EVERAL WEEKS AGO, a friend of mine and I stood outside after Mass discussing literature and music. He is an English professor at the local university with an incredible grasp on the nature of a classical education and I am a musician who likes to talk. At one point, he asked me what kind of music I listen to in my down time, and I had to confess that I have so little love for pop culture that I am the freak who jogs listening to Viennese Masses and the like (there is nothing better for jogging than the Gloria from Haydn’s Heiligmesse). Outside of German folk music (it’s a family thing), my musical tastes gravitate toward classical music, including everything from chant to Taverner and MacMillan.
Such prodding made me curious to know if my friend read things like The Hunger Games, or if he kept strictly to the classics. He never gave me a direct answer, but he did tell me that literature is like food. Everyone’s diet should consist mostly of either good or great food (this was his tip of the hat to John Senior), otherwise one gets sick. At the same time, there is nothing wrong with a little junk food now and again (I assume he was talking about The Hunger Games), as long as one stays clear of anything poisonous (he gave the example of Fifty Shades of Gray). We eventually ended the conversation when our kids got restless, but I kept thinking about his analogy and how it applied to the music we hear every Sunday at Mass.
Ideally, one should enjoy a lot of good and great music, such as chant and polyphony, excellent hymns and beautiful Mass Ordinaries, either choral or congregational. At the same time, it isn’t necessarily a bad thing to sing to some schlock every now and again. I find that each generation has music, not necessarily of high quality, they are attached to for various reasons. Unfortunately, most parishes get their musical diets backwards, providing their parishioners (and ultimately the good Lord) with nothing but junk food and poison. I had to cringe once when I found myself at St. So-and-so and the cantor announced the hymn for Holy Communion, Precious body, precious blood, here IN bread and wine. Yikes!!! I asked my wife if we ended up at the local Lutheran church by mistake.
I usually hear the argument that this is what a certain congregation is used to and to change would be pastorally insensitive, or perhaps the pastor has bigger problems than music to deal with. When I respectfully disagree with these points I get the response, “Okay, so what would YOU do?” All right, that’s a fair question. Here is my response as a musical dietitian.
If I were to find myself newly appointed to the musical helm of St. So-and-so, my first act would be to ask each organist, cantor, pianist, guitarist and choir member, you name it, to meet me for an hour at the local coffee shop in order to get to know them personally. I would find out about each one’s history at the parish, musical tastes, etc. I would ask if there were anything he or she felt they needed from me or from the parish to grow as a Christian or as a musician. Did they have any suggestions or hopes for music at the parish? Believe me, I know I would receive all kinds of answers. Someone would tell me that her favorite song was Precious body, precious blood. I would be prepared for anything, but I WOULD NOT try to convince them otherwise at that point. I would only get to know them. They would appreciate this more than I could ever imagine.
Secondly, I would go through my parish’s hymnal and strike out any hymns that were openly heretical (I WOULD NOT strike out the junk food yet—depending on the hymnal, I might not have anything left). I would work through this list with the pastor, since he needs to be involved in the process, and get his feedback. To be honest, I probably wouldn’t find more than half a dozen openly heretical heretical hymns, which I would simply stop scheduling, and I would not send a letter to the musicians bringing it to their attention. This would simply cause an uproar. Most people wouldn’t notice anyway, and I would deal with those who did on a person-to-person basis.
Thirdly, I would ask every group in the parish to start using the same singable setting of the Mass Ordinary for the next year. Proulx’s A Community Mass or The Heritage Mass come to mind (you might call me a traitor at this point, but if you think you can introduce even an English chant setting this early in your work, you are signing your own death warrant). If I were an average parishioner with no musical expertise, two things would drive me batty. The first would consist of being forced to sing settings of the Mass that were overly syncopated and whose melodies jumped all over the place. The second would be having to learn a new setting of the Ordinary only six weeks after the last one had been introduced. No wonder Catholics don’t sing!
Fourthly, I would begin introducing one new piece of music every six months, either a new hymn or perhaps a chanted Kyrie, while at the same time discreetly removing another piece of schlock from the line-up.
Lastly, I would invite anyone willing to form a special group that I would teach to sing the Communio at one Mass each Sunday while father distributed Holy Communion to the army of Eucharistic Ministers (I would still begin the hymn as soon as father began distributing Communion to the rest of the congregation). After a couple of years I might even teach them to sing the Introit as a prelude. I have found that if I don’t subtract anything from the parish’s normal routine, I can usually get away with adding one thing.
I realize what I propose seems like moving forward at a snail’s pace, but considering how long the average parishioner has been in the liturgical and musical desert, anything more would cause the musical equivalent of refeeding syndrome, and you might as well hand in your resignation. You will slowing turn your congregation from arsonic and cyanide, chips and soda, to meat and potatoes. Who knows, you might even serve them a lobster one day!