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
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.
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.