Letter from a Distraught Parishioner: “In Music, the Young New Priest is the Problem”

Editor’s note: I regularly receive letters from people struggling with difficulties with a young priest who is more traditional or conservative than is the parish. Here is one such letter, on the topic of liturgical music, and the response I gave. awr

Dear Father,

I am looking for help in the area of liturgical music. I have been a parishioner and a choir member at X parish for over 20 years. There was a change in pastors and the young new priest, out of the seminary just a few years, is the problem. He called a meeting of the musicians to “discuss” the church music. He wants a lot more organ music and more of the older music with some Latin. The pastor is a really nice guy and gives very good sermons but he does seem to want to make little changes to take the parish back in time. Our son in a parish in another diocese has a similar situation with a young priest.

The parish has several sets of musicians who play guitar and only one who plays piano and organ. Many of the parishioners dislike the organ because, among other things, it tends to drowns out voices of the congregation. I am having difficulty finding an internet site that is gives a balanced view of liturgical music. The sites that come up seem very traditional and seem to favor Latin.

I guess there are really two related issues here: organ vs. guitar and piano, traditional vs.  “modern” music. What I would like is some history or theology on liturgical music that is up to date with Vatican II and Pope Francis. We know that the priest will be bringing with him a number of years of theology training (he studied in Rome). We would just like to know a little bit so that we could have a somewhat intelligent discussion and not just sit there.

Do you have some personal insights that you would like to share on liturgical music? Just about anything would be greatly appreciated.

Dear N,

I’m very sorry to hear of this difficulty, which seems to be becoming more common with some younger priests. As for the interpersonal dynamics, I can’t really speak to that or offer any help or take sides from a distance. I advise you show great respect and support for your new priest, in the hope that he will respond in kind and a good compromise can be found. About all I can do from here is offer my prayers.

For resources I would suggest, first of all, Sing to the Lord: Music in Divine Worship from the U.S. bishops. It treats all aspects of church music comprehensively, with balance and common sense. And here’s a good book explaining the bishops’ document: The Ministry of Music.

It is true that the Church advocates some use of Latin. But: it has to be done well, it has to reach people, it has to be what they’re ready for. The most important thing is to move very slowly in introducing it. The pastoral judgment (see Sing to the Lord) is important.

And while Vatican II advocated keeping some Latin chant, it also said that “in the restoration and promotion of the sacred liturgy, this full and active participation by all the people is the aim to be considered before all else.” (It’s in Sacrosanctum Concilium from Vatican II if you want to google that.) The point is that Latin is not the main goal – it should give way to the much higher goal of people participating in the liturgy.

It’s great to have organ and traditional hymns. But again, it has to be with sensitivity to the people, musical leading that is appropriate, and common sense about not making any changes too quickly. (Maybe this video will help you.) The organist shouldn’t play too loud, that’s not difficult to solve. The first stanza can be louder to get it going, then back off so the people can hear themselves. Pick up the tempo, pitch it a step lower, and then the organ-led hymn is more likely to be appreciated. If singing is weak, the cantor should sing into the mic. But – this is important – he or she should back off more and more as the people claim the song and make it their own. Sing to the Lord talks about this. A good little book to buy for cantors is The Ministry of Cantors.

You might say to the priest that making unwelcome changes too quickly will just turn people away from liking chant and organ, and even drive them away from the Church. It is important always to love the people, be sensitive to them, start where they’re at, and make changes slowly. If the gradual changes are well accepted, you’ve made much quicker progress than if you upset everyone.

I’d suggest just one Latin chant, the easiest Agnus Dei. Have a cantor lead it joyfylly and confidently into the microphone, and DON’T DRAG IT! Keep it moving. Maybe accompany it on organ (or guitar – that’s actually possible!) so it doesn’t sound too stark or dreary. Just stay with that for about a year. I don’t mean in every season and at every Mass, I mean don’t try a second Latin chant if this first easy one hasn’t yet caught on.

Another helpful resource is the National Association of Pastoral Musicians (NPM). Have at least one, or all, of the musicians join NPM. Go to their national convention. Subscribe to their magazine, Pastoral Music. By subscribing, you’ll have full access to their website which has much helpful information.

The Church allows guitar: that’s a clear-cut legal issue and that’s the answer to that question. Resources from OCP, GIA, WLP, and Liturgical Press are approved by the Church, with the explicit approval of the Bishop where they are published.

The goal shouldn’t be, in my opinion, forcing organ music and Latin chant on people because they’re wrong and you’re more Catholic than they are. The better goal is uniting people to Christ, drawing them into worship, energizing them for mission. I’d think about how to make the organ music, and simple chant like the Agnus Dei, so appealing to people that they want more of it.

Explain how organ and chant are part of our heritage and unites us to our ancestors. Make sure the musical leadership is so solid, appealing, well-done, that it goes over well. Otherwise, you’re just making things worse by introducing changes imprudently and setting people up to dislike what you want to draw them to.

At every step, you have to listen to the people, respect them, and hear their feedback. Don’t just talk about what the law says or what the Church really teaches (which, by the way, is quite ambiguous and complicated, and not as clear-cut when it comes to music as some priests think). Talk, above all, about love, life in Christ, community, being allured by the Gospel, growing together in Christ. The only way to ‘change’ people (which can sound presumptuous) is to love them and listen to them and learn from them.

If you show openness to your young priest, and signal your willingness to learn more what the Church said at Vatican II and what the bishops advise in Sing to the Lord, I hope this will help you priest maybe to learn more about the pastoral judgment and how to be more sensitive to his flock. It will stretch all of you, and it will require a lot of good will and openness on all sides.

I hope this is some small help. You are all in my prayers.

Fr. Anthony, OSB

The letter from the parishioner and the response were lightly edited to make them suitable for publication, with the identity of the writer concealed.

 

 

 

 

Share:

41 comments

  1. This was great to read for a bunch of personal and professional reasons.
    As someone who spends time with “baby priests” I often find that one of the things that is lacking is actual pastoral formation. By that I mean, it sounds like this priest is formed in what the documents say but now how to help a parish move from A to W. Moving the proverbial furniture too quickly doesn’t help anyone.
    Your answer however was/is wonderfully pastoral on both ends-thank you!

    1. It is not appropriate to refer to your ordained Father as a baby priest…..maybe the problem in communication is on your part……no seminary in the world can train anyone to please everybody especially the disrespectful

      1. I guess I don’t fine it inappropriate. It’s probably meant well. Even if not – I think it’s important that we clergy not be easily offended, not get defensive about our privileges and titles, and just join the human race. We’ll have more credibility then, I think.
        awr

      2. Fr. Anthony-

        I admire your attitude about it. I recently went through formation for Catechesis of the Good Shepherd, and I recall one of the things that struck me very strongly from one of the presentations. In explaining the Eucharistic presence to very young children, the sheep and the Shepherd from the parable of the Good Shepherd are replaced by figures of people and the Eucharist on the altar. The priest figure- while mentioned to be a special sheep- is really just another sheep from the same fold. Not to minimize the work they have put in to their ministry, but to make them more relatable to their flock.

  2. I might encourage you to think in terms of diversity and welcome. Are you doing a diverse range of music? Is it welcoming to visitors from other parishes?

    I say this as someone who appreciates a wide variety of music. At times in my life, I’ve felt hungry for a style my worshiping community wasn’t offering me. That’s been true in communities that have done far too little modern stuff for my taste, and in ones that have done solely modern things. (I recognize this dichotomy is far too simple, but it’s a way of beginning to name what I’ve felt). Different styles of music speak to different people, and (at least for me), speak to different parts of me. People whose worshiping experience up to a certain point has been somewhat ‘monotone’ in style simply won’t feel as welcome at your parish if it’s photonegatively monotone. Some places do so much homegrown stuff (and music written in the last 3 years or so that gets played on radio stations I don’t tend to listen to) that I didn’t feel at all welcome as I can hardly sing a thing.

    At the parish I served at as associate, we actually had a policy that every Sunday Mass had to have at least one ‘modern’ and one ‘traditional’ hymn, and we did modern Mass settings throughout the year except during Advent and Lent, when we did chant. I’m not saying every parish has to have that same policy, but I will say I miss it now when I assist at places that don’t have that diversity.

    I guess my advice is to both try to explain to your priest how much you value the music you have been doing, and express a hope that (at least some of) it will continue to have a place at Mass. But, at the same time, recognize that he may feel hungry for music he loves of a style you’re not doing, and there may well be other members of and visitors to your parish who hunger for it too.

    1. Agreed. I am very drawn to guitar music usually, but there are times when I also love chanting. And there is a beauty in Latin and organ and a good choir that’s just very *different*. Not better or worse, but different. I think a healthy parish, on the guidance of the congregation, should offer a variety of music and worship styles.

  3. Another helpful change that could be done in steps is the introduction of English chant settings. This way the style of the music could become familiar without the added difficulty of Latin. At my parish, most of the ordinary is chanted in English (with the Kyrie in Greek being the main exception). Additionally, the cantor frequently leads the communion chant from a book like “By Flowing Waters” or “Simple English Propers” before moving to a communion hymn. The only Latin is usually the introit and/or communion antiphon chanted by the cantor and followed by a hymn. (With the Latin, English, and scriptural citation printed in the bulletin.) As a parishioner, these selections have made me much more familiar with chant, as well as the sung propers.

  4. If the same sensitivity had been shown by those responsible for the V2 reforms, this conversation wouldn’t have been necessary. I suspect, however, that what we’re seeing here is the phenomenon of the shoe being on the other foot.

    1. So which great Christian principle are you advocating here, Fr. Weber? “Two wrongs make a right?” Or is it “Get Even and Enjoy It”?
      awr

    2. While I think there might be something to be said for the lack of sensitivity on some people’s parts when it came to Vatican Two reforms, I don’t think the solution to the “problem” is continue being insensitive. It seems to me, if anything, those of us who might feel that some “reforms” were forced down our throats, should be hyperaware and sensitive to our dealings with others

    3. I certainly don’t recognize the parish of my childhood in this. Our pastor promoted all good music. Folk group, organ choir, and soloists combined to record an album for his 25th anniversary of his favorites: Deiss, Repp, plus St Gregory selections. I wonder if the “poorly implemented” meme isn’t a bit overdone.

  5. Good reply. I noted that not only did the priest want to discuss the music, but he’s “a really nice guy and gives very good sermons.” So that’s in the plus column. Many baby pastors seem to want to just dictate, not discuss (and good sermons are pretty rare in some quarters). And by being up front about his own preferences, he gives them an opportunity to formulate their own concerns in a cogent way (e.g. that organ music will drown out the singing of the people).

  6. Unfortunately, my experience has been the same as this writer. Worse yet, the young priest involved did not believe there was value in Sing to the Lord, or in having open discussions and sharing with the established musicians of the parish, especially if they were female. I have watched (now from afar) a singing parish go to one of a mumbling parish. This young priest has now been removed/moved (after 6 years), but I fear it will take many more years than that to re-establish a worshiping community who sings as well as responds, chants, and moves. It is sad to see what bad management can create, or destroy, as the case may be.

  7. Since you (quite rightly) advised the writer to read, “Sing to the Lord,” I thought I would post some pertinent sections below:

    61. The use of the vernacular is the norm in most liturgical celebrations in the dioceses of the United States “for the sake of a better comprehension of the mystery being celebrated.” However, care should be taken to foster the role of Latin in the Liturgy, particularly in liturgical song. Pastors should ensure “that the faithful may also be able to say or to sing together in Latin those parts of the Ordinary of the Mass which pertain to them.” They should be able to sing these parts of the Mass proper to them, at least according to the simpler melodies

    63. To facilitate the singing of texts in Latin, the singers should be trained in its correct pronunciation and understand its meaning. To the greatest extent possible and applicable, singers and choir directors are encouraged to deepen their familiarity with the Latin language.

    74. The Second Vatican Council directed that the faithful be able to sing parts of the Ordinary of the Mass together in Latin. In many worshiping communities in the United States, fulfilling this directive will mean introducing Latin chant to worshipers who perhaps have not sung it before. While prudence, pastoral sensitivity, and reasonable time for progress are encouraged to achieve this end, every effort in this regard is laudable and highly encouraged.

    75. Each worshiping community in the United States, including all age groups and all ethnic groups, should, at a minimum, learn Kyrie XVI, Sanctus XVIII, and Agnus Dei XVIII, all of which are typically included in congregational worship aids. More difficult chants, such as Gloria VIII and settings of the Credo and Pater Noster, might be learned after the easier chants
    have been mastered.

    The PASTOR should be doing this, responsibly. The CHOIR has a duty to learn it. The ASSEMBLY is expected to learn at least the Ordinary.

    1. Thanks, Ryan, that is helpful. There are also these passages which complicate things:
      64. Whenever the Latin language poses an obstacle to singers, even after sufficient training has been provided—for example, in pronunciation, understanding of the text, or confident rendition of a piece—it would be more prudent to employ a vernacular language in the Liturgy.
      66. In promoting the use of Latin in the Liturgy, pastors should always “employ that form of participation which best matches the capabilities of each congregation.”

      1. Does this really complicate things? The line “even after sufficient training has been provided” is something I’ve never experienced in my (admittedly limited) experience. I agree that pastoral considerations are important, but the document definitely seems to assume that a good faith effort will be made to instruct singers in the use of liturgical Latin. I’m certainly no expert, but “Sing To The Lord” seems to indicate the belief that basic Latin chant is well within the abilities of most people. Many church choirs seem proficient to sing the occasional song in Spanish, so certainly learning a handful of traditional Latin chants can’t be beyond them?

      2. Indeed, the thrust of STTL is clearly that parishes ought to adapt Latin as a regular part of liturgical life. There are hedges and guardrails to prevent excess, but there’s also clearly a floor to prevent inaction.

        In the case of the letter writer, he/she seems resistant even to training, not that there is ton of that needed for a standard repertoire of parish Latin chants. The writer should check his/her ideology and read STTL prayerfully, asking what the Church is calling for here.

        64 seems concerned with badly done Latin songs, basically saying nice vernacular > truly bad Latin. In other words, don’t force it until it’s ready. No argument there.

        In 66, are you suggesting this parish is not capable of singing a Latin Gloria or Sanctus? This paragraph seems more aptly applied to the very young, the senile, and those with developmental disabilities or language barriers.

      3. Latin is not an obstacle to young singers, because they are capable of absorbing new information much better than adults. That would be a good group to start with, and eventually you can grow a community that is adept at it. Education is the key to make 64 and 66 irrelevant; that requires a lot of patience to play the long game instead of wanting instant results.

  8. “it tends to drowns out voices of the congregation.”

    With many Roman Catholic parishes, that’s a feature, not a bug.

  9. I can only give my experience. I have found that younger people and families who care enough to come to church anymore, want the experience (spiritual, musical, aesthetic) to be different than what the ambient culture provides. In realistic terms, they really like hymns and chant, and sorta resent the intrusion of things that sound too much like what is being piped into their earbuds. Now then, most of the OCP/GIA/WLP pop hits occupy a middle ground; the more recent selections are more Broadway in character. These are the tunes that seem appeal to the 60+ constituency. To that young pastor, I would advise slow transition and patience. Begin perhaps with an organ postlude and some of the easier chants. It takes time, but good education cannot be rushed.

    1. I want to caution against folks thinking that most/all young people want more traditional music. In my experience that’s not true. The young people I encounter tend to appreciate a mix of styles and prefer to be exposed to more traditional *and* more contemporary music. That’s a big reason why artists like Steve Angrisano and Matt Maher are so popular with Catholic youth.

      In Colorado Springs, in particular, there are several large Protestant mega-churches who have stolen away many Catholic young people because they have more vibrant music, so we can’t say the reason for that is because Catholic music is too “pop culture.”

      It’s also important to remember that “contemporary” does NOT equal “pop,” nor does “contemporary” imply solo pieces that the majority of the assembly can’t sing. If that’s what a parish is doing, then that’s on the music director to correct. Music, whether contemporary, or not, should be chosen to (a) go with the liturgy, (b) encourage participation, and (c) direct people toward the Eucharist. That was the case before Vatican II and is still the case today. We just have more styles to pick from now. Our parish uses a balanced approach with some Masses slanting more towards one style or the other, and that seems to work really well.

  10. Well done, as always. Two points concerning the organ:
    1. I’ve found that when people use the phrase “the organ drowns out the singing,” they don’t necessarily mean that they can’t hear the assembly; rather, that they can’t hear the cantor. We music directors generally don’t *want* them to hear the cantor, and train the cantors to back off, so it can be a big misunderstanding. (On the other hand, of course, some of us do have a lead foot!)
    2. The organ is a tangential issue in terms of tradition. Chant is deeply rooted in our liturgy, while the organ is merely an accessory. Chant can be accompanied on the piano or guitar with ease. It’s a shame when the preferences for organ and for chant get mixed up together, because they’re entirely different animals.

  11. Outside the categories of vernacular pop and Latin chant lies the excellent resource Psallite published by Liturgical Press. Texts based on the propers and psalms can address many concerns of the traditionalists while the well-crafted, singable melodies speak a musical language familiar to the congregation. This resource can bridge the gap and deserves far wider recognition.

  12. What is this young cleric doing to make sure that Latin is understanded of his new people? IMO unless the people can understand a Latin sermon then it should be used sparingly.

    S. Thomas, Fifth Avenue, does an excellent job of using Latin as a garnish for their services. The Latin Gloria, Sanctus and Agnus along with an occasional hymn are often chanted at the HC. Evensong there often includes a Latin Magnificat, nunc dimittis or an anthem. They truly have the Blessed Percy’s dictum down, vulgarity is the lack of due proportion.

    Actually a study of the Anglo-Catholic movement would be helpful for Catholics as they are experiencing something like a high vs low church divide. The lady’s note reminds me of so many complaints by people who resented worship innovations by fanatic clergy over a century ago.

    1. That’s a rather absurd standard there–“unless the people can understand a Latin sermon then it should be used sparingly.”

      I go to a parish where the OF regularly uses Latin for the ordinary singing parts and the MF after the consecration. We all understand it. We would not understand a homily in Latin with all sorts of differing words we don’t encounter every week.

      Should my parish abandon Latin entirely? Does the Church think that?

  13. The quality of Liturgical Formation in some seminaries in the US, has a lot to be desired.

    The curriculum includes little on Musical Liturgy. My guess is that the young priest is a product of such a seminary.

  14. So much of what happens musically in parishes depends on the competences and skills of those involved. Is the priest (who to my mind is overstepping the mark somewhat) prepared to put resources into re-skilling the musicians he has? Is he respecting the gifts of the musicians he has? Has he made soundings among parishioners about his proposed changes, or is it all about what he wants?

  15. I think the instruments matter too. There are some who want to drag out the pronouncements of Pope St Pius X, or Internet Pope Y, or liturgical pundit Z, to the effect that pianos, as “percussion” instruments, are never appropriate for liturgical music, and that only an organ is ever acceptable … though I believe Pius X did allow a brass band for outdoor processions.

    That’s all very well, but it assumes that the organ is properly voiced and in tune and that the parish musician knows how to play it well. Central heating and lack of maintenance funds have left quite a few church organs off pitch, wheezy and unbalanced: poorly suited for congregational music. Anthony says that organists shouldn’t play too loudly: true, but many of them do — and, very often, far too slowly. Perhaps it’s hard to keep up a good tempo with the pedals. If a congregation can’t afford a good quality, well maintained organ, and a skilled organist, maybe a piano is better.

  16. This is an issue of semantics, but I think it is interesting that we still use the terms traditional and modern, or contemporary, when the contemporary style of praise music and worship has its roots in the 60s and became popular, when, in the 80s/early 90s? In other words, is something that has been around that long really modern? If the style is older than folks who are worshiping, and it is all they have ever known, does that make it traditional? Has contemporary become traditional? If I turn on the radio, the current trends in pop music don’t sound anything like what I hear in contemporary praise music, so if we really wanted to be modern shouldn’t we be using electro-dance styles?
    I have two main rules regarding congregational singing:
    1. Is the text appropriate to the day and theologically correct?
    2. Is the tune singable by the people?
    I often find when people complain the organ is too loud they often mean the organist is using too much upperwork- 2′ stops and mixtures, and probably out of tune reeds (reeds aren’t hard to tune, you just have to be willing to climb up and do it). It becomes too high and shrill, especially if you are sensitive to high frequencies. Let’s also be honest, many churches don’t have the resources or the interest to hire a well-trained organist. Many organists are also too over-worked to actually get enough practice time to be able to do all the wonderful things with hymns that they know how to do.
    Another excellent book to check out is The Church Musician by Paul Westermeyer.

  17. Alan Bradley said: “Let’s also be honest, many churches don’t have the resources or the interest to hire a well-trained organist.”

    We have a string of organ scholars each academic year at our parish who are pupils of our principle organist. They are earning their degrees at university and playing at our Masses which gives them more than average practical experience. They leave well qualified, and have their post-graduate degrees. They have gone on to many well paying and prestigious positions as well as more modest ones. In my over 10 years at my parish, I have yet to hear that one of these wonderful organists has been hired by a Roman Catholic parish.

    It’s interesting that this choir member has named the whole problem in the second line of this letter. Maybe a qualified, impartial professional musician, with no ties at all to the parish, could be brought in to help identify potential changes or improvements to the music program at this parish and advise the pastor and musicians. My guess is there’s more to “the problem” than the choir member can identify.

  18. As a guitarist, I am deeply saddened to see the decline of the guitar in our Catholic liturgies. I feel that the church is abandoning those of us, who according to longstanding local usage, have attended a guitar mass. This past weekend, I was visiting my daughter in Pennsylvania and attended mass with her. There was an organist in the choir loft and a cantor with a guitar up front. The cantor had a beautiful voice and led the congregation very well. Of course, you could barely hear his amplified acoustic guitar with the organ. I talked to him after mass and he has been playing guitar at mass over 50 years. It makes me very sad that he has to now play with organ, just as I do. To me, many songs written for guitar sound much better on guitar, without a loud organ. At least he did get to play while the organist went to communion. The church has a new organ which is being dedicated next weekend and there will be an organ concert. It is a small parish with only 2 weekend masses and incidentally, an old priest, not a young one. It is nice that they now have a good organ, but does organ have to supplant the guitar? In the past, parishes with a guitar mass always had a traditional mass with organ also. Why can’t we have that again, with the musicians coming together for special occasions and doing some songs on guitar, some on piano, and some on organ? In general, the guitar is becoming more and more respected in the world of classical music. A growing number of colleges and universities now offer a classical guitar major. Even some high schools now offer classical guitar as an elective, and the opportunity to play in a classical guitar ensemble as an extra-curricular activity. It makes no sense to push the guitar out of our Catholic liturgies, because in doing so, I feel we are pushing away people who prefer that beautiful instrument.

    1. It may be partly a social phenomenon. Fewer people learn and play instruments these days. Even guitars. Personally I prefer guitar and even organ as part of an instrumental ensemble. More work and skill needed to coordinate parts into a whole, but I can’t think of a better sign for Christian community. Of my parish’s seven guitarists, three are multi-instrumentalists. When five of us descend on the 4pm Sunday Mass, three can play other instruments and we hold our own with the piano.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *