Why Go to Mass?

Author: Paul LeVoir

SACRED MUSIC Volume 118, Number 4, Winter 1991


"Style" is a key term when discussing liturgy in contemporary America. Parish "liturgists" must always implement the acceptable liturgical style in their parishes (whether the faithful like it or not), and often they are forced to do it by a "worship committee" controlled principally by members whose agenda has been influenced by "Pastoral Music," "Modern Liturgy," other "establishment" publications, and local gatherings sponsored by the National Association of Pastoral Musicians (NPM).

What is the prevailing liturgical "style" in American Catholic churches today? While it would take volumes to document the phenomenon properly, the American style of liturgy usually involves a number of factors. Mass, for instance, will generally have a celebrant (invariably called a presider), perhaps one or two con-celebrants, perhaps a deacon, an altar server or two (servers should be male but frequently are not), at least six Eucharistic ministers (never called extraordinary ministers anymore) to accommodate communion under both species, a "contemporary group" of four to twelve or more members to provide the "music" and always two lectors (usually women) who, because of a twisted concept of symbolism, are instructed to emerge self-consciously from the "assembly." The resulting "performance" is usually either vacuous or annoying (sometimes both); only rarely does it glorify God and edify the faithful.

What about the "music" itself? To put it charitably and simply, the American Catholic church music landscape is a vast wasteland. Latin, along with its enormous corpus of glorious church music, is not even considered. The pipe organ, orchestra, and any music worthy of the liturgy are scorned and opposed with frightful viciousness. Missalettes have been discarded as tacky. What is found instead is some combination of hymnals, usually "Glory and Praise" and one of the editions of "Worship." The preferred accompaniment is piano and/or guitar, and the amplification required to carry the sound in the wrong direction (that is, from front to rear) can be absolutely deafening (cf. Thomas Day's excellent book, "Why Catholics Can't Sing)."

One of the most irksome consequences of the current American style is that the same two or three settings of the "Alleluia" are sung week after week, the same "Holy, Holy" is sung week after week, and the same "Lamb of God" is sung week after week. This effectively eliminates nearly two thousand years of certain categories of church music from our liturgies in favor of a few generally inferior contemporary compositions. (One could, of course, argue that the threefold mode six "Alleluia" is from the traditional Gergorian repertory, but this merely diverts attention from the real issue.) This is clearly a misapplication of liturgical norms, and is grossly unfair to musicians and congregations.

Even suggestions to introduce the rosary or traditional devotions as a way of fostering a lively spiritual life in the parish are dismissed out of hand. Those who offer the suggestions are often made to feel incompetent or are ridiculed for not following Vatican II.

The end result of all this is that the ordinary American parish has a musical program that is unworthy of the liturgy and a liturgy that is unworthy of the parish and an insult to the faithful. So why go to church?

The Catholic Church's public liturgy, the Mass, should glorify God and edify the faithful. If this is indeed what the liturgy does, it would attract not only Catholics but non-Catholics as well. But what do we see happening in the Church? Declining attendance at Mass, fewer priests, reduced collections, diluted moral teaching, and on and on. Clearly, if the liturgy were doing its job properly, this would not be the case. Instead, we would have full churches, full seminaries, full collection baskets, and a people fortified in the Church's unchanging moral teachings.

Liturgy should attract and be distinctive. The Church's liturgy as practiced in America today, however, is frequently unattractive and hardly distinguishable from a stage act. This is the fault of those who implemented the liturgical renewal and those who are now in control: the establishment. In short, implementation of the liturgical renewal in this country and elsewhere has resulted in unmitigated disaster. It has failed dismally. People no longer go to church, yet the establishment continues to propose more of the same insipid, fatuous programs as solutions to the problems they created in the first place.

The faithful, the clergy, the church musicians--even the liturgists--do not want things this way. The American style is, rather, promoted by the establishment, represented by the U. S. Bishops' Committee on the Liturgy and National Pastoral Musicians, and American parishes adopt this style because they have no altrnatives. The establishment's best interests lie in keeping it this way, for little material profit can be made from promoting the authentic directives of the council and the continual requests of Rome regarding liturgy and sacred music.

The establishment is the only game in town--a giant, unchallenged monolith. It needs to be challenged. It needs competition. "Sacred Music" is a step in the right direction, but aggressive action is also needed. Semi-annual or even quarterly conventions promoting good church music and sound liturgical practices should be sponsored in various parts of the country. The books and documents on the liturgy are published and available, and the Church has centuries of Catholic culture from which to draw for music, visual art, and inspiration. Parishes need to be alerted to alternative, legitimate resources and practices.

As an additional step, pastors should have their parishes returned to them. Lay involvement in parish life can be good and fruitful, but today lay people virtually run the Church. One can even sa that the Church has become feminized. Pators should have their legitimate role restored, and the bishops should stand behind their brothers to give firm support and direction.

Much needs to be done to bring the Church to the authentic renewal envisioned for so long by popes and councils. It is a daunting task, but it can be accomplished. If something is not done soon, however, not much will be left of the Church in this country by the next millennium.