Why Football Fans Can Sing . . . And Catholics Still Can’t

28 Dec

liturgical musicI need to begin this post on liturgical music with the disclaimer that I’m neither a liturgist nor a musician. My perspective is that of someone who loves the Mass and who can usually carry a tune.

In addition, I want to focus on a very narrow aspect of liturgical music–namely, the selection of hymns for Sunday and Holy Day Masses. To understand my concern, bear with me as I draw a comparison with the music at a professional sports event.

Has anyone ever been to a game where to get the fans fired up they continually play songs that nobody knows (or likes)? Or where they played loud music or otherwise elicited noise while the home team had the ball? (For those of you who might not know, the idea is to be quiet when your team has the ball, so the other offensive players can hear the quarterback better.) Or has anyone been to a baseball game in which they substituted a new song for “Take Me Out to the Ballgame” for the seventh inning stretch?

The answer to these and other such questions is “definitely not.” In other words, professional sports teams recognize the importance of playing the right music at the right time to help create the appropriate environment for cheering on the home team. It’s not rocket science, and any team organist not on board with that concept will soon be looking for other work.

For some reason, though, this concept is lost on many parishes that I’ve visited over the years. So many times I’ve gone to Mass absolutely ready to worship–and sing!–only to experience music selections that are so foreign to me (if not banal or repulsive) that it’s more of an annoyance or distraction than an aid to prayer. Does it have to be that way?

Now, those who provide the music for parish liturgies have several things to keep in mind. They should strive for excellence in execution, calling forth and utilizing the musical gifts, talents, and instruments at the parish’s disposal. Since the purpose is divine worship, not entertainment, the appropriate amount of reverence and decorum must be maintained. And since the music is calling forth something deep within us, the music ministers should be Spirit-filled and not simply going through the motions.

But all that aside, what can we say about the musical selections themselves? I′ve come up with three points that I think summarize what the Church is looking for in this area.

(1) Know the Mass. Surely, all music ministers know (or at least should know) the general parts of the Mass. Yet, maybe–through additional training, courses, retreats, lectures, workshops, homilies, etc.–they can come to a more accurate and profound understanding of the Mass so that the musical selections flow from an intense awareness of the movement of the liturgy. After all, don’t we expect the team organist to be fully “into” the game?

(2) Honor the Tradition. The easiest thing for the team organist to do is to fall back on songs that everyone knows and likes to hear at sporting events. These songs have multi-generational appeal and encourage everyone to sing along. Musicians are creative by nature, and they naturally want to try new and innovative things. Yet, they have to respect the fact that many decisions have already been made for them (e.g., “Take Me Out to the Ballgame” in the seventh inning). Similarly, the Holy Mass is not generally the time for musical innovation–especially if it’s to the detriment of our rich liturgical tradition, including the Gregorian chants, which Vatican II especially singled out as having “pride of place” (Sacrosanctum Concilium, nos. 114-16).

Traditional hymns like “O Come, O Come Emmanuel” (Advent), “For All the Saints” (All Saints Day), “Crown Him with Many Crowns” (Christ the King), “Jesus Christ Is Risen Today” (Easter), “The Glory of These Forty Days” (Lent), or “At That First Eucharist” (Corpus Christi), just to name a few, are time-tested and, if executed well, help the faithful enter into the theme of the day or season.

I will say that Christmas is the one day everybody seems to get right. Could you imagine going to Midnight Mass on Christmas and hearing only one or two songs you recognize? Thank God for classics like “O Come All Ye Faithful” and “Joy to the World,” which are such an integral part of the liturgical celebration of Christmas.

(3) Ease in Newer Music. At football games, we do hear some newer music. However, new music isn’t introduced at the game. Rather, if a song has become a big hit or was sung on American Idol, only then do they consider using it, because only then does it have sufficient familiarity and widespread appeal among the fans.

If there’s a beautiful new hymn we want to introduce, let’s teach the faithful before Mass and use it with some regularity so that it becomes familiar to all of us. Note to music minister: The fact that a new hymn is in the Music Issue of the missalette does not mean it’s beautiful. It simply means that it’s in the Music Issue!

Now, on this point there is a significant difference between the approach for football music and for liturgical music. Football music is catering primarily to emotions, and we’re looking for songs that are popular for their own sake. Liturgical music does not ignore the emotions, but it also must engage the whole person, including one’s thoughts and the exercise of one’s will, so as to elevate the soul. Some new liturgical music selections may be “catchy” and become familiar through (over)use, but that’s not the measuring rod for excellence in liturgical music.

Thank you for letting me get all this off my chest–I feel much better! God bless all of you this Christmas season.

And may all your Christmas liturgies be “joyful and triumphant”!

4 Responses to “Why Football Fans Can Sing . . . And Catholics Still Can’t”

  1. cinemacatechesis December 28, 2012 at 4:40 pm #

    Well said! Having just posted recently on music myself – I love old traditional tunes, but I also feel like we need some new things once in a while. I’ve been amazed at how quickly some new music can become an old favorite! But there’s definitely a time and place for all!

  2. Frank Peter Moley December 29, 2012 at 4:47 pm #

    Well said, I know a parish that could stand to read this.

  3. Ross Warnell January 1, 2013 at 8:18 pm #

    My two cents worth?

    I often wonder if Catholics see music as an integral part of worship or just something to occupy time when not much else is going on, for moving the celebrant down the aisle and back out again, or for the choir to show off.

    All too often such liturgy seems lifeless and perfunctory. Most of our Hispanic congregations certainly do not seem to have this problem!

    At Thanksgiving I was in Denver and had the opportunity of going with family members to a Lutheran liturgy on the Feast of Christ the King. It was a small (200 or so) congregation meeting in a rented parish hall. All the music was sung acapella with a cantor, and was a mix of traditional (Crown Him With Many Crowns, All Hail the Power Of Jesus’ Name), and a few contemporary numbers, but the really great part was the Gloria, the Creed, The Lord’s Prayer, The Holy, Holy, Holy, The Memorial Acclamation and the Great Amen were done in plainsong.

    The sense that the people gathered were aware they were engaged in something sacred was quite obvious, and in the final analysis, that is what it really comes down to.

    • Leon Suprenant January 4, 2013 at 4:42 pm #

      Thanks for the comments. @Ross, one significant difference is that people want to be at sporting events, as there is no physical or moral compulsion to be there. In fact, it’s fairly expensive anymore to take the family “out to the ballgame.” That should be even more so the case with those who attend Mass, but unfortunately, as you describe, some are there out of obligation (because it’s a grave sin to miss Sunday Mass), or simply out of habit, or because their parents or spouse made them go. Let’s pray that during the Year of Faith many people will come to a deeper love for the Lord and bring their hearts–and voices!–with them to church on Sunday!

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