“Active participation” and the debasement of Catholic liturgical music

At Mass this weekend, something went dreadfully wrong. After the consecration, the music minister announced: “Please join us for our communion hymn, number something-something-something in your music issue, ‘Companions on the Journey.'” The title alone alarmed me, and I felt a growing tightness in my colon. It sounded… gross. Sure enough, she began to play a jazzy and upbeat tune on the piano. Then the guitarist started happily strumming along, a cheesy grin on his face. A middle-aged woman with tight brown curls stepped up to the mic, slightly hunched over, leg bouncing and foot tapping; then, it happened:

The tambourine came out.

It’s a horrible little instrument, plastic and translucent, with LEDs that light up and flash neon blue and pink when struck. Like the eyes of some Animatronic homunculus winking malevolently at me through space and time. The three music ministers earnestly jammed along, and slowly, the faithful began to sway and clap in rhythm as the line for communion formed (thank God for small miracles, this didn’t last long, though I suspect only because it’s difficult not to look like an idiot swaying and clapping while standing in line). Had this been the sending forth hymn, I wouldn’t have been surprised to watch the priest boogey his way down the aisle and out of the nave. Somewhere in Hell, the homunculus cackled at the utter, unapologetic banality of it all.

Through a Herculean exertion of will and, I suspect, a double-strength suffusion of divine grace, I managed to keep my skin from leaping off my body and running away. But my soul screamed out in reactive horror against the revoltingly profane lounge Muzak with which the real presence of Our Lord was being greeted. Who is enriched by this irredeemable swill? I thoughtWhat must go wrong for someone to genuinely prefer hippy garbage like “Companions on the Journey” to something like Casciolini’s arrangement of “Panis Angelicus”?

Part of the reason I became a Catholic was because my soul was positively thirsting for transcendental experience. But everywhere I go to Mass I am greeted with this boring, gray, puerile crap. I cannot escape it; now I dread even the sparsely-attended daily Mass. I think there is nothing more symbolic of the spiritual sickness now festering in the Church than this: if not for this, all the pained jokes during the homily, unceremonious plopping of the Eucharist into cupped hands as if it were nothing more than Skittles, and irritating, laity-led liturgical innovations like hand-holding during the Our Father, would be endurable. And even if every other irreverence and abuse in the Mass should vanish and every priest should be struck with transcendent awe and love for the liturgy of the Church, yet if this nauseating liturgical elevator music should persist, I would still mourn the Church’s descent into cultural poverty.

All this, in the name of “active participation,” something no one seemed to think was important for the entire history of the Church until about half a century ago, a thing purchased at the wholesale expense of the Church’s aesthetic and liturgical tradition. Maybe, maybe, in 1970, it was minimally plausible to think that an increase in “active participation” in the liturgy (that is, the abandonment of prayerful interiority and sacred silence) would renew the Church. 42 years later, its ruinous consequences laid bare before us, what still commends this view to people’s hearts?

What can be done? One despairs of resenting the Mass that nourishes his soul even as it torments his ears (and his heart). I can only thank God that this cross is so light, and so easily borne.

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33 thoughts on ““Active participation” and the debasement of Catholic liturgical music

  1. I think you all would appreciate Steve Bruce’s God is Dead: Secularization in the West (Wiley-Blackwell). He has a great chapter where he examines the pervasiveness of religion in pre-modern societies. One of his main examples is the Latin mass in the Middle Ages. People had such a great sense of sacredness that they did not need to even understand what was being said. They knew something transcendent was taking place and they would come for that.

    • You can still get the Latin Mass (Tridentine Mass, Extrordinary Form) today, in a form nearly unchanged since 1570 and mostly unchanged since the Middle Ages. If you haven’t been, I’d recommend that you go. You can get something of a flavour of it from Youtube, but you really have to be there.

    • Yes, it is still available, but has lost its hold on people. They don’t believe that they are witnesses to something overwhelmingly important.

      • I think the problem was that the new rite was imposed from the top down. The people didn’t desert it – it was taken away from them. It also subsequently became associated in Europe with hardline right-wing politics, though I guess you guys wouldn’t regard that as a bad thing.

  2. What is up with the rise of kitsch in religious art?

    If, as Jon Haidt suggests, lots of religious people seem to have an aversion to darkness, disgust, and dissonance, and if, as Milan Kundera opined, kitsch is the absolute denial of shit,* then is there something in the religious temperament that tends to draw religious people to praise songs, Thomas Kinkade paintings, and plaster Madonnas. Everything is too cute or too self-consciously beautiful.

    Meanwhile, secular art descends into a hole where it is about nothing except darkness, disgust, dissonance, not using them for contrast and tension like in the past, but as primary material.

    This bifurcation seems a curse on art in the modern era. Do we have no other choice but to take Thomas Kinkade or Damien Hirst?

    • The rise in kitsch is, in my opinion, because of a transformation in sensibilities. Ancient people were a lot harder, a lot more brutal, which I feel represents reality much better than modern existence. Their art therefore reflected this. Mozart’s Requiem is darkly powerful, full of awe and majesty. In the modern era, good is no longer recognized, so the superficially “good” is unjustly raised above the truly profound.

      Funnily enough, one of the last gasps of western art was heavy metal music. 99% of it is popular/rock music, but a tiny element was a reaction to modern existence and a return to Romanticism. A lot of it raged against Christianity (due to misunderstanding it as a source of decadence when it itself has become ill, when it is more rightly salvation), and its Dionysian and dissonant nature can hide its beauty from the uninitiated; but it also contains that Appolonian majesty that cuts through to the core and gives one glimpses of the transcendent.

      • “Ancient people were a lot harder, a lot more brutal, which I feel represents reality much better than modern existence.”

        I dare say it’s better for the soul. The pre-modern individual was a lot more brutal, yet the worst atrocities by peoples came in the 20th century. An angry mob would lynch an “undesirable”. But there was no such thing as turning a blind eye while the state organized the murder of 11 million of them. When a family ate meat, it was by the swing of their father’s own blade at the neck of an animal they’d raised themselves. But there was no such thing as torturing billions of animals from birth til slaughter in factory farms to provide people with cheap, shrink-wrapped meat.

      • “I dare say it’s better for the soul.”

        I agree completely, and I don’t think even many “awakened” people realize how far away they are from such an existence.

    • Isn’t it the Death of God? If you have a transcendent reference point, so a higher perspective becomes possible that includes and orders everything, that’s what you’ll want. If you don’t have that kind of reference point, and you just have whatever you have and it’s all on the same level, most normal people will go for nice pretty stuff and you’ll get kitsch. Then carping types will notice that kitsch leaves out a lot of things that matter a lot, so they’ll go for non-nice and non-pretty stuff because it seems so much more honest and serious and important. You’ll get the line of development that leads to Damian Hirst.

      So from that point of view religious art has become kitschier because artistic culture has become fundamentally irreligious.

      If you want to avoid the bifurcation I suppose you could ignore famous artists and look a couple levels down in the art world. People still have a natural attraction to what’s good, and they still find it absorbing to produce engaging patterns of one sort or another. So as long as it doesn’t have to qualify as important good art can be and is produced even today.

  3. I sympathise, and I suspect your best bet would be to find a Tridentine Mass near you – but perhaps that isn’t available?

    The “active participation” thing is much misunderstood. The term was used by Vatican II (“actuosa participatio”), but it doesn’t mean what most modern liturgists think it means – it refers primarily to interior participation rather than singing songs and the like. If you haven’t read it, I’d recommend Pius XII’s Mediator Dei, which explains how laypeople are meant to participate in the offering of Mass.

    If all else fails, as one holy priest once told me, you could give thanks to God that he has allowed you to suffer in some small way at Mass, just as Christ himself suffered.

    • I am curious about something, Reggie. I have been to your various blogs in the past and know that you hold liberal convictions. Why, then, do you have sympathy for the Tridentine Mass?

      I know many liberals who have sympathy for the beautiful things in Catholicism, but when asked about it, they have told me that the loss of such beautiful things is a small price to pay for the advance of enlightenment.

      I am interested in hearing your position.

      • I’d say there are a number of things in the Catholic Church that could stand to be liberalised, but the sacred liturgy isn’t one of them. It should be traditional, God-centred and removed from mundane life. There are some things that should be above any sort of left/right divison. I’d say the same about traditional forms of devotion like the rosary and the stations of the cross. You can’t really apply secular concepts of “enlightenment” to such things.

  4. Go to the Traditional Latin Mass, problem solved.
    Of course, many poor souls do not have access to the SSPX, FSSP or diocesan Latin masses. If so sometimes the best thing to do is to go to the earliest mass, there are often ones at around 8am on Sundays, which close to Novus Ordo week day masses. They may not be very inspiring, but at least there’s no music and you have a better chance focusing on prayer and preparation.
    In the mean time do what you can to get the TLM to your area.

  5. Sadly, the nearest Latin Mass to me is 90 minutes away — too far and boring of a drive for anything more than an occasional treat. I am considering pestering one of the parish priests in my area to offer one, though. The official diocesan policy, relayed to me by the diocesan vocations director, is that offering the TLM is “not a pastoral priority.”

    • Politically speaking, the best move might be to approach the parish priest with a group of other parishioners. I think that the current legislation provides for the TLM to be offered where there is a “stable group” of such people in a parish.

      Of course, the one thing that is guaranteed to make it a “pastoral priority” is for the SSPX to turn up in town, in which case the bishop may undertake a rapid reassessment of his priorities.

      • In my diocese, at least, the SSPX already has a mission, with Mass offered in a hotel banquet room twice a month. I suspect this motivated its decision to offer what little it does. But you’re right in principle — the one part of the country where the EF is the most offered (the diocese of Lincoln), diocesan priests lose parishioners not only to the SSPX but to the Society of St. Pius V.

      • I’ve heard of the Pius V guys, but we don’t have them here in the UK (only the SSPX, with our old friend Bishop Williamson). There are a few TLMs here in London, though perhaps not as many as you’d think.

        Are there any Eastern Catholic liturgies in your area? That could be another option.

      • They are even scarcer than the TLMs! One in the entire diocese.

        Strangely, other dioceses in the area are far friendlier to the TLM. Two neighboring dioceses gave personal parishes to the FSSP.

  6. The tambourine came out.

    Luxury. Most places these days you get that infernal djembe-played-by-white-dude.

    Over at usually reliable Msgr. Pope’s blog, I kinda got the back of his hand when I suggested that the dropping Mass attendance and vocations is at least in major part due to the utter banality and casualness of the liturgy. Many came back at me that in polls people do not cite lack of traditional liturgy or over doctrine as a reason for leaving, but that their spiritual needs are being met, and are not connecting with their fellow parishioners. I was inclined to bend a little, but then it occurred to me that your average parish has taken on the character of secular therapeutic culture, and that this manifests itself most palpably in the liturgy. And therapy might satisfy emotional needs, but it will never satisfy spiritual needs.

    I am blessed that I have a TLM less than ten minutes away and am in the process of being a regular cantor there.

  7. This has been my strategy in the past couple of places I have lived where there wasn’t access to the TLM:

    1. Find the most orthodox of the parishes in your area and join it. Get involved and become known around the parish for the first few months – become a lector, join the pro-life group, sign up for Eucharistic Adoration, volunteer to give a talk or two, something like that. Support the parish financially, and get to know the priests. Pray for them often, invite them to your home, take them out for brunch or dinner, take them to a ball game.

    2. Wear a coat and tie or suit every time you go to Mass. Receive on the tongue. Refuse to be caught in conversation while in the sanctuary before or after Mass – either pray silently or politely tell people who start talking to you that you’d be glad to talk to them outside in order to respect the Blessed Sacrament. Do all of this in a spirit of joy and charity, never like the Pharisee in Luke 18:11.

    3. After establishing yourself, find allies and other similarly-minded people among the parishioners. Pray together. Meet to discuss ways you could introduce a greater reverence in your parish and better music. Start a small group who meets weekly after Masses to pray the Liturgy of the Hours, or the Rosary. Advertise in the bulletin and you will attract more people.

    4. Next, find someone with a musical background to help you put together a small schola which will study and perform Gregorian chant. All you really need are 2-3 good male voices and someone who can help you bang out the notes on a piano. If you can’t find enough male singers, it can also work with a mix of women and men. Educate yourselves about chant – check out the many online resources available, or find a Sacred Music Colloquium to attend. If there is a university nearby, contact the music department to see if they have anyone who could help.

    5. Find some regular time when you can perform the chant you have learned in a liturgical or prayerful context. Some ideas:
    – Use small amounts of chant at the start and end of your prayer meetings
    – Learn some of the chant for the Liturgy of the Hours and incorporate it
    – Pick one hour of your parish’s Adoration schedule and perform Eucharistic hymns and chants. Advertise this hour in the bulletin and invite people to come and listen.

    6. Eventually, get your group together and make a formal proposal to the pastor that your group be allowed to take care of the music for an occasional Mass. Try to find small, simple ways to get started. Some ideas:
    – During Lent, sing the Introits as a prelude before Masses, or instead of the Processional Hymn.
    – Learn the sequences for Easter, Pentecost, and Corpus Christi and offer to chant them on those days. Put the Latin w/ English translation in the bulletin or the music aide sheet so people can read along.
    – Pick one day of the week to chant at a daily mass.
    – Eventually, ask to take over the music for one of the weekend masses – (often one of the earlier Sunday masses works well for this, if they have a 7:30 or 8:00 AM, something like that).

    The first three steps can be done by anyone, regardless of musical ability or background, and will often bear surprising fruits. The second three steps are harder to pull off, to be sure, but well worth the attempt.

    • After establishing yourself, find allies and other similarly-minded people among the parishioners.

      I remember P.J. O’Rourke commenting that one of the joys of being right-wing was writing the Enemies List. To that I would add: forming the cabal! :)

      But seriously, these are good ideas that I can attest to. I helped form a schola and while the regular choir was out for the season, we offered to fill in for Mass.

      Through a series of serendipitous circumstances, we ended up becoming the official choir. I moved since then and I fear it’s all been wrecked, but it is possible.

    • Great plan. Although I much prefer the TLM, moving towards a reverent OF is a really good intermediate goal. At the second-to-last parish I was at, we went almost immediately from step 4 to step 6, starting with two of us singing only the Communion antiphon / psalm verse (using the resources at http://musicasacra.com/communio/#communio) for a Sunday Mass once a month, but it expanded from there within a few months. One of the good things about the OF Mass is that you CAN introduce the chant slowly, a bit at a time, and small doses of plainchant is way more appealing than Low Mass.

  8. I thought I was the only one with these sentiments. Over the past year my church has veered more to feel-good-have-an-emotional-high liturgy versus the traditional hymns they would typically use.

    In other churches which don’t use TLM, the liturgy is only sung by a formal choir where we cannot see them. They’re usually on the balcony floor and the hymns are traditional, but beautifully sung which lends to a transcendental experience.

    This debasement always starts at a smaller, more manageable level. I see this debasement as a form of immodesty and disrespectful to the holy space. First it starts with physical immodesty– women refusing to dress appropriately, men wearing shorts, no headcoverings on any female in the church– and it slowly creeps its way to this.

    I could elaborate on my already jaded views on this but I’ll refrain.

  9. I love reading these posts here; they make me feel I am an optimist.

    Proph, I have to say: masses are getting better, even NO. Ten years ago, you would have puked. Now, in my parish, there is more emphasis on eucharistic adoration, confession, and on the 10:30 “HIgh Mass”, they even use incense. Another thing that I have noticed is more emphasis in the veneration to Our Lady. A few years ago, that was unheard of. Summorum Pontificum is having its effect not only through the availability of the TLM, but in the improvement of the NO mass.
    My take is that we are slowly moving back to a mass that resembles more the old TLM, but it will take years. This is like moving an aircraft carrier with oars.
    Just remember, regardless of the lack of respect that others may show to the Eucharist, you do, and it is still being given to you freely.

    • Yes. Dr. Ed Peters sometimes reminds us that us kids have it easy and recalls the days of banners made out of burlap and felt and liturgy, music and interior design to match.

  10. Pingback: Losing our religion II: A Mass to our liking | The Orthosphere

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