EADERS HAVE PROBABLY noticed we spend very little time denigrating hymn texts with weak theology. I don’t know why this is—you’d have to ask each writer individually—but perhaps we are more interested in making a positive contribution than adding to the negativity. However, it really is quite a contrast. As Dr. William Mahrt has frequently noted, most Catholics commenting on sacred music focus only on the lyrics, completely neglecting issues of musical style. 1
Another reason (perhaps) our writers ignore this topic has to with “twisting.” When we consider even the most notorious lyrics, we realize that, if you twist hard enough, most can be interpreted in accordance with Catholic theology. 2
On the other hand, in spite of the fact that I am perhaps the most cynical person in the galaxy, I still occasionally find myself taken aback. I was utterly shocked to discover an “updated version” of the Christmas Proclamation, repeatedly published by the National Association of Pastoral Musicians (NPM):
The statement affirming Buddha’s enlightenment—if proclaimed during a Catholic liturgy—strikes me as blasphemous. 3 My major concern with many contemporary hymn texts, however—as I’ve discussed—is their predictable & tacky rhyme scheme. So many sound as if they were written with the aid of several rhyming dictionaries.
THE NPM “UPDATED” CHRISTMAS PROCLAMATION reminds me that in some ways our Church contains two “different worlds.” Along the same lines, please listen to the following audio example—which is quite brief—wherein I have juxtaposed two (2) different styles of sacred music. To my ear, one style seems “catchy”—relying heavily on rhythm and syncopation—and should force you to tap your foot if performed correctly. That song was frequently sung during Masses in my grade school (circa 1995). For the record, I have no idea who composed it or whether my version is correct. 4 The other style of music follows the teachings of Pope Saint John Paul II (cf. his 2003 document, §12), since it takes Gregorian chant as its inspiration:
I feel that one style is more dignified, mysterious, elevated, transcendent, and sacred. 5
Now I will reveal a secret. The grade school I attended is the same one in which Dr. Lucas Tappan currently teaches. Their current program has nothing to do with what went on during the 1990s. I hope someday Lucas will tell us how such a transformation happened!
NOTES FROM THIS ARTICLE:
1 This may explain why a Mass setting based on a song called “My Little Pony” was approved by the USCCB.
2 Lyrics like these eventually led to a 2006 statement by the USCCB: “Liturgical songs must never be permitted to make statements about the faith which are untrue.” Talk about going back to basics!
3 It would have been horrible enough to write “his alleged enlightenment,” but they state it as fact.
4 Pardon my memory if I missed some notes; it’s been twenty years since I heard this song.
5 It reminds me of when I called a seminarian during the 1990s to show him a special arrangement Vladimir Horowitz did of the Star Spangled Banner—which is awesome, by the way. I played a few bars over the phone, and he replied, “That’s great, but listen to this CD I just bought.” He played for me a Mass setting by Palestrina. I felt a profound change: the effect of each style was so different. I get the same feeling when I see religious artwork like the example in the upper right corner, which comes from a manuscript made in the 1400s.