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Recorded music at Koroit and Port Fairy

9 June 2019

From Fr John

Particular thanks is owed to Gen Verdonck in Port Fairy, and Clare Gleeson in Koroit, who volunteer to operate the CD player at Mass when recorded music is played. I think it’s the worst job in the parish — maybe because all the times I do something like that, I mess it up and distract everyone!

In the medium term, I propose that we update our technology and make use of iPads or something similar to play recorded music. There are two advantages in using digital music:

  1. It is more user-friendly than selecting the right discs and playing the right tracks in the right order. Instead, a playlist is prepared before Mass, and when the time is right, it’s a simple matter of tapping the appropriate song on a touchscreen. (That’s so easy even I can manage it!) Hopefully, that means that we can broaden our pool of volunteers who play recorded music at Mass. I bet Gen and Clare will welcome that!
  2. We can buy songs “one at a time” and save a lot of money. At present, our repertoire — which is a good one — is nonetheless limited to what is in our hymnals. But with AV equipment already installed at Port Fairy, and planned for Koroit, lyrics can be displayed on screen, which makes our future hymnody inexhaustible.

To that end, you are invited to nominate hymns they’d like added to our future repertoire. A small team will be formed to work on this development. If you’re interested in this project, you’ll probably appreciate the following extract too, from Fr James Mallon’s Divine Renovation: From a Maintenance to a Missional Parish.

Uplifting Music

Extracted from Mallon, J. (2014). Divine Renovation. Mulgrave, Vic: Garrett Publishing, pp. 110-118.

It has been said that Church renewal is all about the three Hs: hospitality, hymns and homilies. There is no question that music has the power to reach deeply into our souls and touch us. “He who sings prays twice,” said Saint Augustine, and so music and singing songs of praise and canticles to God is an integral part of the liturgy. It has been more than 50 years since the Second Vatican Council published Sacrosanctum Concilium (Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy) as the first of sixteen documents . . .

In the years following the Council, attempts were made to call the laity into “full, conscious and active participation” (SC, no. 14), and music was seen as a prime avenue to effect this change. Sadly, what followed in those decades was a wholesale turning away from the beautiful and transcendent to the merely functional. Participation was narrowly defined as “joining in,” and the overall quality of liturgical music was greatly lowered. At this time, a deeply erroneous notion took root in the Church: “the old is bad and the new is good.” In response to the proliferation of this very un-Catholic perspective, there emerged an alternate perspective that was equally flawed: “the new is bad and the old is good.”

The Old and the New

Jesus said, “Every scribe who has been trained for the kingdom of heaven is like the master of a household who brings out of his treasure what is new and what is old.” (Matthew 13:52) I remember when I was studying theology, a professor wisely told us that the great mysteries of the Christian faith always involved both/and. This both/and approach also has great pastoral merit, especially when it comes to music. The old must have a place in our worship, because the Church is always the Communion of Saints stretched out across history. To be Catholic is to be in the Church “according to the whole” (kath’ holon in Greek), and this “whole Church” does not permit geographic or chronological limitation. To worship at the Eucharist is to enter into something much, much bigger than ourselves and far wider than one particular cultural expression in one particular time. The old cannot be excluded.

To be Catholic is also to be missionary. While treasuring what is old, the Church cannot be only a repository of ancient things, no matter how beautiful. She must reflect the face of God who, in the words of Saint Augustine, is “Beauty ever ancient, ever new.” The worship of the liturgy must also have a missional dimension and must bring ancient and eternal realities to bear in a way that they can be understood and received by the people who gather. It must speak their language. The new is necessary, and even the songs of the Bible com- mand us to “sing a new song to the Lord.” (Psalm 33:3, 40:3, 96:1, 98:1, 144:9, 149:1)

For this reason, I believe that the music we experience in the liturgy must strive to embrace both the new and the old, and must resist the temptation to settle for some kind of lowest common denominator. Uniformity is not a Catholic value, and diversity ought to be welcomed into our experience of music at the liturgy without fear of its impact on unity. Imposed uniformity does violence to unity. We should boldly bring the ancient musical treasures from our storehouse and give them a place in our worship. We have a fundamental need to do so, to remind ourselves that the worship of the Church is far greater than our momentary and parochial likes and dislikes. We have a fundamental need to worship with songs that are new and with instruments that are new. We must be prepared to worship with music that speaks to the people who gather, music that is not alien, music that they can even enjoy.

At my parish, we seek to embrace the old and the new by committing ourselves to distinct flavours and experiences of the liturgy at each of the weekend Masses. No one style or flavour is imposed on the whole parish. In this way, we celebrate a diverse experience of music that embraces the breadth of Catholic musical expression . . .

Beauty

Another very Catholic value is beauty. Music, as one of the ancient arts, never exists for its own sake, or it can become merely functional. When beautiful, it mediates the divine, because the One who is Beauty is always to be found in the beautiful. It is beauty that contributes powerfully to the wow factor that we ought to be striving for at every celebration of the Eucharist. Beauty often evokes a silent response. This is so when we behold a stunning sunset, or a striking work of art. It can also be our response to wondrous liturgical music, and I find it small-minded to imply that being caught up in listening to something beautiful does not involve “full, conscious and active participation.”

There is a place in the liturgy for this type of participation, but the norm for music in the liturgy surely involves opening our mouths and singing God’s praises. “I have told the glad news of deliverance in the great congregation; see, I have not restrained my lips, as you know, O Lord.” (Psalm 40:9)

To Whom am I Speaking?

When I first arrived at my present parish, it was not uncommon to go through an entire celebration of the liturgy, sing the usual four hymns (processional, preparation of the gifts, communion and recessional), and not once sing to God. I have already made a case for diversity over uniformity, so I do believe the liturgy should admit all genres of hymns, and not just hymns or songs of praise. What do I mean? The first question is who are we speaking to, and the second is what are we saying? We can be speaking to God (hymns of praise or petition), about God (confessional hymns), with God (singing the words of God from Scripture) or to one another (exhortation). If we are to take the oldest hymnbook in the Judeo-Christian tradition, the Book of Psalms, as our model, we will see that all these genres of hymns belong in our worship. We ought to sing songs that cry out to the skies about who our God is. The oldest Christian hymn that we know of, recorded by Saint Paul in his letter to the Philippians (2:6-11), is such an example. We ought to take the sacred words of Jesus, spoken to us, and put them to song. Singing “I Am the Bread of Life” helps the living words of Jesus penetrate our hearts as we approach the very mystery through which he gives himself to us. Calling each other to worship, to service, to love and faithfulness also reflects the impulse of many of the psalms.

As right and fitting as all of these genres of hymns are, I believe that hymns of praise ought to have pride of place. They are the most transformative, because they do not just suggest that we pray, call us to pray or tell us how wonderful it is to pray: they are prayer itself. Prayer is talking to God, and is distinct from talking about God or exhorting one another to talk to God. Only in the hymn of praise do we pray twice, because in all other genres, though they have a place in the liturgy, we do not even pray once. It is the hymn of praise that unites us to the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. It is the hymn of praise that can bring about the entirely necessary, intense, personal encounter with Jesus that the New Evangelization calls for. In spite of this, however, if you scan the most commonly used hymnbooks, and drop into the occasional parish celebrations of the Eucharist, the hymn of praise is not as common as it should be.

In my years as a priest, the most sublime moments of the liturgy have been when hundreds of voices are united in praise to God. It matters not if the praise is led by a contemporary band or by choir and pipe organ. There is just something about “Holy God, We Praise Thy Name,” or “Joyful, Joyful We Adore You,” because we are speaking directly to God. It is also my experience that people are much more likely to cut loose and sing with everything they’ve got when they are giving praise to God and not just calling each other to go and dance in a forest.

The oldest non-scriptural hymn we have in our tradition is the Gloria. It is so ancient that the oldest manuscripts of the Greek Old Testament, which was the Bible used by the infant Greek-speaking Church, includes the Gloria in a book of scriptural songs and canticles. This most ancient of hymns is pure praise: “we praise you, we bless you, we adore you, we glorify you.” This pure praise is followed by beautiful, intimate praise of Jesus: “you alone are the Holy One, you alone are the Lord….” It is the language of intimacy, the language of lovers. It is in praise to God that we move ourselves away from fixating on the idea of God to the experience  of God. Singing about God and never singing to God is the musical equivalent of only knowing about God and not having any personal knowledge of God. Surely at least once in a while, during Holy Communion, we can sing to Jesus himself rather than singing about him or about “the banquet,” or endlessly recommending that we eat the bread and drink the cup. The Eucharist is not an idea. It is not a thing. It is a person. It is Jesus himself, not in the sacrament but as the Blessed Sacrament. To be clear, I am not advocating the use only of hymns of praise, or sung prayer (sometimes we sing petitions to God, still better than singing about God), but a return to giving the song of praise a preferential place in Catholic hymnody. It is hymns of praise that move the heart most and help lead those who gather into a personal encounter with Jesus. These are the true love songs, and of all the songs we hear, it is love songs that capture our hearts.

“Praise and Worship”

It is widely known that churches that are healthy and growing are Evangelical Protestant churches that have a strong preference for contemporary hymns of praise. They have produced a huge body of music in the contemporary style known as “praise and worship.” There has been much debate in Catholic circles about whether these songs, once described to me as “a bunch of songs about me and Jesus that all sound the same,” should be used by Catholics at all, never mind in the liturgy.

Musical preference aside, critics often point out that many of these hymns are overly individualistic, choosing “me” over “we,” and tend towards sentimentality. While this is true of some, it is not, in my experience, true of all. The Psalms themselves suggest that there is an ancient tradition of speaking in the first person singular, even in communal worship. While there is a preference for the plural in our hymnody, I do not believe we have any grounds to exclude singular expressions of praise. Regarding the accusation of sentimentality, while some hymns are overly such, I would much rather sing a song with some sentiment than sing some of the sterile, idea-bound hymns of the last decades. Songs move the heart and not just the mind. Love songs are supposed to have sentiment. If the liturgy and our music are to have a missional dimension, our evaluation of music must always include the question of what speaks to the people we are attempting to reach. We live in a post-modern, hyper-individualist culture. Post-moderns do not want to sing about doctrine or theology. Abstractions do not attract them, but authenticity does. As individualists, they relate much better to hymns in the singular, as a sense of collective identity can never be presumed, and young people who do not go to church generally do not have playlists on their iPhones that feature organ music. All this points to the fact that the contemporary “praise and worship” style of music employed by so many churches today does speak powerfully to our culture.

As Catholics, we need to be careful about how we employ such music. An evangelical pastor once told me that he uses the “Brenda Principle” when it comes to evaluating the music sung in his church. When I asked him what that was, he said, “If you can remove the name of Jesus and replace it with ‘Brenda,’ and it works, it should not be used in church.” This approach would address the concern about sentimentality!

Contemporary non-Catholic hymns should also always be reviewed for blatant theological problems. This is rare, and matters little to the average person in church, but the liturgy is the prayer of the Church and pastors must act as gatekeepers. This is becoming less and less of an issue, as many Catholic composers, such as Matt Maher, are writing “praise and worship” material that is gaining wide acceptance in Catholic and non-Catholic circles. In addition, there are a huge number of traditional Catholic hymns that can be successfully set to a contemporary style. There’s nothing quite like “O Come, O Come Emmanuel.” It is ever ancient and ever new. As already stated, while lyrics that allow the congregation to sing with one voice as “we” are to be preferred, we do not need to be afraid of the occasional “I” and “my” in the great assembly. It is biblical, and it speaks to our age.

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