Catholic World News News Feature

A Church Musician's Lament April 15, 2003

Most CWR readers are probably familiar with the orthodox Catholic weekly newspaper, the Wanderer . I do not know how that title was chosen, but as a conservative Catholic musician with a considerable amount of training in organ, voice, and liturgy, I certainly feel like "the wanderer" myself. I wander from parish to parish, trying to find a community of people with whom I can share my gifts without being forced to perform the usual "sacro-pop" that has spread throughout the American Church like an unfettered parasite over the past thirty years.

Since my graduation from high school just ten short years ago, I have held "Director of Music" positions in eight separate parishes, with my terms of employment ranging in duration from six months to two years. I can't seem to hold down a job. Sooner or later--usually sooner--I come to blows with the pastor or a group of influential parishioners over the selection of liturgical music.


Here is the basic pattern of what happens when I am hired at a parish. My first order of business is to clean up that which has preceded me. I come in armed with the instruction on sacred art and furnishings from the Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy (124):

  • remove from the house of God... those works that are repugnant to faith and morals and to Christian devotion and that offend true religious sense either by their grotesqueness or by the deficiency, mediocrity, or sham in their artistic quality.

When they refer specifically to music, the Vatican II documents, and subsequent Church instructions, are much more delicate in their terminology referring to sacred musical arts. But their fundamental intent is still the same. A good deal of the music performed in American churches today is simply not fit for the house of God, and ought to be replaced.

Even just playing one sappy song per Mass is like giving sugar to a toddler; it's only a matter of time before the average individual in the pew will be demanding more and more of the stuff. Unfortunately, the people in positions of power at the parish level do not seem to understand that music ministry is not meant to entertain. It is meant to express our unity, our reverence, our humility, our awestruck wonder at the holy Sacrifice which Christ celebrates for us on the altar. It is meant to give voice to our beliefs, to lift up the teachings of the faith--not just to give everyone a warm feeling. Sappy music begets sappy theology, sappy dogma, and sappy moral teaching. Today's Catholics, facing the difficult challenges that come with living a moral life and defending the faith, need more.

So, I go about the task of replacing the mediocre music, carefully retaining and emphasizing those hymns known by the parishioners which are worthy and practical. I introduce a few new hymns every couple of months--repeating them ad nauseam lest I be accused of not giving the assembly enough time to learn this "new" and "unfamiliar" music. The "new" and "unfamiliar" music that I champion, however, is Gregorian chant and traditional hymnody--much as one might find in the Adoremus Hymnal or comparable volumes. Since many parishes have now gone a full two generations without ever hearing or learning the beautiful music of their heritage, it is most certainly "new" and "unfamiliar" when they hear it for the first time. I introduce simple Latin chants. In this process, I am doing quite literally what some pastors have suggested that I should do: following "the spirit of Vatican II." The Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy instructs us that "the use of the Latin language should be preserved" (36) and that "Gregorian chant as distinctive of the Roman liturgy ... should be given pride of place in liturgical services." (116) One of my liturgy professors once told me, "You know, my children never heard 'Holy God We Praise Thy Name' in their entire lifetime. It is not their cultural experience of the Church." Well, whose fault is that? Liberal pastors and musicians have been deliberately depriving the faithful of the music of the Catholic tradition. Certainly, it makes sense for non-Western cultures to use the music of their own traditions in the celebrations of Roman Catholic liturgies. But liturgists today are using the argument that we must use the music of American culture. What is American culture? Is it Peter, Paul, and Mary, or Brittney Spears? American Catholics had a culture; it was ripped violently away from them in the 1960s and 1970s, and the void--the liturgical vacuum, if you will--was filled with "deficiency, mediocrity, or sham." The parish choir usually undergoes a transformation when I begin rehearsing with them. A certain percentage of the members leave, since they are no longer permitted to cozy up to the microphone and sing songs that make them feel good, subjecting their friends and neighbors to their crooning while they fuel their own egos. The parish cantors, particularly if they are volunteers, may have a similar reaction. Many cantors have come to of the church as their own private karaoke club, and many take inordinate delight in commanding the microphone, giving their neighbors the impression that their singing is extremely important--a critical part of their church-going experience. Yet while there are always some defections, an equal or greater number of new faces usually join the choir, anxious to learn something about music, and ready to contribute to the process. Once I have disturbed the liturgical status quo in a parish, the pastor is faced with an unsettling dilemma. If he is a comfortably liberal Catholic, he eventually recognizes that he has a problem; he cannot allow this traditional, orthodox music to take hold in his parish. So our arguments begin.

One of the pastor's arguments is usually that "the people are not singing anymore." In most cases this is simply not true. The people are singing better than ever, because they are now singing well-crafted music which makes sense melodically--music which does not have long phrases and pauses or syncopated rhythms--music which goes where an untrained performer expects it to go.

But even if it were true that the people were raising the roof of the church with their singing of "All I Ask of You" or "Let There Be Peace on Earth" before I arrived in the parish, would that be a convincing argument against traditional music? Many people will happily fill themselves with candy and ice cream when it is available, but their choice does not mean that those foods are nourishing. By the same logic, a steady diet of "lite" liturgical music is unhealthy for the liturgy.

In any case, the pastor's solution to his problem is either to fire me on the spot, or to push me toward resignation by forming a "liturgical committee" with a membership carefully chosen from among his favored parishioners. This committee will seen accuse me of having an "old church" attitude, and failing to choose music that speaks to them and their modern experience.


A few weeks ago I was formally terminated from my most recent parish position at a church in the suburbs of Boston. After two years of building up a program that expanded the choir, promoted the singing of Gregorian chant and well crafted hymnody, and generated widespread enthusiasm for quality music, I was informed by the newly assigned pastor, a self-proclaimed "progressive," that I was henceforth to provide a mix of "contemporary" music along with my regular selections. Artistically speaking, this is akin to serving a fine cut of filet mignon with Hawaiian Punch. My differences with the new pastor proved irreconcilable.

Being newly unemployed, I spent the next few Sundays wandering from one parish to another. One week I found myself in one of Boston's most influential churches, at a Mass that was regarded to be a "high" liturgy. There were six paid professional musicians at the Mass, along with a dozen or so volunteers. At first glance this appeared to be the perfect situation for a positive musical and liturgical experience. But such was not the case. The music resembled a blend of a slick Broadway musical and a yoga meditation tape. There parishioners had been trained loudly to proclaim their "inclusive language" adaptations of the prayers. ("Peace to God's people on earth"& "for us and for our salvation"& "It is right to give God thanks and praise.) At least two-thirds of the congregation used the "progressive" posture, so that those of us who knelt during the Eucharistic Prayer appeared to be the dissidents. (A toddler sitting behind me whispered, "Mommy, why is that man kneeling?" Her response was revealing: "Don't worry, honey; he just doesn't know how we do things here.") By the time the celebrants marched out of the church, to the beating of a native American hand-drum, I was ready to run for the nearest exit.


Soon I will start work at yet another church-organist position. But in light of my track record, I have to wonder how long it will be before I am "wandering" again.

The story has been the same everywhere. A few influential parishioners clamor for the old Glory and Praise songs of the St. Louis Jesuits: selections like "Here I Am, Lord," and "Be Not Afraid." I resist. These songs are designed solely to tap the emotions. They can turn an otherwise reverent liturgy into a group-therapy session.

Unfortunately, many Catholics judge the quality of liturgical music by its ability to make them cry, or to "speak to" them. And those who lobby for such music are too often backed by parish priests whose goal is to "gather together an affirming, inclusive, and supportive community." In the eyes of these priests, the liturgy is a "dynamic faith-journey through the labyrinth of life," rather than the holy Sacrifice of the Mass.

The music that we used at Mass has a powerful impact on the way we approach the liturgy, and the way we understand our faith. And any serious study of contemporary Catholic liturgical music should lead the investigator to recognize the ways in which many new hymns undermine reverence and faith.

The hymns of the St. Louis Jesuits, however hideously they might be crafted as pieces of music, at least are usually based upon Scripture and authentic Catholic teaching. But other songs from the 1980s and 1990s--by composers like David Haas, Michael Joncas, and Marty Haugen--are more frightening. Not only is the music poorly crafted; not only are the words trite; not only are the melodies shamelessly dramatic and emotional; but many of these contemporary composers proudly identify themselves as theological liberals, and the teachings that they subtly espouse through their music can be dangerous.

Personally, I stopped performing the music of David Haas after he published Dear Sister God, and presented a music workshop at which he and his ex-wife, composer Jeanne Cotter, informed the participants of their "duty" and "responsibility" to purge their parishes of "exclusive language" in the liturgy.

Father Jan Michael Joncas, the notorious composer of the drippingly saccharine "On Eagle's Wings," is another serious offender, who promotes misleading ideas about Holy Communion. His series of songs and rituals called "Tableprayer" is used all round the country by women and non-Catholics who act as quasi-celebrants, breaking bread and sharing wine at meetings that tread dangerously close to profaning the Catholic Mass.

Marty Haugen, a Lutheran whose music is probably performed more widely in American Catholic parishes than that of any other composer, has produced ugly, ridiculous hymns that emphasize the sun, the moon, trees, and dancing--all set to primitive melodies that evoke a whimsical stroll through a field of organic sunflowers.

Crack open a copy of GIA Publication's Gather hymnal or the annual Music Issue from Oregon Catholic Press, and you will find clear evidence of feminist theology, an overwhelming amount of confusing (if not outright heretical) texts about the nature of the Eucharist, and countless awkward "inclusive language" revisions of familiar hymns. You will find dozens of songs and "psalm settings" that are said to be "based on" or "inspired by" passages from Scripture, yet completely obliterate the meaning of the original text.

Consider some of the most recognizable passages from the popular hymnals: "Let peace begin with me." "Here I am, Lord; is it I, Lord?" "I myself am the bread of life& broken and shared by Christ." This is the music of a self-centered church, where the individual--not Jesus Christ--is king. At best it is empty and sentimental; there is no reverence, no sense of the holy or the transcendent, about it. This is the music of a secular-humanist society, trying to assume the cultural identity of our Church.


For many Catholics, the 45-minute experience of Sunday Mass is the only time during the course of a week that they will give any attention whatsoever to their role in the world as Catholics. For still more Catholics, these encounters with the liturgy--with the Church at worship--are not even weekly; they are limited to attendance at weddings and funerals, or Mass at Christmas and Easter. What information are these people receiving through their participation in the liturgy? How are they being formed by their experience of worship?

Orthodox Catholics might complain, and with ample justification, about the arrogant priests and their talk-show banter. They might cite the homilies that, week after week, provide nothing more substantive the sort of basic precepts that we learn in kindergarten. They might talk about the homilist who bounces around the aisles, or the celebrants who leap down from the altar to shake hands with dozens of people at the Kiss of Peace. They might express outrage when the words of the liturgy are altered or omitted. But are these the things that have the most profound effect--the things that stay in the memory of a lukewarm Catholic long after the Mass is over?

Very few people will leave church on Sunday morning repeating the words of the homily. But many will be humming the tune of the closing hymn. Music can have a profound affect on the experience of the Mass, in a very subtle but lasting way.

Rather than explain my point in abstract terms, let me illustrate it with an imaginary visit to a hypothetical parish: an ordinary American parish, where the music is contemporary and the theology is "progressive." Most readers--unless they are fortunate enough to live near a church with an orthodox pastor and a cooperative congregation--will recognize familiar elements in this portrait. Perceptive readers should also notice how the music shapes the worship.


Walk into church about ten minutes before Sunday Mass. You will hear the choir and musicians hurriedly practicing for the Mass that is about to begin. Microphones will be turned on everywhere, picking up distant sounds of laughter, rattling of papers, and an occasional "Test: One Two. Check: One Two." If you are new to the parish, Father Slick will probably come up to you and say, "Hey! Thanks for coming out!" Then the lights will turn on, illuminating the sanctuary with a flood of brilliance, revealing that the highest platform in the entire church is the presider's chair, centered on a "worship space" that resembles a stage. You try to say a few private prayers, but you cannot fight the feeling that you are sitting in a Broadway theater, waiting for the curtain to go up.

The Mass begins with the singing of Marty Haugen's "Gather Us In," as the priest walks down the aisle. We sing the words "gather us in" seven times, extolling the virtues of "we" and "us" and expressing our joy at what the community is about to do. When he reaches his throne in the center of the sanctuary, the priest waits impatiently for the music to end. When it does, he greets everyone with a hearty "Good morning," and a few jocular comments about the weather or the local football team. Finally, out from the midst of his banter, there emerges the Sign of the Cross.

The Kyrie is not sung here, because the liturgy committee has rejected the "old-church" approach that makes people feel guilty, and the use of Latin. (It probably would not have helped to remind them that the Kyrie is Greek--an even older language.) So Father Slick ad-libs his own penitential rite, which is recited in English.

Ordinarily this parish skips over the Gloria, but this week the choir director is introducing a new setting. The congregation sings, as a refrain, "Give glory to God in the highest and peace to God's people on earth." That refrain is repeated over and over again, while the choir sings the verses. Even a young child would notice that the word "his" has been replaced by "God's" in each repetition of the refrain. What does this heavy emphasis on "inclusive" language teach that child? Will he eventually find it jarring to hear the sung "the old way?" And by the way, why can't the faithful sing the Gloria in its entirety, rather than just a refrain? The next piece of music is the responsorial psalm. Will we hear the appointed Gradual of the day, which is specified as the first choice in the Vatican II documents? No. Will we hear a dignified musical setting of the approved psalm text as it appears in the Lectionary? No. We might hear the "inclusive-language" Grail translation of a psalm, despite the fact that Rome has revoked the imprimatur from the Grail Psalter. Still more likely, we will hear a completely fabricated text: a sentimental rendering "inspired" by a psalm that is deemed appropriate for the season. It goes without saying that a few verses will be omitted, for the sake of brevity. What does all this tell the people in the pews? If they are following along faithfully in their missalettes, they must wonder why the psalm they hear is different from the one they read. They might also wonder why portions of the Sacred Scripture have been omitted, and they may conclude that the Word of God is not as important as the celebrant's schedule or the cantor's showmanship.

Let us not gloss over the Gospel acclamation. Gone are the days when a simple "Alleluia" in chant would suffice. Now it has to be "Alleluia, give the glory..." or "Alleluia, praise the God of truth and life...," or some other arbitrary embellishment.

After a homily (that uses the word "gather" about 47 times), and recitation of an inclusivized Nicene Creed (heaven forbid chanting the Credo!) we will be instructed to join in singing the song for the preparation of the gifts. (It is not called an offertory hymn, even though the term "offertory" is still used in Vatican liturgical documents.) This is probably the song that the choir practiced most. They are strumming three--maybe four!--chords on their guitars, and the MIDI-interface on the keyboard is at full throttle. The singers are cradling their microphones, almost touching their lips, swaying to their music, veins standing out in their necks as they croon. We notice all this, because the pastor moved the choir out of the loft, down to the front of the church, where they stand with their backs to the sanctuary.

Until fairly recently, the keyboardist would improvise from the end of the "preparation song" until the celebrant washed his hands in the traditional Lavabo ritual. But now the parish has jettisoned that ritual; it is considered passé.

The Eucharistic acclamations are loudly strummed and improvised upon while the priest recites the Eucharistic prayer. The Sanctus is embellished with extra words and phrases. The Memorial Acclamation is Marty Haugen's "We Remember" rather than one of the four approved texts. The "Great Amen" is adorned with extra "Alleluia's" and "forever and ever's" The Lamb of God incorporates a score of extra verses--with tropes such as "Jesus, ancient wind," and "Jesus, friend of all." This provides an extended time in which the celebrant can distribute Communion to the dozen or more Eucharistic ministers.

At Communion time, we are instructed to join in singing the refrain of the Communion hymn. The General Instruction to the Roman Missal tells us that we can use the antiphon from the Graduale Romanum, or the simple gradual, or have the choir sing alone. But in this parish we follow the most enlightened liturgical trends. Communion, we have been told, is a time for expressing our unity. So we sing together--about sharing bread and sharing grapes, about signs and symbols, not about the Body and Blood of Christ. One song follows another (we can't help noticing that the ending of the second song resembles a ditty from a popular children's television program) so that there is never a moment of silence for private prayers of thanksgiving. This rite centers on the community, and the feeling of community can only be achieved if the congregation is constantly singing the simple refrain.

Finally it is over. The priest, having told us to "Go in peace," adds a cheerful, "Have a nice day!" And we join in the race for the parking lot, as the choir belts out, "Our God Is an Awesome God."

* * * * *

I am not a theologian or a canon lawyer. I am not a priest and certainly not a bishop. I am an ordinary parish musician, with a few observations based on experience, raising a desperate appeal from the trenches. There is a real war going on here: a struggle for the heart and soul of the Catholic Church, and the main battleground is the holy Sacrifice of the Mass.

To be sure this battle is being fought on other fronts as well. There are important struggles being waged in the seminaries, in the bishops' conferences, in the press, in academe. But the widespread abuse of our liturgy should be the primary focus of concern. Many Catholics are inclined to believe that liturgical abuses are a result of theological dissent, sexual deviation among the clergy, anti-Catholic bias in the news media, the secularization of modern society, and other factors. I would urge readers to consider the possibility that liturgical abuse is not an effect of these other problems, but their root cause.


[SIDEBAR PULLQUOTE] Pop-music peddlers can make $50,000 a year, filling the churches with their saccharine songs. But I can't give away the beautiful music of our Catholic heritage!


A great myth is circulating through the world of Catholic liturgists. Pastors and parishioners are regularly informed that there is a keen shortage of qualified organists and choir directors. This is utterly false.

In the Boston area, where I live, there are roughly 1,000 members of the local chapter of the American Guild of Organists. (It is fair to assumer that there are hundreds of other skilled organists who are not affiliated with that guild.) If--like the general population of Boston--about 50 percent of these Guild members are Catholics, then there are more than enough organists, just within the ranks of the Guild, to staff every parish in the Boston archdiocese.

Why, then do we hear so much talk about a "shortage" of organists? The truth has a great deal to do with the economics of the liturgical marketplace. Good musicians are being turned away at the doors, or relegated to tiny parishes, while the big salaries are given to keyboard players who churn out the rock/pop/new age music that most pastors want to hear, regardless of the musical heritage of the Church. I was recently asked by Parish A to play "keyboard" for a Life Teen Mass in suburban Boston. How could I turn down a $200 payment for a single service? The music was like something from a polished Broadway musical. The liturgy itself was frankly cultish. There was swaying and hugging and dancing, but despite all the physical activity no one made the traditional physical signs of reverence, such as kneeling or kissing the altar or genuflecting in front of the tabernacle. There were some undoubtedly meaningful gestures--holding hands and gathering around the altar--but no gesture that conveyed any understanding that what was taking place was a holy and living sacrifice.

At Parish B, in one of Boston's poorest urban neighborhoods, I volunteered to play the organ and lead a schola in chant for a Sunday evening Mass. A few loyal volunteers came and helped every Sunday, and attendance at the Mass began to increase. Most of the people in the pews indicated that they enjoyed the chant. But after a few noisy complaints were registered, the parish leadership decided that they did not want "that old music" darkening the mood of their "progressive" church.

There, in a nutshell, is a significant part of the problem. Pop-music peddlers can make $50,000 a year, filling the churches with their saccharine songs. But I can't give away the beautiful music of our Catholic heritage!

After a few experiences like this, good musicians come to realize that they are marketing their wares to priests and parish-council members who are not interested in the musical arts for which they were trained. If they hope to make a living, they learn to produce what their employers want.

Musicians with a preference for tradition must also do battle against the mighty marketing forces of publishers such as GIA Publications in Chicago and Oregon Catholic Press. These well-financed publishers flood the literature--including the magazines that they themselves publish--with articles encouraging church musicians to play their music. They issue authoritative-sounding instructions to parish music directors, telling them how they should exert an influence over the entire liturgical life of the parish--including the Scripture readings and translations, art and environment, placement of church furnishings, vestments, and so on. Magazines put out by the Liturgical Training Publications, in Chicago, actively search for loopholes in Church liturgical rules, and constantly cite the (flawed) documents of American commissions and conferences while patently ignoring the official regulations that issue from the Vatican. Most of the people who read these publications are not acquainted with the truly authoritative Church documents on liturgical practices, nor do they have the benefit of a complete range of opinions. Too many church musicians--and even pastors--simply read the available publications, and take their instructions as the law.