S AMERICANS CELEBRATE Independence Day today, I am mindful that our audience and contributors are international; there are patriotic songs that may evoke God from many countries. As an American, I can speak to our circumstance, but I will not claim to speak for others around the globe. That being said, I suspect that there are some common problems we all face.
The question of patriotic or nationalistic songs at mass is a part of a wider problem of “planning” mass according to 1 • personal preferences and 2 • what I call, “Missa de Hallmark Card”: secular and civic holidays influencing music, homilies, or other aspects of the mass.
O, I HAVE SOME PERSONAL PREFERENCES regarding American patriotic songs. I love them. I get misty-eyed at singing “America the Beautiful.” It sounds great on the organ. People sing at the top of their lungs. I get emotional. However, ideally, patriotic songs have no place whatsoever during mass. The reason is simple: sacred music for the liturgy serves one function and patriotic songs another. It is comparing apples and oranges. Nor does one diminish the other. Patriotic songs have a different milieu and serve a different purpose, even if God is mentioned.
Consider this coming Sunday, the Fourteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time. Matthew’s Gospel speaks of God’s consolation. Furthermore, even Jesus gives praise to His Father, so, should not we? “Matthew 11:25: “I give praise to you, Father, Lord of Heaven and earth…” The mass is full of praise for God. As such, the propers are fitting. This Sunday, my choir will sing a hymn version of the Introit, and my setting of the communion proper, (Gustate et videte) “Taste and See that the Lord Is Good.” When immersed into the readings and the propers, it feels out of place to put country — no matter how great our love for it — at the center of the Eucharistic Feast. Likewise, it would be incredibly odd and inconsiderate to sing a Marian Hymn at a Fourth of July Parade. Both are wonderful. Neither appropriate in the given context.
Also, the more we understand in our hearts the marriage of liturgical action and sacred music, the less patriotic hymns during mass make any sense. Vatican II reaffirmed the unique function of music within the sacred liturgy:
“Therefore sacred music is to be considered the more holy in proportion as it is more closely connected with the liturgical action…” (Sacrosanctum Concillium § 112)
HICH LITURGICAL ACTION would God Bless America or America the Beautiful connect with the best? Entrance Procession? (perhaps during the incensing of the altar?) Offertory? Communion Procession? In these terms, I find it difficult to reconcile the texts – although composed with dignity and embedded in our country’s religious roots – with these particular liturgical actions, where Christ’s redeeming sacrifice for all is central. Furthermore, patriotic songs during mass would exist purely for their own sake, which is antithesis of the function of sacred music, which is to help us sing the texts of the mass itself.
Finally, I am mindful that this is a complex subject that evokes great emotion of very varying types. If one must sing a song of country at mass, (which I have done, and will likely do when Independence Day falls on a Sunday) the only possible consideration would be after the Final Blessing and Dismissal. Officially, the mass is over. Never, never, would one consider singing a patriotic hymn anywhere else, e.g., Offertory or post-communion. In light of accompanying the liturgical action, Patriotic hymns suddenly feel like a Salve Regina during at a Memorial Day Parade.
UNDERSTAND THE CONTEXT of my liturgical position: I am deeply interested in politics and history. I particularly enjoy reading books on American History regardless of political party. Among my favorites include Garry Wills’ Lincoln at Gettysburg and Wills’ book on Washington, Cincinatus, which describes Washington’s “abdication” of power after two terms which inspired poetry, paintings, sculpture, and music. However, do not mistake my interest in history or love of country as “conservative” or “liberal.” It is neither. I am in agreement and disagreement with both American political parties (not unlike the American Bishops and various Popes on a number of topics). Politics can be divisive. The Eucharist is Universal.