I recently watched a video by a Protestant who decided to follow his ecumenical instincts and attend mass to see what it was like. He ended up going to both the ordinary form and extraordinary form and then sharing his thoughts on it and if I can remember to, I’ll link his video in the description of my YouTube video.
He said something interesting after the fact. Now keep in mind, this is someone who is not motivated by hostility. He’s genuinely exploring Catholicism as an outsider and if Chesterton was right, the moment a person ceases to pull against the Catholic Church is the moment they feel a tug towards it.
But there was a problem. The moment he shared his experience of attending the two forms, he also became aware of the deleterious conflict between the factions that could be represented by them - those who prefer a traditional rendering of the liturgy and those who prefer a contemporary style.
And he took the time to point out that this infighting, as a first impression, was a real turn-off for him. And this underscores something absolutely critical in my mind. A house divided cannot stand. A house fraught with infighting is going to amputate whatever appeal possessed an outsider to come visit in the first place.
These divisions exist and they desperately need to be addressed and resolved and this young man’s experience reinforces that for me which is why I’m revisiting this topic in this video. We won’t find the unity we need to be able to answer the high calling of the Church’s mission by ignoring this issue or refusing to talk about it.
The only way to heal those divisions is to seek unity in Jesus who is the Truth. That means we have to spend the necessary effort to discover the Truth rather than trying to assert our own truth and preferences. We need to be conformed to it rather than try to conform it to us.
When I was first exploring Christianity as a potential convert, I remember someone saying to me that Jesus never sinned. As a descendent of a post-Christian society, I was familiar enough with bibilical stories to think that I knew what I was talking about, so I quickly objected with, “Oh yea, what about that time he beat a bunch of people up outside the temple?”
Because I was raised to believe that fighting was bad – which I was especially reminded of every time I got into a fight. And of course, at least where I live whipping strangers is against the law, I think...
What I hadn’t considered is that God’s law is above human law and if there’s a justifiable reason to turn to violence, then maybe it’s not a sin. So if Jesus really was God the son and could not sin against his own nature, then what could justify moving him to violence?
What were the people on the receiving end of this outburst doing that was so bad that, in our Lord’s mind, it would be better for them to go down in history as having been the ones who provoked the prince of peace to violence rather than continue doing what they were doing?
Well, they had setup a bit of a marketplace just outside the temple. So they were changing money and selling livestock, among other things.
Now if you’re a communist you might be thinking, yea, take that capitalism. Except there are other times he went through marketplaces and didn’t succumb to the same violent instinct. He also told parables about employers and laborers as well as investors without projecting any hint of condemnation against those things.
So it wasn’t that they were trading in a market that was the object of his anger. It was the fact that they were doing something profane in a sacred place. Profane in this sense means the everyday or secular. They were treating the sacred with a casual attitude.
Think about that. Of all the sins that Jesus encountered in his ministry, he was never so put out as the time he saw people acting irreverently towards that which is sacred.
So what does this have to do with music? If we’re going to ask ourselves how it is that we should incorporate music into our worship, we should be mindful of the need for sacredness.
The Church is the new temple. It is the place where God dwells. It is a holy and sacred place and the etymology of the word Holy or sacred is “set apart”.
It should be set apart and distinct from the secular. In every way that it announces itself to our intellect and our senses, it should be different from what we encounter in the secular or profane aspects of life. And this goes for music.
Keep in mind, that we don’t need to be using music at mass. We could just say the prayers without any music. Music is only introduced as a way of enhancing what we are already doing, so if we decide to include it, it better contribute to the sacredness of that place and those actions.
It’s not meant to entertain or amuse us. It’s not a musical interlude between the prayers. It’s supposed to be the prayers, themselves, sung.
But if we use a style of music that is born out of secular culture for commercial purposes, as popular music is, then we are disregarding the need for it to be sacred. We’re introducing the profane into a sacred act. We’re distorting and concealing its sacredness.
And if you think that I’m getting carried away with this analogy. You should know that Pope St. Pius X used it when he wrote Tra Le Sollecitudini which was a moto proprio about how music was to be conducted at mass.
He said, “it is vain to hope that the blessing of heaven will descend abundantly upon us, when our homage to the Most High, instead of ascending in the odour of sweetness, puts in the hand of the Lord the scourges wherewith of old the divine Redeemer drove the unworthy profaners from the Temple.”
He goes on to say that sacred music must “exclude all profanity not only in itself, but in the manner in which it is presented by those who execute it.”
In other words, the music in content and character, must be sacred. Commercial music like pop music, rock music, and folk music, are by their nature, their history, and their inception, profane. To try to wedge them into the sacred liturgy is to risk the same kind of divine wrath that Jesus displayed in gospels. It is vain arrogance on our part.
Not only should it be sacred, but it should also be universal. It should have a quality that transcends the fashions of a particular place or the preferences of a particular group or society. Now why?
Because the liturgy belongs to all of us. It isn’t contingent upon a specific preference, attitude, or cultural persuasion.
And in just a pragmatic way, think about it. Commercial music is meant to offer a diverse range that will appeal to a variety of appetites so that we can all be tickled in our own way. But that commercial marketplace admits that with this approach, what appeals to one person, won’t necessarily appeal to all. So, they make a wide variety to maximize the commercial potential.
But if liturgy is meant to unite us in God’s kingdom in the work of prayer, choosing from among that cafeteria of commercial styles is the worst way to create unity and inclusion. You will never find a genre that will have universal appeal.
And not only will it not appeal, but it will distract and disrupt the prayer of many. Which is why when I go into mass to find a guitar and percussion ensemble ready to rock, I know that instead of enhancing my prayer, they’re going to be distracting me from it. Even if I like it.
Instead, we need to disregard this whole notion of using music based on its apparent popularity in the commercial marketplace. We need to disregard genres altogether and pick something that was specifically designed for the use of Christian prayer – something that is set apart for that purpose.
And according to Pope St. Pius, as well as Sacrosanctum Concilium, Vatican II’s document on liturgy, these qualities that I’ve described, sacredness and universality, are found in the highest degree in Gregorian Chant. Pius goes on to say that it is the supreme model for sacred music.
And reading that kind of thing has always been a bit shocking for me. Because I went to mass for years and years before reading that and I never once heard music leaders sing Gregorian chant.
Not only did I attend mass, but I led music for years with, sadly, a guitar and band playing praise and worship music modeled after popular commercial genres.
And I hate to think that my attitude which showed preference for what I like to listen to in my leisure might have repelled some people from coming to mass because it wasn’t their cup of tea. I was imposing my secular preferences on everyone else and they either had to put up with it and do their best not to be distracted, or they had to go somewhere else.
The sacred liturgy should not impose those kinds of dilemmas on us and if we just followed the instruction and teachings of the Church, we wouldn’t have these problems.
Now, I know this is hard for a lot of people to hear. If someone said this to me back when I was strumming my guitar at mass every week, I probably wouldn’t have received it very well. So, I want to say that I don’t offer this as a condemnation but as an invitation to all of us to better learn our faith and what the sacredness of liturgy and the presence of God means.
And if we can do so, I think we will remedy a lot of the problems we see in the world today. The world is deeply divided and no wonder. The source of unity is God and the messenger of God is his Church. How can we be a source of healing and unity for the world if we can’t even find that unity within our own house?
If nothing else, this is an invitation to end the factionalism and the liturgy wars by simply conforming ourselves to the Church’s official direction. It should be that simple.