E ALL HAVE EMOTIONAL BAGGAGE when it comes to liturgy. I have it. Despite it, my experiences growing up shaped and formed my faith very positively. But liturgical music is where most of my emotional baggage lies. Born in 1969, I’m part of an interesting generation. Yes, I can attest that liturgical music in the 1970s was just as bad as you have read about.
I have often told the story that as a boy of eight or nine, I was exasperated with the music at mass. (This was independent of style and pertained to the issue of competence.) I remember like it was yesterday saying to myself that “to be a church musician had to be the lowest musical aspiration possible.” Of course, such irony that has unfolded since! I told this very story to Dr. William Mahrt and he responded immediately with his wonderful smile, “It is the HIGHEST!” Dr. Mahrt is right.
So, here I confess my emotional baggage: the embarrassment that surrounded Roman Catholic liturgical music. Yet this embarrassment (my personal issue) has been catalyst to a career in Roman Catholic Sacred Music. As a child who was studying piano and clarinet, played classical music but also loved pop and rock music (my apologies to Dr. Kwasniewski), I was well aware of the utter incompetence I was hearing on Sundays, regardless of style, as it varied. As you can tell, I am still pretty upset about it. (I still seem to be carrying this baggage around. Perhaps, I should let it go.)
UT AS A CHILD, I also had no frame of reference. I was blissfully unaware of the historic and sometimes traumatic changes the Church was going through. I was ignorant of the parish’s particular resources during an uncertain time. I was ignorant of the great effort and spirit put forth by the very musicians who were stretched terribly thin to cover a dozen liturgies on a Sunday, several in a gymnasium. But my intuition and my ears told me something was greatly amiss for mass! Luckily, I was surrounded by great priests and wonderful Ursuline Nuns who guided my formation. This was not to be taken for granted, but it also guided my sense that something was lacking in our sacred song.
But here is where I must be mindful. My personal experiences and my emotional baggage is not the same as others. In fact many make this very mistake: that what we think and we feel about liturgy is shared and understood by others. I assure you, it is not.
(I beg your patience as here is more of my emotional personal baggage on display: I hate the terms “contemporary” and “traditional” as they are applied to sacred music and liturgy. Ironically, “contemporary” music is no longer contemporary. Many forget the prevailing popular music in the last two decades has been hip-hop. As a guy who “rocked out” in the 1980s, I am a dinosaur. Yet, this is the musical style that is called “contemporary” in the Catholic Church. It ceases to be with each passing year. Furthermore, there is traditional music of all styles. This is not a critique of musical style, but of language. )
O AS TIME MOVES ON, SO DO THE GENERATIONS. I have come to terms that I am thoroughly middle-aged, like it or not. But it gives me an interesting vantage point. I’m slightly younger than those who came of age in the 1960s while old enough to be connected with many who grew up in the pre-conciliar world. I am also young enough to appreciate a new generation reclaiming our traditions and join their cause!
And why should Millennials not reclaim the traditions? Previous generations forfeited them (Oops, there goes my emotional baggage again.) What a middle-aged man like myself and the Millennial generation share in common is a starvation for the spiritual substance of our lost traditions because this starvation spanned fifty years and continues today in most parishes. (This is not to say that other spiritual needs are not being met.) Perhaps for Millennials, a lack of proximity to the older generation allows them greater freedom to decide for themselves whether or not to seek reverence, transcendence, and tradition. I can’t speak for them, but with distance perhaps comes greater clarity.
Furthermore, as a musician who ministers to a great number of college students in various settings, I find it relatively more difficult now to get young congregations to sing “contemporary” music (of the 1980s and 1990s) than perhaps a decade ago. (Remember, I’m a Berklee graduate and very comfortable playing and directing various styles.) But regardless of their musical or liturgical preferences, college students are incontrovertibly the most reverent demographic that I observe. Why is this? I don’t know, and I find its implications fascinating.
HE GOOD NEWS is there are a lot of young people attending mass. Most are not interested one bit in the “liturgy wars.” But they are interested in prayer. Very interested. For those of us responsible in ministering to them, we should be mindful and loving when sharing our faith with them. As they make their own way in the world—let us have them remember how much we love our God, each other, and our faith. Likewise, we are fortified by their faith. This will shape our young people as best as possible. They will decide for themselves.
Meanwhile, I pray my personal biases and baggage won’t get in the way, even if I keep writing about them.