I had this thought today at Mass. We were singing the Gloria from the very popular "Heritage Mass." It suddenly occurred to me that the words and the actual tune didn't seem to match up - the words are spiritually profound, inspiring one to pray deeply and to ponder the greater realities of existence, but the music itself just wasn't giving me that. It's not terrible music or anything - one could argue that the tune is quite nice. But is it the right tune for those specific words? It could be that I just prefer chant and sacred polyphany when it comes to liturgical music. I'll own that. But hear me out.
Not so long ago, I was part of a choir that sang at traditional Latin Masses, and it was an amazing education for me. One of the things the choirmaster talked about frequently was that the music itself - the tune - should match the meaning of the words at any given moment of the song. That's what chant and sacred polyphany do so beautifully, and what much of contemporary liturgical music seems to lack. I know I'm not alone on that one.
Think of the words of the Gloria:
Lord Jesus Christ, Only Begotten Son,
These words are so sublime, and thus, they deserve music that matches that. Jesus, the Lamb of God, Jesus, Who takes away the sins of the world - how can any of that be expressed musically? These words deserve music that lifts you out of this world, out of your body, and into the heavens. These words should go beyond emotion and touch the core of the spirit. I'm not so sure the Heritage Mass meets that standard.
Here's a nice version of the Heritage Mass:
Now, here's the Gloria from Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina (16th century choirmaster and composer):
The Church has done a lot in recent years, certainly throughout my lifetime, to make the Mass more "relatable," starting with the use of the vernacular - which I favor - and adopting contemporary musical styles to the liturgy. I'm not opposed to that, and in fact, there are many contemporary songs that I like a lot. At the same time, I think that if the music for the standard prayers such as the Gloria and the Credo strove to match the profundity of the words they express, we might actually have better luck with people connecting to the Mass as a whole.
Admittedly, it's a huge issue and a big problem these days. We want everyone to have that deep connection to the Mass, yet many people struggle, and for many reasons. The challenge of the Mass is that it is primarily a spiritual act, but we live in these very physical, very distractable bodies that get in our way. I understand the push toward more contemporary styles - I really do - and a lot of people do get more involved through that music, so it's not totally bad. At the same time, however, we also have the problem of Catholics who get caught up in popular culture, and popular (not always Catholic) values. The Mass, the whole Church, in fact, should take us beyond what is popular and trendy and cool because of the nature of the Mass itself. Bringing popular culture into the Mass, therefore, is problematic on many levels. I don't want to say it cheapens things, but it sort of does. And the dwindling Mass attendance numbers are evidence that these efforts aren't even working - interestingly, the traditional Latin Mass is gaining popularity, particularly among young people.
Now you might argue that Jesus Himself walked among us, preached sublime truths through simple parables, ate with sinners and died a violent death. All true. But He came to lift us up, out of the mire, not to stay in it. That's why the music we hear and sing at Mass should be grand, beautiful, intensely spiritual, so that it carries us toward the heavens. It should inspire great thoughts and humble prayers as we hear and participate in it, regardless of the style. And in the end of it all, it should match the words, which are eternal.
Here's a little of Bishop Robert Barron on the topic of the Mass:
Witty; cunning; crafty
© ArtfulCatholic 2016
All rights reserved
This material may not be reprinted without permission from the author.