Pray Tell continues its series of interviews with liturgical leaders, loosely inspired by a series in Time Magazine. Interviewees are invited to be witty, engaging, and humorous in their responses. The views expressed are not necessarily those of Pray Tell.
MF: Not really. I wish I were more skilled in art history and in architectural history. I wish very much that I knew Coptic.
What are you most proud of in your scholarly work?
MF: Proud, I don’t know if that is a word I would use. The most difficult thing I ever wrote was the book The Virgin of Chartres: Making History through Liturgy and the Arts (Yale, 2010); the most useful book may be Music in the Medieval West and its Anthology (Norton, 2014). I look forward to the second printing in order to tend to some typos. If the sounding model of Hildegard’s cosmos we are making for the Digital Visualization Theater (at Notre Dame) comes out the way Christian Jara and I hope, and eventually reaches a broad audience, who knows, I might be proud of that.
Any book you wish you had written?
MF: Yes, a history of music and worship in the USA: at least I get to teach this subject!
Three things to fix the liturgy – what would they be?
MF: “fix” is not a word I would use, but I’ll try to answer:
1. Church musicians in every parish who are paid a living wage; they need to be musically skilled and liturgically informed, and they need to be good at observation, at taking the pulse of the people they serve, and able both at leading and at being led. They can offer the kinds of skill and friendship necessary to encourage vibrant prayer, in every tradition and culture. A great church musician pays for her/himself in five years, and the ultimate “payoff” is in building the church through its worship life, and strengthening the prayer lives of every participant as well. In this way, then, both communal sound and individual voices go out the door and into the world. There is no other way, and until we get this piece in place, we won’t “fix” anything. Nor will we have successful evangelization. It all goes back to a hermeneutic of praise. This relates as well to the environment, for music and praise are deeply satisfying, filling a need that is built in to what it means to be human. Sacred music in a person’s life takes little and gives so much, gives everything, really. But in the Western Christian tradition, it depends on a cadre of great musicians, servants of the people, doing God’s good work.
2. More children’s choirs, with musical training for children in all Christian traditions. Also children learning each other’s various traditions would/could be a beautiful thing and an important aspect of cultural life. Director Dr. Mark Doerries is trying to do this in the Notre Dame Children’s Choir. Choirs can be the antidote for the poisons of the media that seem to promise to bring people together, but often really divide. If there were only some way to make more hours in the day for children and their parents, with music as a part of daily routine. I was speaking this week to a parent of two choristers in St. Thomas’s choir school in NYC; the students sing upwards of twenty hours a week as part of their curriculum. That’s about right! But how can most of us do this?
3. Each tradition should seek to uncover a creative balance between its musical heritage and well-crafted new works that are theologically and aesthetically sound. Chant for Catholics, chorales for Lutherans, spirituals and Gospel for African Americans, hymns for Methodists are examples of some great traditional repertories. To know them is to understand a wealth of liturgical/worship music throughout the ages and to be directly in touch with past generations; at least some new works should be rooted in these traditional repositories of congregational song. We need well-trained composers who can bridge the gaps between the old and the new and help our congregations find their voices, and church musicians who are good at arranging and even at composing, to create musical fabrics that nurture congregational life and foster praise.
Pope Francis: good for liturgical renewal or not?
MF: He is the first Pope ordained a priest after Vatican II, and therefore formed entirely by the new liturgy. All his liturgies are the renewed liturgy. He is good for renewal because he understands it and can help with its full implementation, seeing this as a creative and ongoing movement.
Is the Vatican II liturgical renewal secure or endangered?
MF: Under Pope Francis it will prevail.
Anything good coming out of Summorum Pontificum?
MF: Like every other reform in history, the recent reform of the liturgy involved both gains and losses. In order to restore balance going forward, future reforms of the Roman rite will need to be able to access the pre-Conciliar tradition, not merely as a text in a book, but as a living form. Therefore, the small and rare communities that are willing to invest the necessary time and effort in training, formation, classical language-learning, historical knowledge, arts and music that are essential to celebrating the old rite, should be able to do so, and are performing a service to the whole church as guardians of part of our collective memory. That being said, I am a Vatican II RC, and participation with full heart and full voice is crucial to my worship life and to my work in training people with vocations as church musicians and for other roles in service to the church and its communal life.
Is liturgical ecumenism still alive?
MF: Unfortunately, I think it needs a great deal of thought and ultimately of energy that doesn’t seem to be coming to it at present. I hope we can do better in the immediate future decades. I advocate more ecumenical prayer services, with a vibrant psalmody as the heart of our common prayer. These could be well worth the time and concentration needed, as we would learn from the planning as well as from the praying.
Is academic liturgical study relevant to the real world?
MF: Of course. It is not only relevant, it is crucial. Knowing the liturgy and its sources and how to use them for building the church is the most important work we theologians have to do. Sacred music is often seen as ancillary to theology; I think this is ridiculous. It is at the heart of liturgical practice and of understanding how people relate to God, and also of fathoming the nature of God. If that’s not theology, I don’t know what is.
Do you advise young people go into liturgical/study?
MF: Young people should do what they love. The rest will take care of itself, ultimately.
Margot Fassler is the Keough-Hesburgh Professor of Music History and Liturgy and Director of the Program in Sacred Music, University of Notre Dame; Robert Tangeman Professor Emerita, Yale University, and former Director of the Yale Institute of Sacred Music.