N A CHURCH filled with volunteer choirs and cantors, the talent level runs the gamut. It would be nice if every parish could afford to hire professional singers for every Mass, but that is not the reality in most situations. Where it is possible, of course, that should be encouraged and supported. But what should be done the rest of the time, particularly when you get a volunteer with more enthusiasm than talent?
This week, two well-known figures gave similar answers to this conundrum. The first was Pope Francis, who has been discussing various charisms during his general audiences. During last week’s audience, the Holy Father stressed that charisms must be recognized and acknowledged by the wider ecclesial community:
Someone cannot figure out by himself if he has a charism and which one. It’s a bit like that kind of person everyone has heard about, who says, “Oh I have this talent, I know how to sing so well.” And yet no one has the courage to tell him, “Hmm, it’s better you keep your mouth shut. You torment us when you sing.”
The other figure who spoke out this week is Mike Rowe, host of the TV series “Dirty Jobs.” Months ago, Rowe gave a speech in which he characterized the cliché “Follow your passion” as bad advice. One of his listeners took issue with this and wrote him a note. Defending his original position, Rowe had this to say:
Like all bad advice, “Follow Your Passion” is routinely dispensed as though its wisdom were both incontrovertible and equally applicable to all. It’s not. Just because you’re passionate about something doesn’t mean you won’t suck at it. And just because you’re determined to improve doesn’t mean that you will.
I’m fascinated by the beginning of American Idol. Every year, thousands of aspiring pop-stars show up with great expectations, only to learn that they don’t have anything close to the skills they thought they did. What’s amazing to me isn’t their lack of talent—it’s their lack of awareness, and the resulting shock of being rejected. How is it that so many people are so blind to their own limitations? How did these people get the impression they could sing in the first place?
This is a real issue that needs real solutions. The liturgy has too often served as a sort of fallback coffeehouse for lackluster musicians who cannot find an audience elsewhere. These men & women are often wonderful, active parishioners—the sort of people the parish can rely upon to volunteer for many needs throughout the year. But, if they lack sufficient talent to be of true service to the sacred liturgy, something must be done so that the parish’s worship does not suffer.
So, what to do? Fundamentally, both Pope Francis & Mike Rowe agree that the first step is to muster up enough courage to be honest. We shouldn’t fear confrontation, but it is also good to remember that the messenger (and his or her manner) can make a world of difference. If you have a wretched cantor or organist who needs to be addressed, try to think of who might be the best person to have a talk with them; it could be the music director, the priest, a deacon, or even a senior member of the choir. Then, in the conversation, be sure to affirm the person’s generosity & reliability & other good qualities. A good idea may be to have in mind another role that you could invite the person to take on—something that is better suited to their gifts & talents.
It is hard to be this honest, but the worthy celebration of the liturgy requires it. As the Holy Father stressed, charisms are never self-declared; they are always discerned in the context of the community.
If you have occasion to confront a poor musician in your parish, it may be difficult at first. Down the road, however, that person may come to be grateful for your intervention. Consider Mike Rowe’s retrospection:
When I was 16, I wanted to follow in my grandfather’s footsteps. I wanted to be a tradesman. I wanted to build things, and fix things, and make things with my own two hands. This was my passion, and I followed it for years. I took all the shop classes at school, and did all I could to absorb the knowledge and skill that came so easily to my granddad. Unfortunately, the handy gene skipped over me, and I became frustrated. But I remained determined to do whatever it took to become a tradesman.
One day, I brought home a sconce from woodshop that looked like a paramecium, and after a heavy sigh, my grandfather told me the truth. He explained that my life would be a lot more satisfying and productive if I got myself a different kind of toolbox. This was almost certainly the best advice I’ve ever received, but at the time, it was crushing.
Saying things that people need to hear is often frightening, sometimes heroic, and rarely easy. When motivated by true charity, it can be a great blessing to everyone involved.