We're 30 years into the post-Vatican II revolution and we're still asking
ourselves the basic question that in pre-revolutionary times few even wondered
about: "Why do we go to Mass?" Some people go to commune with their fellow man.
(As for me, that's what I do on the other six days of the week.) Some go because
it makes them feel good. (But how long do the good feelings last?)
It's odd, given our vast archives of sacred music, but I never encounter
anyone who goes to Mass to hear the music, even though Sunday after Sunday for
the lion's share of the time during Mass we have the singers performing, not the
priest praying. As someone who goes to Mass to communicate with God, I, for one,
find these performances annoyingly intrusive.
I say "performance" because rarely does one hear the vast majority of the
congregation joining in -despite the frantic hand signals from the cantor or
music director. Is this because, as they say, "Catholics don't sing"? Or is it
because the music is just plain unsingable?
I would love to have been a fly on the wall when the powers responsible for
this deplorable state of affairs were deciding what the musical future of
Catholicism would sound like. It seems obvious that these people had little or
no creative talent. Hearing the results of their efforts, one is forced to
conclude that they were doing little except seeking change for the sake of
change - and hang the results.
In order to accomplish their mundane end, these folks seem to have employed
two basic techniques. In one they start with lyrics and seek some tune to
accommodate them. In the other they find some music they think appealing and
then make up lyrics to fit. Both yield results that are puerile.
As an example of the first, we have the butchery of the Lord's Prayer. Now,
this is admittedly a difficult set of words to put to music because it is not
poetic verse; its phrases don't flow rhythmically like those of a poem but kind
of wander around. It's uniform and okay from the first line down to "Forgive us
our trespasses." After that it's a composer's nightmare. You can't fit "As we
forgive those who trespass against us" into a neat musical phrase. In the
traditional rendition composed many years ago they did about as well as one
could with this tonguetwister. But the new guys have made a mess of it, and they
seemingly refuse to give up and let us sing the good old one. There are at least
five versions of the Our Father floating around nowadays: the jumpy one, the
slow, slow one, and assorted other undistinguished ones. None has beauty or
grace, but I suppose they'll keep trying until we rise in protest. I sometimes
fear that if the Lord had any idea of what was to become of His Eternal Words,
He might have kept them to Himself.
Then there are the words pasted onto preexisting music. At Mass a while back
I was shocked out of my prayerful reverie by a rendition of "Edelweiss" from the
Rodgers and Hammerstein play The Sound of Music. A young woman stood at the
podium howling, "Jeezuz Kri-ist, Jeezuz Kri-ist," la la la la la la la. I don't
recall the remainder of the words because, frankly, I kept silently repeating
the first four - a fact for which I found myself in the confessional because of
the profane inflection with which they ran through my head.
I try to visualize whence this musical abomination sprang. The guys are
sitting around trying to come up with some new songs for inclusion in what must
be an ever-expanding repertoire. One says, "Hey, how about 'Edelweiss,' that's a
nifty tune. Let's figure out how we can fit it in." The way these folks adopt as
church music any tune they find appealing, we Catolicos had better pray that no
one ever gets appointed to the music commission who thinks "You Ain't Nothin'
but a Hound Dog" might be really cool with new words, like "You Ain't Nothin'
but my Savior."
The inanity reaches its zenith when, in my parish, a young woman with a
pleasant voice that might serve well for "Happy Birthday to You," starts
warbling "Joyful, joyful, we adore Thee" to the tune of Beethoven's "Ode to
Joy." As she wobbles through the forced and synthetic lyrics, she waves her arms
at her audience (I mean the congregation), exhorting them to join in. But just
about everyone in the crowd shows more sense. We stand there with our mouths
agape, wondering how anyone could have the nerve to attempt to render this most
complex of choral works without a philharmonic orchestra, great soloists, and a
magnificent chorus - and who had the gall to replace Schiller's great lyrics
For my part, I'm embarrassed - embarrassed for the Catholic Church and the
tinny and treacly sounds with which she has chosen to announce herself to the
The glory and vitality of any organization are reflected in its creative
accomplishments. Great organizations, like great civilizations, create great
works of art. And great organizations remain great by not losing acquaintance
with the enduring greatnesses of the past. The passion of our faith has fueled
the machinery of creativity and driven it to supreme achievements. How do we
know Michelangelo believed? If he didn't, the Sistine Chapel's ceiling might
still be covered with sparkly stars on a blue ground -nice in its way - instead
of with the grand narrative of salvation history.
Analogous to the Sistine ceiling in art is the Gregorian chant in music,
expressive of the faith of the creative souls who bequeathed it to us. Original
and supremely great Catholic music is now replaced by third-rate adaptations of
music mostly shallow to begin with. The Church seems to be choosing to represent
herself to the world - and to her worried children like me - as in decline not
just artistically, but liturgically and inspirationally. The Catholic Church -
for the first time in history - seems to have gone tone-deaf.
William J. Abbott, of Oyster Bay, New York, has spent 35 years as
a writer and magazine publisher and is a long-time Catholic and long-suffering
lover of music.
Copyright © 1998 New Oxford Review. Reprinted with
permission from the New Oxford Review (1069 Kains Ave., Berkeley, CA