Confessions of a Cross-Prayer

Yes, I admit it. I have gone to the “other” side. I travel 100 miles each week to attend a Tridentine Mass, and it has rejuvenated my spiritual life and my hope for the future.

So how do I explain this rebellious and irrational behavior? I am not sure that I can, fully.  I don’t completely understand it myself, but maybe a little background might be a good starting place from which all of us can figure out what has gone wrong with me.

My first professional position was as a church musician. I had studied organ and sacred music as an undergraduate and graduate student, and after graduation I landed a full-time position in a fast growing Catholic parish, a parish that was destined to be the largest in Dallas.

It was the mid-1970s, and things were changing faster than change itself. I was determined to maintain some level of “quality” in a Church that was embracing the popular culture with amazing rapidity. What did “quality” mean?  For the most part, it did not mean chant. That wasn’t even on the radar screen, except perhaps for a few days in Lent when we were supposed to feel guilty, somber and morbid, at which time chant was deemed as the most appropriate music to elicit those emotions.

No, in general it meant hymns from the repertoire of various Protestant denominations rather than “guitar music” built on three chords. It also meant what I have come to call “utilitarian music” for most of the responses of the Mass. This was music that imitated hymnody, that could be played on the organ, and that didn’t have lots of arpeggiated chords in the accompaniments. It also meant the Gelineau Psalms, the modality and speech-based rhythms of which gave it something of an affinity to chant while its accompaniments, filled with seventh-chords, gave it a kind of freshness that everyone craved.

My work also centered on creating a large choral program modeled largely on the programs of our neighboring Protestant churches. There was a choir for every age group in what we musicians dubbed as our “womb-to-tomb” choir programs. Of course, there were the brass ensembles for special feasts, occasional concerts, and lots of promotional materials designed to encourage everyone to participate – to “sing for joy” as the bumper stickers all over my VW bug proclaimed.

All in all, however, it was a losing battle. The pressures to “consumerize” the music were relentless. Ultimately, I took refuge in academia. After earning a doctorate, I eventually gained employment in a Jesuit institution whose choral program was in a serious state of decline. (I had never imagined myself making music in a Jesuit school – the concept itself seemed a bit oxymoronic.  However, since my confirmation name was Ignatius Loyola, I assumed it was providential, and it was.) There I was given complete latitude to shape the program according to my strengths and interests. Over time, I developed a program that was completely devoted to the musical patrimony of the Church: a schola that sang chant and Medieval/Renaissance polyphony, a choir devoted to the a cappella repertoire of the Church, and a third choral ensemble that sang the Church’s choral-orchestral music. The schola sang for a chanted Mass every Sunday: English adaptations of Gregorian formulas for the priest’s parts and the readings, Gregorian Proper, and either Gregorian or polyphonic Ordinary. The Mass gave a certain amount of decorum and solemnity to the novus ordo Mass that was largely absent elsewhere. It was quite gratifying, even if only for a small group of us. The other choirs sang beautiful concerts and also achieved a high level of notoriety, regionally and even nationally, both for their beautiful singing and for the focus of their repertoire.

For reasons that are too numerous to list here and somewhat irrelevant anyway, that chapter of my life ended in 2007. However, what is worth sharing is that one of the reasons for my departure was the same as the one that led me to leave full-time church work – a relentless pressure for a program that was more consumer oriented. I left that university and took an administrative post in a public university, where curiously enough it is far easier to be a devoté of the traditional music of the Church than it ever was in a Catholic institution.

Early in my tenure here, a small group of students came to see me. Somehow they had discovered that I was a chant “scholar,” and they asked if I would form a group for them to sing chant. We started a small schola.  The local parishes were (and still are) largely dedicated to various types of popular music, so our music did not fit well into the local scene. However, about 50 miles south a Tridentine Mass was starting.  We offered our services and were warmly welcomed.

This was my first experience with the Tridentine Mass since my altar boy days in the early 1960s. My initial reaction was more personal than that of the younger members of the schola, but essentially the same: “This is so beautiful! Whose idea was it to stop doing this?”

However, as the last couple of years have unfolded, my appreciation for the traditional Mass has grown far deeper than reveling in its surface beauty. Yes, there are some amusing matters. For example, when Father asks for a high Mass we don’t have to call a dozen committee meetings to decide what to do.  Having a high Mass can mean only one thing: the Gregorian Proper, a Gregorian or polyphonic Ordinary, and sung responses. I look back on the days of planning Masses, such as the diocesan Millennium Mass, in which every ethnic, cultural and political group waged its own battle for musical and linguistic turf in the Mass, and say a quiet prayer of gratitude that I don’t have to battle for my music or anyone else’s. I can simply and joyfully focus on praying at Mass because I have given myself over to the Church’s music.

This giving of myself to something larger than I is probably the gift of the traditional Mass for which I am most profoundly grateful. To experience the traditional Mass is to be put face to face with the reality that the Mass is not something that I will ever fully understand. Its distant language is but a mere symbol of the mystery that reaches far beyond my meager abilities of comprehension. The traditional Mass does make clear to me that the Mass is not something I do; it is clearly what Christ does for me. This is evident from the moment we pause at the foot of the altar and beg for ourselves and for the priest that, even though he be unworthy, God will deign to work through him and renew the sacrifice of Calvary, and it is evident through every part of the Mass. The Mass is God’s great gift to us, and we are most blessed to receive it.

As the priest offers the Mass in persona Christi there is never any doubt of the hierarchical relationship between humanity and God. We are His creatures, “the sheep of his pasture,” and all that we are and all that we have are gifts. The traditional Mass is never a stage for displaying rights and equality in the Church. To kneel at this Mass, whether it be for the Canon or to receive the sacred Host in Communion – or any other part of the Mass – is a freeing act of humility, submission and adoration. In surrendering my sense of self to Christ, I free myself to receive all the grace He has earned for me. I am spiritually far stronger submitting myself to Him than I ever was thinking that I had some kind of rights in His presence.

Too, participation at the traditional Mass seems to operate on a far deeper level than it did in the days when I was sticking those “Sing for Joy” bumper stickers all over my car. The congregation is not as noisy as it was in those days, but its participation is quite palpable. Its heart is deeply and gratefully given.

As I intimate above, from a musical perspective this Mass is also quite freeing. It is no longer my responsibility to choose music that somehow will offer the appropriate spiritual guidance for the congregation – or choose music that feeds a particular taste or choose music that satisfies any particular political interest group. I am simply a guardian of the Church’s music – of our music – music that the Church in her divinely guided wisdom has given to us for our spiritual benefit.

Even more, however, the music of the traditional Mass helps us to engage some of the deeper issues that I have briefly referenced above. The musical battles in the Church today are only superficially about whether I like Eagles Wings or Angelis suis. For nearly four decades now, in every instance where I have been engaged in a process of “slowly introducing chant and more traditional music” into the novus ordo Mass, there comes a point when everyone realizes that the process is not really about musical taste. It’s more about living life through a somewhat contemplative frame of reference, about living in the world but not succumbing to the world, about living a life that is less concerned with rights and “self actualization” and more concerned with repentance and submission of self to a higher authority. The chant is not just beautiful music, it is the handmaid of the Liturgy, the Liturgy that should also bring us to these realizations. In the traditional Mass this intimate partnership between the Liturgy and the chant is quite clear. However, in the novus ordo Mass, chant seems too often not to “fit.” I often find myself wondering, “Just what has happened to our Liturgy that this music, which for centuries was its handmaid, is no longer fit for service.”

I don’t imagine that the traditional Mass, even though it is enjoying something of a resurgence of popularity, will ever replace the novus ordo. (However, it does seem to me that the traditional Catholics are the only ones having babies.  That’s another, but not altogether unrelated, post.) I’m also not completely sure that that would be a good thing. At the same time, I have come to conclude that for the continuing efforts of reform in the Church to have any lasting beneficial effect, the presence of the traditional Mass is absolutely critical. The traditional Mass is unequivocally connected to the Church’s Tradition, which must remain unbroken. Too, the traditional Mass, with the chant as an integral component, keeps certain values, such as those referenced above, in front of us that we must face openly and honestly if our renewal efforts are to bear good fruit.

Perhaps this may seem like a post that is not adequately focused on chant as music, but the chant isn’t just music. It is truly the handmaid of the Liturgy.  It is ostensibly an intimate part of the traditional Mass. On the other hand, it is too often something of an imposition on the novus ordo. The continued presence of the traditional Mass, and its integral chants, will help us to answer more honestly whether this sense of the chant being out of place in the novus ordo is simply a question of changing tastes or it is a question of things much more profound. As we face that question, I, for one, will continue to give thanks that God has blessed me with the opportunity to help keep the traditional Mass – and the chant as its welcomed handmaid – vibrantly present.

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9 comments

  1. Dear Edward! Wow and God bless you! Never in a million years did I believe that I would be celebrating the Tridentine Mass on any kind of regular basis and that there would actually be encouragement for it from the Holy See! I was ordained in 1980 and very much a child of the 60’s and 70’s. New and improved was all I wanted from everything material and church related, so the Ordinary Form of the Mass when it was new was certainly new and improved Mass for me. But very quickly even in my teenage years I began to become disillusioned with the “progress” of “improvement” that gradually unfolded into a rather sloppy, casual, carefree celebration of the Mass, with guitar strumming musicians in your face leading you in hymns that were so trendy that even a teenager knew these wouldn’t stand the test of time. The transitional Mass of the 1965 Missal was great, but what happened between that time and 1970 is reprehensible. But I bought into it, especially in the early 80’s after I was ordained embracing every fad that I learned at every workshop I attended. Workshops on the Liturgy should be outlawed if they contain new and novel ideas. I was good too at changing the words of the prayers of the Mass until Bishop Lessard of Savannah caught me doing it at the Cathedral and in his own delicate way told me not to do it any more! My Cathedral experience and having a bishop as a kind of mentor purified me of my 70’s seminary training, although hints of it come forward at times, like experimenting with the new English translation of the Mass and asking for feed back, but that’s just between you and me, don’t tell. By the way, the feed back in my little old parish in Macon, Georgia was quite positive.

    But actually, being able to celebrate as a priest the Tridentine Mass once a month as a High Mass ( and we even mastered a Missa Solemnis for All Souls, with a fancy setting of the Requiem by our full choir, deacon and subdeacon and MC not to mention about 400 people on a Monday night, All Souls’ Day 2009) and a low Mass each Tuesday at 5:00 PM, I have found my liturgical life enriched, my spirituality strengthen and my priesthood renewed. Wonders of wonders. Thanks for sharing your story.

  2. Thank you! Edward and Fr. McDonald – you both describe my own journey as well. From banging the guitar as a teen in the Folk choir, to complaining about how ‘dead’ my parents parish was compared to my no-kneelers 20min. hug-a-thon sign of peace campus parish to a inexplicable longing for incense, high-altars, gloved servers, and chant.

  3. Thanks for a good essay. And thanks for the comments on the “consumer-oriented music programs” that compel churches to field weak choirs at every Mass, program four different sets of music – chant, traditional hymns, 80’s light rock, hard-core – every weekend.

    It’s certainly been a journey for many of us.

  4. When we use phrases such as “the Church’s music”, or “the true music of the Catholic Church”, shouldn’t the qualifier “European” be in there somewhere? Can we appreciate the beauty of the art forms of a particular time and place without assuming that they are inextricably tied to the universality of the Church and the Eucharist?

  5. Thank you Dr. Schaeffer. You introduced me to chant six years ago at Mundelein Seminary, and told us to pray through the intercession of Dom Gueranger. Six years later, I am directing a schola for an ex. rite Mass, and find all that you say to be true. Thank you for your teaching, your inspiration, your authenticity.

  6. The only difference between this experience and my experience is that I am blessed with an EF Parish a mere 2 miles away. I work in an OF parish and “go to church” at the EF parish.

    Can we appreciate the beauty of the art forms of a particular time and place without assuming that they are inextricably tied to the universality of the Church and the Eucharist?

    Don… this would be like asking if we can appreciate Latin and it’s vocabulary and grammar without assuming that it is somehow tied to the development oif the English language. You don’t have to assume that chant is inextricably tied to the church’s liturgy…that is a well established fact. As for whether or not that has anything to do with the concepts of “Universality” of either the Church or the Eucharist is a matter for another much longer discussion.

  7. Thank you so much for sharing your story. I also have found Traditional Mass so beautiful, through which I came to learn His humility and true charity by totally submitting myself to the Divine beauty and the reverance.

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