Why We Need Better Music At Mass

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“This experiment we’ve been on for the last half-century has been one in which we’ve been chasing cultural relevance only to drive our Church into a deeper state of cultural irrelevance.”

Watch Brian Holdsworth’s video commentary on why need better music at Mass.

Transcript:

It’s an amazing fact that we can carry on with the day to day affairs of our lives without giving a second thought to the immensity of our universe and the incomprehensible forces that explode and contract within it.

The known universe is characterized by neutron stars, black holes, supernovas, rogue asteroids, and even within our own solar system, there are forces that produce a sense of terror and awe just to think about: like the fact that there is a cyclone on Jupiter bigger than our planet.

Carl Sagan famously described our planet as a pale blue dot based on the photo of the same name taken from deep space which provides a sense of the scale of our own world which consumes all of our attention, but in the grand scheme appears to be floating helplessly in the vastness of space.

As a Catholic Christian, I’m someone who believes that this immense, awe-inspiring system of systems with forces that can produce existential dread in the most resolute members of our species was created by a mind – the source and ground of all being, who is the logos, who is God.

But it doesn’t stop there. The one who spoke all that in to existence also invaded creation through the incarnation of Jesus Christ – a human person who said and did things that have an unmistakable confounding but simultaneously beautiful quality.

He is the focal point at which the transcendent eternal source of everything that is became available to our senses. He is the moment at which heaven collides with that pale blue dot.

And just before he was arrested and crucified, he gave us a formula and a format that would provide for the continual manifestation of this collision of heaven and earth. He gave us his body, blood, soul, and divinity; his incarnation, in the form of bread and wine consecrated on the altar of every mass celebrated every day throughout the world.

And if you had never been to a Catholic Mass, with all of that context in mind, you might think, if that’s true, it must be an incredibly powerful and epic moment to witness and the Church expects us to believe that it is true, while simultaneously garnishing that moment with music like The King of Glory.

Why do we do this? Think about what we’re asking people to believe and then consider how we present it to them and then we ask ourselves why people don’t believe and why the faith is in such dramatic decline in regions where this is common practice.

And of course, this hasn’t always been the case. There have been profound periods where artistic and cultural expression found their stride in the context of the mass and we can still get glimpses of it, especially in the way our Eastern Orthodox brother and sisters practice their liturgy. You can’t watch or participate in that without thinking that the gravity of this moment is significant.

Where I live, most Catholic masses seem to be doing everything they can to diminish and trivialize the gravity of that moment. To be totally honest, I’d rather there be silence rather than some of the attempts we make to improve upon the profound way that Jesus appears to us.

I don’t blame musicians and worship leaders because the problem is a lot bigger than that. I myself have been tapped to lead music at mass and if I had to do it tomorrow, I’d be playing my guitar singing the only songs that are recognized and available in the hymnals in our pews.

The solution to this problem needs to come from the top down. We need our bishops and priests to lead us into a better understanding of what is appropriate for our liturgy. We need to stop supporting publishers who push this kind of thing, exclusively.

The Church needs to reclaim a sense of patronage of good music and art made by sincere, faithful, Catholics who appreciate the subject matter that they are communicating. And I’m not trying to say, we need to go back to the way things were or only use a particular style or particular instrument. This isn’t about liberals vs. conservatives. This is about good and appropriate art and liturgy vs. bad art and liturgy.

This experiment we’ve been on for the last half-century has been one in which we’ve been chasing cultural relevance only to drive our Church into a deeper state of cultural irrelevance. Trying to fit in isn’t the way to be cool. Doing something entirely unique and set apart from everything else is how you capture people’s interest. It seems like the Church used to understand that and has forgotten it. Let’s do what we can now, to reclaim it.

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Comments

21 COMMENTS

  1. Completely agreed. The music the Church used for centuries worked for many reasons – both musical (scale/mode/structure) and practical (accessible without requiring advanced musicianship). It was designed to be part of the liturgy rather than musician-driven or culturally-based. Instrumentation was also practical and chosen for best-suitability to reverence rather than culturally motivated. The mass stands apart from the world around us, and so should the music. The Church had its own standard and style of music that the world recognized, but never adopted as its own, as with most every other style of music. Sometimes the past really is the best teacher. Not everything that is new is better by virtue of being different. The half century attempt to make the Mass more “culturally relevant” has also undermined part of what made it unique and other-worldly. As a professional composer and convert, as time allows, I am working on new music that draws on musical concepts that worked for centuries, and what can work today (even if only to introduce applicable leaders to the potential as there is a process for how music is selected and approved for actual use). I too would prefer silence and spoken responses/liturgical elements to the 70s-90s era “hymns” we seem stuck with for now.

  2. Great article! I read this just after having heard the Magnificat of Arvo Part on a youtube video, and this just totally fits.

  3. Agreed. A great article and very true. I am a high school teacher, teaching Religious Studies in a secular school in Wales. I recently showed my year 8 class (12-13y
    years old) a clip of a solemn mass. They were fascinated by the beauty of the mass, the gestures, incense, bells etc. I then showed them an Orthodox service. Again they were captivated by the beauty of the liturgy. I then showed them a modern hymn (a ‘happy-clappy’ type) and one of them shouted out “that’s cringy!”

    It seems to me that we should stick to time-honoured worship to win new Catholics and not try to pander to the modern trends.

  4. I disagree. I think there is room in the Mass for all sorts of musical expression. The music does not always have to be solemn and “arty” to speak to the hearts of the congregation. I have sung in church choirs since well before Vatican II, and have been exposed to church music from classical to folk, Latin, English, some Spanish. I enjoy it all and, for the most part, have felt a connection to God and the Mass in the singing of it.

    • I’m with you. Some of the songs we do for Life Teen are the most profound and dramatic things I’ve ever heard – or felt. We do not pick dumb, sappy songs to sing out of our hymnals modern either – we pick things that go with the liturgy and the Scripture and express its passions.

  5. I do love a Solemn Mass but realize that it is not for everyone. My one concern is that music, traditional or modern, should be appropriate for the part of the Mass in which it takes place. Just any old music doesn’t encourage thoughtful participation, however pleasant it may be out of context. For example, something too loud and upbeat doesn’t fit during the time when we receive, and return from Communion. Those times when it is just right, truly enhance worship and bring us into a deeper awareness of what we are part of, inspiring reverence. I am fortunate to belong to a church with 3 separate choirs and for the most part they do a fantastic job. I do believe that Christmas and Easter are times when new masses and new hymns should be avoided, in order for “C and E”” Catholics to feel comfortable and perhaps be encouraged to come to church the rest of the year!

  6. It is not only the music within the Catholic Mass that is amiss it is the entire liturgy itself that has been done away with since 1964. I did not realize how bad it was until two years ago I found the Holy Catholic Church again within the Traditional Latin Mass. You must attend a Mass like this to understand the liturgy and the music, both very, very reverent. And the priest is knowledgeable of his Faith and the true rites given to us by God to St. Peter and handed down and then fell apart in the 60’s shameful. By the way, get a before 1962 Missal, and use that to follow the Mass, you will then understand what I am saying. and they use square notes…I was in the choir for a short time…

  7. TO SOUND CORNY, THE “PROOF IS IN THE PUDDING”. PRE-VATICAN II, THE MASS AND MUSIC WERE “HOLY” AND THE CHURCH PEWS WERE FULL! TODAY THE PEWS ARE HALF EMPTY AND THE MUSIC IS ANYTHING BUT HOLY. THE HOMILY OF THE MODERN DAY PRIEST NEVER, BUT NEVER REFERS TO “SIN”. WHAT ABOUT REVERENCE WHEN RECEIVING HOLY COMMUNION – GONE. WE SELDOM GET ON OUR KNEES ANYMORE, NOT EVEN AT COMMUNION. I HOPE WE GET SOME CHURCH LEADERS WHO CAN BRING FAITH, HOPE AND LOVE BACK TO THE MASS.

  8. Thank you for so delicately addressing the cringeworthy music I hear at some parishes. It is distracting with drums and cymbals crashing and the sappy lyrics that make me embarrassed at times. We have lost reverence as we sit clapping in our shorts and flip flops chewing gum and swigging from our water bottles. This is solemn worship and should be treated as such. Thanks for the courageous call back to tradition and the beauty of a reverent and soul-moving meeting with God.

  9. I agree! A couple of years ago, our Deacon gave a thoughtful homily on why our liturgical music should be SACRED music, the kind of music heard only in church, a music that transcends the secular world. Thank you for hitting the nail (tuning fork?) on the head!

  10. The Holy Spirit, speaking through the second Vatican council, said that the people should actively participate in the mass. This idea wasn’t new, however. In the 19th century Pius X promoted Gregorian chant as a simple way people could participate.
    I read a book called “Papal Legislation of Music”. One interesting fact was that throughout the history of the Church, the authorities pleaded for music to be simple and accessible and, for the most part they were ignored by the local churches. From the long rhythmic melismas of the 12th century to the sophisticated polyphony of the renaissance to the florid operatic styles of the later centuries, people have been entertained by the talents of composers and performers. But there are composers and musicians (see Mr. Kozlowski’s link above) who are making music that creates a sense of sacred awe, which can be sung by ordinary people participating in the mass.

  11. I googled the board of directors for the publisher of our parish worship book. Not one member was a cleric. I actually dread attending our Sunday Mass whose music leaves no time for meaningful meditation. Our Music Director actually keeps stats on participation at all Masses which is published in our bulletin. Her survey evens references the songs sung just in case someone walks out of church humming a hymn sung and forgot the title. Really? Look at our parish demographic. Mostly white hairs who long for those beautiful hymns of yesteryear. And guess what – – we are still attending Mass. Thank goodness my Catholic faith is not dependent on the Music presented. And, imagine not singing one hymn to our Blessed Mother in May. Our empty church’s speak for themselves.

  12. Put the liturgy back into choir singing, solemnity is so important to singing at mass, happy clappy music is too distracting

  13. I think the place to start is to take away all the silly songs about “us” and what “we” are and instead choose songs which focus our attention on our Lord. Some of the newer songs are quite good. It’s the modern focus on ourselves instead of Him that I believe is the root of the problem.

  14. There is a saying, coined in the 4th century, that captures the problem and the solution. Lex Orandi, lex credendi, lex vivendi, simply put means,the way we worship, is the way we believe, is the way we live. It all starts with proper worship. Why is it that people want the theology of st Thomas, st Gregory, st Augustine but we do not want the hymns and chant they wrote to express their belief? Music used in the liturgy is Sacred because it is used for a sacred purpose. Thus it should be set apart from cultural norms just as a priest is set apart. The music of the liturgy should be unique just as the architecture and vessels of the church are unique and set apart for a specific purpose. These things literally take us to heaven, why profane them with fickle cultural norms. The introduction of secular instruments and ‘pop’ melodies is result of the protestantization of Catholicism and should be rejected. If you are wondering why people have lost faith, I say it is because we have profaned me mass in every way that we experience it. This has resulted in a loss of belief that the mass is anything special. Fix the mass and how we worship and experience it, you fix the church. Fix the church and you fix the world.
    In my experience the Byzantine liturgy and the Latin mass best preserve the essence of our Divine Liturgy in the post Vatican 2 era because they preserved the form and sensory aspects of the worship of our ancestors. Go to them.

  15. It would help if the church hadn’t thrown in show off words like transubstantiation, which just doesn’t scan into verse, and given in to pressure to use “people” in place of “man”. The liturgy that we had was beautiful before. Recent changes haven’t done anything useful, and in some cases, make no sense. “Lord I am not worthy that you should enter under my roof” begs the question, “what roof, the roof of my mouth?”. The church took half the words from a real life story and the other half from it’s extended teaching for us and ended up with something garbled. It took forever, probably cost a fortune, and this is the best that the brightest in the Vatican could come up with? Very disappointing.

  16. I have to agree with this article & Michael Fakult among some others here. It’s not about how we feel about the music but what the Mass represents. It’s the sacrifice of Christ’s life for each of us. It should be met with the most reverent & respectful music to reflect the pain & agony Our Lord endured for us. This sacrifice doesn’t change because culture or society has changed but the solemnity of Christ’s passion remains the same. All too many want to dumb-down what the Mass stands for. It’s way past time to reflect the true meaning of the Mass, to adore & glorify Our God for suffering for us.

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