May 23, 2017

Editorial: the state of music in Catholic parishes is an urgent issue

Not at Mass: These sisters, members of the pop band Siervas, take their music to large crowds outside the context of the Mass. The 12 women, pictured in Lima, Peru, are members of the Servants of the Plan of God also do social service work in Peru. PHOTO: CNS

Saint Augustine of Hippo is supposed to have said something along the lines of “he who sings well prays twice.” It’s a good line.

Music, especially singing, can assist liturgical beauty and a sense of reverence, a sense of the presence of the other, invisible, world, enormously. Yet Augustine, whose writings, perhaps more than any other, can lay claim to being one of the chief foundation stones of western civilisation, obviously did not imagine 21st Century Australia when he said or wrote this famous line.

How can we arrive at a form of liturgical music which can be realistically performed in Australian parish settings but which does not drive people away in hordes from the Church? It’s actually one of the more important questions facing the church in Australia today. It may be painful to many within parish settings — but it is still a question that has to be asked.

The truth is that Australian parishes are overwhelmingly dominated by a painful and embarrassingly bad standard of liturgical music in two areas: firstly, the selection of which music to use, followed closely by its gormlessly poor execution – all too often by enthusiastic individuals whose musical literacy does not appear to extend historically any further back than somewhere about 1960 and the Battles (was that their name?), including those who want to be in (or control) what they describe as music ministry.

At this point they can become like liturgistas — impossible to negotiate or reason with. Yet if it really is a ministry, often it seems more like an execution squad, minus the dignity and solemnity which usually accompany these. No wonder so many Catholic Australian teenagers don’t want to be at Mass on a Sunday: musically speaking it’s Boring Central, with often the worst offenders being what are euphemistically described as “Youth Masses”.

Like a rally of the North Korean Socialist Workers’ Party where a false fervour is artificially whipped up and no-one dares step out of line, young Australians have a keen sense of the absurd and the embarrassing; the absurd they can put up with, but the embarrassing will drive their hearts and minds a million miles away – and everyone else’s too. That’s how serious this issue really is.

So what does work?

The first and most important step of all is to become reacquainted with the fullness and richness of the entire musical tradition available before the Bottles (or whatever their name was), the seemingly ubiquitous Marty Haugen and the rest of the current Dictatorship of the Musically Bland took hold.

Becoming reacquainted with what is available, we have more, better and – most importantly of all – more appropriate options. Consider the remarkable Father Serafim, an Assyrian Orthodox priest ministering in Georgia, whose chanting of the Lord’s Prayer and the Psalms in Aramaic has more or less gone viral on Youtube in the last two years.

It was Fr Serafim and a handful of fellow choristers or chanters who brought tears to Pope Francis’s eyes when he visited the nation last year. Australian youth – and many others – would flock to lessons to be able to learn the relatively easy steps to chant the Lord’s Prayer in Aramaic or Latin, to learn the mysteries of Gregorian and plainchant and, once more to lift their hearts in a sense of the mystery and beauty of the transcendent.

In so doing they would be participating in an Einsteinian revolution of liturgical music, one that could see Salve Regina once more become a relatively normal feature of Australian parish life, one that would attract many to the sense of the sacred and transcendent, one — we might almost say — that would greatly aid all of us at every liturgy in which we are participants. It would help us to lift up our hearts, our minds and our spirits; it would help us to pray twice.

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