Posted by: Joe of St. Thérèse | April 12, 2010

We aren’t Church

Joyfully stolen from a priest friend of mine, Fr Cory Sticha

I’m just going to say it: we are not “the Church” (often said without the article in order to torture English grammar). The Church is the Body of Christ, and we are but members. To say “We are the Church” is to say that we are the completion of the Church, which we most definitely are not. We can say “We are part of the Church” and be accurate, as this allows for there to be more to the Church than just us. This distinction might not seem very important, even petty or clericalistic, but it does have real effects on how we worship God and how we view our relationship to Him.

Because of the distances involved in our diocese, we have three Chrism Masses in various locations. The Mass for this vicariate was yesterday evening, so I joined my brother priests and members of parishes from throughout this part of Montana for this holy and powerful liturgy. Or, at least it would have been powerful if the music wasn’t so poorly chosen.

In liturgy, Christ is the primary focus. This isn’t to say that the congregation is unimportant, far from it (“For where there are two or three gathered together in my name, there am I in the midst of them.“), but liturgy is about Jesus first and foremost. Sadly, the music last night didn’t focus on Christ, but on “we”. Just a couple of examples:

  • The opening hymn was “We are the Church” by Christopher Walker and Paule Freeburg. The refrain goes: “We are the Church, the Body of Christ. We are the Church,a people redeemed. We are the Church, anointed to serve God’s Holy People, the People of God.” The verses are all Jesus speaking to His “chosen people.”
  • The Song of Thanksgiving was “We Are Sent into the World” by Ricky Manalo, CSP. Once again the refrain is about us: “We are sent into the world to proclaim the reign of God. We give glory to the risen Christ among us. Though our eyes have not seen his face, we believe and we spread the story of our faith.” The verses continue the navel-gazing by talking about how we have been sent.

After repeated discussions on music in the liturgy, I’ve come up with a theory that if the the first person (I, we, us, etc.) shows up more in songs than titles for God, the saints or the angels, it’s a song that should not be sung during Mass. Look at the two hymns I mentioned above, and I hope you can see why these are not appropriate for the Sacrifice of the Mass: they focus on us, what we do and who we are. The Song of Thanksgiving is especially poorly chosen, (yes, the Song of Thanksgiving is a valid option following reception of the Eucharist). Instead of choosing a hymn that expresses our gratitude for receiving the Blessed Sacrament, which is the greatest gift that humanity has ever and will ever receive, we sing a song about how we’ve been “sent”. Yes, it’s important to realize that we are sent from every Mass to proclaim the Gospel message to the whole world, but do we really need a self-centered song to tell us that?

Another concern with the music chosen is that these so-called contemporary “hymns” are imposed on the Mass. The liturgy has a style of singing that was developed especially for it: Gregorian Chant. With the reforms of the liturgy and the institution of the vernacular at Mass, chant has all but been lost. Some of the Ordinary of the Mass is regularly chanted, as the bishop did this evening, but chanting any of the antiphons and psalms from the Graduale Romanum is nonexistent.

The use of hymns instead of chant was especially jarring this evening because of the parts that the bishop chanted. How we sing a metrical hymn is different than non-metrical chant. Typical hymns are in a 3/4 or 4/4 beat, meaning three or four beats to a measure at a steady beat; each beat is the same length of time. Think of a waltz where you can hear a definite 1-2-3-1-2-3 pattern.

In chant, the words flow more like our natural speech patterns. We don’t use the same length of time for each word, but speed up and slow down to show importance, anticipation or relaxation, and so on. Chant does not have a structured beat, but flows much more naturally.

When metrical hymns and non-metrical chant are combined, they clash. You can see this very commonly at the doxology that ends the Eucharist Prayer (“Through Him, with Him, in Him”). When the priest chants the doxology and it followed by a metrical “Amen” from one of the popular Mass settings that have been written since the 70’s, it’s almost like shifting gears on a manual transmission, especially when the accompanist plays the introduction to the Amen.

Chant works best when one chant flows into the next. The transition is smooth when both the doxology and the Amen is chanted. Same thing happens at the Mysterium Fidei (The Mystery of Faith) and the Pater Noster (Our Father). In fact, there are chants for nearly the entire Mass, including daily Introit (Entrance), Offertory, and Communion antiphons.

To bring this back to my original point, using the chants of the Mass instead of metrical hymns avoids the “we” syndrome. The chants of the Mass, which are just as much a part of the Mass as the Collect (Opening Prayer) or Post-Communion Prayer, were developed by some of the greatest minds and spiritual masters over the course of the Church’s 2000 year history. These chants do not focus on us, but lead us to focus on the Holy Trinity.

When we do place our focus on ourselves, the most important thing about the Mass becomes what I “get out of it”. If I’m not affirmed, uplifted, interested, etc., then something needs to change in order to fulfill me. This is why there’s so much concern about making the Mass “relevant”. Priests change the words and actions of the Mass to what they feel makes it more “relevant” to the people. Music is written in popular styles so that it will be “relevant” to youth. The Mass becomes religious entertainment seeking to help people find something that they will “get out of it”.

Conversely, when the focus is on Christ, the Mass becomes more about each one of us individually, and the congregation as a whole, gathering to worship and adore God, and what we “get out of it” is receiving Our Lord Jesus Christ in the Blessed Sacrament. A properly celebrated Mass with chant will lift our minds and hearts to God, helping us to worship our Creator and Father who loves us and gave His Son so that we might love Him in return.

(N.B.: This is why I will never ad-lib the Mass. The role of the priest is to lead the congregation to Christ, not himself.)

To solve this problem, both priests and laity need to actively work at redirecting our focus back on Our Lord and off of ourselves. If chant is not an option due to lack of training or materials, hymns need to be chosen carefully that center on God. Priests need to stop making up their own words and actions, and start following the principle “Say the Black, Do the Red“. All of us who gather for the celebration of the Mass need to remember that the honor and glory needs to go to Christ, not to ourselves.

My thoughts

a. Not to say that hymns aren’t inspired texts, the composers of said texts are genuinely devout and mean well, however these hymns are NOT, let me repeat that NOT inspired in the same way as Sacred Scripture. The imposing of hymns leads to something I like to call “unintended idolatry.” Liturgy no longer becomes about God, but we impose what WE want, it in Liturgy. Holy Church has already given us what to sing (I don’t know about you, but isn’t it easier to do LESS work, than more?), One of the commands of Christ was to obey ALL that he commanded (Matt 28, 19-20). One of the titles of the Holy Father is Vicar of Christ. That is to say, what we’re bound to on earth is exactly same as what we’ll be bound to in heaven. Yes, Liturgy is included, because the Liturgy is the expression of our Catholic Faith.

For example, the Introit for Sunday was the following: Quasi modo geniti infantes, alleluia, sine dolo lac concupiscite, alleluia, alleluia, alleluia, Exaultate Deo adjutori nostro jubilate Deo Jacob. (1 Pet 2, 2) As new born babes aelleluia, desire the rational milk without guile, alleluia, alleluia, alleluia, Rejoice to God our Helper, sing aloud to the God of Jacob..

This introit for those that have newly entered the Faith to put aside their baptismal garments that they received and are now ready for the next stage in the Faith. More than likely this Sunday you heard “Gather us in” or some other self centred hymn. We exchange a beautiful part of our Faith for something self centred…Isn’t that a problem?

b. I read this article on the NLM, where normally I agree with points that are said, however this time around I didn’t. Though I do agree with Mr. Tucker on these points: that the music in of itself isn’t the ends (the ends being the Representation of Calvary in an unbloody Manner, the miracle of Transubstantiation), as well as the fact that Catholics do have intrinsically this idea that we must decrease so He can increase musically.

That said, true Liturgy is multiple parts participating in the one action. The parts that belong to us, should be sung (technically the prayers at the foot of the altar are private prayers (though I am not against the congregation participating in them if they can hear what’s being said), so we actually begin at the Introit), and while certainly music isn’t the ends, it does assist in making the mysteries of Calvary present. Hearing the Congregation sing in France in the video is beautiful, which reflects upon a deeper question, What are we singing?

Is it mere coincidence that a congregation that is playing those stuck in 1970’s hymns, nobody sings? I’ve come to the conclusion that it is not coincidence, it’s the intrinsic act of Faith that recognizes that this is not of our Faith as Catholics hence we shouldn’t be singing it at Mass. I’ve noticed the same thing at the “teen” Masses that the only people Really singing is the choir themselves, and hence it becomes about them.

People haven’t been taught what true Liturgy is and that’s part of the problem that the 2nd Vatican Council tried to correct (but failed miserably, so far), that there were too many Low Masses, and not enough Missa Normativa (sung Masses).

Silence is not the norm, singing is the norm in the Roman Church, Everything should be sung, Whether it’s the OF or the EF, The Mass should be sung, period, but only what is Our Catholic Faith, nothing about us, so I agree 1st person songs need to go, unless we do like the Maronites and put “Jesus said” in front of the 1st person, then it can work.


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