OR MANY YEARS, I never got paid as a church musician. I ran 100% of the weekly rehearsals, recruited members, played for weddings, sang for funerals, and played the pipe organ (and directed) every Sunday and major feast day as a volunteer. To this day, I still recall a conversation with a priest from that church who considered himself to be an “ultra” traditionalist. I can’t remember his exact words—after all, this was a conversation that took place 20+ years ago—but the priest condemned me for only attending Mass once each Sunday. His basic statement was something like this:
“A real Catholic, Jeff, would go to Mass twice on Sunday. You’re so busy playing organ and conducting during Mass—that hardly fulfills your obligation. I wish you would follow the example of an elderly organist I knew years ago. She played organ for Mass, but then always stayed afterward (praying silently) for an hour to fulfill her Sunday obligation.”
Was He Correct? • With the benefit of hindsight, I suppose I could have responded abrasively with something like: “Father, I can only assume that you likewise insist that your ushers, altar boys, deacon, and subdeacon attend Mass twice each Sunday, right? After all, they perform certain roles during Mass just like singers do.” But I was just a youngster in those days … so I probably just sat there with a dumb look on my face (like I usually do).
Twenty Years Later • Now that two decades have elapsed, I would like to respond. As part of my response, consider the following (recorded ‘live’ last Sunday by volunteer choir) of the magnificent “Pange Lingua Gloriosi” by Saint Thomas Aquinas:
To access this hymn’s media in the Brébeuf Portal, click here.
[In a moment, you’ll understand why that video has significance.]
Below, I attempt to provide five (5) answers to that priest who told me singing at Mass doesn’t really fulfill one’s obligation. I apologize my response is two decades late—but better late than never, as they say.
Response #1 • I am afraid this priest demonstrated a reality (whether we like it or not) about certain Catholics who claim to be “ultra” traditionalist: viz. they put themselves above the Church’s tradition. The fact is, singing at Mass has never been considered “in opposition” to fulfilling one’s Sunday obligation. Indeed, it is not permitted in the classical Roman Rite to celebrate a Solemn Mass without a choir! Does this priest believe he’s discovered a secret teaching nobody else has ever known about? Sorry, but I’ll stick with the tradition of the Church!
Response #2 • I have nothing against silent prayer. To be completely honest, the greatest memories of my life were serving silent Low Masses in the evening. The only person in the congregation was my own father! At the same time, the Catholic Church has always elevated and praised the MISSA CANTATA. To explain matters another way, the Second Vatican Council solemnly declared: “The treasury of sacred music [Thesaurus Musicæ Sacræ] is to be preserved and fostered with great care.” The Second Vatican Council did not add to that sentence: “but make sure anybody who employs the THESAURUS MUSICAE SACRAE also attends another Mass, because it doesn’t fulfill their obligation.”
Response #3 • Rather than telling me I should attend Mass twice on Sunday, perhaps a better thing for that priest to do would have been to thank me for all the duties I fulfilled (without any monetary compensation). I freely gave hundreds of hours: running weekly rehearsals, recruiting members, playing for weddings, singing for funerals, playing the pipe organ for Masses, and directing and singing each Sunday Mass—plus the major feast days. Looking back, that priest would have done well to research Catholic teaching on a “living wage.” If memory serves, our Savior Himself said: “the laborer is worthy of his hire.” On the other hand, I just loved doing all that stuff, and got invaluable experience.
Response #4 • The first paragraph of the recent article by Dr. Charles Weaver really hit home with me. I never have time for all the things I want to do. For more than a decade, I’ve been trying to find time to post a long rebuttal to a 1977 monograph by DOM GREGORY MURRAY (d. 1992). I’m starting to think I may die before I’m able to find the requisite time. Alas, supporting a family in today’s world is not easy, and I have many obligations. The basic premise of the book by Dom Gregory Murray is that the THESAURUS MUSICAE SACRAE should be abolished. He says liturgical music might be okay if it consisted of simple syllabic chants that don’t delay the Mass, but he thinks the THESAURUS MUSICAE SACRAE is (in his words) “absurd.” He claims there was “no place in the primitive Church for music.” He provides no evidence for that assertion, but assures us that “a moment’s thought will convince us” of this. Dom Gregory Murray had a special hatred for Gregorian Chant:
“I see clearly that the need for reform in liturgical music arose, not in the 18th and 19th centuries, but a thousand years earlier—in the 8th and 9th centuries, or even before that. The abuses began, not with Mozart and Haydn, but with those over-enthusiastic medieval musicians who developed the elaborate and flamboyant Gregorian Chant.”
Essentially, Dom Gregory Murray thinks the only justification for music is to amplify the words of the Mass. According to Dom Gregory Murray, now that we have microphones & loudspeakers capable of sonic amplification, liturgical music has no real value. By the way, he believes it was insane for Vatican II to mandate the traditional lingua sacra at Mass. In his opinion, absolutely everything should be in the vernacular. Dom Gregory Murray seems to believe that every man, woman, and child—no matter how much education they possess—can instantly understand Sacred Scripture. He seems ignorant of the fact that even the Catholic Church herself has never explained certain Scripture passages (e.g. parts of the book of the Apocalypse). Dom Gregory Murray attacks Saint Thomas Aquinas, who in the Summa Theologiae wrote (cf. “Reply to Objection 5”) as follows:
“The same is true of the hearers, for even if they do not understand what is sung, they understand why it is sung, namely, for God’s honour, and this is enough to arouse their devotion.”
Responding to the teaching of Saint Thomas Aquinas, Dom Gregory Murray asks mockingly: “Then why have any words at all, if their message need not be conveyed to the hearers?”
#4 (cont’d): “Liturgical Earplugs” • I think it is fair to say that Dom Gregory Murray would have agreed with the priest who told me I should go to Mass twice on Sunday, because Mass doesn’t fulfill one’s obligation if one plays the pipe organ or sings. Indeed, Dom Gregory Murray said “some enterprising firm should have invented ear-plugs in the various liturgical colours for use by celebrants” so they wouldn’t have to hear liturgical music.
Please Note: I’m not suggesting that we should be distracted during Holy Mass. Indeed, if someone performed an insanely intricate orchestral Mass setting—during which the percussionist was preoccupied the entire time and was not praying—I might have an issue with that. Indeed, I’ve suggested that it was an abuse for French organists to play “mini-concerts” on the pipe organ during the entirety of the Low Mass, although certain colleagues wrote to me in disagreement over that point.
Response #5 • Finally, I don’t believe it’s sinful to take delight in the THESAURUS MUSICAE SACRAE. Above, I posted that video which—although sung by an all-volunteer choir—is utterly captivating from a musical standpoint. That’s nothing to be ashamed of! Indeed, Almighty God has associated certain pleasures with certain things. Consider the holy Sacrament of Matrimony. Only a foolish person would condemn the pleasures associated with procreation (in the context of a valid, Sacramental marriage). The melody in that video is “catchy” and “melodious” and memorable. That’s exactly how it should be. Somewhere in his writings, I believe Saint Augustine pointed out that “if you love something you want to learn about it.” I believe he was saying that we should learn about God if we love Him. Those who sing this melody (and hear it) will remember those words throughout the week, and hopefully meditate upon those words during their entire life. That’s one reason I’ve fought strenuously against singing hymns from the big Catholic publishers, because the lyrics are often written by men who openly lead immoral lives and publicly contradict church teaching.
Some Complex, Some Not • Holy monks like Abbat Pothier had a saying: In medio stat virtus. Our volunteer choir does a wide variety of music. Some of it is quite complicated. Last week, we sang a GLORIA by Father Francisco Guerrero. Below is a (live recording) excerpt:
On the other hand, some of our music is basically speech! An example would be the recessional hymn we sang last Sunday, with a text written by the founder of the Anglican Ordinariate.
Alligant enim onera gravia,
et importabilia, et imponunt in humeros hominum:
digito autem suo nolunt ea movere.