I was asked by a student today, “I just don’t understand why we need to have organ repertoire. When would you ever use it?” I stared at the student, confounded, dumbfounded. And then I had an intense moment of Catholic soul-searching. How many Catholics would understand why you’d want to have organ repertoire—how many Catholics ever do hear actual repertoire in the course of a liturgical celebration? I asked the student, “Have you not ever experienced a Mass which began and ended with a prelude and postlude?” The student said, “No.” (And I know this isn’t true, because I play preludes and postludes here at our own University Masses, but, perhaps this student was considering personal parish experiences.)
More importantly, this student did not care, and could not fathom why anyone might care about liturgical organ repertoire. But I say, how could anyone say that liturgical music didn’t matter?
Such questions conjure up for many of us Thomas Day’s classic text, Why Catholics Can’t Sing (Crossroad, 1992). But, in the case of organ repertoire, I feel our title should be: Why Catholics Don’t Care. This absolute lack of “care” or understanding as to why music might elevate and complement a liturgical experience is deeply troubling to me. It is particularly troubling as I prepare to embark upon a pilgrimage to Valparaiso University, in Valparaiso, Indiana.
Valparaiso University is a great advocate of church music, and of liturgical worship, and contributes to this advocacy by hosting an annual Institute of Liturgical Studies. First convened at Valparaiso University in 1949, the Institute began, to a certain extent, as an iteration of the liturgical movement from a Lutheran perspective—one which promoted sacramental life, the study of liturgical history, and ministerial practices which promoted active participation.
Over its many decades, the Institute’s program has become more ecumenical, deeply interested in pastoral practice, and devoted to renewing and refreshing the lives of ministers and, in turn, Christian congregations. This present year, the Institute of Liturgical Studies’ 69th session, commemorates the 500th Year of the Reformation, with the title: “Liturgy Serving The Life of the Church: How Worship Re-forms Us.” Far from being a celebration of divisions across our ecclesial boundaries, however, a number of Roman Catholic theologians and historians are included as plenary speakers and workshop leaders.
Aside from its ecumenical atmosphere, about which is cared deeply, I am also confident that both the worship—and its accompanying repertoire—will be cared about deeply, and inspire others to care deeply. Our worship is shaped by aesthetic experiences, and by symbols. The more we learn to participate in aesthetic experiences (be it singing, or prayer accompanied by an organ or other instrument), and contemplate the rich multi-valence of symbols (e.g. baptismal water, eucharistic bread and wine), the more we might be changed by our liturgical experiences. Just as symbols give rise to thought, music gives food to the spirit…and helps us to pray twice.
I learned to love church music from my Protestant brothers and sisters—and from my friends at places like Valparaiso University. I was changed by my experience of Lutherans who love music. My mission now is to invite other (Catholics) to see…or hear…why caring matters.