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Andrew Motyka is the Archdiocesan Director of Liturgical Music and Cathedral Music for the Archdiocese of Indianapolis.
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“The Pope is not an absolute monarch whose thoughts and desires are law. On the contrary: the Pope’s ministry is a guarantee of obedience to Christ and to his Word. He must not proclaim his own ideas, but rather constantly bind himself and the Church to obedience to God’s Word, in the face of every attempt to adapt it or water it down, and every form of opportunism.”
— His Holiness, Pope Benedict XVI (11 May 2005)

The American Idolization of Liturgy
published 7 January 2015 by Andrew R. Motyka

EOPLE WHO KNOW ME won’t be surprised to hear that I’m a pretty opinionated person. My mother-in-law has said before that I have opinions about things that she never even considered having opinions about. What I’m trying to say is that I’m a big fat raging hypocrite for what I’m about to write.

When American Idol premiered in 2002, it was a wild sensation, a new way for people to get involved in selecting the winners of talent competitions. My main objection, as a snobby music major in college, was that it was the hoi polloi choosing the winners instead of people that knew anything at all about music (yes, I’m still a little miffed about Taylor Hicks). Obviously, the entire point of the public voting system was getting the public to select the artist that they thought was the best, and hence which singer from whom they would purchase the most albums when they made it big.

It annoyed me, though, that sometimes better singers were passed over for better looking ones, or ones that slickly packaged themselves, or just sang a song that everyone liked better. Shouldn’t people who know a little bit about music and singing be the ones whose opinions count? Why did everyone hate Simon Cowell (okay, he was a jerk, but the dude knew what he was talking about, for the most part)?

If you spend any more than 0.75 seconds on the Catholic blogosphere, you are bound to wade into liturgical issues. Whether it’s people complaining about the Evil Cardinal Burke and his weaponized Cappa Magna, or the elusive Clown Mass that everyone seems to have suffered through yet no one has ever attended, the rhetoric gets heated, and every single person, from the musician to the priest to the average lay person, has an opinion about the liturgy. Some want it to be silent, some want the traditional music of the Church, and some want something “more upbeat and modern.” Everyone has an opinion.

My gut reaction to all of this is the same as Snobby College Andy. Why does everyone need to have an opinion, especially when so few people actually know a single thing as to what they’re talking about? Even when I agree with so many commentators, the sheer number of them drowns out the articulate voices that can actually make a difference. Hook all of that noise up to the internet microphone and it’s a cacophony of opinion, each shouting down the opposition and frequently bayoneting their own allies. We have priests and musicians trying to do their best to render glory to God in the liturgy, and many people in the pews ready to text their vote to the number that best criticizes anything in their local Mass. It can be maddening.

he other day, though, I had a truly great conversation with a close friend about our faith. He has gone back and forth on the Catholic Church for some time, and is working out his faith the best he can (would that we could all be as self critical and honest). One thing he mentioned to me was that, the last time he attended Mass, he was bothered by how few people seemed to really grasp the importance of what was happening in front of them, like they weren’t taking it very seriously at all. They were going through the motions without any idea of what they were doing. I think his frustration touches on something very real, and much more important than our conversations over one song versus another.

Liturgy, like music, has a direct impact on us personally, emotionally, and spiritually. Even though the average person can’t readily articulate what it is that makes him like his favorite American Idol contestant, he knows that he connects in some way to the performance. In the same way, liturgy affects each of us, even if don’t quite know why. We have opinions about our local Mass because we know what we like, and even more importantly, we know that we need to be fed.

Of course, the sacramental presence of Jesus Christ in the Eucharist is enough, from a strictly grace-viewed standpoint, to fill us completely. But as I’ve said before, disposition is important when receiving the sacraments. Of people leaving the Church today, most of them say it’s because they aren’t being spiritually fed, a figure echoed in the tremendously important book on evangelization, Forming Intentional Disciples. While there are many avenues that need to be traveled to help feed people, we aren’t doing any favors by cheapening the liturgy. A sacramental grace that falls on a poorly disposed heart can die quickly, and a dead heart has a difficult time evangelizing. And if we aren’t evangelizing, we’re doing something wrong.

So maybe it’s not a bad thing that everyone has an opinion about liturgy. Maybe it’s that our frustrations with worship are symptomatic of something more: that we’re not being fed properly. We aren’t being drawn into a relationship with Jesus Christ first, which comes before any liturgical expression, musical or otherwise. If we can enrich that relationship, the liturgical pieces will come much easier. Remember that without that interior reality first, the exterior expression is just a show, subject to the text message voting and Nielson Family Ratings that turn the liturgical experience into just another consumer product.