ERHAPS SOMEDAY our Savior will send us a liturgical reformer. He has sent reformers in the past. Examples would be Saint Charles Borromeo (d. 1584), Saint Francis of Assisi (d. 1226), Pope Saint Pius X (d. 1914), Saint John Mary Vianney (d. 1859), and Saint Gregory the Great (d. 604). For the record, authentic reform is the result of personal sanctity—prayer and serious penance—not dwelling on scandal. Of course, I’m keenly aware that certain “internet Catholics” spend hours each day gleefully documenting church leaders’ scandals.1 But we must resist the urge to dwell on scandals. Instead, God expects us to spend our energy providing solutions to our current situation. Without question, the vocation of Catholic choirmaster is very challenging. For this reason, I have suggested that we must utilize every tool at our disposal if we hope to succeed. First-rate hymnody certainly constitutes part of the equation. I recently posted a magnificent Eucharistic hymn by the Archbishop of Canterbury. The translation is by MONSIGNOR RONALD KNOX, considered by some to be the 20th century’s greatest theologian. The verses are superb. Omitting even one would be a travesty. On the other hand, people these days tend to have a very short (TikTok length) attention span. To solve this dilemma, I find it useful to improvise on the pipe organ between stanzas. This is also a wonderful way to prevent the pitch from sinking!
Can You Name That Tune? • Each Sunday, I play the pipe organ at numerous Masses. Sometimes, I play so much my brain enters a “stupor.” As a result, I never know what might happen during my improvisations. Last Sunday, I randomly started playing a particular hymn melody in between the stanzas. (Purists would frown on mixing hymns together!) How well do you know your hymns? If you recognize the tune, please email me using the address provided at the bottom of this page. If you get it right, I’ll declare that you really know your stuff! The first improvisation happens after verse two:
Theological Echoes • The brave martyr, Father Robert Southwell (d. 1595), wrote a spectacular hymn to the SANCTISSIMUM, included as #342 in the Brébeuf Catholic Hymnal. One of the stanzas says:
What God as author made, He alter may,
No change so hard as making all of nought:
If Adam fashion’d were of earthly clay,
Bread may to Christ’s most sacred fiesh be wrought.
This may He do Who made, by strength divine,
A snake of Moses’ wand, of water wine.
In my humble opinion, Father Southwell’s words seem to ‘echo’ the fifth verse of the hymn by John Pecham (d. 1292), Archbishop of Canterbury. Certainly Southwell would have been familiar with his oeuvre. And when you get to the sixth verse (“Plead, true Victim, in our stead”), don’t you agree that it’s reminiscent of the following passage by Monsignor Knox?
“The sacrifice of the Mass is a mystery, and perhaps its relation to the sacrifice on the cross is the most mysterious thing about it. Only this is certain, that the victim who is there presented to the eternal Father for our sakes is the dying Christ; it is in that posture that he pleaded, and pleads, for our salvation, atoned, and atones, for the sins of the world. We herald that death in the holy Mass, not as something which happened long ago, but as something which is mystically renewed whenever the words of consecration are uttered. From the moment of his death on Calvary until the time when he comes again in glory, the dying Christ is continually at work, is continually available. It is in this posture of death that he pleads for us, when the Mass is offered.”
Limited Rehearsal Time • The conscientious choirmaster knows how precious each minute of rehearsal is. For that reason, I often take advantage of the shared melodies (“common tunes”) in the Brébeuf Hymnal. For example, consider one of the other hymns we sang last Sunday:
Variety, Variety, Variety! • I have suggested that having musical diversity is crucial to our success as Catholic choir directors. For instance, you will notice we had a somber communion hymn last Sunday:
Because we had that somber melody at communion, I made sure to have a bright and happy recessional hymn. We haven’t learned all the parts yet, so I put the men on TENOR and the women on SOPRANO:
A Note On “Participation” • The Second Vatican Council solemnly declared: “The treasury of sacred music [thesaurus musicae sacrae] is to be preserved and fostered with great care.” It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to understand that much of the THESAURUS MUSICAE SACRAE cannot be sung by the “assembly.” To be blunt, only a very stupid person would pretend otherwise. And yet, some have the audacity to claim that “according to Vatican II” choirs have no place at the Holy Mass. What a bizarre assertion! Indeed, Catholics in future decades will look upon many post-conciliar reforms with bewilderment. Consider lay Catholics proclaiming Sacred Scripture during Mass. The basic idea was that having members of the congregation (including women beginning in the late 1960s) proclaim the readings would increase “participation.” But does that make any sense? When the priest proclaimed the readings, 500 members of the congregation sat and listened. When a member of the congregation reads instead of the priest, you’ve done virtually nothing to increase “lay participation” because one layman reads while 499 sit and listen. Indeed, this post-conciliar experiment taught us something surprising! Having an ordained minister proclaim the readings during Mass was preferable, because it reinforced the sacrality of the Word of God—whereas having “Joe Six-Pack” stroll into the SANCTUARY to proclaim the readings can have the opposite effect.
Article Summary • When he was just eight years old, Abraham Lincoln’s mother died from drinking spoiled milk. His father remarried, meaning seven (7) people were living in a log cabin with a dirt floor. During his entire life, Lincoln only had about one year’s worth of school. Whenever he heard somebody had obtained a book, he would walk miles (!) in order to be able to read that book. A single book! Nowadays, I can fit every book ever published (since the world began) on a tiny thumb drive. We have different challenges today; specifically how to present authentic sacred music without getting fired. In the article above, I have attempted to provide some tips and shortcuts to help Catholic music directors in their vocation.
1 I personally know Catholics who began with good intentions but became addicted to “clicks.” They noticed something. They noticed that whenever they spread the word about evil statements and scandalous actions by high-ranking clergy, they got massive clicks. [Notice I chose my words carefully. They’re not “reporting,” they’re “spreading the word”—and there’s a huge difference.] After a few years, these people became unrecognizable. Their entire existence became dedicated to gaining as many clicks as possible. They were no longer recognizable as human beings. They had become monsters who would (without thinking twice) sell their own children into slavery as long as it got them a few more clicks.