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