Thursday, July 06, 2006

Cantate Domino Canticum Antiquum!

Last weekend I went down to Father Keyes' parish in Newark for Mass (the Solemnity of the Precious Blood, a CPPS feast) and a BBQ afterwards1. Since he became pastor at St. Edward's (and particularly since he hired Sam as an organist last year), Fr. Keyes has steadily elevated the liturgy there, and a diverse congregation (requiring Spanish and Portuguese Masses) has flourished all the more. It's heartening to see that the parish as a whole, and not simply a parish of traditionalists, can embrace the proper restoration of sacred music and liturgy (that rarest of resources, Eucharistic Prayer 1, was even brought out). The Mass parts were contemporary and in English (Proulx), most hymns were English and 18th-19th century, the Mozart Ave Verum Corpus was chanted during communion, and, oh, my favorite hymn of all time was the Mass prelude (all Latin was translated in the leaflets). It was a very fitting liturgy, and it occasioned some thoughts of mine on the place of sacred music in the Mass.

Now, I'll admit I'm not a liturgy buff like Fr. Keyes or the fellows down at the Holy Whapping, nor have I read then-Cardinal Ratzinger's book or any papal pronouncements on liturgy. But lack of wisdom hasn't stopped me from opining before, and it certainly won't this time.

The function of music in the liturgy is and should be ancillary to the liturgy itself; if the Mass becomes an excuse for a concert of sacred music, we might as well call ourselves High Church Anglicans2. (Incidentally, the one thing that made me uneasy on Sunday: the congregation applauded the choir after Mass. I mean, I know they're doing what they think proper and polite, but it's a symbol of appreciation more suited to a concert.)

Because of that, I'm starting to have qualms about the way my own choir does the 10:30 (Novus Ordo) Mass at St. Margaret Mary's. On feasts or during the liturgical seasons, we'll sing choral Masses from Mozart, Palestrina, and the like, in place of the usual plainchant Mass parts. The choral Masses are gorgeous (and wonderful to sing), but I've realized that they entail the congregation and priest standing for several minutes in silence, waiting for the choir to complete the Mass part before continuing the liturgy. The interruption is sort of disconcerting from the pews, and it leaves the impression of appreciating music rather than participating in the prayer of the Mass.

(This criticism doesn't apply to the 12:30 High Tridentine Mass, which I've attended a few times, because that liturgy multitasks: the priest silently continues with the liturgy, and the congregation follows along, while the choir sings. It's more demanding of one's attention, but it evinces a very different focus than when the same music brings a Mass to a standstill.)

It does seem that it's for this reason that the Mass parts written after Vatican II are short and quickly grasped, and why most choirs of any repute save their listen-only pieces for Offertory or Communion (when the liturgy won't need to wait for them). I wonder if there is a liturgical solution in the Novus Ordo that would let the more complex and beautiful Masses back in without making of them distractions.

For they are beautiful indeed, and we American Catholics must as a whole recover the habit of giving our very best to the Mass (in music as well as architecture, attire, preparation), rather than finding the minimal acceptable effort. By no means does it have to be old music, but it's ridiculous to assert that the best we can offer God in worship is a hymn that sounds like a campfire song. That's not our musical heritage; that's a mess of pottage.

But, as I've said, the Mass at St. Edward's was a good example of pursuing this very thing (and in the vernacular, not the pretentious Latin3 that I personally find so fitting for the Mass), and a good example of the reform of the reform. One parish at a time, Catholics are beginning to test all the new ideas released after the Council, and more importantly, starting to retain what is good4.

1. Said barbecue included great beer brats, and the realization that the Precious Blood community around here has designs on my vocation (within the laity or otherwise). I mean, I appreciate the help in discernment and all...

2. I kid, of course. But some of the choirs they have are astounding.

3. I mean, heck, I made up a Latin motto for Frisbedia: Ite foris et ludite!

4. I don't think I've said this here, but I think that a proper understanding and implementation of Vatican II5 will in fact take place over the next century, as most of the bad ideas die out on their own. We live in painful but important times for the Church.

5. By a proper understanding and implementation of Vatican II, I mean a Church which as a whole recognizes and combats the new and real problems, temporal and spiritual, inherent in the modern world, while remaining confident that, you know, God really did come to Earth and live and die and rise, and that the Church was and is His Bride and possesses His Sacraments for the good of all.

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