This reflection by Karen Shadle is a response to the article by Michael Joncas, “Reflections on ‘Catholic Hymnody at the Service of the Church: An Aid for Evaluating Hymn Lyrics.”
Have you ever walked into an unfamiliar church for Mass and, after the opening hymn, wished that you could retreat unnoticed?
In my visits to many different parishes over the years, I find that nothing so clearly indicates the strength of a church community as the state of its liturgical music. So when the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops Committee on Doctrine recently issued a letter to bishops on the topic of Catholic hymnody, my initial reaction was enthusiastic.
NURTURING HIGH-QUALITY LITURGICAL MUSIC
Nurturing high-quality liturgical music is one of the most effective things a parish can do to boost its profile – that is, to make it an attractive place to worship and one to which people wish to return week after week. If there is a litmus test for parish vitality, it’s the music at Sunday Mass. This vitality, by the way, mostly transcends musical style. A great church music program stirs the hearts of the faithful and communicates reverence for the liturgy and attention to excellence in execution. After preaching, or perhaps even ahead of it, music is consistently the key to engaging liturgy. That’s virtually undisputed on the ground, so I am often frustrated that the Church doesn’t speak of music more frequently and more vigorously. The impact of liturgical music deserves more attention, and any attempt to improve its quality is most welcome to me.
Some readers encountered the letter differently. Their responses could be summed up as: “Doesn’t the Church have bigger problems?” “This is just a distraction.” “Micromanagement.” “Rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic.” I get it. There are other important things. But because of its outsized impact on the liturgy, music deserves to be near the top of the list of concerns for the future of our beloved Church.
THE LITURGICAL JUDGMENT AND DOCTRINE
Many are familiar with the “Three Judgments” of liturgical music outlined in the USCCB’s 2007 guidance Sing to the Lord: Music in Divine Worship. Music must be evaluated for its liturgical, musical, and pastoral appropriateness. One purpose of this recent letter, entitled “Catholic Hymnody at the Service of the Church,” is to expand upon the liturgical judgment of Sing to the Lord by giving greater intention to the theological content of hymn texts. In this, it builds upon what Sing to the Lord says at nos. 83, 108, 115d, and 144b about the importance of doctrinally accurate expression of the Catholic faith.
Beyond theological elucidation, the letter also addresses the catechetical impact of liturgical music – a significant but often understated role. Neuroscience research indicates, for example, that language is more deeply imprinted in our memory when it is attached to melody. The effect is greater with singing as opposed to mere listening. Although I have not needed this information since high school, I recall the quadratic equation x = −b ± √(b2 − 4ac)/2a because I learned it to the tune of “Pop Goes the Weasel.” I’ll never forget that the function of “Conjunction Junction” is “hooking up words and phrases and clauses,” thanks to Schoolhouse Rock. And I’ll always need to sing a little song in my head to remember which months have thirty days. Music’s effects on memory are so powerful that it is often used as therapy for dementia patients.
Also consider the power of song to inscribe the truths of our faith indelibly on our hearts. I learned the nature of the Holy Trinity, the beatitudes, and the ranks of angels not from study of doctrine or scripture but from hymns. The psalms are written on my heart not in monotone but in melody. Recorded music is ubiquitous in our modern world, but music-making is not. For many people, singing at church is practically their only act of music-making. Singing stimulates more parts of the brain than most other human activities, simultaneously activating both the emotional, expressive “right brain” and the intellectual, analytical “left brain.” Is music, then, not the perfect vehicle for catechesis? As St. Paul puts it, we “sing with both the spirit and the understanding” – heart and mind together.
Knowing the power of the sung word, I applaud the intent of the committee’s letter and much of its content, but it is not without flaws. In his thoughtful and detailed response published in the journal of the Hymn Society, Fr. Jan Michael Joncas immediately identifies several confusing points of this letter.
CONFUSING POINTS IN THE LETTER
First, it does not clearly define what it means by “hymn.” There are a number of textual and musical forms broadly characterized as “sacred music” or “liturgical music” that might fall under the “hymn” heading. Which of these are meant to be scrutinized here? Further, who ought to address these concerns about hymn texts? Bishops? Priests? Diocesan staff? Composers? Publishers? Musicians? There is a certain incompleteness and unclarity to the work of the committee.
While I have no doubt that the committee consulted with experts in sacred music, it feels like the authors don’t entirely know the terrain into which they travel.
This reminds me of the first meeting I had with the pastor at my first ministry job, fresh out of graduate school. I asked Father what his goals were for the parish liturgical music program. His response: “Make it better.”
Very few dioceses and parishes are blessed with bishops and priests who intimately understand the world of sacred music. Otherwise, everyone knows who is responsible to “make it better”: the parish director of music. In a way, that is right and just, since they have the most direct influence on what is played and sung at church.
THE NEED FOR FORMATION AND EXPERTISE
Here is the elephant: while the burden falls to parish music directors make theological judgments on the content of hymns, many lack the formation and expertise necessary to make such judgments.
Music ministers are often surprised to learn that not everything in their hymnal is intended or suitable for Mass. Hymnals include content intended for other liturgical or para-liturgical celebrations or even domestic use. For music ministers, especially if they work part-time or volunteer, selecting the music for Mass is often a hasty exercise in picking the “ones we know” from a planning resource produced by publishing companies, who certainly seek to provide appropriate resources but also have a profit motive.
This is a realistic picture of most parish music programs. As a diocesan director who consults on numerous job searches per year, I can attest that music ministry positions are hard to fill. Parishes often opt for skilled musicians with little if any formation in Catholic liturgy or theology. To ask them to make judgments on such things is unfair. Here is where dioceses could step in and be of tremendous help: to offer such formation to music ministers, either through the diocese itself or via financial support for continuing education through other institutions. This letter should be a jumping-off point for more robust theological formation for music ministers at all levels. The Church can certainly do better in this regard, and I’m grateful to the committee for pointing us in the right direction.
One of the most appealing things about “Catholic Hymnody at the Service of the Church” is also one of the most challenging: it names names. The committee gives specific and well-known examples to demonstrate the listed offenses. It’s a mistake, however, to reduce this document to a list of “cancelled” songs. Some parish directors of music, who wish to be faithful and attentive to such instruction, will simply take a red pen to their repertoire lists, cutting out the offending pieces. Perhaps that is all they have the time to do, given the complex nature of their roles. But this letter sounds a call to do much more – to give attentiveness to the theological content of hymns and songs.
Before closing, I would be remiss without observing that there are a few songs that mysteriously defy Sing to the Lord’s judgment matrix. I call to mind a “certain hymn.” It is paradoxically both too low and too high for assembly singing. There are wild melodic leaps and contrapuntal errors aplenty. The narrative voice switches confusingly between speaking to God and speaking as God. The truths it delineates are not profound but simple. A skilled theologian-musician would reject it in haste. Nevertheless, it persists in our repertoire because it undeniably stirs many hearts and is sung with near-Lutheran vigor. Maybe songs such as this should go, but I am ambivalent.
ACQUITTING ACCUSED HYMNS?
It’s a good practice, I think, to imagine placing a song on trial. “Is it beautiful?” “Is it worthy?” “Does it confuse the faithful rather than edify them?” After this prosecutorial interrogation, a song is also entitled to a competent defense. (For a fine example, see Fr. Joncas’s credible plea for “Sing a New Church” in a footnote.) It seems that many hymns might earn an acquittal with the help of a good defense attorney. After all, one of the beautiful things about the language of poetry and music is that it is multivalent – open to several interpretations.
Good liturgical music nourishes our faith; poor music weakens it. Nothing can tank a liturgy more quickly than poor music – whether its poverty is theological, liturgical, musical, pastoral, or a combination of the above. It’s messy work to “make it better,” but unquestionably worth the effort.
Dr. Karen Shadle is Director of the Office of Worship of the Archdiocese of Louisville.