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Friday, February 1, 2013

If You Can't Say Anything Nice...

You have to have pretty thick skin to be a songwriter for the Church today. It's actually embarrassing to have to say this, but it's true. As a matter of fact, looking at comments on the Facebook page of  Fr. James Martin SJ of America and Fr. Anthony Ruff's PrayTell blog and the like, you have to have a pretty thick skin to share anything in your heart if there's even a chance that a thread of it can run counter to the narrow orthodoxy of some superapologists. A Catholic newspaper in South Africa calls these people "scorched-earth Catholics," likening their distaste for civil dialogue to the political diatribe in the USA during the recent election season.

First, I should say that I have been as guilty as anyone over the years of "dissing" music that I didn't like, so this is as much a self-critique as it is a critique of anyone else. I can remember pooh-poohing people's love for "The Old Rugged Cross" and "Mother Dearest, Mother Fairest" and other songs from other times and traditions, blithely ignoring the intersticial tissue of memory, experience, and association that whole populations brought with them to worship in those words and notes. I know that I have used language that would politely be described as "uncharitable" to talk about music that I judged to be unworthy for whatever reason. These days I have a strategy for dealing with that tendency in myself, but, like a reformed smoker, it makes me hypersensitive to the same fault in others. And it is a fault. It's certainly a sin against charity; it possibly comes up against blasphemy against the Holy Spirit. We in the Church have to figure out ways of talking to each other about matters of creativity and taste without using formulae of mockery and spitefulness like people who have never heard a commandment to love your enemies, or love your neighbor as yourself.

Here's the kind of thing I'm talking about. I'll just give a couple of examples, but if you have been around in Catholic liturgical music at all since the internet became more a part of parish life, you will probably have some experience of this. I was looking at the "forums" section of a small left-coast liturgical publisher's website, where ideas are exchanged on various topics, including liturgical music. There, a group of less than a dozen musicians, some of whom I've known from other mailing lists and groups, have an ongoing exchange about what is heretical, unmusical, unworthy, unliturgical, about a whole range of music written over the last thirty years. It has moments of lucidity and an occasional voice that attempts to inject some less negatively charged rhetoric into the discussions, but it's largely the kind of smarmy, elitist jargon that is all but explicit in its contempt for anything but chant, polyphony, and organ music. We've all heard those voices before. Anyone who's been around for the last five-to ten years on various official and unofficial NPM lists and other music-interest internet lists knows the posters and their schtick, and it hasn't changed. But the poison is still out there.

Another site, and one of the favorites of the "in" group of would-be tastemakers is the "Society for the Moratorium on the Music" of a couple of well-known composers of liturgical music. At this site, again, they gather to support each other's loathing for the very music that hundreds of thousands of American Catholics worship with Sunday after Sunday.

Does anyone else see the inconsistency of this behavior with the values of the Gospel?

I just wonder whether some of these self-anointed experts has considered the possibility that there is some other path to the truth than one that demonizes one spiritual path while it glorifies another of its own choosing. I wonder whether they know the sacrifices that many of us have made over the years to stay in Church music. I wonder if they think about the fact that we do this because we have discerned, with literally thousands of others, a call from the Holy Spirit to do this work as our vocation. I wonder if they understand how challenging it is to try to distill the insights and visions of faith into liturgical song, and then, having invested days, weeks, or longer periods of work into it, releasing it into a community to begin a process of discernment among fellow Christians before it ever gets to the level of professional editorial criticism.

Hymnals are literally full of songs. Not every one is for every person or parish. Music directors are free to discern for their own communities what is appropriate for their parish as they discern it. But labeling something as kitsch or heresy because we disagree with its theology or have different taste in music cannot be construed as consonant with the demands of charity. 

The behavior of this sector of the Catholic music leadership has led me to question my own slash-and-burn rhetoric over the years, the kind of iconoclastic action that invites defensive reaction among the other group. But I think that through all of that I have always seen the value of traditional liturgical music, always worked with chant and hymnody in parish jobs I've done, and tried to cultivate the "big tent" image of the Church's treasure of people and their music.

As a songwriter and a Catholic Christian, I guess I expect that both my friends and my enemies within the Church will treat me with respect, and approach me in honesty and charity when they feel I've veered off the path somehow. I'm not a monopoly: I don't publish my own music, in a sense, I have no real say over where or how my songs are used or performed. All I can do is sing when the Spirit says sing, and discern with my colleagues and worship community whether the music I write can be passed along to the next level of discernment. This goes for David Haas, Fr. Michael Joncas, Marty Haugen, Jaime Cortez, and all the other women and men who have given their lives over to contributing to the Church's sung worship. 

You can hold me to these values if you see or hear me being disrespectful of the work of other composers in the Church. It's an imperfect world and a sinful Church, we all expect a rough ride at times. The least we can do is live in charity, and speak to one another without envy or contempt. In the words of the German divine Rupertus Meldenius, "Si nos servaremus in necesariis Unitatem, in non-necessariis Libertatem, in utrisque Charitatem, optimo certe loco essent res nostrae." (If we preserve unity in necessary things, freedom in non-necessary things, and in all things charity, our affairs will surely be in the best place.") Or, as paragraph 28 of Music in Catholic Worship exhorted us 35 years ago, "Do not allow yourselves to be offended by the imperfect as you strive for the perfect," quoting St. Augustine of Hippo.


  1. Well said Rory! I have appreciated reading your blog the last few days...and I would like to reference one of your earlier posts...your top ten list. I AM THE BREAD OF LIFE by Susan Toolen...I heard this song for the first time at Tom Thelin's First Mass in June of 1973...trumpets and all...powerful...moving...inspiring...a wonderful summary of John 6...about 23 years later...I was meeting with the Interim Organist and Director of Music who REFUSED to play I AM THE BREAD OF LIFE because of the "troublesome word to note issue" in the piece...yet I knew,serving as the Rector / Pastor of this particular Faith Community, that many people had come to an a spiritual awakening through singing this hymn...on Cursillo, Marriage Encounter, TEC, Happening, New thank you for reminding all of us...of how easy it is to dismiss or diminish the offering of others!

    1. Doug, I wonder what "troublesome word to note issue" means? cuique suum, I guess. But sometimes you just want to slap people. In love, i mean. Like a bishop at confirmation. :-)

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  3. Bravo, Rory!!! They are my sentiments EXACTLY!!! I have always tried to see the value of all of the treasury of the Church's music and use all genres. The only blog I read with any regularity is Pray Tell (and now yours)and some of those people are just horrendously uncharitable in their comments. I cringe when I think of people like you, who have dedicated their lives and talents to creating music for worship, reading these terribly hurtful epithets! It is easy to dismiss the thousands upon thousands who love what you do and enter into prayer because of it, in the face of these caustic comments.
    Thank you

  4. I literally wiped the dust from my feet and left the town because of this unfortunate state of ecclesial, musical polemics. Who can say how the grace of God works through a composer's liturgical music? We stay the road and respond to what emerges as a result of prayer, work and.diligent attention to the Gospel. Thanks for your honest reflection.

  5. Very well stated. There is a lot of passion and life experience that went into writing this. Much of what we need to know in life can be found in the words of "Ubi Caritas."

  6. Good. What needed to be said.

    Thanks for this blog, and for bringing a sense of charity and ministry to the net. Best on the Lenten journey ahead.


  7. For anyone who has been able to read this, and to the poster above who mentioned "Ubi Caritas", here is a link sent to me by another reader, who wrote a blog post in much the same vein. Thank you, Richard, for sending this to me, and for the cogent argument you make for gentility among us musicians.