Singing Lessons

Author: Robert A. Skeris

Singing Lessons

Robert A. Skeris

Neither the legitimate liturgist nor the competent choral director takes any great pleasure in noting that since the '60s a fundamental transformation has affected the celebration and concept of the liturgy. This change has tragically damaged our sacred music. The job of recovery, the step that will get us singing again, begins with our understanding of sacred liturgy.

The Mass is the very core of the Catholic liturgy, the supremely important expression of the Church's faith. It is clear that a skewed concept of the Mass that fails to do justice to its essence will in due time harm the believer's piety and undermine the faith of communicants. Sacred music is a necessary and integral part of the solemn liturgy. Since form is an inner expression of the spiritual reality in the Mass, music too will be affected by any shift of emphasis regarding the form of the Divine Liturgy.

In 1990 John Paul II told the Brazilian bishops, "Legitimate and necessary concern for current realities in the concrete lives of the people cannot make us forget the true nature of the liturgical actions. It is clear that the Mass is not the time to celebrate human dignity or purely terrestrial claims or hopes. It is rather the sacrifice which renders Christ really present in the sacrament."

Even more pointed are the words addressed by the Holy Father to our own American prelates gathered in Chicago in 1979: "Let us always recall that the validity of all liturgical development and the effectiveness of every liturgical sign presupposes the great principle that the Catholic liturgy is theocentric, and that it is above all 'the worship of divine majesty' in union with Jesus Christ."

It is a fact that every liturgical celebration, "because it is an action of Christ the Priest and of His Body, which is the Church," is a sacred action surpassing all others. Hence liturgical music, including that provided for the congregation, must be holy. As Pius X phrased it, sacred music must be "free from all that is profane, both in itself and in the method of performance."

It is a fact that liturgical music is an integral part of the liturgy itself, not merely a means to assist or enrich worship. It is worship itself, like color to a sunset, like thought to the mind. Sacred music is not like prayer; it is prayer. Sacred music raises the mind and heart to God, and not only to our neighbor.

The Mass and the Sacred

-a thing acts as it is. If the Mass is indeed a sacrifice, then logically one of its integral and necessary parts will be sacred music. But if a social gathering or a fraternal meal is actually being celebrated, then very different music will be appropriate: a "polka Mass," for instance, or the sacropop purveyed by the church music industry of the day.

And let no one be deceived by the growing doubt affecting the very concept of the sacred. Many believe that the term "profane" is quite out of date. Thus, the opposite horn of the dilemma, the sacred, has lost its importance, has been secularized, and so rendered indistinguishable from its opposite.

There are men and there are things; there are persons and there are objects. There are also principalities and powers; there are thrones and dominations. Theologians and moralists are familiar with virtues and vices; philosophers know qualities and modes of being. But what is sacred music? What does sacred mean?

Philosophers, anthropologists, and sociologists would probably agree with Rudolf Otto that the sacred involves the expression and attestation of reverence for something deserving respect and veneration. The conviction underlying this universal human attitude is that there exist certain pre-eminent times and places distinguished from normal life due to their exceptional dignity. Josef Pieper has reminded us that such dignity quite rightly demands from men special forms of respect because certain specific objects, spaces, times, and actions are ordered to the divine sphere. Thus we can comprehend the boundary separating the sacred from the profane. Profane simply means the unexceptional, that which belongs to the realm of the normal, the average, the everyday.

A "preeminently sacred action," then, will be simply the accomplishment of an action, performed by a community in a nonordinary way. Let us be very precise: We are speaking here of celebrating the eucharistic mysteries during which there occurs the Exceptional -God's physical presence among men under the forms of bread and wine. Nothing could be more obvious to a man of faith than to act differently within such a circumscribed context, differently than he acts, for instance, on the tennis courts or at the supermarket. One speaks a language that is obviously human, yet different-in delivery, in style, in diction and grammar, in vocabulary.

What of the sacred music, which forms an integral part of this sacred action? What must its distinctive characteristics be? Will it sound, for example, like ordinary, everyday pop music to which more or less pious texts have been joined? Will it sound like common, everyday entertainment music? Like a more or less inconspicuous background accompaniment for toothpaste commercials?

Choosing a Hymnal

The pastoral question is simply put: How does one start singing again? No one doubts that there is a recurrent need to satisfy a present and urgent demand. Though many churchmen purchase wisely but perhaps not well, they all too often can justly point out, especially today, that there is little of value to buy. Pastors are kicking hard at the earth, attempting to gain momentum.

These pastoral ministers are not about to remain passive. They have caught the fever, and this is one fever they will not starve; they feed it with any food at hand. Much of this is informal music, music that makes people feel "warm and cuddly." The informed observer who some years ago noted that a steady diet of such music can be compared to a steady diet of sugar-coated cereal for a youngster was quite correct in foreseeing the deleterious effects that have followed.

If the pastor is clear as to what he is about and arranges his priorities accordingly, then a singing congregation can become a reality.

Such a pastor will pay the living wage necessary to support the qualified professional personnel who are required. He will see to providing an adequate musical instrument (such as a pipe organ) to sustain the song of choir and congregation. Also, he will try his best to become the singing celebrant whose contribution is essential to the dignified and worthy celebration of the sacred liturgy. And if he has a school within his jurisdiction, the pastor will insist upon an adequate program of music instruction designed to develop the basic skills of music for children and adults.

Finally, the pastor will provide for his flock suitable aids for musical participation. Chief among these is a good parish hymnal. These hymnals do, in fact, still exist! Thomas Day's 1990 autopsy on the triumph of bad taste in Catholic culture--proffered some good advice in this respect. A goodly number of reliable experts would agree with Day that among the best hymnals available today are , for example, or the . And one hears with satisfaction that the great noble lion of the newer Catholic hymnals in the United States, , may soon be reprinted by a reputable college press. That would be a very positive step in the right direction, for this book, which contains all the music for any service that a normal parish would need, has one great advantage: The homogeneous style of its contents makes for instant learning of new musical settings.

The problem with many of the other products on the market today is simply that they reflect the invasion of the Church by the current popular culture. The dismaying result in most instances is that the Church, instead of penetrating and transforming the culture of the modern world, has itself been transformed into a reflection and often a representation of the antitranscendental milieu of that culture.

Another strong influence upon the pastoral judgment of a parish priest who attempts the rebirth of song is the currently fashionable wave of ecumenism and multiculturalism, influences that often are believed to justify the use of hymns strongly associated with traditions alien to our Catholic religious and cultural heritage. A hymn is intended to be the prayerful response of the singing congregation to the words and wonderful works of God. It is a question here of the authenticity of religious expression. Hymns with vaguely religious (if not outright erroneous) or noncommittal texts and songs that are textually or melodically sentimental cannot contribute to the healthy edification and formation of a community.

Plainly, since any truly living church music is continually developing, it is situated in the midst of all the tensions of a given age. As liturgical art, church music is obliged to conform to ecclesiastical law. But to construct artificial polarities here, between legalistic order and a dynamic church music, demanded by the alleged needs of the day, would be to forsake the foundation of a music rooted in liturgical experience. What is in fact the pastoral value of the shoddy, the profane, the third- rate?

It is not the music in itself that determines the distinction between sacred and profane, but rather its expression and the soil in which it develops, along with its interpretation or signification in the act of being received by the congregation-in short, its associations. It is not sufficient if the music merely serves as an expression of the community's (perhaps secular) life.

For the future, we are faced with the agony of educating talented musicians, composers, and conductors-as well as priests and people. This present time is late spring, yet surely seminal; the harvest, a realist must admit, is in the future. But the present is no time to stand idle. Books have been written, courses are being offered, techniques and tools are already available. This eleventh hour must be filled, not with noise, but with study, teaching, and carefully wrought performance-all governed by the pastoral good sense, which recognizes degrees of participation that reflect the limits and the possibilities of a given situation.

Our final cadence is therefore a hopeful one, even though contemporary church history, which studies the recent past, cannot escape the conclusion that the efforts made thus far toward realizing the intentions of the last Council have not produced the benefits envisioned by that sacred synod. A perceptible change will come about only through greater willingness toward interior conversion that leads to a new and more profound reflection on the spiritual level. Without this precondition, any new evangelization will experience the same fate as the Council. The true path to real change is indicated by the Apostle to the Gentiles: "Do not be conformed to this world but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that you may prove what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect."

The Christian Epimetheus therefore says, "Say not the struggle availeth naught." The soul of all culture is and will remain the culture of the soul. And that way lies our hope, which is the last gift from Pandora's box.

REV. ROBERT A. SKERIS, a sometime professor of liturgy in the Pontifical Institute of Sacred Music in Rome, is chairman of the Theology Department at Christendom College in Front Royal, Virginia.

This article was taken from the September 1996 issue of "Crisis" magazine. To subscribe please write: Box 1006, Notre Dame, IN 46556 or call 1-800-852-9962. Subscriptions are $25.00 per year. Editorial correspondence should be sent to 1511 K Street, N.W., Ste. 525, Washington, D.C., 20005, 202-347-7411; E-mail: