Music Ministry: Performance or Prayer

Hopefully most Catholics know and understand that The Mass is the ultimate prayer that we can offer to our Lord Jesus Christ. It includes the major components of prayer: Praise, Confession, Thanksgiving, and Petition.

As mentioned in numerous articles here at Catholic Stand, many of the sacred rituals and practices that emphasized the prayer of the Catholic Mass have been watered down, and even lost with the diverse interpretations and implementations of Vatican II. One of the most egregious attacks on the prayer of the Mass has been the influence of the laity and non-Catholics on the music now heard from sea to shining sea.

Choirs and Choir Lofts

Prior to Vatican II, the singing at Mass originated from on high – high in the choir loft, almost always behind the congregation, by angelic voices that blended together as a choir and typically a pipe organ.

While a few churches have been able to maintain a choir for some Masses, most music lofts have been abandoned. Today, the overwhelming majority of musicians and singers alike are now stationed at the front of the church, alongside the altar. So, while Tabernacles have been moved from the front of some churches, they have been replaced by musicians.

It is one thing to invite members of the congregation to become involved in the Mass. It is another to turn musicians into the focus of the Mass.

Goodbye Organs, Hello Guitars

When older Catholic parish churches pushed the musicians out of the balcony to the altar, it was not possible to relocate the big and beautiful pipe organs. This literally opened the door for grand pianos, guitars, and a host of other instruments, including trumpets, drums, flutes and keyboards. The transition was made easier by the fact that the organs were expensive to maintain. Plus, there were not a whole lot of trained organists. But, it was easy to find “trained musicians” willing to volunteer and share their time and talent…and they even provided their own instruments.

The process was easier and became practically required at new parishes. In many churches built after Vatican II, one way to save costs was to delete the balcony and huge organ from the building plans. The altar was simply expanded to include a place for the other “stars” of the Mass.

With all of the musical accompanists, there wasn’t a whole lot of room for choir members. The result? Cantors.

Another result has been 40+ years of talent shows and American Idol competitions every weekend at almost every parish across the United States. As many can attest, it has not been pretty to listen to on many occasions. (Full disclosure/confession: My family was sucked into the competition too.)

From Traditional Hymns to OCP (Hass, Haugen, Hurd, Schutte and others)

A side effect of reducing the use of pipe organs and the introduction of music groups (church bands) to the Catholic Mass was the introduction of new music. Virtually all of the traditional hymns and solemn music was written for the organ. Now, with new instruments leading the groups, they needed music.

Since many of the traditional music did not “sound the same” when it was played on instruments other than an organ, new songs were written. As with most musical arrangements, there needed to be parts (musical scores) for multiple instruments so that everyone could participate.

These new songs, written and published by very talented individuals, however, have not often enhanced the prayerful experience and purpose of the Mass. In many cases, they became the entertainment to “break up the monotony” of the Mass, or to fill the quiet time that was originally intended to be reflective to allow individual prayers within the framework of the community prayer.

Through no fault of their own, many of the music writers are not familiar with the Catholic Mass. The result has been in some cases slight, in others dramatic. Musical lyrics have shifted from praising and thanking God, or requesting His mercy, to a more human self-centeredness. To put it in today’s’ terms: it is “all about me/us” instead of about God.

This may not be entirely fair, but these song titles which we hear regularly illustrate this perception: We Are Called; Gather Us In; Here I Am Lord, Shelter Me, O God; We Will Rise Again; God Has Chosen Me.

While I realize that many of these songs are written based upon scripture, they are often interpreted in a different context when placed into musical pieces. For instance, “Here I Am, Lord” is sung like we are jumping up and down with our hands in the air screaming for the Lord to notice us so that He can put us to work for Him.

The reality is that this passage is stated numerous times in the Bible as a response to the Lord’s personal calling to an individual (i.e. Abraham, Moses, etc.). This song reverses the roles, and instead we are calling to God. He knows we are here. He is constantly awaiting our response to follow His call to act and obey accordingly. This could be a very powerful song if it were written in the proper context, and sung humbly and solemnly.

Some songs are just downright wrong when it comes to Catholic beliefs. The lyrics are inconsistent with our Faith and serve to undermine the teachings of the Church. How these make it into Catholic Hymnals is beyond comprehension. Take, for instance, the communion song Bread, Blessed and Broken which contains this wording “Bread, blessed and broken for us all, symbol of your love…”

This exacerbates one of the most misunderstood tenets of the Catholic Faith. How much time do we spend teaching and explaining to our children, Catholics, and non-Catholics the fact Catholics believe that the Bread and Wine are not symbols, but are transformed into the Body and Blood of Christ during the Mass? Yet this song is often sung during communion. I just don’t understand.

The real shame in all of this is the fact that the sanctity of the Mass has – and continues to be – diminished by these weekly music concerts and performances. While I will admit that in some cases it has resulted in a more lively worship service with significant congregational participation, the purpose of the Mass is not for entertainment. We are supposed to be there to pray as a community…not play karaoke with the band.

© 2013 Greg Yoko All rights reserved.