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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: 

I was a contemporary cantor (insert Bates Motel music here). 

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.

30 comments | Add one of your own.

  1. Judfy

    It was not just the 90s…sadly, I was there when the “bottom fell out” from under my feet, and every sort of strange thing started making its way into the church; people with “mini” skirts in front of the altar playing “hootenanny” music on a guitar…well, there is too much to go into. The Cathceisi was absolutely terrible, and if we were to say something, as charitably as we could, we would hear, it is done “in the spirit of Vatican II”. This made me blame Vatican II, until, much later, I started reading it and found nothing about the happenings in there. {facing the people, stopping all Latin, hymns that were just songs, and on and on} We go down hill fast, but it was such a big hill that it will take us a long time to climb back up. Thankfully, there are some very positive signs now, but at 63 I sure would have appreciated it happening much sooner : )

    Reply

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  3. Brad

    I will always remember that show as the first time I heard the voice of such a holy and brilliant man, the Cardinal. I gives me great happiness to see what men can become thanks to the graceful gifts of the Holy Spirit.

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  4. Cordelia

    I loved your post, April. Before Pope Benedict XVI’s motu proprio “Summorum Pontificum”, I remember when Bishop Olmsted was a concelebrant of the EF mass years ago at St. Thomas the Apostle and in his homily he warned the members of Mater Misericordiae Mission not to see the Latin Mass as the ONLY rite, for there are many valid rites within the Universal Church. He didn’t name them but here are some: Ambrosian Rite, Ukranian Rite, Byzantine Rite. It’s funny, from my perspective it seems more like the people who get into cat fights over the two masses are those people who think theirs is the only way to worship: their way, and nothing about it should ever change. Whereas in reality, change is a part of the history of the development of the liturgy. The problem is that many who prefer the OF can’t have empathy for EF unless they learn the history of the liturgy. Some people who prefer the EF are equally ignorant and are just as emotionally attached to their favored form as the those are to the OF. That’s all for now. Gotta go.

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      1. Josh

        The Ukrainian Orthodox and Catholic churches use the Byzantine rite; there is no “Ukrainian rite”. Also there is no concelebration in the Tridentine rite. There is a sole celebrant with other priests acting liturgically as deacons or subdeacons during the Mass.

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          1. Cordelia

            Thanks for the corrections. To be honest with you I still have much to learn about the EF liturgy. Bishop Olmsted gave the homily at the EF mass I referred to six or seven years ago and I can’t remember anything else about it. The Byzantine rite is used in the Ukranian Catholic church, yes, got it. I knew that it was related to the Byzantine rite but I should have double checked how to describe it properly before posting my comment.

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  5. April

    Cordelia,
    Thank you for expanding upon the post and bringing it full circle. I have often wanted to bring our family to the different rites available to us right here in Phoenix so that they may have the fullest experience of the Catholic liturgies, but have yet to do it. As God moves our family to grow in faith, I am sure this will be accomplished!

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  6. Magistra Bona

    Congregational singing. One local church musician offered a seminar on how to keep praying and worshipping during the Holy Mass while also ‘performing’ one’s function as a professional musician. That’s always going to be a hard gig. You have my respect for even attempting it. But, if the professionals and official choirs and soloists were excused, and the people required to learn, and sing well enough the official chants and responses for either the OF or the EF, all would, then, start to sing a new song to the Lord. No one — and I mean no one — makes an effort to teach the Church’s Latin chant to the people. There are classes on everything but. And, the Church’s musicians hog this knowledge to themselves. A paycheck is a nice thing. But, really, the Church can only sing with one voice when all tongues are untied. Share your music with your brothers and sisters in the pews next to you — and encourage your fellow professional musicians to do the same. The results would be revolutionary. Just a suggestion.

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  8. J. Prever

    Thanks, April! As a former sufferer of Choleric Musicoencephalitis, I appreciated this post quite a bit. There’s an awful lot of crummy Catholic music, but it’s a good thing that God knows how to make use of crummy instruments, no? Speaking as a crummy instrument myself.

    Reply

  9. April

    Hi J. Prever!
    As a personal note, I wrote this three days before your disease post went up! I’m glad you commented in the light that you did! Yes, God makes good use of us all… Phew – it’s comforting to know that we all have a purpose at something. Good to hear from my favorite blogging liberal arts major, and one of the brightest writers I know of.

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  10. Susan

    Hey, Joseph’s brothers sold him into slavery. If God can make good use of that, as he did, saving the world from hunger and all, certainly he can inspire someone with a song like On Eagle’s Wings. Laugh if you will, but everytime I hear that song I think of seeing JPII in person at Sun Devil Stadium!

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  11. Patricia M.

    I went to my grandson’s Confirmation in Philadelphia recently. New pastor, new church music ministry, with about20 or so school students in the choir. It was so upsetting to hear music that made one want to sway and clap, literally. Tamborines added to the beat. It was so distracting I could not concentrate on the Mass at all. Throughout the Mass, many in the pews turned to focus on the choir loft with appreciative glances. What a shame that this talent was being used to diminish the sacred character of the Mass. A youth rally would be the perfect place, or a concert of christian music, where everyone could get into the music. I am happy my grandson is an altarboy, but what will this kind of music do to his catholic formation at the altar? I have suggested to my daughter that maybe attending the Extraordinary Form of the Mass on occasion would help him to experience the sense of the sacred in The Holy Sacrifice of the Mass. She agreed. Thank God there is one close by in New Jersey.

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  13. Sal Vatore

    One thing I find distracting, is results derived from Pastors giving Music Ministers too much leeway. In my church, fairly orthodox by today’s standards, in VaBch, the Responsorial Psalm is the issue. First, what is in the mass for that weekend is fine as it is. Our MM chooses a (very poor) version in the ‘Gloria’ issue (most who have been exposed to this 60s/70s version of ‘music’ (definitely not hymns)) know that this is far from inspirational. Second, the ‘jingle’ piked has notes that are extremely hard to master, even by an experienced singer. Last, the version chosen repeats the same poor translation multiple times, as if the congregation didn’t get it the first time, making what should be originally a Beautiful Psalm to God, a painful, drawn out dirge whose length exceeds the length of the mass to that point.
    MMs, thank you for your time and effort, and your unseen work in all your practice. But please understand the mass is about God, not about how long the people can be made to sit in their seats unable to sing along with far out, groovy translations of the Angelic Psalms.
    God Bless,
    Sal

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  14. DA

    The last thing I want to hear before, during, or after Communion is someone expressing his or her sentimental feelings… amplified.

    The inspiring music of God’s Silence would be infinitely better. But… we are told not to hurt the feelings of the music ministers. So they are encouraged to wail on, and on… and on…

    It needs to stop.

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  15. marcy

    The first time I heard the drums 1991 St Theresa’s I cried. I thought it was the most offensive sound ever.
    Looking back on Eucaharistic prayer nights at St Thomas — Where Michael John Poirier sang us all through a night of adoration…common was there even a dry eye in the house of our Lord?
    That was very powerful. If anyone is interested Michael is back singing adoration at OLPH in Scottsdale this Sunday night at 7:00 PM
    For memories sake come on over.

    Reply

    1. Charles Smith

      Now I missed all the hullabaloo of most of this, but if there is sacred music during Eucharistic Adoration, I find that appropriate, as long as it is kept reverent and appropriate.

      But should it devolve into a performance, then I think this should be discouraged. Don’t get me wrong, there is a place for praise music, but worship is not that place, as it lends the opportunity for the wrong person to be adored/worshipped.

      Reply

      1. Cordelia

        Actually, silence during adoration is prayer par excellence rather than adoring with constant background noise. You might be thinking: “Well, what about Taizé?” In response I would say, this is pretty new (meditative singing?); I’d rather follow in the footsteps of the monks of millenia and how they adored–in silence.

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        1. Charles Smith

          Well stated. Perhaps I was thinking more appropriately of the hyms and prayers during exposition, benediction, reposing of the Blessed Sacrament. In between is much better observed in silence, lest we not hear the voice of the Lord.

          And besides, if we abandon the cacophony of noise just long enough to sit in silence before Christ, how much better that we annoy Screwtape at the same time!

          Reply

  16. marcy

    Oh I think you should both come on Sunday night and see just what it was that moved the spirit throughout the 90′s in Phoenix. As April said there was something very powerful going on, and well it was the Lord’s work.
    As I remember all adorer’s are silent and simply in the most beautiful communion with the Lord….there is no look at me going on. It is a deep and reverent adoration and it is quite healing as I recall.
    Michael John also used to go into young peoples homes and sing and share in hymns of joy and praise and that was also beautiful.

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    1. Susan

      This is not background music. Michael John manages to allow you to use his music and repetitious lyrics the way you might use your rosary beads. The rosary beads help to keep you focused on prayer and its rhythm. The music is beautiful but not the focus. It becomes an instrument of your prayer. There are no lights on Michael John whatsoever. I do love the silence of adoration but I also find the noise of others coming and going can be distracting, lifting and lowerig kneelers, footsteps, creaky pews… All of that is gone with his gentle music, and it’s just me and Jesus.

      Reply

  17. Mary Jo

    As a former “corkscrew” ( nickname for cantor derived from the body distortions involved), I enjoyed this post. I now much prefer my time as a on again/off again choir member. It is far better for my humility and places music and musicians in proper balance. St Thomas the Apostle has an excellent 11:00 choir and two super directors in Jenny and Greg. They show great respect for the liturgy and the volunteers who sing in the choir. I have been in choirs where I feel the need to worship at another mass because the choir was so performance oriented.

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  19. Tom

    I really appreciate this article! I have a blog that’s dedicated to rediscovering the heart of worship in the Church by encouraging music ministers to understand the different types of worship in the Church – liturgical and non-liturgical alike, and which forms of worship are appropriate in them.

    I would love to have an opportunity the speak to the author about her journey in music ministry. My e-mail is catholicworship@gmail.com and my site is: http://catholic-worship.com I look forward to speaking with you!

    Reply