Hymns vs Contemporary: Bringing Peace to the Musical Style Wars

Forming a Musical Repertoire for Mass

Musical style for Mass always seems to be a tension in our parishes and dioceses. Many Catholics come to Mass with an expectation of a particular style, disappointed if their expectations are not met. Some even avoid certain Masses or churches based on their musical preferences. While there's nothing wrong with having a musical preference, it's a problem when the preference becomes a distraction from fully entering into Mass. Of course I understand being upset at liturgical abuse or terrible quality of music, but we should not let preferences get in the way of God and His graces from the Mass. 

Music ministers have the ability to teach their congregation to pray the Mass by the way they select, arrange, and play/sing for the Mass. Music should be selected with two areas of focus: 1) What will lead the congregation in prayer now? and 2) What will form the congregation for the future? A well-crafted music repertoire with a balance of both can teach a congregation to be free of the "style wars" and instead help them focus on uniting their hearts with God at Mass. Then music will be able to function as it should, with its purpose being "the glory of God and the sanctification of the faithful." (SC 112)

Before diving in, I should point out this blog focuses on the Propers of the Mass (Entrance, Communion, etc.), which is music that isn't even the most important for the Mass. For more on that, read my blog on What Should We Sing at Mass?

Don't Worry About What Has Always Been Done

The first step is to set aside what we've always done.  If we only play what we've always played, our liturgies will always sound like the year we decided to play what we've always played. We see this in many (if not most) churches around the US. Some churches sound like 1950, some sound like 1980, some even sound like 2010. Until music ministers courageously try something they haven't tried, they will remain frozen.  What's wrong with this? Pope Benedict says in "A New Song for the Lord" that it limits our ability to encounter Christ Himself, who is "yesterday, today, and forever".

The first encounter with Jesus Christ occurs in the present...but to ensure that I get close to the whole Christ and not just a piece of him perceived by chance, I must heed the Christ of yesterday as he reveals himself in the sources, especially in Scripture. If, in the process, I listen to him carefully and do not excise essential parts of his appearance because of a dogmatically asserted worldview, I see him open to the future and I see him coming from eternity, which embraces the past, the present, and the future, all at once.

We need this approach to our music and the Liturgy.  Through the liturgy, Christ meets us in our present time and lifts us into His time, which is the past, present, future, and all of eternity.  If our liturgies sound like a certain time period, we should ask ourselves if we're limiting our encounter with Christ to Christ-existing-in-a-certain-time-period.  When I was a university campus minister, I saw students come to our campus ministry expecting whatever "style" of liturgy they grew up with, whether it was contemporary music, "Breaking Bread"/"Gather", or hymns. When that expectation wasn't met, many looked elsewhere for the "Christ they knew", whether it was another church, denomination, or something other than religion. Music in the liturgy has a role in forming our image and relationship with Jesus Christ. 

Build a Strong Foundation

The musical tradition of the universal Church is a treasure of inestimable value, greater even than that of any other art. - SC 112

The next step in our liturgies is to create a foundation of Catholic music that is prayed all over the world. Why? The word "Catholic" means "universal", so we need cornerstone pieces of music that are truly universal, meaning they stand the test of time and change in culture. There is something so powerful when people gather from all over the world and are able to sing and pray together in a common language. I experienced this in Rome being able to sing the Ordinary of the Mass in Latin, and many experience this at events like World Youth Day. Every generation has their own music, but our gift to the next generation is maintaining this foundation. We should learn how to pray this music.

The antiphons are texts, usually scripture, that are prescribed in the Roman Missal for the entrance, offertory, and communion processions. They are optional, but they provide foundational texts for us to center our hearts in prayer for each liturgy. Find ways to chant or sing the antiphons, since they are texts the Church has given that will continue to stand the test of time. The Lumen Christi Simple Gradual is a simple way to pray these texts.

As a starting point for hymns, here's a list of top Catholic hymns. Don't be afraid of chant. The document on liturgy from Vatican II (Sacrosanctum Concilium) states that Gregorian chant should have "pride of place" in our liturgies. Why? Chant is a music style created specifically for the Mass that does not have a time signature or tempo - it is outside of time itself. It focuses on the Word Himself and lifts us into His time, the eternal. Take your time with Latin, and use English translations first to teach how to pray the song. An example of this is my English arrangement of Adoro te Devote on my Arrangements page. After using the English a few times, then start to teach the Latin version. When using Latin, always provide vernacular translations. Never use a hymn just to use a hymn, use it for the prayer it leads. Also remember that singing a song in Latin doesn't make you more holy, only God makes us holy. Use Latin to enable your congregation to join with all of the earth in singing praise to God.

A final note, I have a preference for hymns that are Catholic in origin. If we're going to build a Catholic foundation, why not make sure it's Catholic? Some Protestant hymns we commonly think are Catholic include: Holy Holy Holy, How Great Thou Art, Praise to the Lord the Almighty, Nothing But the Blood, Amazing Grace, etc. There's nothing wrong with these Protestant hymns as long as they're in line with Catholic teaching, but it's important to know where our music comes from and to place a priority on Catholic music for our foundation.

Constantly Renew

Composers, filled with the Christian spirit, should feel that their vocation is to cultivate sacred music and increase its store of treasures. - SC 121

The final step is to continually ask how we can create a better repertoire of music for our Masses. The moment we stop asking the question is the moment our parish becomes frozen in time. What's wrong our current repertoire? Potentially nothing right now, but there are always new liturgical compositions that can spiritually shake us awake and lead us in prayer in new ways. In addition, the pastoral needs of every church change with time, so we need to be constantly adapting our music so it will lead our congregation to unite themselves with Christ. We can't just say, "This is our music. Accept it." That's not a pastoral approach. The word "pastor" means to walk to the lost and lead them to a destination. It requires both actions of reaching out and leading to the goal, which is encountering and growing closer to Christ Himself. We need to create music that our congregation will receive, stir them to prayer, and through it lead them to know and love God more. This is what Sacrosanctum Concilium had in mind:

In certain parts of the world, especially mission lands, there are peoples who have their own musical traditions, and these play a great part in their religious and social life. For this reason due importance is to be attached to their music, and a suitable place is to be given to it, not only in forming their attitude toward religion, but also in adapting worship to their native genius - SC 119

Adapting worship does not mean putting religious lyrics on a secular song. In order for any type of cultural music to be suitable for Mass, it has to become sacred. Sanctification involves the process of purging from worldly elements. So in order to adapt cultural music for the Mass, we have to identify the worldly elements that distract us from prayer and turn the focus on the musicians. The remaining elements we can use for the Mass are those that are beautiful, help us focus on the text, and encourage us to lift up the prayer to God.

Forming a repertoire that balances both the treasury of sacred music and constant renewal is challenging, especially since change is always difficult. As musicians, we need to start thinking about where we envision our parish in 5, 10, even 50 years from now and work toward that with patience and under the guidance of the Holy Spirit. Let's allow the Spirit to renew our hearts and be our strength so we can serve our parishes.