Tuesday, August 15, 2006

The Role of Music in Liturgy

It's been a while, but I've got too much to say, so I figured I ought to post something :).

It's about the role of music in the liturgy. It's been the fruit of discussion I've been having with many people for the past few days and so I figure I'd share it with you all, plus dilixitprior's post on George Weigel's article inspired me to finally post something.

As we all know, there is some...well....junky music out there for liturgy. Now, let me say this first, and I very much want to qualify this, that other forms of music are not bad or anything, and they can indeed be Christianized and have been in many ways, but they don't have a role in liturgical celebration. Sing praise and worship, but I find it's role in liturgy to not be fitting (I will explain this later).

So, I argue that the music we ought to sing at Mass is in accordance to that which has been part of the constant tradition of the Church. There are 2 streams of tradition in the Church with regards to music, the Eastern stream and the Western stream.

In the history of the existence of the Church, the Eastern Church's roots are probably the most visible. It's roots are the longest lasting and perhaps even the least changing from my bits and pieces of knowledge about the history of liturgical music.

The Western Church, to my knowledge (and am willing to be corrected), did not have any real musical tradition until the entrance of Gregorian Chant. It is Gregorian Chant that is the finalization of the tradition of music for Western Liturgies.

Now, people argue that the Mass has been changed in order to bring us into a more modern period. This is true, there is less or no Latin (which is fine) in order to adapt to the fact that Latin is not as accessible for people to learn as it once was as well as other changes. Some are unfortunate and will be changing to a more legitimate translation with the new Roman Missal that is due out soon. Others are accidental and will probably not change because they are not of a huge theological concern. One of these is the facing East for Mass. This has changed universally pretty much, but Ratzinger, before he was Pope, said that though this is unfortunate because of the reasons, it is such a major change that it is not something that is essential to the liturgy (he says this in Feast of Faith and Spirit of the Liturgy).

So, people argue, because the Mass has changed to bring the Church into the Modern era to make it a better tool of evangelization to the modern man, so too ought the music to change.

I argue differently, however. Yes, there has been changes in order to make the Church accessible to the modern person. The music is something that ought not to change. The reason for this is the constant tradition of the Church. As we can see, the Mass has changed throughout the history of the Church, yet it's essence has always remained. With these changes in the Mass, however, there have not been much if any, at least up until these more current days, change in the music. The church's tradition is firmly rooted in music that leads one's focus onto God.

Many people feel music that is more rock orientated and more uplifting and feel good ought to be the main course of music for mass. Chant is old school and went out with the old mass. I disagree.

The mass is not there to be noisy, it is there for silence. It is there for us to bring praise to God, to truly worship Him. This is why we were created, so that we may worship Him out of love for the love He has shown us. So, though rock orientated music (I use this only as one example) is not meant for Mass.

Now, people would immediately interject "But one of the great things the Church does is that it takes what is good from non-Christian art forms and worship and incorporate it into the life of the Church, why can we not contain praise and worship music in liturgy using this reason?"

I answer that indeed praise and worship music is good and is a sincere way of praising God, but not in liturgy. The liturgy is a community event in that we are there to grow closer to God, and, through that growing closer to God, growing closer to our neighbour. We indeed do have many ways of praising and glorifying God, but the Mass is wholy seperated from individualism but is built upon the idea of building community. And that community is not just parish based but is indeed a universal community, a communion of Saints! And so, our praise ought to be unified in a manner that leads one to silence so as to properly focus on the praising and worshiping of God.

This is why I argue in favour of the music that is more rooted in the tradition of the Church. It is something that wistands the test of time, that is always there. It leads you to a silence while singing. When I hear Gregorian Chant (I only use it as just one example) it leads me to silence and thus to a greater love fo the communial embrace God and I are having. When there is more noisy music, it is very much harder to express that silence that we yearn for because one begins to be entertained. It becomes about the parishioner and not God.

I remember on Holy Thursday this past year, our Bishop was processing through the Cathedral with the Eucharist one final time before Christ went into the tomb before His resurrection. The chant the whole time was the Pange Lingua. How beautiful it was! There was such unison and peace, there was singing, but there was silence, the great paradox of music realizing it's function in liturgy.

Now, I'm not saying all the music has to be in Latin, but it has to have the heart of the role of music in liturgy. Ratzinger and many other theologians have said this as well.

St Augustine once said that "singing is praying twice". He is right indeed, because there is the outward praise one has towards God, but there is also the interior silence, which the Catechism calls "the language of God."

One final note for now. The Mass is, as Vatican II said, ought to be accessible to all people. But it never asked for us to remove the mystery of what is happening at Mass. Singing music that focuses on emotional highs is not conducive to this spirit, it does not lead one to a sense of mystery, but to a sense of entertainment, into getting caught up into emotions, there is little room for silence.

And so, if the Mass is also to connote a sense of mystery, we ought to have music and a language that expresses this. This is why music such as Gregorian Chant is great, it leads one to the sense of mystery, the "I see the beauty in all it's uncomprehensability". There is a role a language as well, but that's another post.

Again, I am not dealing with just Gregorian Chant or Praise and Worship here, I only use them as examples because they are the two most common ones I could think of.

This is just the tip of the ice berg, but my initial thoughts on the role of music in Liturgy.



Anonymous said...

I can't speak to liturgy per say, because I don't go, nor care to go to, a liturgical church. For me, liturgy distracts me from God because it is to easy for me to go through the motions without feeling the meaning.

The music at my church draws me to God in a real way. It can be entertaining, but the lyrics and expression put my heart in a place where I can cry out and worship God. It is generally loud, generally rock/indie based, and far from your happy clappy praise and worshi music.

I'm glad that "traditional" music draws you closer to God and I think that choosing your congregation to get that is important. But, for every person drawn closer by that music there will be someone driven away. God created us as individuals, we worship as individuals, as many parts in the great body of Christ. I'm glad I can attend a church where the worship draws me closer to God.

Psalm 98 (King James Version)
King James Version (KJV)
Public Domain

Psalm 98
1O sing unto the LORD a new song; for he hath done marvellous things: his right hand, and his holy arm, hath gotten him the victory.

2The LORD hath made known his salvation: his righteousness hath he openly shewed in the sight of the heathen.

3He hath remembered his mercy and his truth toward the house of Israel: all the ends of the earth have seen the salvation of our God.

4Make a joyful noise unto the LORD, all the earth: make a loud noise, and rejoice, and sing praise.

5Sing unto the LORD with the harp; with the harp, and the voice of a psalm.

6With trumpets and sound of cornet make a joyful noise before the LORD, the King.

7Let the sea roar, and the fulness thereof; the world, and they that dwell therein.

8Let the floods clap their hands: let the hills be joyful together

9Before the LORD; for he cometh to judge the earth: with righteousness shall he judge the world, and the people with equity.

Anonymous said...

Oops...meant to say that this is Bethany. ;-)

Siloah Swimmer said...

Honestly, you haven't offered anything here that is really convincing. You make a vague reference to the "constant tradition" of the west in regards to music. But, no such "constant tradition" exists. Everything from single-voice chant, to polyphonic choir, to organ, to orchestras, to you-name-it, have been used in the western liturgies.

Could you point me in the direction of where you get the idea that liturgy must necessarily lead to silence? I know that everyone is called to contemplation. But, not everyone all the time. So, I don't see why we should believe that liturgy must necissarily lead us to silence. I can think of times when it should lead us to action (i.e. the purpose of the World Youth Day gatherings).

All I see here is a personal preference of yours. I know that you don't like rock music, regardless of whether it is in a liturgy. That's okay. But, frankly, with all your references to "noise", you sound like an old man: "turn down that racket!" ;)

If a musical style causes division in the church, it shouldn't be used. But, I don't think that any particular style is intrinsically bad; so I don't see why it can't be used in a liturgy--depending on context. What is intrinsic to music that would keep it from a liturgy is the emotion that it evokes. Otherwise, I think that these questions are best left to the pastor of the parish.

Anonymous said...


I remember when Bishop Richard processed down the asiles of the church with the blessed sacranebt... very powerful.

What exactly is the type of music now-a-days? What style is the Catholic book of worship hymnal accompanied by organ and plain old singing? What exactly is CHANT?

I know that since I"ve left St. Andrews Cathedral I sure have missed the good old CBW. It seems in other doiceses (Archdiocese of Winnipeg, Diocese of Calgary, Diocese of Antigonish in Nova Scotia) the CBW sits in the pew while piano, guitar, and some newer style of hymnal books are used. It is noticable how much less singing there is in other parishes. The Gloria is spoken and the great amen is just sinply spoken "amen". Maybe its the summer and the organ player is on vacation, or maybe St. Andrews had extraordinarily liturgy (fj singing the Eucharistic prayers)?... but I"ve noticed it.


Anonymous said...

You might find this article interesting:

The Pope and Music.

<>< Del

Tracy said...

Hi Harrison,

I found you via Amateur Catholic links. I have to say, I totally agree with you about the music. When I go to Mass it is to worship and praise God, but in the past, I feel like I need to flip out the Bic lighter and sway. Mass is a sacrifice, not a rock concert.

Call me old fashioined, I don't care. What drew me to Catholicism is the tradition. That tradition is often lost with rap and rock. I listen to these types of music, but I want my time with God to be something set apart from the rest of the world. Yes, it may just be my personal preference, but I'm not at Mass to "feel good with music I can connect to" I'm at Mass because Jesus is there.

I think the "new music" crowd sometimes forgets the reason we are there. It's not a place to show off our muscial talents, we're there to glorify God.

And why is it that "new music" ppl always post anon?

The Poodle said...

Aha! I've been meaning to blog this myself for quite some time now.

First off, I completely agree with on all counts. The naysayers have had their cake, eaten, and are now grumpy there's no cake left. Proper liturgical music is being eased back into Western Catholic liturgy, but it will take time. There are still a lot of folks who were weened to believe that any change 'back' to Gregorian chant and 'traditional' hymns will upset and drive away the faithful. For them it is much more difficult to change back, since the change forward was always sold as such a proper and progressive step.

But I should clarify: When I say 'change back', I simply mean incorporating our rich musical tradition into the Novus Ordo Mass.

Second, in respect to silence, remember that being able to sit and pray in silence is something completely alien to the lives of most Catholics and Christians. Our lives are bombarded with noise, and our liturgy often reflects that. It's unfortunate, but again it is gradually changing.

Anonymous said...

I am a middle-aged catholic music minister who has much to learn about the traditions of our church, what is appropriate and what is effective. As a young man I was paralysed by fear and shyness. Praising God in front of hundreds of strangers (at first) wasn't exactly easy. I practiced and believed that God would do the rest, and He has! All I know for sure is that if God wasn't helping us, we could sing nothing.
The congregations I have been with have generally forgotten the tradition of silence before mass, therefore in our case; maybe music before mass is the answer?
We have the Glory & Praise and the Gather collections, and this combination includes a great deal of powerful and appropriate music for our liturgy. If our hearts and minds are in the right place, and we are there for the right reasons, then we can be confident that at this time, and in this place, we are doing the will of God.

Al Bouchard, Winnipeg

Anonymous said...

Harrison, first of all, I am quite delighted to discover you and your blog. I am a fellow Canadian. I was singing in traditional Catholic choirs long before you were born; as a matter of fact I started singing in the "adult" parish choir when I was around 8, when parishioners still had to stand during the singing of hymns. I am so very familiar with all the musical repertoire; I am a professional singer, composer, recording artist etc..and have lived through all this transition since the Second Vatican Council.
I hear the arguments for and against and I just want to encourage people in general to be very reserved and cautious in their zeal and opinions. Always be most sensitive to how the Lord is working for the conversion of a soul, and don't stomp on the little flowers. I would say this to anyone in the Church, regardless of their rank and clout. Peace, Janis