Confessions of a Former Contemporary Music Minister
Until recently, I had no idea I was a former postmodernist. I didn’t even know there was a category of Catholics like that, nor did I realize that I had fit into that category. In fact, from a liturgically-conservative point of view, I was the worst kind:
You got it: I not only sang but oftentimes led the concert-like singing of contemporary liturgical music in my parish church.
Before I even venture further into this post, may I say I am nervous! There is a lot of potential division in our Church today, and predominantly over liturgical norms in Divine Worship. No one ever said that re-uniting is an easy act. It’s messy business! Consequently, expressing thoughts on this matter can be messy, too. A recent “Catholic Answers Live” interview with Francis Cardinal Arinze, Prefect Emeritus of the Congregation of Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments, is the source of my inspiration to tackle this topic now.
All the chatter about how we worship, about who’s doing it well or badly, or which church is celebrating the more reverent mass gives us an amazing opportunity to speak with caritas in veritate. As in everything we do and say, to proclaim the truth with utmost charity and humility must be our goal. However, a love for righteousness and for God Himself can blind us, inciting us to loudly argue and try to aggressively right what is wrong in our churches. It has the potential to be harmful to those on a slightly different path.
Take me, for example. In 1995, I joined a high profile Catholic parish music ministry and sang my heart out on the altar. It was seven years after I had been singing for a living in bars, and I was in the middle of a reversion. God had now called me to sing for Him! At this parish, the musicians were a vibrant and very visible part of the worship, positioned to the (stage) left of the altar. Ours was not a small ensemble, either.
Over the next ten years, I sang solos, led the contemporary-style re-written responsorial psalms, and sang entire post-Communion meditative songs. I was suddenly experiencing a different kind of stage fright. Previously, I had been entertaining people who came to dance and drink. Now, I was singing before the congregation to lead them in worship and bring them to the Lord in the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass.
Before you start to cringe more than I am doing as I type this, hear me out. Yes, this is what we did. It was our express intent to lead people to experience the emotional high of the mass, and to fully express ourselves, in full-body prayer and open-hand praise, and to “Shout to the Lord” in gratitude and worship. My experience and assistance on the altar was hopefully reaching out to the congregation and pulling them into the mass. Thankfully, these were powerful years for me. It was not an act. I would even like to say it was not a performance, but sometimes… I can now share details of how I was personally brought to the point of humility many times, as I prayed to sing well for the Lord. Yet, regularly my voice would crack or I would sing off key, and then I would realize that I wasn’t worried that Sunday about glorifying God in my ministry, but rather about impressing the many congregational friends I had made. Ouch, not good. But God was winking, and the stage fright humbled me with the occasional poor “performance.” Other good things were happening in me and in the souls of many fellow musicians. Male and female divas were being touched by the mass itself and were dropping to their knees, literally. I remember when I didn’t want to follow the suggestion not to kneel during consecration, on the grounds that it was distracting to the congregation--I knelt anyway. I could not resist. I was focusing more and more upon the Eucharist. Of course, I was not reprimanded. Though some new liturgical directives and re-enforcements had begun, things were still pretty loose, and much was being tolerated--even kneeling!
One day, a pastoral change took place and all the music changed as well. Some of us gathered, realizing we would be singing a mass with a less contemporary feel. I remember thinking we needed to accept what was not comfortable for us, out of obedience. I was beginning to get it. Many musicians left. I stayed at first, although eventually I too left, my fifth baby now making clear the needs of worshipping in the pews with my family.
Those years were invaluable to my spiritual growth. Mass was now growing more “traditional” by the year, and as a result of my openness, I was growing with it. Yet, within the past five years, I have still often found myself defending this “loose” liturgical era from which I had come. How could I shun that which had re-awakened my love for the Eucharist? Now understanding that emotion was not the premier path to God and was indeed shallow on its own, I realized that my mind had also been seeking and growing in knowledge. Was I headed for some sort of balance? Only God could know.
As we all long for unity, it is not uncommon to look upon Catholic liturgical differences maybe even with disgust. Liturgies that add or subtract from the General Instruction of the Roman Missal appear self-projecting, and potentially disobedient to the Magisterium. Yet, presuming the mass is still valid, and the ones I have referred to were, God is still there, working and transforming those who ask for His graces.
Holy Mother Church is definitely wise in both her proclamations and in her informal explanations. While Cardinal Arinze’s comments last week on “Catholic Answers Live” were not given in an official capacity, he did graciously explain how unity can exist. The following question, though not directed at the current state of the Novus Ordo mass, but rather the tension between the Traditional Latin Rite and the Novus Ordo in general, stems partly from the abuse of the additions and subtractions of the past 30 years.
Program host Patrick Coffin posed:
There is a sad irony here, Your Eminence, in which people who are attached to the Traditional Latin Mass often get into fractious arguments with people who prefer the Novus Ordo, so it’s almost like the mass itself, in a sense, is a source of division. Is there a way for it to bring all the members of the Body of Christ together, and does the Apostolic Letter Summorum Pontificum signal a kind of turn toward the future of greater reverence and greater unity?
Cardinal Arinze answered:
Yes, the Pope’s document is a great help to get all of us better together. We should accept and recognize that when we say “Latin Mass” it can be the traditional way of saying (it) up to Vatican II. It can also be the way of celebrating the mass now in the last 40 years. The way we say mass now can all be done in Latin today so that if perhaps some use the term Tridentine Mass, even though the term is not so exact, because that mass had that form even before the Council of Trent. So Pope Benedict has given it the two terms, the Extraordinary and Ordinary form of the Latin Rite. Both are of the Latin Rite. And the Holy Father, by giving out that document (i.e. Summorum Pontificum), wants to give people freedom. If people find their spirituality better nourished by the traditional celebration of the form that is what we call now Extraordinary, very good, let them not be denied that. If people find themselves nourished by the present way of celebrating mass, what some call Novus Ordo, which the Holy Father calls Ordinary Form, so be it. The main thing is to follow what Holy Mother Church has laid down. Indeed, if every priest who celebrated the mass according to Novus Ordo were to follow the books exactly, add nothing, subtract nothing, not project yourself, celebrate in Latin sometimes, you will find that most of that tension would be gone.
His mere graciousness is an inspiration to me to re-examine how I react to the differences in masses. I can no longer defend the violation of liturgical rubrics or any license that may have taken place in the ‘90s, or may still be going on today. But I can rest in knowing that differences are all right for now, and that Holy Mother Church is already on the path to unity in worship. We must have patience and work to see the good in the various slight differences of worship. Reverence isn’t always missing, it may just be hidden. An absence of reverence is often just a lack of proper formation. Many differences are merely a matter of culture. But as long as the core of the mass is still the same, Holy Mother Church is patiently working to rectify the mistakes of the past and present, and unify us all in Divine Worship.
To hear the complete interview with Francis Cardinal Arinze, visit www.catholic.com/radio/calive.asp, and highlight “How to Go to Mass (Pre-recorded)” on the February 9, 2011 calendar grid.