Reflecting on 21 Centuries of Faith

Does Secular Music Belong in the Liturgy?

Many of us (including myself) would believe that the issue of secular music in the Sacred Liturgy is a new phenomena with the rise of Modernism but that would be untrue.  Mr. Daniel Varholy in the video at the end of this blog shares that even in the 14 century the Church was struggling to keep the secular and the sacred separate. Unfortunately, not much has changed and parishes all over the world struggle daily with one or more of the following three extremes.

The first is the most obvious.  Music that is narcissistic or just bad theology.  The object of much of our “modern” Catholic music is us and what we are doing for the body of Christ.  Other songs are going for the “big tent” effect such as All are Welcome. The challenge is that the Liturgy is not about us – it is an offering of ourselves by the power of the Holy Spirit through Jesus, to the Father.  The entire Liturgy, including the music, is supposed to be oriented to the Father who is deserving of all our love and yes, even our music.  A great article addressing musical narcissism is by Fr. Paul Scalia posted by the Adoremus Bulletin entitled, Ritus Narcissus:Why Do We Sing Ourselves and Celebrate Ourselves?

The second challenge is the use of Protestant music.  While it is true that much of the Protestant music is peppy and many times mimics the current secular music, thus ” appealing” to our youth, it is also riddled with numerous theological faux pas and bad psychology.  In an effort to appeal to our youth and help teach the truths of the faith, it results to anthropomorphisms.  While making a truth or scriptural pericope easy for us to imagine, it many times is the impediment for us to raise our minds to the heavens. It literally shackles our minds and hearts to the earth and limits God to our own human emotions and experiences.  The Most Blessed Trinity is gloriously mysterious.  Remember, mystery does not mean we are unable know anything, it means we are unable to know everything.

Praise and Worship music that sounds like it belongs in a concert is confusing. When I come to Mass I want to tremble a little because I recognize that I ain’t in Kansas anymore but in heaven. The Divine Liturgy is meant to mystically draw us into contemplative union. A different way of saying this is that it is meant to pull back the veil for us to see we have stepped into the temple of the new Jerusalem.  That is not possible with our heart racing and music presented as if we are attending a Christian concert.  Do not get me wrong – there is some very good Protestant liturgical music out there but frankly, most of it is for a prayer meeting.  Also, there is an appropriate way to play music that respects and encourages a reverential spirit of the liturgy. Does this mean I want Gregorian chant at every liturgy, not necessarily but chant does have a proven liturgical tradition.  We have seen limited if any good fruit from modern liturgical music.  To this point, many high school graduates who participate in Youth Ministries with “lively” liturgies end up in Protestant services because they find traditional liturgies boring (Life Teen has collected these stats and it is a common experience of many youth ministers around the country). Sacred music should calm our minds and hearts to be swept away in the mystery of the Trinity.  Divine love is like an ocean or a skillfully crafted symphony, it ebbs and flows with movements and crescendos.

Besides, we have 2,000 years of theology and musical tradition.  I have a hard time believing that our musicians cannot compose good Catholic music that lifts up the mind and inspires the heart without relying on Protestant composers.  Historically speaking, the reason much of the Protestant Praise and Worship music gained quick success was because Protestant leadership specifically evangelized known rock musicians and then employed them as Worship leaders.  Net result, popular music given to us by Vineyard, the Passion Movement, etc.

The third challenge is that of secular music.  To give credit where it is due, many well-intentioned musicians have attempted to “redeem” secular music by putting sacred words to popular tunes and cinema music.  The problem is that if you try to put sacred words about the incarnation to the theme of say, The Empire Strikes Back (sorry, this is the first song that popped into my head), I am still going to call to memory Darth Vader crushing someone’s throat with the force.  One of the consequences of Original Sin is the loss of the gift of integrity.  This means we can think one thing and do (sing) another. The Holy Father, then Cardinal Ratzinger, addresses this issue in his 1985 book entitled, The Ratzinger Report. He made it crystal clear that secular music or any music resembling it  does not have a place within the sacred liturgy.

Why do we feel it necessary to try to reform or replace sacred music so it resembles secular music?  Is it because it makes us feel better that our day-to-day listening habits and indulgences are justifiable when they sound the same? I would propose that it is because we much prefer reshaping heaven and divine love in our image than letting go of this world and letting our faith come alive. It could also be that musicians have forgotten that liturgical music should not be composed, played or sung  just because you have talent.  Our Catholic tradition shares with us that leading worship through song is a prophetic gift and is necessarily linked to theology and a life steeped into prayer.  Musicians, your ministry is to assist us to see with our hearts during the Sacred Liturgy as we stand before the Ancient of Days and the Lamb who is seated on the Throne of Grace. To where is the music you compose and play directing our minds and hearts?

Here is an excellent video on why secular music does not belong in the Sacred Liturgy:

Secular Music at the Holy Mass from Corpus Christi Watershed on Vimeo.

One Response to Does Secular Music Belong in the Liturgy?

  1. Russell says:

    At our Catholic Church its interesting to see even older generation women wearing the old head dress and clapping moving around in the seat to “lean on me” the older men aswell bit of a contridiction if you ask me.Seems given their age they should know better.

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