The “Reform of the Reform” Set to Music

Wow! This is really, really beautiful.
And occasion for some questions.


It’s from a documentary, not at all made on the cheap, about the summer colloquium of the Church Music Association of America. CMAA is more or less the US successor, through many hills and dales, to the 19th century German Cecilian reform movement. They promote traditional music, much of it in Latin. I’m sure many of them are in the “reform of the reform” camp. Wanna see what it looks like? Here’s the real thing – birettas and chapel veils and black vestments…and lots of young faces.

I’m sure you have your own questions about all this. Here are a few of mine.

Q. Why is this movement growing? Why has the CMAA colloquium expanded by leaps and bounds in the last five years? What draws young people to this?

Q. What about inculturation? What should sacred music for the liturgy look like in the U.S.? Can we let obedience to (one interpretation of) the Roman documents mean simply preserving European treasures?

Q. Is the ethos of this movement (culturally on the high side, a bit exotic) a good leaven to improve the (not so hot) state of music in the rest of the church? Or is it more of an escape from all that for a few like-minded souls?

Q. How much of this is a positive response to the vision of the Second Vatican Council? How much of it is a negative reaction to bad experiences of the reformed liturgy? Or to the bad experiences of the complexities and ambiguities of life in today’s world?

Q. No one loves art music of this sort more than I. (I’m tempted to quote Harold C. Schonberg, “Elitism, in the arts, is good,” but I know better than to use the word “elitism” positively and expect to be taken seriously.) When you have the forces, it’s great to do all this. What do we do for the other about 90% of the communities who don’t have the forces?

Q. How can the rest of the church most benefit from the good zeal of the CMAA folks? How can we all best work together and avoid divisions and factions?

These aren’t leading questions meant to imply a particular answer. They’re real questions of the sort I’ve asked myself more than once. It used to be quite clear to me that we should do great music in church. It hadn’t yet occurred to me that my kind of music was made possible by a very particular set of historical cultural conditions – e.g., one where only the tastes of the (aristocratic, ordained, literate, educated) upper crust counted in a highly stratified, utterly non-democratic culture. Well, God put me in this culture, and I didn’t get any say in the matter. Now I wonder a lot about what God is calling me to do, here and now. How can I (we) make things a bit better, joyfully, hopefully, and charitably? 

And what are your questions? Better yet, what are your answers?


  1. The CMAA workshops show what can be done at all different levels of proficiency. Yes, it’s a bit of a nirvana, so to speak: a mountaintop experience musically and liturgically. I doubt any of them expect to create that same mountaintop back home. But these events bring back much sacred music that was summarily shelved in so many places. The message is not that everything being done now should be summarily shelved and replaced with the classics: it’s that the repertoire should expand, not be replaced. The idea that everything old is therefore obsolete is what should go: the beauty of the works sung at the CMAA events should be welcomed back among the repertoire, and these events show that it can be done.

  2. These are all interesting questions.

    But let me just say this: please, dear Lord, let us avoid factions. Peace, peace, peace first! Nothing good comes of war. Let us talk, communicate, sympathize, understand, and contribute positively and openly.

  3. I was blessed to attend the 2009 CMAA Colloquium. Indeed it demonstrated what can be done with talented musicians who work hard at beautiful music. But, as is mentioned in the documentary, there were a good number of people experiencing Gregorian chant and Renaissance polyphony for the first time. The chant especially is approachable to any group willing to learn. It is unison and requires no grand organ, and is the music most sacred, most closely associated with the liturgy in the Latin rite. It offers the congregation the opportunity for “full, active and conscious participation” through the very approachable ordinary repertoire. Fr. Keyes gave an outline of the wonder transformation that has been going on in his parish under his leadership over the past five years. Nobody at the Colloquium expected to go back and duplicate the experience immediately in their home home parish. But much good advice was received as to how to move forward in a positive direction.

    Which leads me to another question: If this video merely represents one possible path toward a more reverent and dignified liturgy, are there any examples of dignified “inculturation” anybody can offer? I keep reading on this blog that the “reform of the reform” isn’t the only way. But I still don’t have any idea what other options are out there to be had!

    (BTW, I’m one of the “young faces” who has come to love the traditional liturgy and sacred music. I am 29.)

    1. If this video merely represents one possible path toward a more reverent and dignified liturgy, are there any examples of dignified “inculturation” anybody can offer?

      I think a lot rests on the recognition that “dignified” is itself an adjective that needs to be inculturated. That is, sometimes behavior that is judged undignified in one culture might not be judged so in another culture. Things like various practices of mourning (e.g. more versus less effusive), or the way in which the body is disposed in a ritual context (e.g. folded hands versus clapping hands), spring to mind. I think that what is important is that the actions/words/music be considered “dignified” in that culture. That is why, in our culture, “Clown Masses” do not make the cut; nor do certain forms of “pop” music or celebrants who imitate unctuous talk show host. No one in our culture thinks these things convey dignity, whatever other good things they might do. But I can certainly envision cultures where “clownish” things like face paint or exaggerated gestures might very well convey dignity and find a place in the liturgy.

      As to examples of musical inculturation, I suppose I’d point to the Missa Luba (though this gets so often invoked that it’s almost a cliche) or to the adoption by Catholics of the strophic hymn. I realize that the latter is a controverted point (in terms of the hymns vs. propers debate), but it does seem to me that this is a case where a “dignified” musical form that has strong cultural resonances in American and European culture has been taken up by Catholics. And while I love Gregorian propers, I also think that for many Catholics hymns make more cultural “sense” and therefore I would hate to see them disappear from the liturgy.

  4. I would echo what my friend Jeffrey suggests, but unfortunately, the CMAA doesn’t always practice what he urges. Too often “positive contribution” is defined as “don’t rock the boat.”

    I would also suggest we rid ourselves of the myth that music like this was shelved in most parishes. Most choirs were never capable of producing music like this before the council. And the places that were are still doing so when supportive pastors foster good leadership.

    As for the questions given, I too think there’s too much dependence on European forms. The best of another continent and another age certainly has a contribution to make today, but as part of a greater whole, a more catholic approach to sacred music, if you will.

    1. “Most choirs were never capable of producing music like this before the council. And the places that were are still doing so when supportive pastors foster good leadership.”

      The parish where I grew up in the L.A. archdiocese (I was born after the new mass was introduced) had a gorgeous adult choir capable of just about anything. However, the good bishop there made it clear that such a choir was a hindrance to his understanding of acitve participation. By 1990 there wasn’t any more choir. There was a synthesizer and cantor in the front. I’m still angry at the way the choirmaster was treated.

  5. CMAA’s faithful and orthodox presentation of the texts of both Roman rites through glorious and noble musical settings emphasizes the centrality of Mass texts in the aesthetic revival of Catholicism. Count me in as a very enthusiastic young supporter of their work.

    Perhaps the inculturation question resides in liturgical text and not necessarily in questions of ethnicity, custom, or tradition. The propers and ordinary of the Mass are the patrimony of the Church and not subject to change. I recognize that the cultural tradition presented by CMAA may not reflect the worship of world Catholicism. Nevertheless, inculturated musical composition of propers must adhere to the texts of an authorized liturgical form. While l am convinced that sung propers and ordinary represent the highest form of liturgy, I recognize that musical propers might not appeal to all groups. But for those raised within a western cultural worldview, CMAA reawakens a musical heritage sadly neglected over the last fifty years.

    Certainly, Catholics around the world should offer praise in their native tongue and song. However, their musical traditions must flow alongside the prayer of the universal Church.

  6. I’m proud to have the back of my head be so prominently displayed in several scenes of this movie (the complete version that is!).

    While I would agree that the Byrd Mass for Five Voices may be a bit beyond the abilities of most parish choirs, there was a vast amount of repertoire covered during the week that could be accomplished by any group capable of singing the octavo version of “On Eagle’s Wings”.

    As for the movement in general, as one who is “not so young” I find that I am more and more in the minority each year at the colloquium. This is where the enthusiastic young musicians in the church are putting their energy.

    If you watch the full-length version of the documentary you will also notice the number of Clergy and Religious in attendance…their importance at the colloquium cannot be overstated.

  7. Thanks for posting this video. It was great! Without striving to answer all of your questions, let me just say that this video some 40 years after the promulgation of the New Order of the Mass shows that the true “spirit” of Vatican II is only now coming to fruition. Perhaps the Holy Spirit knew He had to allow the silly season that we are gradually leaving in the dust of this brief period following the post Vatican II euphoria and immaturity to help us to appreciate the sacred even more!
    In terms of inculturation, I have been to many African American parishes, some with good Gospel Choirs, others wanting. I have found the powerful Gospel Choirs that remain faithful to our spirituality and yes, sacred music, but with their own flair to be quite possible. Almost 30 ago (I don’t know if it is true today), St. Anthony Church in Atlanta had a very well known and powerful Gospel choir. They came to my parish where I was a parochial vicar at St. Teresa in Albany, GA. The first time was prior to our “post Vatican II” renovation. So the choir which was large had to sing in the choir loft behind the congregation. The second time, after our Rambush post Vatican II renovation, they sang in the choir’s new position, up front next to altar and facing the congregation. The first, in our traditional set up was worshipful and in continuity with our great tradition of choirs leading and inspiring the congregation in Latin Rite Catholic spirituality, song and prayer. The second time, the choir was the same, but facing the congregation it became entertainment–a part of our American culture! It was not as good as the first experience in our “pre-Vatican II” set-up.
    So, in terms of inculturation, let’s just make sure we purify what we are doing and use the “hermeneutic of continuity” not allowing cultural customs that are not in harmony with our Latin Rite heritage and tradition to diminish us.

    1. I have to tell you, Fr., how insulted I feel everytime people refer to the past 40 years with pejoratives such as “silly,” “banal,” “trite,” etc. I was born in 1972 and have been formed by the Vatican II liturgy. I recall beautiful liturgies where the role of the laity was preached and practiced in real and reverent ways. It was through these “silly” liturgies that I met and developed my relationship with my God. It was during these “banal” rites and rituals that I began to see the risen Savior in my neighbor, no matter their status, no matter their appearance, no matter their race. It was through this “trite” liturgy that I was able to discover my own vocation as a child of God, called to serve, and loved by a God who knows no definition.

      So, please, please don’t be so flippant when referring to a liturgy that has changed the lives of two generations, and I promise not to dismiss the liturgy that formed those before me.

      1. My entire priesthood for 30 years and my Catholicism since I was 12 years old in 1965 has been with the post Vatican II Mass and if not for it I wouldn’t be a priest. But I have to tell you that I was a part of some of the deconstruction of the Liturgy that I now critique. I celebrate the Ordinary Mass at least 12 times a week and the Extraordinary Mass only one Sunday a month and once a week during the week. I’ve encouraged in the past a variety of music, gospel,(having been in a very integrated parish in Augusta, GA, folk, more contemporary and chant, both Gregorian and Anglican chant (the latter I believe to be very compatible with our own forms of chant.) What I decry now is a narrowness in allowing more traditional forms of Mass and piety from some who are so intent on pushing the “spirit of Vatican II” and overcoming the “denial” of some of the banality that has so afflicted us in liturgy, no matter which form. So just to quote the Canticle of Zachariah for morning prayer for Sts. Timothy and Titus: “Proclaim the message, insist on it in season and out of season, refute falsehood, correct error, call to obedience, but do all with patience and sound doctrine.” In blogs that allow for comments, this admonition is a two way street and gets everyone thinking. I think we’re mature enough for that aren’t we?

  8. Early on with the colloquium there was an internal debate. Do we do music that people can take home and sing with their choirs? This is a practical approach but it doesn’t really inspire or life the imagination toward ideals. You end up just going from thing to thing, piece to piece, year to year, with no real direction or goal. Liturgy becomes a venue for the deployment of what is temporarily viable. It might sell sheet music but doesn’t really achieve much for the long term.

    The other approach, which we finally embraced, was to go the other direction entirely, singing music that hardly any parish can possibly perform. in software terms, this is not a bug but rather a “known error” – and entirely intended as such. What doing this music accomplishes is to give a vision of ideals. From a performance point of view, if you can sing the hard thing, you can sing the easy thing. So at the Colloquium, everyone is reaching and reaching, learning and learning, going much farther than they ever imagined. When they get back home to sing the much easier material, directors and singers have new confidence and now they can advance with new skills and a new vision for the goal. Makes sense!

    1. Well put, Jeffrey. I think there have been similar discussions when planning for NPM conventions, and also for our summer liturgy and music conference here at St. John’s. It’s a unique group gathered for events like these, and planners should take that into account and not pretend it’s an average or small parish. I think the key here is both to do it well at the convention and also to give people resources and good advice at the convention for what to do in their real-life situations back home.

  9. I see our recent senate election in Massachusetts as comparable to the surprising CMAA phenomenon. So sure of our assumptions, we were blind to widespread political discontent and woke up one morning to find ourselves with a – dare I say it – Republican senator. Complacent in its quasi-official role as models of American liturgical music practice, The National Association of Pastoral Musicians and the liturgical music publication industry likewise have almost blithely ignored a smoldering dissatisfaction with their response to concerns with liturgical music and the potential of ordinary Catholics to embrace something different.

    The growth of the CMAA has undoubtedly benefited from a masterful utilization of the new communication technologies. That in itself signals that it is a youth based organization. Although somewhat counterintuitive, it also benefits from having as its principal public spokesman someone is not a professional musician. Although Jeffrey Tucker sometimes goes out on an unstable limb (e.g., ban carols at Christmas liturgies), his unbridled enthusiasm and idealism has gained him an audience that professional musicians can only envy.

    But whether the CMAA success can be sustained is an open question. Rivals will certainly learn from their mistakes and counter with sophisticated use of technology. NPM and the major Catholic publishers will likely stage a counter offensive. Benedict XVI’s eventual successor may not be particularly sympathetic to restoring a Catholic musical heritage. And with no formal regional organizational structure, placing so much emphasis on one summer CMAA colloquium may not yield a desired harvest at the local level.

    Even with these reservations, however, I think the growth of the CMAA has been a blessing. The slipshod has too long been given a free pass from critical scrutiny and the CMAA is at last giving a voice to those who have patiently endured for so long.

  10. My perspective is that the Catholic faithful should not be strangers to their birthright to the treasury/patrimony of the Catholic musical heritage, particularly those in lands whose Catholics are by and large descended from European ancestors and thus where legitimate need for inculturation of non-European elements is less profound than in, say, India or Congo.

    What I mean by this, for a “typical” suburban or urban Catholic congregation in the US, is that chant generally (vernacular and Latin), Gregorian chant in particular and polyphony should not be esoteric to the ears of the congregation, but familiar enough to them that they no longer find them strange to encounter regularly if not pervasively at Mass and the Liturgy of the Hours where that is celebrated communally. I think that would fulfill the vision of the Council fathers while allowing a generous amount of local option, as it were (I think, for example, of a largely African-American parish in CA where the psalms are cantillated in tones with incipits and inflections inspired by the idioms of spirituals and non-commercial Gospel music). The main burden is on celebrants (and the music ministries that support them) to chant the presidential prayers more frequently and regularly, and for music ministries to broaden their repertoires so that hymns are seen as the side dishes they properly (pun intended) are rather than as the musical entree, as it were.

  11. I think I have similar questions as Fr. Anthony. I really like chant and certainly it has contributed to our rich heritage. I believe our congregations should be familiar with chant, but I also like some “sacred music” written in the last 20 years. Yes, some of it wasn’t so good, but some wasn’t too bad and it has helped people pray and deepen their relationship with the Risen Lord. I would ask what criteria is used to define “sacred music” and what makes one style more sacred than another? In the early centuries of the Church, they sure weren’t singing chant or even polyphony so was their style not sacred? And I bet there are some chant pieces that weren’t so popular when they were composed so they fell out of use (Fr. Anthony you know way more about this then I do) Working in a mission diocese that is 80% Hispanic, I wonder how chant is heard and experienced by those from the various cultures. I have pondered sometimes how I experience music from Hispanic cultures and I have really been challenged to reflect on why I like or dislike it. This has made me excited today. Certainly, I have no answers, but I find this discussion on music intriguing and stimulating. Thanks to everyone for sharing.

    1. Re: “I would ask what criteria is used to define “sacred music” and what makes one style more sacred than another?”

      Timothy, as a sacred music devotee and a (young) member of the CMAA I can remember when I shared similar sentiments as you a few years ago. As I began to investigate more deeply the “definition of sacred music” I eventually moved beyond mere questions of personal taste, which seem to be your primary criteria for judging “sacred music”, and discovered, among other things, some actual criteria given by the Church beginning with Pope Pius X’s 1903 Motu Proprio. The criteria given in this document are “Sacred, beautiful and universal”–the three criteria for music to be considered “sacred music” which admit it for use in liturgy. (The title of the video above is actually “Sacred, Beautiful and Universal, by the way…)

      Subsequent documents on the liturgy, especially Sacrosanctum Concilium, have named actual repertoires of sacred music–Gregorian chant and sacred polyphony–as being especially suited to the Roman liturgy. I interpret this to mean that they possess the named characteristics to a very high degree. So if modern compositions possess these qualities, and I would submit that there are many compositions that do, then they could surely be admitted into the liturgy.

      The best test, I think, is to really ask if the music in question would stand the test of being judged as nothing other than good in a universal (criteria #3) context–transcending time and various cultures. We are told that Gregorian chant and Renaissance polyphony do this, as surely do others. Personally, I try to stay very close to these forms and draw inspiration from them in my own composition and in choosing modern music for liturgical use.

  12. Thank you, JT, for the initial plea to avoid, AT ALL COSTS, factionalism.
    Anyone who views the hourlong video with open eyes and heart would plainly recognize the profound absence of “elitism.” Those who’ve attended CMAA intensives and colloquiums, many after decades of other organizations (even other than NPM, just to be fair,) recognize that the impetus and goal of the event is neither didactic nor commercial- it simply provides participants tools that enhance their prayer and praise life immediately, in real time. If one would take the time to tally the commentary topics of the video, I would be sure that the notions of “community….collegiality….collaboration….cooperation….conscious participation….etc.” on the part of CMAA and participants were given much more emphasis than the constituent musical elements and concerns, not to mention the imposition of philosophies expressed in Fr. Ruff’s questions or assertions of “elitism” or “practical value.”
    I am, by nature, a “boat rocker.” Can’t help myself. I’ve never felt more at home nor more accepted in a “liturgical” organization than at CMAA.
    Let’s try to stay grounded and resist the effort to ride a higher horse.

  13. May I point out that the video begins with “O God, Our Help in Ages Past”? For those who would say that we must preserve a truly “Catholic” repertoire, this doesn’t quite fit the bill.

    As a trained choral conductor, I treasure the repertoire of chant and polyphony and have broadened its use in my current parish. But recall that polyphony was once banned because it obscured the text being presented. Palestrina most notably combatted this tendency towards obfuscation. I would submit that we are still learning how to properly inculturate non-western culture into the sacred liturgy.

    Yes, there will always be those who prefer high western European art culture and they should be permitted to engage with it as means of worship. They in turn should acknowledge that there is no divine revelation when it comes to a musical setting of “Sicut cervus” and charitably support those who feel compelled to explore other aesthetic avenues, particularly in a quickly evolving church, whose population centers lie far from the European continent, both in art and in culture, in their efforts.

  14. Some answers:

    1) I think people are finally realizing that there is music that is truly an integral part of the Roman Rite, music of which they have been deprived these past many years (going back before Vatican II). People are discovering the beauty of worship that I think the Council fathers intended the people to know, love, and experience on a regular basis. There is a growing comfort with the fact that we are Catholics and it’s about time we started worshiping like it.

    2) I think it is extremely important to recognize here that the governing documents of the Church are not “Roman documents.” The Church’s authority comes not from geography but from Christ. When the Church legislates, we are to be obedient. I think young Catholics interested in this music are moved in great part by a spirit of obedience to Christ through His Church.

    3) As Fr. Ruff points out, this is hardly just “a few souls” anymore. Is there escapism here? Maybe; I don’t know the people in this video. But my entire experience with those who support the Church’s traditional repertoire of Sacred Music points to a genuine love of God and desire to praise Him in the way He chooses to be praised, as made known through His Church. It’s about love of God, not aestheticism.

    4. CMAA’s vision predates the Council. Its founder was considered a liberal back in the 1960s for his use of polyphony and all of a sudden became a conservative after the Council as he continued to use the exact same music (not that I don’t think Fr. Ruff knows this whole history). Is there anger out there? Sure. But, again, we’re past that. This is about love of God and His Church. The Council called for the preservation of chant, polyphony, and the Latin language, and people are starting to respond.

    5. The difficulty of chant is overrated. Example: In college I went to a small inner-city parish of about 400 families at which the chant was executed in its entirety with great precision and the choir had one Palestrina Mass in its repertoire along with numerous polyphonic motets. Now, will most 400 family parishes be able to execute an entire Palestrina Mass? Well of course not. But with dedication and love many things are possible.

    6. I find this question to be oddly stated. But anyways, how can “the rest” of the Church benefit from the CMAA? I’d say by going to the 2010 Colloquium. Failing that, maybe by learning to appreciate the genuine piety and love of God inspired in the faithful by the music the CMAA promotes.

  15. Regarding Timothy Johnston’s comments:

    “In the early centuries of the Church, they sure weren’t singing chant.”

    This isn’t really true. Chant developed out of the music of the synagogues and was regularized in worship rather early on — hardly the music of the middle ages that it is portrayed to be.

    Oddly, I find the most patronizing of all liturgical attitudes to be those regarding Hispanics and their alleged inability to appreciate Sacred Music (or traditional liturgy in general). If the issue is European culture (or more specifically, Mediterranean culture), I find Hispanics to be far closer to it than we are. There is a wonderful Mexican baroque composing tradition just waiting to be re-discovered, not to mention Victoria. There is simply nothing Anglo about chant — it belongs just as much to Hispanics as to Anglos.

    1. I thought the synagogue origin theory had been discredited. There’s hardly any direct evidence for it.

      Agreement, though, on the Latin American musical tradition, and not just the Baroque. It goes back to the 1500’s. Does CMAA investigate and use it?

      1. A priest I knew in college was a synagogue cantor before he became a priest and claimed there were strong resemblances in some of the melodies. My suspicion is that it is not obvious in the Solesmes chant, but more so in the Old Roman Chant. I will try to follow up on this.

        I’ve never be to Colloquium so I don’t know if they make any use of Latin American polyphony. They have been known to pull out some pretty obscure stuff, though, such as a piece at last year’s by a Spanish composer named Franco that had only recently been re-discovered in a manuscript library (the piece was Circumdederunt Me, the introit for Septuagesima Sunday, and was a fantastic piece — we sang it at my parish later that year).

      2. “I thought the synagogue origin theory had been discredited. There’s hardly any direct evidence for it.”

        It seems pretty logical to me that the early “Jewish” Christians would have developed their sense of the sacred in music from what they knew. It also seems to be pretty well believed by Orthodox Jews over at a major site for conservative Judaism as is shown by a couple quotes from this page :

        “The relationship between the Jewish music of the synagogue and the Western music of the church has been studied seriously only since the beginning of the last century, when early Christian texts were unearthed that definitively illustrate this history.”

        “Even though Jewish scholarship comparing synagogue and church music evolved slowly, “Judaism was at all times aware of its great original contribution to the song of the Church,” wrote Eric Werner in The Sacred Bridge. In Music of Israel, Peter Gradenwitz acknowledges that such church fathers as St. John Chrysostom (c. 400 CE) knew that customs and liturgical practices had been transmitted from Jews to Christians. “The debate for and against the Hebrew origin of sacred Christian music has a long and varied history. While the roots of early Christian music surely must be sought in the entire ancient eastern world, it clearly originated in the liturgical singing of Levitical and lay cantors who had come to Rome from Jerusalem.””

      3. I believe that the idea of continuity in psalmody has indeed been put to rest, as there is little evidence for the use of psalms in synagogue service in the 1st century. James W. McKinnon, ‘On the Question of Psalmody in the Ancient Synagogue’, Early Music History, vi (1986), 159-81; and Stefan C. Reif, ‘The Early History of Jewish Worship’, The Making of Jewish and Christian Worship, ed. Paul F. Bradshaw & Laurence A. Hoffman, Notre Dame, Indiana, 1991, pp. 109-36.

  16. Yeah, I’ve wondered about the use of Hispanic communities as a justification for aversion to “European” music. It seems like it’s informed by American insularity and ignorance of the vibrancy and vastness of the Catholic culture in the era before the USA was founded in lands ruled by France, Spain and Portugal in the New World. In 1750, Mexico City’s population (about 110,000) was about the same as that of Madrid, and over 7 times greater than that of the largest English-speaking city in the New World, Philadelphia (about 15,000).

  17. Benedict XVI’s eventual successor may not be particularly sympathetic to restoring a Catholic musical heritage

    However, it is also likely, perhaps even more so, that Pope Benedict’s eventual successor could be even more sympathetic on the issue of liturgical music, and perhaps more inclined to suggest remedies that are less “pastoral” in their approach than the very thoughtful and diplomatic Pope Benedict.

    Consider how Pope John Paul II handled the issue of the Latin Mass, and then how it was handled by Pope Benedict. It is perhaps a mistake to think that Pope Benedict is some kind of “singularity” that will be followed by a more progressive papacy.

  18. Greetings,

    It seems that european forms work well for choral singing. If you go to concerts in Japan much of what you will see are european style symphonies and choral pieces. They do have very beautiful Music that is native to Japan, but it tends not to be on such a grand scale. European Music has been univeralized for 150 years that those styles have become as familiar in Africa as they are in Vienna. The same goes for Pop Music. Michael Jackson is listened to throughout the world and nobody is crying out ‘incultuation’, they just listen to the music and enjoy.


  19. Generally, I love the kinds of music which this video is supporting. I was raised by people who took these styles of music seriously. And now, I attend liturgy at a cathedral which believes itself to be a center of liturgy done well, built around a choir that sings the music of the tradition very well.

    The problem with it is that such music can (and does, in my parish) usurp the place of the assembly. Polyphonic settings of the ordinary are beautiful, and can be prayerful, especially when you have the advantages of musically training and know the Latin of the mass well enough to pray with them. Nevertheless, I am finding them difficult to pray week after week after week.

    I used to be a very strong proponent of the possibility of participation through attentive listening. I also used to always be a member of the choir, and not a usual pew-sitter. I am finding that things are different out here than I might have abstractly thought.

    Granted, the ways in which we celebrate the liturgy here are not helpful. The clergy (and therefore, the people) generally sit for the Gloria. The choirs and cantors are completely professionalized, and seem entirely unconnected to the assembly. We reap the effects of this through an entirely passive assembly that doesn’t even sing when it is asked of them (in, for example, hymns), and in a group of people trained at the Cathedral who believe that there is only one way to prepare music for liturgy, no matter where, when, or by whom the Eucharist will be celebrated. (This in a diocese that is nearly 80% Spanish-speaking). We have taught the assembly to be passive, to participate in the liturgy as attendees, and to praise the liturgy above all for its beauty. It seems to me that such a model is just as off-base as the much ridiculed didactic model of the liturgy that we have seen so much of in the last 40 years.

    I love the historic music of the Western Church, and believe that “other things being equal, it should be given pride of place.” (SC 116, specifically about chant). My real question is what that “other things being equal” might mean for us. In my parish, the pride of place given seems to have led to an attitude that as long as the music is beautiful, the liturgy must be good.

    It is sometimes said that the remedy for bad theology is not no theology, but good theology because people will always do theology, whether they are paying attention to it or not. I wonder if the same thing might be true about enculturation. Lots of silly things have been done in the name of enculturation, but we forget to our peril that we are a culture (or cultures) that celebrate the liturgy in our context, and no other. One of the things that we forget about our culture is that most of us expect music and art to be done by professionals while we sit as an audience, or act as a passive viewer. This seems to have infected the liturgy at my parish.

    How do we hold up the importance of beauty in the liturgy without also turning the assembly into an audience? The early liturgical movement in this country and in Europe sought to teach members of the assembly to sing chant, to encourage their active participation by extending the training necessary to sing the historic music of the Western Church. Is anyone still doing that? Given the hurdles to doing it posed by the low level of general familiarity with the classical arts, how do we form people into an assembly capable of _celebrating_ the liturgy _well_?

  20. I just want to clarify that I was not implying that any particular culture cannot appreciate “sacred music.” I only asked a question about how a culture experiences different forms of music, whether it be chant, Mexican baroque music, modern hymnody, etc. And are different forms of music considered “sacred” by various cultures? I only used the example of my experience working in a diocese that is primarily Hispanic because it has challenged me to minister in new ways and broadened my understanding of Church. I could have easily used an example from our Sudanese community, Korean community, Polish community, etc. I any case, I still support all peoples learning chant! That’s not the question for me.

    Again, what criteria defines “sacred music?” As a musician and liturgist, I think this question is fascinating. Who gets to decide this?

  21. Yes, Todd, members of CMAA do research the inculturated transplanting of “European” styles into colonial new world missions and, eventually, cathedrals. One of their (our) number actually teaches same at the university level. I have used devotional “villancicos” as have many of us, according to anecdotal exchanges, in our liturgies myself. But this deconstructionist line of inquiry obscures the obvious- when has the Church not allowed for the hybridization or grafting of media from different cultural genetic origins in order to progress with the Great Commission? After all, should we even regard Gregorian Chant as a truly “european” enterprise, after all?
    CMAA is not NPM or ACDA. One should not expect it, a priori, to advance the efficacy of Misa Luba or Misa Criolla, when its mission is clearly defined and it adheres to it. And, I believe, it recognizes it is part of the cultural “big tent” while not compromising its own goals nor denying anyone the rights of access to other valid musical expressions.
    What it does compel a member to consider is whether what we offer the Lord is, in fact, consistent with orthodoxy and is, in fact, the most beautiful effort that can be achieved. Whether that is a piece of jade or turquoise, a glass marble found on the street, or a complex cut of diamond from Belgium, each and every one to be offered should be polished before offering it to the Lord.
    A very familiar song lyric has the vox Dei declaring “Finest bread I will provide, ’til their hearts be satisfied….” Why would we not, in turn, offer less than our finest offering each and every liturgy, in return?
    That’s what CMAA brings to the table.

  22. “Although Jeffrey Tucker sometimes goes out on an unstable limb (e.g., ban carols at Christmas liturgies)”

    LOL! You know, honestly, when I wrote that article I thought: well, I might as well post my annual plea, though no one will really disagree. Shows what I know!

    This discussion above is so fruitful. I should emphasize that the CMAA has no infallible model – we are still finding our way – and one of our major frustrations is that we have so little time and so much to do. There is way more on the cutting room floor than ends up being sung. But here is what I think really matters about the CMAA: sincerity, liberality, and attachment to the ideal. Also, I should point out too that while it is true that most Catholic organizations are poor, we have actually next to nothing, as in really really poor. We spend every nearly every penny we take in on programs and have nearly nothing at all in the bank, and we don’t have a single salaried employee. It comes and it goes. Bizarre, crazy, etc., but I really don’t care. Our economic model makes no sense. So be it. I would rather be poor and doing the right thing than rich and static and staid.

  23. Vincent: Luba is a Greek/Latin setting using indigineous tribal African musical forms, eventually arranged for consumption by Western choirs.
    Criolla is, IMHO, a noble performance piece that composer Ariel Ramirez created in the early 70’s that integrates “indigineous” Carribean/South African forms and attributes with the Ordinary, that some folks tried to pass off as liturgical back in the day.

  24. I simply wish to point out that the musical excerpt that closed the trailer (and opens the documentary) is a 2007 setting of the Tantum Ergo by Kevin Allen, a Chicago-based composer who has toiled in relative obscurity for close to twenty years.

  25. So if modern compositions possess these qualities, and I would submit that there are many compositions that do, then they could surely be admitted into the liturgy

    I’ve often been asked “so you don’t like anything modern?” The answer to this is much like the questions asked in the news recently ….”so you don’t want health-care reform?” The answer is “of course I would like health-care reform….just not THIS health care reform”. There are plenty of modern compositions that are emminently suitable for the liturgy….but they are not those that are heard in most parishes on Sunday morning.

    Being “modern” doesn’t rule a composition out, just as being “ancient” doesn’t make a composition suitable. But thumbing through a recent edition of Gather or Worship, one will find few if any such examples of suitable contemporary liturgical music. Instead, one will find a compilation of religious songs.

  26. This looks like quite a beautiful film! I just watched the entire thing online. Thank you for posting this, Fr. Ruff.

  27. One of the things that strike me in the conversation of “what defines sacred music” is the lack of reference to the transcendentals. Sure, the Church defines sacred music, but… what are Her criterion?

    I would argue that our whole faith is rooted in these transcendentals– what is one, what is true, what is good, what is beautiful? If we can’t objectively define that something is “more or less,” to quote St. Thomas, then we can’t possibly ever come to know “that which is Most,” namely, God.

    This is the case, as it says in the Catechism (27), because of “The desire for God [that is] written in the human heart…”

    Anyway, always the practical one, I think that this denial of transcendentals, a lack of metaphysics in modern philosophy, is what has brought our culture to where it is today, and hence the ever greater need for the Church to be like John the Baptist, the voice in the wilderness, preparing the way for the Lord.

    To take it a step further, I have found it interesting that the greatest of intellectuals in the Church today prefer the EF and the Gregorian Chant and Sacred Polyphony… I think, because of the recognition, the sensus fidelium, which as they grow in understanding, leads them to need a more mature form of celebrating that faith.

    Not to say that those who are dumb are content with Marty Haugen. haha.

  28. Thank you, Fr. Ruff, for making our video known, and for your questions. I think I can give a few answers to your questions from the point of view of the CMAA, as its president.

    We have made conscious decisions that much of what we do represents the ideal, and that ideal is expressed in the Vatican documents which give the kinds of music an order: chant first, polyphony and organ music second, “modern music” third, modern music meaning, in my view, principally music with independent instrumental parts. Thus, while some of the Masses celebrated at the Colloquium include the polyphonic ordinary, others involve the congregational singing of an entire chant ordinary. While the theory of liturgical music is pursued at what we hope is a high level, there is discussion of what can be done in the parish.

    What we hope the participants take with them is both an experience of the ideal and a notion of where to begin in the parish. There is much talk of “gradualism,” utilizing the concept of the three degrees of the incorporation of music from Musicam sacram. In my view, these represent degrees of the importance of music as well. Most important is the singing of the celebrant in dialogues with the congregation as well as in the prayers and other parts. A first stage can be just the preface dialogue and the preface, with the congregation singing the Sanctus, which is integral to the preface, as well as the Lord’s Prayer. A final stage can be the Eucharistic Prayer and the lessons.

    The second degree is the ordinary, sung by the congregation; a first stage might be the Agnus Dei or the Kyrie. The the Gloria could follow and the final stage could be the Credo.

    The third degree is the propers. A first stage might be the communion, since this is a time when several things can be sung, and since the communion can be sung in alternation with psalm verses. A second stage can be the processional chants, introit and offertory; a final stage would be the melismatic chants, gradual and alleluia. All of these stages are meant to be gradual incorporations into the parish liturgy as it is currently practices. Our encouragement of the incorporation of chant into regular Sunday liturgies is, I think, practical and not particularly elitist.

    the question of whether this movement is a reaction to bad experiences or a positive response to the vision of the council, I have to say that both are involved and reinforce each other. Still, over the years, the spirit of the colloquium has changed remarkably. Many years ago, some of the participants were people who had lost choirs and had come for solidarity with like-minded musicians. That is no longer the case; the preponderance of participants are people who are actively engaged in liturgical ministries, and who are seeking to improve what they are doing; some are dissatisfied with the music they are presently doing. The experience of the ideal together with some tools for the gradual implementation of the ideals, I think, explains the positive reaction we have had from those attending.

    Is this simply preserving European treasures? Much of the music sung could be called European, but that is not why we sing it. We sing it because is is Catholic and an intrinsic part of our liturgical heritage, and because it is beautiful. It is not art music, but liturgical music. We do not eat pasta because it is Italian, we eat it because it is good. We sing chant because it beautifully expresses the purposes and the form of the liturgy (See my article “Gregorian Chant as a Paradigm of Sacred Music” on We sing chant because the council said that chant is to have first place in the Roman rite; sure, “other things being equal” qualifies that. We understand that each parish situation is different and solutions will be very different from place to place; all the more reason to focus upon the ideal, with general principles of implementation.

    Concerning new music, the colloquium includes an afternoon session of reading of new music; composers submit their works ahead of time, and a substantial booklet of music is produced. The entire group reads through these pieces, often directed by the composer himself. Not all of it is exciting, but some of it actually is.

    Many thanks, Fr. Ruff, for your sympathetic questions and for the opportunity to answer some of them.

  29. Had a very interesing tour of St. Nicholas Russian Orthodox church in Juno this summer. The Russian missionaries were particularly successful among the Tlingits because missionaries translated the liturgy into their language. However, in the gift shop, one can purchase c.d. of Russian Orthodox chant in…Tlingit. Very cool! Orthodox musical heritage did not have to be completely sacrificed in the name of inculturation–a good lesson.

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