23 November 2008

A Church Musician's Lament

By Michael Olbash

A few weeks ago I was formally terminated from my most recent parish position at a church in the suburbs of Boston. After two years of building up a program that expanded the choir, promoted the singing of Gregorian chant and well crafted hymnody, and generated widespread enthusiasm for quality music, I was informed by the newly assigned pastor, a self-proclaimed "progressive," that I was henceforth to provide a mix of "contemporary" music along with my regular selections. Artistically speaking, this is akin to serving a fine cut of filet mignon with Hawaiian Punch. My differences with the new pastor proved irreconcilable.
Unfortunately, many Catholics judge the quality of liturgical music by its ability to make them cry, or to "speak to" them. And those who lobby for such music are too often backed by parish priests whose goal is to "gather together an affirming, inclusive, and supportive community." In the eyes of these priests, the liturgy is a "dynamic faith-journey through the labyrinth of life," rather than the holy Sacrifice of the Mass.

The music that we used at Mass has a powerful impact on the way we approach the liturgy, and the way we understand our faith. And any serious study of contemporary Catholic liturgical music should lead the investigator to recognize the ways in which many new hymns undermine reverence and faith.

The hymns of the St. Louis Jesuits, however hideously they might be crafted as pieces of music, at least are usually based upon Scripture and authentic Catholic teaching. But other songs from the 1980s and 1990s--by composers like David Haas, Michael Joncas, and Marty Haugen--are more frightening. Not only is the music poorly crafted; not only are the words trite; not only are the melodies shamelessly dramatic and emotional; but many of these contemporary composers proudly identify themselves as theological liberals, and the teachings that they subtly espouse through their music can be dangerous.

Personally, I stopped performing the music of David Haas after he published Dear Sister God, and presented a music workshop at which he and his ex-wife, composer Jeanne Cotter, informed the participants of their "duty" and "responsibility" to purge their parishes of "exclusive language" in the liturgy.

Father Jan Michael Joncas, the notorious composer of the drippingly saccharine "On Eagle's Wings," is another serious offender, who promotes misleading ideas about Holy Communion. His series of songs and rituals called "Tableprayer" is used all round the country by women and non-Catholics who act as quasi-celebrants, breaking bread and sharing wine at meetings that tread dangerously close to profaning the Catholic Mass.

Marty Haugen, a Lutheran whose music is probably performed more widely in American Catholic parishes than that of any other composer, has produced ugly, ridiculous hymns that emphasize the sun, the moon, trees, and dancing--all set to primitive melodies that evoke a whimsical stroll through a field of organic sunflowers.

Crack open a copy of GIA Publication's Gather hymnal or the annual Music Issue from Oregon Catholic Press, and you will find clear evidence of feminist theology, an overwhelming amount of confusing (if not outright heretical) texts about the nature of the Eucharist, and countless awkward "inclusive language" revisions of familiar hymns. You will find dozens of songs and "psalm settings" that are said to be "based on" or "inspired by" passages from Scripture, yet completely obliterate the meaning of the original text.

Consider some of the most recognizable passages from the popular hymnals: "Let peace begin with me." "Here I am, Lord; is it I, Lord?" "I myself am the bread of life& broken and shared by Christ." This is the music of a self-centered church, where the individual--not Jesus Christ--is king. At best it is empty and sentimental; there is no reverence, no sense of the holy or the transcendent, about it. This is the music of a secular-humanist society, trying to assume the cultural identity of our Church.

You can read the rest here.