Wednesday, May 18, 2011

On Praise and Worship Music: A Letter to Kevin Symonds


The following is a letter I wrote to my old friend Kevin Symonds about his article at Catholic Lane.  Mr. Symonds has been an old friend and colleague.  Indeed, he is the first of my writing colleagues.  We began work together back when I was a fresh 17 year old convert.  I think his article is certainly worth reading, as he makes some neccessary points about why some music is unsuitable for Mass. 


Allow me to offer a slightly different yet I would argue complimentary view towards your latest column on rock music. For the purposes of argument, you divided between the “sacred” and the “profane.” This is a fine distinction, and a necessary one.

But as you can guess, I think the distinction needs to be made further. As much as I might not like it, a lot of your praise and worship is “sacred” music. It is, in a certain sense, “set apart” from the world and does its best to glorify God. It can easily join the wide patrimony of worship music that has Biblical precedent.

Some of the Psalms were solemnly prayed. Others were sung in a way that could be said to be the predecessor of chanting. Still others were played with a very loud and vibrant atmosphere. Trumpets, flutes, percussion, you name it, they utilized it. So when charismatics and others say that the Church needs to have a wider exposure to music outside of just Gregorian Chant/polyphony, they have a point.

Yet it is a point that is easily countered, and I think here is where we reach the crux of the matter. The issue isn’t really with “sacred versus profane” but “sacred versus liturgical.” Let us return to our examples from the Psalms. Some Psalms were of great jubilation. Yet others were of an equally great contrition. Foremost of the latter were the so called “Penitential Psalms.” While the classification was a later invention, we do know for a fact that certain Psalms were prayed only during certain settings. The sacrifice for sin had different Psalms than other sacrifices.

We should view that as instructive to our current controversy. One of the reasons (other than those you mention in your article) the Church has chosen such music like Gregorian chant is its inherent simplicity. One need not be a musical genius to do plainchant. Yet we have also had certain times during out liturgical history where music crept in that was beautiful, but not suitable for Mass. You do not hear Mozart’s Requiem when you go to a Requiem Mass, because Requiem was made for the orchestral hall, not the parish. Yet sometimes, people tried bringing this kind of music into the everyday life of the Mass. As a result, the Sacrifice of the Altar was obscured by everything else that was going on. As then Cardinal Ratzinger stated about this phenomena:

During the nineteenth century, the century of self-emancipating subjectivity, this led in many places to the obscuring of the sacred by the operatic. The dangers that had forced the Council of Trent to intervene were back again. In similar fashion, Pope Pius X tried to remove the operatic element from the liturgy and declared Gregorian chant and the great polyphony of the age of the Catholic Reformation (of which Palestrina was the outstanding representative) to be the standard for liturgical music. A clear distinction was made between liturgical music and religious music in general, just as visual art in the liturgy has to conform to different standards from those employed in religious art in general. (Spirit of the Liturgy, p. 148)
It is for these reasons I have always wanted to push greater exposure to praise and worship music, provided it stays outside of the Sacrifice of the Mass. Yet in order to do that, we need to ask ourselves a question: what is the point of liturgical music?

You touched on this a bit in your article. Yet I think most importantly, we must emphasize that true liturgical music draws attention to the altar and what is going on. The role of liturgical music is ultimately that of a supporting role, not a role of primacy. Does a loud and raucous “praise and worship” style of music do this? Or is the attention not on the artists themselves?

Have you ever noticed, from a musical standpoint (or vocal one), how “difficult” modern music can be? What is simpler to sing? Plainchant or Marty Haugen music? If you look at it structurally, it is the former. The simplicity of Gregorian Chant allows people to sing, but with a purpose of still focusing on the altar. Their music is a piece of the sacrifice, but not the sacrifice itself.

So I think you’ve hit on a fascinating question. Yet in order for you to give it the best answer, I think you need to go back even further than I had suggested. Before we can ask ourselves “what is the point of liturgical music”, we must ask ourselves, what is the point of worship? I think the answer would surprise and enlighten your audience.


  1. Dear Kevin,

    Peace be with you! Thank you for your response. I will look it over more carefully and weigh its comments, perhaps even respond on Desiderium.

    In the intervening period, I would like for you to consider the following question: "From whence comes the origin of this music" (P&W)?

    -Kevin Symonds

  2. I'm not sure if this directly applies, but a knowledgeable priest mentioned something the other day that I'd not heard put this way before (I'm paraphrasing):

    "We all know that the Mass is a 're-presentation' of Calvary; Christ is not being sacrificed again. But more technically, as the Church teaches at Trent, the Mass is in 'substance' the same event as Calvary, only the 'accidents' or outward signs are different."

    In other words, the very *essence* (the scholastic type) of the Mass truly is Calvary 'playing itself out' - with only the outward signs being different (i.e. a bloody versus an unbloody manner). So, just as the Eucharist in it's *essence* is truly Jesus, while the *accidents* are different, so too is the Mass and Calvary.

    Thus, when it comes to the 'accidents' of Mass, such as Music, we have to be very careful that this Music is somehow signifying what is 'hidden', Calvary. Any music that distracts from Calvary is liturgically improper (even if the music isn't in itself bad).

    This also reminds me of a recent article that came out titled "Top choral director calls modern Church music 'ecclesiastical karaoke'."


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