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Saturday, March 26, 2011

A disconcerting disonnection

We are now deep into Lent, the Church's most austere season of the liturgical year.  Yet, listening to some of the music used for Mass over the course of these three Lenten weeks, one could not really tell if we were well into this season or still in Ordinary Time.   There seems to me a strong disconnect between the music we use during Mass and the Lenten season.

For me, the biggest disconnect comes in the form of the music resource guides that publishers give to parishes.   These innocuous guides are coordinated and calibrated to the various music books these companies offer.  

So, one would ask, what is the problem?  The problem lies with the suggestions that these publishing houses propose.  For example, for the 2nd Sunday of Lent, not one single piece of music suggested had anything to do with the season, let alone, the Transfiguration.  "I Will Choose Christ", "One Bread, One Body," and "There is a Longing", all from Spirit and Song.  Nothing in these songs had anything to do with Lent in general, nor the Transfiguration in particular.  It was as though, musically, Lent was not being observed.   For the first Sunday of Lent, the selections were just as murky.  Many parishes using this guide probably heard "Eagles' Wings", "Blest be the Lord" and, in Spanish, "Juntos como Hermanos."  The only time the faithful got to hear real Lenten music was when the "Parce Domine" was chanted as incense was being used during the Offertory.

Whatever happened to real hymns such as "The Glory of These 40 Days", "Attende Domine," "Again, We Keep this Solemn Fast", "Parce Domine", "Our Father, We Have Wandered"?  These hymns, some dating back centuries, reinforce the beauty of this penitential season.   For the second Sunday of Lent, certainly, "Tis Good Lord to Be Here" would have been appropriate since it speaks directly to the Transfiguration.

Publishing houses are, lamentably, not the best resource when it comes to planning the music for use in the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass.  It seems to me that there is a strong disconnect between what the publishers suggest and the liturgical season.  It's as though they are interested in promoting their own composers and products as opposed to offering music that is compatible with the season.

Perhaps these publishing houses should read Sacramentum Caritatis No. 42:

Liturgical song
42. In the ars celebrandi, liturgical song has a pre-eminent place. (126) Saint Augustine rightly says in a famous sermon that "the new man sings a new song. Singing is an expression of joy and, if we consider the matter, an expression of love" (127). The People of God assembled for the liturgy sings the praises of God. In the course of her two-thousand-year history, the Church has created, and still creates, music and songs which represent a rich patrimony of faith and love. This heritage must not be lost. Certainly as far as the liturgy is concerned, we cannot say that one song is as good as another. Generic improvisation or the introduction of musical genres which fail to respect the meaning of the liturgy should be avoided. As an element of the liturgy, song should be well integrated into the overall celebration (128). Consequently everything -- texts, music, execution -- ought to correspond to the meaning of the mystery being celebrated, the structure of the rite and the liturgical seasons (129). Finally, while respecting various styles and different and highly praiseworthy traditions, I desire, in accordance with the request advanced by the Synod Fathers, that Gregorian chant be suitably esteemed and employed (130) as the chant proper to the Roman liturgy (131).

I would be hard-pressed to believe that song books like "Spirit and Song"  would meet the criteria posed by Pope Benedict XVI in Sacramentum Caritatis No. 42.   Not only does the book not have any clearly perceptible Lenten music, its content, as a whole, seems to not be in synch with the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass.   A lot of the music in this particular book is drawn from the Protestant Praise and Worship genre.   This particular genre may work for Protestant services, but, the mixture of pop musical styles and text are just the thing that the Holy Father specifically warns us against using. 

My challenge to parish music directors would be to let go of the publisher's suggestions and, instead, go by the liturgical season and the readings, paying special attention to the antiphons the Church gives us.  After all, in the hierarchy of music for use in the Mass, the antiphons belong to the first order. 

There has to be a strong connection, as the Holy Father notes, between the ars celebrandi and the music.  When we miss that connection, we wind up making things disjointed and we lose the significance and the beauty of the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass in relation to the appropriate liturgical season.  The dots need to connect.


  1. While completely agreeing with you on everything else, I must admit that for the first Sunday of lent, while I hate the tune itself, the text of "On Eagles Wings" is completely appropriate for communion, as it is nearly the proper communion antiphon for the day (english translation & melodic adaptation, see pages 3 and 4), including the psalm verses.

    Note... I'm not recemending people sing "Eagles Wings", just referring about the text. The tune, in my opinion, is... um ... something I will probably regret saying.

  2. Almost forgot to say. Excellent post! Very insightful, and very true.

  3. I checked the text of "On Eagles' Wings". Even though the song is based on the Psalm that Satan quoted, I still would not have used it, not for the First Sunday of Lent. The musicality alone is sufficient for me to not use it, but, the text seems to take some liberties with the actual wording.

    I do value your opinion, Ben! You are honest and that means a lot!