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Dear Denys: It’s Not OK if I Don’t Like Latin Chant, Right?

(The proper entrance chant for the First Sunday of Advent. What did you hear in your parish this past Sunday?)

Dear Denys,

Well, it’s Advent season again, and you know what that means: my pastor is rolling out the Gregorian chant at Sunday Masses, and explaining to us that, while it’s only temporary, this is a penitential season, and we could all use a good downer. He jokes every year that this can be mortification for our sins. But as you’ve explained before, Latin plainchant is the music proper to the Catholic Mass. It can’t be right for a Catholic not to like what is proper; at best, if Latin or chant or both make me uncomfortable, then the problem is with ME; in the true spirit of transformation in Christ, I need to humble myself and with His help learn to appreciate it—first and foremost for reasons of what is worthy and just in worship. Aesthetic reasons can wait.

I know I need to grow in this area—I just wish some clergy were a little more helpful and encouraging. My pastor makes it sound as if he expects me not to like Latin chant, that it’s OK not to like it, that as long as I don’t complain to him about it he doesn’t care what I think.

Trying Dear Trying:

Everything about Gregorian chant is difficult—for some it can be difficult to hear even when sung well, it is extremely difficult to sing well, and most excruciatingly difficult by far is listening to it when it is NOT sung well. Your pastor is to be praised and affirmed as much as possible for having the vision to give the parish at least a partial glimpse of what tradition has long held, and what Vatican II also affirmed, to be worthy and right in Catholic worship. Go out of your way to thank him for the chant this Advent season.

But it does sound like a rather mixed message you’re getting. Maybe your pastor is a little skittish from previous attacks by uppity laity who throw a nutty about anything remotely resembling “tradition”, like Communion under one species, or putting the drums in the choir loft instead of front and center. I’ve heard of such things happening, even in parishes known for their robust orthodoxy. Just remember that being a parish priest or pastor in the postmodern, customer-is-always-right world of the affluent West is difficult for more reasons than most of us can imagine.

It is also the case that American Catholicism is still wrestling with the legacy of a very old, very ingrained habit of thought among faithful clergy and laity alike: that obedience is the ONLY virtue of the Catholic, that people should not be expected to understand what is good or true or beautiful, and indeed they CANNOT be expected to know or love it. “You don’t have to like it—you just have to DO it!” seems to have been the operative principle behind much of traditional American Catholicism, which seems to have been formed in part by the cast of mind that IRISH Catholics brought with them to this country. (Thomas Day’s funny little book Why Catholics Can’t Sing sheds some light on other legacies of the Irish-American-Catholic mind.)

Of course, obedience is better than disobedience. But…

There are numerous problems that can arise in a culture that overvalues obedience at the expense of understanding and love. One problem is positivism, the view that all that matters is LAW, that as long as a priest or a bishop or a Curial document says it’s OK, or that at least as long as it’s not expressly FORBIDDEN, then, as the kids like to say, it’s all good, go for it. The concomitant belief is that the legal authority of a pope or a synod or a council is sufficient to change ANY law at any time.

The late Fr. Richard John Neuhaus once dramatized the unfortunate consequences of this kind of Catholic positivism when he told of an over-zealous bishop who once opined, “If the pope said tomorrow that two plus two equals five, I’d believe him!” (Neuhaus commended a different response: “Perhaps I have misunderstood His Holiness.”) Such an odd view of what truth is and what makes truth true bears a strange kinship with the expectations of those poor souls who expected Pope Paul VI to reverse Church teaching on contraception in 1968, or those shrill commentators who created the recent story that Pope Benedict had done a “dramatic about-face” on something or other. It can’t happen—any more than God can contradict God, or do evil.

Obedience is always difficult, and it is indeed a virtue—but it becomes easier when we can come to learn WHY what is good demands not just obedience, but also love—and what is done out of love transcends obedience. Dilige et quod vis fac, wrote St. Augustine—Love, and do what you will, for if your love is for the right things, you will do the good.

So remember: Gregorian chant is, in a sense, the LAW of the Church’s worship—but it is part of the Church’s law because it is good, and not the other way around. If you happen to come to appreciate it more this Advent, delight in seeking another form of penance.

And remember to encourage, thank, and pray for your pastor. Consider getting him an Advent gift as well.

DPJ

18 comments | Add one of your own.

  1. Redcat

    I sang the chant propers at my parish this past weekend and at all weekends since I joined my parish during the summer. It’s not “punishment”, “mortification”, or just for two seasons during the liturgical year, it’s the correct music for Holy Mass. All Catholics should be able to sing the ordinary in Latin or English chant at each Mass each weekend. Add in traditional hymns (not cocktail style songs with religious words) and you have a greatly improved Novus Ordo Mass.

    Reply

    1. Denys

      Redcat, your parish sounds very unique indeed. What a wonderful blessing for the faithful to have the proper liturgical texts and music sung at EVERY Sunday Mass throughout the entire year, instead of the customary substitutions.

      Gregorian chant isn’t supposed to be “seasonal”–it is ORDINARY, normative, the standard.

      Reply

  2. David B. Monier-Williams

    I was brought up and educated by the English Benedictines. Latin Mass was de rigeur. Now, experiencing the Charismatic Mass at the Casa, I feel much more a part of the Mass. What to me in an abomination is the Mass on EWTN. It is neither fish nor fowl… It’s a complete mish mosh, part English, part Latin. It offends both my ears and my Spirituality.

    Reply

    1. Denys

      Hmm, David–you have expressed some pretty strong opinions, and you’ve even used the loaded word “abomination”–while invoking highly subjective, personal-preference criteria of judgment.

      Would you be willing to dig any deeper for us?

      It’s one thing to complain about a celebration of the liturgy that “offends my ears”…I have pretty elevated aesthetic standards myself, and it would be easy to object to a priest’s accent or inflections, a lay lector’s tone, the tinny sound of a cheap organ, the blasting volume level of an amplified choir…but the world we live in is a material and often very humble world–not every church can be the Sistine, not every choir the Tallis Scholars. Worship isn’t about me or my strong feelings when confronted with certain aesthetic stimuli.

      What exactly is it about the EWTN TV Masses that “offends (your) spirituality”? Is there anything about it that is contrary to particular Church law? And not to sound too positivistic here, is there anything about it that you find contrary to the Church’s general principles of right worship?

      A reading of Vatican II’s “Sacrosanctum Concilium” document on the Sacred Liturgy might suggest that the “neither fish nor fowl” liturgy, with Latin and some vernacular, was exactly what the Council Fathers had in mind.

      Any thoughts?

      Reply

  3. Danica

    Great article, Denys!

    I find that distractions abound for me in the Novus Ordo Mass music selection, which I am sure has something to do with the pickiness of my ears. I internally cringe when the liturgist improvises harmony with lots of “yeah-ah”s and “oo-oooh”s, or when the guy with the tambourine travels into another time signature (or dimension!).

    Chant eliminates this for me because, when sung properly, it projects itself as one voice. There is no pretension, no thinly veiled war of the soprano singers to see who can out-Mariah the other. It is deep and pure and focuses me forward, toward the tabernacle.

    My mother listened to Gregorian chant in our home when I was young, so perhaps that developed my taste for it. I certainly never heard it in church until I began attending Latin Mass.

    This comes from a former Life Teen band (ahem, “choir”) drummer who used to seek out any opportunity for Beach Boy-esque solos :)

    Reply

    1. Denys

      Danica’s mom: coolest ever.

      Denys’ mother (the “Jones” in Powlett-Jones) was more of a Michael Bolton fan.

      Reply

  4. Bette

    Denys,
    Are you slamming the Irish?

    Just kidding! I really appreciate your article, it is both timely and relevant. Thanks.

    Reply

    1. Denys

      Hey, Bette–it’s all in the family, as I am very Irish on my Dad’s side. (That would be the “Powlett” in Powlett-Jones. I know it sounds Welsh. Trust me.)

      As Samuel Johnson is reported to have said:

      “The Irish are an honest race–they always speak ill of each other.”

      Reply

  5. David B. Monier-Williams

    What the Church fathers had in mind is not what we’ve gotten. We have Mass in vernacular or sparingly in Latin.

    I enjoy the Latin Mass, however, with the Priest facing me as in San Pietro. Otherwise there is a big disconnect—a disassociation. This disassociation was always there in the old days allowing the old biddies to pray the Rosary. This was the Mass for the individual.

    The current Masses is for the masses in other words for the community. Hence, the holding hands at the Our Father and shaking of hands at the “Kiss of Peace.”

    I reiterate, EWTN is neither fish fowl or good red herring. It’s part in English part in Latin. Make up your mind. I’m a purist. It’s offensive.

    Reply

    1. Cordelia

      David, regarding the “Masses for the masses” you have to read the following quote written by Ratzinger in the foreward to a wonderfully illustrative book on the question of “ad orientem” worship, Fr. Uwe Michael Lang’s “Turning Towards the Lord, Orientation in Liturgical Prayer”:

      “The Innsbruck liturgist Josef Andreas Jungmann, one of the architects of the Council’s Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy, was from the, very beginning resolutely opposed to the polemical catchphrase that previously the priest celebrated ‘with his back to the people’; he emphasised that what was at issue was not the priest turning away from the people, but, on the contrary, his facing the same direction as the people. The Liturgy of the Word has the character of proclamation and dialogue, to which address and response can rightly belong. But in the Liturgy of the Eucharist the priest leads the people in prayer and is turned, together with the people, towards the Lord. For this reason, Jungmann argued, the common direction of priest and people is intrinsically fitting and proper to the liturgical action. Louis Bouyer (like Jungmann, one of the Council’s leading liturgists) and Klaus Gamber have each in his own way taken up the same question. Despite their great reputations, they were unable to make their voices heard at first, so strong was the tendency to stress the communality of the liturgical celebration and to regard therefore the face-to-face position of priest and people as absolutely necessary.”

      Find the entire foreword here:
      http://www.ignatiusinsight.com/features2005/forewd_umlang_may05.asp

      Reply

    2. Denys

      David, thank you for being willing to engage in discussion. At CP, comment threads are for discussion, not “sound-offs”, and we are glad when any reader wants to participate in a discussion.

      You say “the current Mass is for the masses, in other words, for the community. Hence the holding hands at the Our Father…”

      I’m not sure I understand the meaning of, let alone the basis for such assertions. I mean, the Mass is for the Lord, right? It is the Eucharistic Sacrifice, and the Sacrifice is to God?

      In a lower comment, you state that “the essence of the mass is to bring the people into it…” You may be using the word “essence” in a non-technical sense, but I understand “essence” to mean “the fundamental nature of a thing; what makes it what it is,” and in that understanding, the “essence of the Mass” is…well, the Eucharistic sacrifice, not any kind of social aim.

      You mention “the holding hands at the Our Father…”

      That’s an interesting example of an innovation that a) is not in the rubrics of the GIRM, b) has never been mandated by any Bishop, and c) was certainly never called for by Sacrosanctum Concilium.

      The fact that it happens in many places doesn’t say ANYTHING about the essence of the Mass. It says a lot about the culture and psychology of many American Catholics and about their views of the Mass, but it says nothing about “the essence of the Mass”.

      I’d point out again that you have used the language of personal subjective taste again in your comments–”I’m a purist…it’s offensive…I enjoy the Latin Mass (as long as the priest is facing me)”. I would gently question whether such personal-subjective language expresses the right way for thinking and talking about the public worship of the Church.

      For if we view the worship of the Living God just as a matter of competing tastes and preferences, then any decisions that pastors or bishops or popes or councils make about liturgy will just be viewed as power plays, or as calculated decisions to give one group what it likes and to deny another group what it likes. It all we’ve got is what I like and what you like, then suddenly it’s every man becomes his own Vatican III.

      That can’t be right….plus it tends to make discussions turn into heated, nasty arguments faster than old dry kindling can leap into flames. :) We don’t want that here.

      I would look forward to your fraternal reply. If I’m wrong about anything, I want to be the first to know about it–I’ll settle for being second, though.

      Reply

    1. Cordelia

      “In his address to the gathered clergy attending the Clergy Conference in Rome last January [2010], Msgr. Guido Marini quotes Pope Benedict XVI on this matter:

      “Let us listen to the words of his Holiness, Benedict XVI, directly, who in the preface to the first book of his Complete Works, dedicated to the liturgy, writes the following: “The idea that the priest and people should stare at one another during prayer was born only in modern Christianity, and is completely alien to the ancient Church. The priest and people most certainly do not pray one to the other, but to the one Lord. Therefore, they stare in the same direction during prayer: either towards the east as a cosmic symbol of the Lord who comes, or, where this is not possible, towards the image of Christ in the apse, towards a crucifix, or simply towards the heavens, as our Lord Himself did in his priestly prayer the night before His Passion (John 17.1). In the meantime the proposal made by me at the end of the chapter treating this question in my work ‘The Spirit of the Liturgy’ is fortunately becoming more and more common: rather than proceeding with further transformations, simply to place the crucifix at the center of the altar, which both priest and the faithful can face and be lead in this way towards the Lord, whom everyone addresses in prayer together.”” ( See the full post at http://incaelo.wordpress.com/2010/07/25/directions-in-the-liturgy/ )

      Reply

  6. David B. Monier-Williams

    The essence of the Mass is to bring the people into it, by association not to have them go off into private meditation. The focus is on the Eucharist and anything that deflects from that needs be excised.

    Reply

    1. Cordelia

      David, what do you mean by saying that “the focus is on the Eucharist and anything that deflects from that needs be excised”? When you say Eucharist are you talking about the host once it becomes the body of Christ? If so, then, don’t forget that there is always a consecrated host–Jesus– in the Tabernacle when the sanctuary lamp is lit and that is why whenever you pass in front of the Tabernacle you are supposed show reverence towards what’s inside by genuflecting or in the case of a priest saying Mass, I believe the priest sometimes bows instead where indicated in the rubrics.

      The Church teaches that the Mass is both the sacrifice on Calvary and the wedding feast of the lamb. Every part of the liturgy is there for a reason and is a part of making manifest the sacrifice and making present what the future holds for us at the end of time–The Church building, the gestures, the incense, the bells, the singing, the candles, et cetera are essential symbols of all this and are capable of helping us meditate upon the mystery of our individual need for salvation and our unworthiness to receive Jesus unless we are purified first.

      Benedict XVI and other theologians have spoken about this issue of active participation. It sounds like it means external participation but it’s not. Active participation of the intellect is what Benedict the XVI and others would argue is the true meaning of active participation.

      Reply

  7. priest's wife

    hmmm- since I am Byzantine, Latin is not our language,but done correctly it is beautiful- in our Liturgy, we don’t hold hands or even shake hands in peace- community comes from saying and singing responses together

    Reply

    1. Denys

      Thanks for your comment.

      In the various Eastern Catholic liturgies as I understand them–I have only once attended worship in a Melkite Catholic Church–the “chant” such as it is is ALWAYS done, at every liturgy, year round. There may be liturgical “times”, but no seasonal shifts in whether or not the liturgy is chanted. Am I correct?

      I think CP readers would LOVE to hear more about these other ancient and venerable rites.

      Priest’s Wife, feel free to contact me at my e-mail address if you have any interest in submitting a guest post for CP about Byzantine liturgy: denyspowlettjonesgmail.com.

      Reply