Primer on Restoring Liturgical Music

What is wrong with contemporary Catholic liturgical music, and why should we prefer a return to the Church's traditional forms of liturgical music?

Let us begin by recalling that the Church’s liturgy is her official public prayer. As such, it is the common patrimony of all Catholics (not the private property of one parish, priest or bishop). In the Church's liturgy, we necessarily find an expression of the faith. The Liturgical arts, like all arts, are modes of communication, in this case, meant to communicate important truths about God and how He is to be worshiped. This article and subsequent follow-ups will deal with restoring to use, one of these arts, the native musical form of the Latin Church.

We are called as Christians to be light in darkness. It is our duty to testify to the truth and work towards the spreading of the faith, in an increasingly hostile world. In order to do this we must be securely rooted in Christ and draw our strength from him. One of the ways this is accomplished is in the Liturgical prayer of the Church. It is therefore necessary to restore and build up the liturgical arts, including music. So that public prayer may faithfully express the faith to those who don’t yet hold it and reinforce it for those who do.

Artistic styles are the result of particular cultures. The so-called ‘contemporary’ style is the fruit of contemporary culture. Modern is an expression of Modernism. It is therefore important to restore, within the average parish liturgy, artistic forms which flow from uniquely Christian sources.

There is also the question of function; different types of music have different purposes. Obviously dance music has the function of facilitating dance. Opera and Broadway numbers have a theatrical function. The function of Liturgical music is to facilitate prayer. Most types of music have an entertainment function; the needs of liturgy, however, since they are ordered towards supernatural ends, cannot be met by entertainment music.

Generally speaking the musical forms used in the typical Catholic parish (in the USA) are either Protestant hymns or secular forms of entertainment music which have been adapted to church use. The second category consists of music composed in a secular style with sentimental and often vaguely religious lyrics (e.g., Haugen-Hass).

This is particularly troubling as it appears to be an attempt at entertainment rather than worship and causes the mind to be drawn to worldly things. It is also sacrilegious. The intention of people advancing these secular forms is certainly not to be sacrilegious, but to “make the liturgy relevant”. The idea is that we can communicate the faith using secular forms of art, and thus reach the non-churchy.

What they have missed is the concept of function. Some extreme examples are such things as the “Polka Mass” and “Flamenco Mass”. Polka and Flamenco are not types of art used to communicate ideas, and therefore useless to express the faith. Their function is for dance. If you were intentionally trying to make a parody of the Mass what more would you need to do? These are quite clearly sacrilegious, regardless of intention of those promoting them or how “well done” they are. They draw the mind not to Christ but to the beer garden.

The use of Protestant hymns is less of a problem provided that the texts are theologically sound. They are, however, a foreign introduction to Catholic liturgy. Hymns at Mass are always a substitution for the introit, offertory and communion antiphons, which the liturgical rubrics call for as a first preference.

The native music of the Roman liturgy is not an adaptation of some popular style. It was not brought into the liturgy from without. It has grown up with and developed as an intrinsic part of the liturgy. It has a prayer function. It is not the product of one era, or culture. It is called Gregorian chant. We have in it a musical form which flows from a thoroughly sacred source and was tailor built to express the faith within the liturgical context. Subsequent articles will define Gregorian chant, and address ways of reintroducing it to Catholic life.

By Ben