgy. They are bad, spiritually bad, because they are divorced from history, particularized, and activist, and thus anti-incarnational, anti-ecclesial, and anti-receptive. Essentially, this approach undermines Catholicism as such.

Again:

Pop music is not timeless. The music of the Church ought to be like her — transcending age, taste, mood, etc. However, pop music is specific to our modern time. We have decided to make shallow music for shallow men. We must remember that the music of the liturgy should reflect the reality it describes. Since the Mass contains mysteries ineffable and transcendent, should not our music reflect this?

Should it not, indeed? That is the million-dollar question, as they say, and it is only our Catholic tradition, in its lofty ideals and clear priorities amidst artistic variety, that furnishes an answer not doomed to premature obsolescence.

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