You get spoiled at a church like St. Agnes – it’s like being inside on a bright day; when you step out into the sunshine, all you can do is blink. It gives you the luxury of being allowed to forget about everything “out there,” and as a result I always get discouraged reading about the problems other people have at their parishes, with guitars, bongo drums, and all sorts of ridiculous stuff. And then I remember why we wound up at St. Agnes in the first place, for at our previous parish the same thing was happening. Maybe we didn’t have bongos, but we did have the contemporary choir at the early Mass, with their guitar and folk Masses from Gather, featuring songs that sing of how great we are for deigning to listen to God. Even at the late Mass with the “traditional” choir, we were forced to hear the Haugen arrangements for the proper, including the Agnus Dei that substitutes “bread of life” and just about everything else under the sun in place of “Lamb of God.” If you’re familiar with this site, you know what I mean.
We’d gone through a period of “parish shopping” after finding the three Catholic churches in our immediate area were all lacking to some extent, and the parish we wound up in was the best of the six or seven we’d visited (we hadn’t tried St. Agnes yet; we’d heard of it, but at the time thought it was too far from where we were living). After I’d converted, I was filled with that gusto that comes from having made a life-changing decision, and I was just excited to attend Mass every Sunday. It wasn’t until I became more knowledgeable about the liturgy and the rubrics that I started to sense not all was right. A little knowledge is a dangerous thing, and when you become well-read enough to start questioning what you’re seeing, discontent is bound to follow. Once we’d tried St. Agnes (at the encouragement of one of Judie’s co-workers) and saw the beauty of the liturgy the way it was meant to be, it became that much harder to return to our own parish.
It wasn’t just a matter of becoming more knowledgeable, though. There’s no question that things changed during those. Things did decline; there was a strong charismatic movement active in the parish, and over time the members began to form a stronger attachment to the movement than they did to the parish. The grade school was another focal point; oftentimes, the church seemed to exist for the school, rather than the other way around. Women played a powerful role at the church; some of them were known to favor ordination of women priests.
Be that as it may, the fact remains that the liturgy did decline during the years we attended that parish. You might ask whether we did anything to prevent it. The answer is no, and you’re absolutely right that perhaps we should have. In my defense, I will say that it would have been a futile gesture; there was no great discontent on the part of most in the parish, the priest (a genuinely good man) wanted to avoid confrontations of any kind, and some inside information I had strongly suggested that fighting the trend would actually have been counter-productive. So after much prayer, soul-searching, and asking for advice from others, we made the decision to transfer to St. Agnes. We haven’t looked back since.
But back to the original topic – singing in church. It would seem that this is one of the most divisive of all liturgical disagreements. Our pastor emeritus at St. Agnes, Msgr. Schuler, has written at great length and intellect on the qualities that make music sacred (and therefore suitable for liturgical use – see here and here for some examples). Msgr. Schuler sums up for many the state of current Catholic music:
Thus the hymn has replaced the settings of the Mass texts; the congregation has been substituted for the choir; the vernacular has superceded the Latin language; the guitar and piano have pushed aside the pipe organ and the orchestra. What is left of the treasury of sacred music for the parish liturgy? Four hymns!
Then-Cardinal Ratzinger has stated that one can actively participate through listening as well as singing; in this sentence he speaks of the role of the choir:
Once again Harnoncourt has brought an important part into play when he speaks of elevated forms that cannot be missing in the Liturgy as God's celebration, but whose high demands cannot be satisfied by the congregation as a whole. He goes on to say, 'The choir, therefore, is not standing before a community which is listening like an audience that lets itself be sung to, but is itself part of the community and sings for it in the sense of legitimately representing it or standing in for it.'
The Twin Cities Catholic Chorale that sings at St. Agnes represents the congregation very well indeed.
Occasionally we’ll take in one of the orchestral Masses at Holy Childhood, another excellent church in St. Paul that has a rich musical heritage (a former music director was the noted composer and conductor Richard Proulx). Childhood does the Mass in the vernacular, but prides itself on being a “Vatican II Church,” that does a reverent Novus Ordo. It’s particularly nice to go to Childhood at Christmastime, when we sing some of the more familiar hymns (“We Three Kings,” “O Little Town of Bethlehem,” etc.), and I’ll admit those are the times when I miss singing in church.
On the other hand, we also from time to time attend the indult Tridentine Mass at St. Augustine in South St. Paul, where the pastor is Fr. John Paul Echert of ewtn.com fame. There the Mass is usually a low one, with no chanting or singing at all, and one becomes a first-hand witness to the power of silence, especially during the Canon. The stillness becomes a sound unto itself; one can fairly sense the collective participation of the congregation in that ethereal quiet.
But Sunday in, Sunday out, there is nothing for us like the beauty of the liturgy at St. Agnes. Whether it’s the orchestral strains of Mozart and Hayden, the polyphony of Palestrina, or the simple Gregorian chant, the fact remains that we do participate by listening to, and sharing in, the beauty of the music. When we celebrate God in our music, rather than celebrating ourselves, we achieve, as Msgr. Schuler says, “the highest form of human artistic endeavor, worthy of God and His worship.”