Friday, October 19, 2007

Missa in cantu

[:: UPDATE :: Comments are closed.:: ]

Jeffery Tucker at the New Liturgical Movement has a thought-provoking post about the sung Mass, and how it can impact the celebration of the liturgy.

[There's lots of interesting and readable stuff at NLM. I find myself avoiding it, however. My context right now is so alien to any of this discussion, that I wonder if it's even worth the energy reading about it. That's all I'll say on that subject here.]

I cannot recall a time I've been to a sung Mass in the Latin Rite. It's one of the things that I absolutely love about the Eastern liturgy -- the entire liturgy is sung, and that automatically adds a hugely worshipful dimension. I personally don't know what I think about actually eliminating the "4-hymn-sandwich-Mass" that has become the norm, or even how realistic this is. There is also the question of cross-cultural portability, if you will, that is, I feel, one of the strengths of the reformed Roman Rite. But, I have no formal training in Western music, chant, or anything liturgical, so these are just opinions, and therefore, reflections of taste, rather than well reasoned thoughts based on a proper comprehension of the nature of the liturgy.

What I found interesting in Mr. Tucker's post was his description of most Catholic parishes.
Their parishes have no established music programs of any quality. There is a piano player who tends to lead what music program they do have, and he or she is wedded to contemporary Christian music. Those who sing can't read music. There is an organ but it is either unused or played poorly. There is no music library beyond the standard GIA/OCP material. There is no children's choir apart from the annual Christmas screamfest.

There are two or three people who can sing, no one has sung a note of chant. Most people are interested in chant but have no idea where to begin. Meanwhile, there is a hardcore that is fanatically attached to music of the 1970s and fears even the slightest hint of solemnity, warning darkly that the new priest is going to take the parish into a new Dark Age.

There are no liturgical materials available in the parish. The vessels are glass or pottery, everything else having been tossed out. So there is no monstrance, no patens, and the tabernacle is buried somewhere where it can't be seen. The available vestments are unworthy.

Then there is the belief infrastructure of the parish. People are out of the habit of confession, daily Mass, and spiritual reading. For the most part, people cannot defend the faith and are largely clueless about what the liturgy is intended beyond the need to gather Christians together for fellowship.

It is easy for priests to despair under these conditions. It is hard to know where to begin. You can just replace people because there is no one to take their place. You can't just say that from now on, we will sing chant because no one knows what to sing or how. There is also the very important reality that it is unwise to enact a liturgical reconstruction insofar as people have no idea what is taking place or why.

There is where singing the Mass comes in. This is an improvement that celebrant can make on his own. He doesn't have to ask the liturgy committee. He doesn't need accompaniment. It requires no line in the budget. In fact, it will not upset anyone; in fact, it is a way that Father demonstrate that he truly cares about the liturgy, which has a way of flattering everyone.

It is a simple matter: what he once spoke, he now sings.
Does that not describe so many Catholic parishes.

Even the campus ministry I worked at -- it's not quite as bad as that, but how much better is it?

Do read the comments on this post as well. [Via Amy.]


Sherry W said...


I’m sorry but as someone who has attended Mass in hundreds of parishes all over the world, I have to say that this sneering depiction of universal parish life is simply not true. It is defaming the attitudes and actions of innumerable priests and parishioners in a manner that is completely contrary to both truth and charity.

If our situation were anything like this, I would know by now. Over the past 10 years (1997 – 2007) I’ve been everywhere: traditional Mass showplaces like the Brompton Oratory in London and tiny snow-bound Victorian churches on the top of the world and innumerable others where the liturgy took place in Welsh, Spanish, Italian, Indonesian, Maori, Arabic, and English on 5 continents. Of course, the majority of those Masses have been in the US where I’ve attended Mass in 60 different dioceses: in cathedrals, suburban mega-churches, and tiny missions in isolated rural communities.

First of all, I can not remember *ever* seeing pottery vessels used for the liturgy over the past decade. Glass chalices are fairly common but gold and silver are just as common. I have *never* attended a Mass where a paten was not used and I know for sure that many parishes have monstrances. I know because they use them regularly for Adoration and a number of parishes I’ve been in have 24/7 Adoration of the Blessed Sacrament. The vestments are almost always perfectly straight forward, in the appropriate liturgical color, and in good repair. Just exactly what is meant by “unworthy?”

Of course, the majority of parishes don’t have professional musicians leading the music and no, they don’t do chant or have an extensive music library. To pretend that the rural parishes of Dodge City, Kansas, where 65% of the pupils in the public school systems are the children of new semi-literate Catholic immigrants from Mexico, are going to attempt Gregorian chant is absurd. Nor is the diocese of Peoria, where priests are responsible for up to 6 parishes each and spend their lives commuting from small town to small town.

Or any other of a couple dozen mainly rural dioceses I’ve worked in, where they are hard pressed to cover the most basic needs and where most priests wear 3 or 4 hats (pastor of two parishes, hospital chaplain, vocation director, and teacher in the local diaconate or lay formation program, etc.). A beautiful high Latin Mass with Gregorian chant is going to remain what it has always been: a relatively rare phenomena limited to parishes with exceptional resources in terms of people, musical ability, budget, and time.

The majority of Catholics have never, in any generation, been well-heeled, high culture aesthetes. Why on earth should we sneer at the fact that they haven’t sung a note of chant and like the music of their own culture and generation? Why on earth would we expect vast numbers of 21st century people to naturally prefer music that was written for people of a very different culture 500 or 800 years before they were born? The fact that I stopped listening to rock when I discovered classical music at 16 (my favorite period is medieval and renaissance, so I really like chant and loved listening to the Schola in my Seattle parish.) doesn’t make me spiritually superior to or a better Catholic than someone who listens to country-rock 24/7.

And I have yet to work or visit a parish that does not have a significant number of people who attend daily Mass. Many of the parishes have two daily Masses a day or more. Never in the history of Christendom have the majority of Catholics in any diocese been in “the habit” of attending daily Mass or doing daily spiritual reading. This has always been the practice of a relatively small, devout minority. To imply that this is an ancient, established “habit” for the majority that was simply tossed aside in the 70’s is simply ridiculous.

And most Catholics have always been tongue-tied when it comes to explaining and defending their faith. While it is certainly true that catechesis suffered a serious decline in the 70’s and early 80’s, lay Catholics in most places have only been able to count upon universal basic catechesis being available in every parish for the past century. The very idea of universal catechesis is a modern one, one of the responses to the Reformation which took centuries to implement. There has never been a golden age, not even in the 20th century. Frank Sheed was scandalized by the quality of the average Catholic’s knowledge of the faith in the 1920’s on both sides of the Atlantic when he was active with the Catholic Evidence Guild and wrote at some length about it. He spent his life attempting to change that - as I have.

Sherry W said...


It just now occurred to be that you might think that my frustration is with you. Not at all! It's with the original post - not with you.

Gashwin said...


Thanks for your response, your impassioned response!

I'm trying to identify what it is about the post that I found interesting: I guess when I heard "not attend daily Mass/do spiritual reading" I translated that to what is my sense of where our weakness is -- what y'all call intentionality -- fostering an intentional commitment to Christ, to discipleship, a life of prayer.

It's one of the things that really grabbed me about EC.

I did find the other things -- about vestments and chalices -- a bit generalized. I should have been clearer about that.

Here's the deal for me: I find the "high" Mass, beautiful and reverent music, a reverent attitude, and so on incredibly powerful. I think it's ok to hold these up as ideals.

There is also the fact that a lot (by no means the majority -- the majority isn't even listening) of people my age, and especially younger, find in this a connection to tradition, to a solid identity that they feel, rightly or wrongly, to have been lost. Hence, I think, mine (and others') turning to the "traditional" forms of the liturgy if you will.

That said, the Church -- and the world -- is much larger than this one cultural expression, however central it might be in history, or even in the Roman Rite (I was trying to acknowledge that in the poorly worded statement about the "portability" or the Roman Rite across different cultures). I thank you for that much needed reminder. In my experience the "Latin Mass" or the "traditional Mass" crowd might lose sight of these things.

Despite my tastes, and affinities for much of those things, for me at least, it's never been "this is the only way to do things."

Heck, the folks at EC are heavily into P&W (along with chant on occasion), and they're doing an absolutely stellar job with the essentials, IMO.

Thanks again for your comment.

Sherry W said...

Hi Gashwin:

I have no problems at all with people who love the traditional Mass. I know that many young adults feel as you do. Although as you point out, only 20% of Gen X/Yers are attending Mass at all.

But a longing for the Traditional Mass is a very different thing from scornful derision aimed at millions of non Anglo,non-high culture Catholics who have no part in the culture wars and are just trying to worship and serve God to the best of their ability in their local parishes and families and communities.

This fighting and re-fighting the wars of 40 years ago has breed an atmosphere of ideologically driven contempt that is beginning to poison some of our most promising young leaders. We are beginning to regard this sort of derision as normal, acceptable discourse among Catholics.

This is not a joyful re-discovery of aspects of the faith that one generation lost track of. It is driven by the sort of bitterness which is always a spiritual and ecclesial dead-end and inevitably leads to another pendulum swing back in the other direction.

Because healthy people can't live off hatred. In the end, they will either be repelled or - more terrible still - they will lose their Catholic faith altogether.

Because they came seeking Christ and his love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, gentleness and found . . .this.

It was hard enough becoming Catholic from my background in the Seattle of the late 80's. If I had approached the Church and encountered this stuff, I would have run a hundred miles in the other direction and not looked back. I would have known instantly that this was not of the Spirit of Christ and probably drawn the conclusion that a Church that seemed to accept and fostered it could not be of Christ either.

I would have been wrong - but how would I know? Especially if,(God forbid!) I was getting most of my understanding of the Church from blogs!

Anonymous said...


You have a huge gap in your understanding of Catholicism and liturgy in general if you equate chanting the liturgy with aesthetics.

If you look at the ancient rites of the East, still alive today, those liturgies are chanted liturgies. Chant is the original mode of Judeo-Christian prayer - Gregorian chant is the primary Roman/Western mode of that, but there are other forms of course - various Asian cultures have their own forms of prayer chant, etc.

The sneering at liturgical concerns that pervades your comments is expressive of some sort of distance from the entirety of Catholic theology, spirituality and life which sees liturgy as far more than a utilitarian thing. There is an evangelistic aspect to liturgy, and always has been.

Perhaps you would like to correct Pope Benedict in regard to his concerns about liturgy?


Jeffrey Tucker said...

These comments of mine were prefaced with the remark that here is a description of the modal parish. What this means is that it doesn't describe one parish in particular but samples a wide range of parishes and gathers the problem areas into a single case for descriptive purpses, and hence it is modal. In addition, I was merely reporting what young priests and pastors themselves are saying about their new assignments.

Let me finally add: if you think chant doesn't belong in the Roman Rite, you are either misinformed about the liturgy or you are hoping for the creation of some other rite that doesn't yet exist.

Sherry W said...


I have *never*, in my life, said, thought, or felt that chant doesn't belong in the Roman Rite. I certainly did not do so in my comments here.

I'm personally just fine with chant (not that my personal opinion matters much but everyone assumes that because I object to the *kind of discourse* going on here that I hate chant when nothing could be further from the truth) and participate whenever it is offered.

I actually have no strong liturgical opinions of any kind, have always supported the greater freedom of the traditional mass, and trust Pope Benedict's judgement. I went out of my way to attend traditional Dominican rite Masses at my parish in Seattle simply as a gesture of welcome and unity.

But I do know *alot* - both in breadth and depth about real parish life in this country. And I know that a good deal of what you stated as "modal" and which was then picked up and quoted all over the net, is *not*, in fact, the practice in the majority of parishes in this country.

I know this, not because I've been going around doing liturgical surveys or reading blogs or liturgical magazines but because I've attended ordinary parish Masses in a new parish in a different diocese at least every other weekend for the past 10 years.

I lost track long ago but a conservative estimate would be 300 or so different parishes in 65 US dioceses and 15 dioceses outside the country. I don't know anybody else who has done this. Have you? Have your priestly correspondents?

I can't shape the liturgies I drop into to my liking in any way and certainly no one changes them for one lowly workshop presenter. I just have to take it as it is celebrated locally so I see the Mass in its ordinary and unvarnished form.

To put it simply, much of what you asserted was the norm in the vast majority of parishes is NOT TRUE. And you need to know that it is not true.

And if it is NOT TRUE, it can't really be modal or representative of the normative practice for the purposes of this discussion, can it?

Make your case for liturgical reform, by all means, but do so based upon what is actually taking place and without disparaging the worship of thousands of priests and millions of your fellow Catholics.

That's my last post on the topic. I hardly ever comment on liturgy because as Tom of Disputations noted long ago, it is almost always spiritually toxic. I should probably return to radio silence.

Jason nSJ said...

I love the Eastern Catholic liturgies, I love chant, I have a great affinity for our traditional rites. I love Mass with a big choir dwarfed by an even larger organ. I also love a lot of contemporary liturgical music, pianos and all.

But all of these forms can used to ill effect, and introducing a chant mass is not a sure way to bring greater reverence to liturgy. In fact, I think chant done poorly can be quite despairing. I'd rather the words spoken.


Ruth said...

Sherry -

If in all your travels you have seen none of these problems... wonderful!

However, I know for a FACT that some of these things are occurring right here in Chicago.

Next time you come to town I can bring you to a parish with a 30% chance of pottery vessels, and a 0% chance of silver or gold (the best they do is crystal - even though I know they have proper vessels stored in the back). I have never seen a paten or monstrance used there. The priest will quite likely be wearing an alb and stole with no chasuble. Keep in mind that this is a rich parish in a well off community.

That is just one of the many parishes in this area that place no priority on liturgy. While there are wonderful examples like Cantius in Chicago, there are also some fairly problematic parishes. It's a big place with lots of variety.

I have traveled all over the world too and have seen a vast variety in Mass... mostly good. But please, don't argue that these problems don't exist - because while they don't exist everywhere they are there.


Anonymous said...


There are over 19,000 Catholic parishes in the 195 dioceses in the U.S. Are you conversant with all of them? Have you visited even a fraction of them? The 300 parishes you say you've visisted is not many given the total number. Maybe you're the one who's not the expert.