Sacro-Pop at the Catholic Fest in Germany

The Katholikentag (“Catholic Fest”) is now happening in Mannheim, as Vatican Radio reports. The German Catholics have been doing this since 1848, and this year some 60,000 participants are expected. UPDATE: 80,000 participated, according to organizers.

This year’s theme is Einen neuen Aufbruch wagen – “Dare a New Breakthrough.” (That’s almost impossible to translate idiomatically, btw.) You can watch the opening celebration, complete with dance, here – scroll down to “Eröffnungs-Feier.”

Here is the official Mutmachlied – “Courage-Making Song” (That’s almost impossible to translate idiomatically, btw.) It rhymes in German, but not in my rough English translation:

It is time to arise from sleep,
to view the day with clear eyes,
With open hearts and watchful senses,
intent on attaining the hidden treasure.
Life is a breakthrough into God’s time.
For this he has given us days and hours,
Believe in the future he promises us.
Life is a breakthrough with the Holy Spirit.

It is time to abandon the fortress
and open old barricades,
To understand humanity’s longing for God
and to walk with them into the open.
Life is a breakthrough into a new land.
Jesus extends his hand as a brother.
Hear his voice and follow his star.
Life is a breakthrough with Christ the Lord.

It is time to divide the cloak,
to heal lovingly with words,
To treasure the dignity and riches of others,
and take steps for giving and receiving.
Live is a breakthrough into the Kingdom of God,
already here and at the same time distant.
Trust in his word that brings reconciliation.
Life is a breakthrough with the power of God.

You can listen to the Mutmachlied here – click “Leben ist Aufbruch anhören” down on the right side.

The music setting for the closing Mass, apparently composed for this Catholic Fest, is really interesting. The Missa pro nobis is what German-speakers call “Sacro-Pop.” There are congregational responsorial refrains for each acclamation. You can listen to each Mass part here – scroll down on the right side. “Anhören” means “listen to,” and I’m sure you can find “Kyrie,” “Gloria,” “Credo,” Sanctus and Hosanna,” “Agnus Dei” there.

Pretty amazing, ja?

Any of us could easily write up the critique (or attack) from traditional quarters: this is secular, not sacred, unworthy of the sacred mysteries, artistically mediocre, contrary to church teachings, not what Vatican II intended, not what Pope Benedict XVI wishes, not inspired by Gregorian chant which should have pride of place, doesn’t sound “Catholic,” sounds like a night club, and so forth.

One could always throw in that it no doubt comes from aging hippies stuck in the 60s trying to keep alive a failed revolution. We’ve heard for at least thirty years now, and will probably hear for at least another thirty, that the time for this sort of thing has passed.

What do I think of the sacro-pop Mass setting?

I don’t like it, mostly. I prefer Latin chant, English chant, choral music from Palestrina to Pärt, organ-based English Mass settings, ecumenical mainline strophic hymnody, loud organ music, and brass.

I purposely put that in subjective terms (“I prefer”), to avoid claiming too easily that I speak for God, that my convictions are identical to God’s. In questions of aesthetic judgment, it is important to acknowledge that one comes from a particular time and place. This is true also of official Church directives, which of course have changed much over the course of time and can’t be cited too hastily as objective truth or the final word.

It goes without saying that official directives should be taken seriously. It goes without saying that liturgical, theological, musical, musicological study should inform our judgments and help move us a bit closer to an objective judgment. But the subjective element will always be there.

With all that in mind, I’d say something like this about the Katholikentag Mass setting.

I wonder if this setting has the associations you want for an occasion like a Catholic fest. It sounds happy and joyful, and that’s a good thing. The part of my soul that happy and generous and open (yes, it’s down there somewhere in me) genuinely likes this music. But there is a possible danger that it sounds too lightweight for the participants. It could even give the impression that the Catholic Church doesn’t really know what its identity is and is grabbing at straws. On the other hand, you don’t want your music to be so confident about Catholic identity that it sounds triumphalistic and pretentious. We’ve done plenty of that down through the centuries, and the Gospel stands in judgment of it.

I wonder if it wouldn’t be possible to have music that better says “Catholic tradition, connected to the past but still alive and developing, confident of itself and also open to dialog with the modern world.” I don’t know, maybe a fairly traditional setting with brass, sounding like an old German congregational hymn, but with little hints at jazzy harmonies here and there. Or maybe a newly-written melody that sounds rather like an old folk hymn, but with contemporary major-seventh and minor-seventh chords.

You have to find a way to avoid being unreconstructed retro, as if the Catholic faith is a museum from the past, hermetically sealed from anything in today’s evil world. The good thing about this setting is that it engages the modern world and tries to say that Christianity is still alive in it.

I suppose all that sounds rather vague. It’s kind of hard to describe music. So let me give you an example of a festive Mass setting I’m fond of: the Eucharistic acclamations of Michael Joncas’s Missa ad Gentes, with alternation between choir in Latin and congregation in English. You can listen to it here. The melody writing is like in traditional hymnody, almost. Good, solid, step-wise with logical leaps, but with just a few jumps vaguely reminiscent of pop music without sounding cheesy or being too difficult to sing. The harmonies and voice-leading are pretty much traditional polyphony, but it sounds quintessentially American. One hears the influence of Brahms or Vaughn Williams, but even more Bernstein. It is solid, festive, exuberant, but the beautiful, soft harmonies prevent it from sounding too regal or militaristic.

I’d prefer if the German Catholics had found their version of a Michael Joncas and created something a bit classier and more traditional, but still fresh and new.

But. In such matters, the But is important. All of us on all sides must be ready to question our own assumptions and preferences and well-thought-out positions, and be ready to respect the worldview and liturgical work of fellow Catholics who take different approaches. I have many Buts.

I’m critical of the Katholikentag setting, but I don’t know the cultural context as a native. I’ve read about the horrific scandals and the turmoil the Catholic Church has been through, but it’s not for me to say what the pastoral need is now. I gather that Catholic tradition and the Catholic hierarchy have credibility problems in Germany. The majority of theologians and theology professors have signed a statement calling for reforms and changes in Church teaching. Frustration with Church officials seems to be pretty high. All this plays a role in music selection. Perhaps the German planners had good reasons for wanting a setting that said “new, innovative” as a sign of hope for a demoralized Church with demoralized clergy and pastoral ministers.

I’m critical of this setting, but I would hesitate to call it “secular” and not “sacred.” There are massive theological problems with drawing this distinction too sharply. Everything God created is good, including blues notes and jazz chords. The incarnation is about bringing sacred and secular together, about the divine entering into our human world.

There are musicological problems with the sacred/secular distinction as well. For much of church history, great composers did not make the distinction. Think of the great similarity between Palestrina’s Mass settings and his madrigals, or between Bach’s chamber music and his church cantatas. The distinction between sacred and secular music mostly dates to the 19th century, when the sociological context was the Church’s retreat from what was seen as a hostile modern world.

This setting isn’t my preferred style for the occasion, but I wouldn’t push too far the point that it is “secular.” Every jazz or blues chord can probably be found somewhere in the music of Messiaen or Poulence, however different the context. The Katholikentag Mass is too jazzy for my tastes, but I must say that it sounds like quite good jazz to me. The harmonies are musically interesting and appealing. And this is an important aspect: the “sacred” has to do with quality, not just style. “The glory of God is in a human fully alive,” as Irenaeus said, and I find more of the spirit of God in good jazz than in mediocre, dull, second-rate imitation of the past that are supposed to sound “Catholic.”

Last Sunday was Baccalaureate at St. John’s University, and I was responsible for the music at the abbey/university Mass. I took a quite different approach for this festive occasion than what we see at the Katholikentag (see it online here until next Monday morning – it starts at the homily because Your Truly forgot to tell the media people that Mass started a half hour earlier than usual.) The leaflet is here, here, and here.

With the music we went pretty classical, dangerously traditional. What’s with the monks, I thought they were liberal progressives?!

I didn’t intend to give in to my tastes so thoroughly, but it got away from me. The suggestion was to do Latin chant for the prelude as a way to quiet the noisy congregation (I admit, I wish Catholics wouldn’t do that in church before Mass) and establish the sacred context. We did traditional hymnody, (two hymn tunes most everyone knows) because that seems to work better in this space than more contemporary music with syncopation and quick-moving notes. (I wonder how that will work for thousands of Germans, btw.) Then I decided to have a few women sing Vidi aquam during the Sprinkling because they had just sung it a week before and knew it, and that seemed like a nice relief between the loud hymn and the loud, festive Proulx Gloria.

When the congregation is coming in from all over, you have to do either a Mass setting that everyone knows, or call-and-response music that works instantly. With the new Missal, we don’t yet know whether Haugen Creation or Proulx Community or Janco Wisdom or something else is widely known, so that left call-and-response. As much as I like Joncas Gentes, I feared that the switch of languages would impede participation for this assembly (we’ve done Gentes at Midnight Mass and the Easter vigil with very good results, but the congregation there is more used to our abbey worship.) We did Proulx Corpus Christi , based on the chant Adoro te devote. The congregation seemed to pick it up and join in quite well.

The schola sang Tallis, with its text that fits the day’s Scripture readings. But near the end of Communion – after all that traditional, Western music, the schola provided some welcome diversity with a Kenyan folk song, “Wana Baraka” (here is an excerpt from this piece at the Easter vigil).

I think the Baccalaureate Mass was a good celebration, and I’m happy with the music we did.

But. Just as we must add a “But” and question our criticism of others, so we must do with our own work.

I think the upbeat hymns and trumpet and Kenyan choir piece made for a joyful celebration, but I wonder whether the music as a whole was too serious, or too far above the sensitivities of the participants. Maybe there should have been some well-known “contemporary/popular” Catholic liturgical music.

I think the use of Latin chant was OK – we do that all the time here – but I wonder whether the music as a whole gave the right impression of a Benedictine monastery and Catholic university in today’s world. As music director I bear a weighty responsibility for the image and public witness of the abbey and university. (And I admit that I don’t consult with the public relations office… or the development office.)

It’s interesting to compare the two, Katholikentag in Mannheim and Baccalaureate in Collegeville. We took a different approach, but I can’t claim that we got it right or that they got it wrong. We can critique others, and we can put forth the rationale for what we do. But. Don’t forget the But.



  1. Anthony,

    I am sympathetic both to your musical tastes and to your hesitations about absolutizing them. But at the same time, isn’t there a point where, pragmatically speaking, one does make a judgment that X is better than Y, at least at this time and in this context? Didn’t you choose the music you did for the Baccalaureate Mass because you judged it to be superior for that occasion than other possibilities? If the only justification one could give for one’s musical choices was, “well, that’s what I like,” wouldn’t it be better to simply put the musical choices up to a vote and go with the taste of the majority?

    1. To your first two questions: Yes – but not absolutely so!

      I mean that seriously. I suspected the push-back would be that I’m too wishy-washy, and I’m glad you said so. Too many of us (including myself) have been and are too absolutist too much of the time, so I wanted to model how to hold to convictions while being self-questioning and aware of the complexity of it all.

      I think I meant to say “hold to convictions, but gently.” I guess the first part didn’t come through strongly enough. Thanks for bringing that out.


  2. I appreciated this “model” very much; it resonates in my own experience and internal reflections about judgments and decisions I’ve made.

    Perhaps self-questioning and gentleness in holding convictions has to do with acknowledging that we are in a “situation,” which requires us to form and express convictions, and even to experience and confess them as objectively true. According to literary critic Stanley Fish, all with whom we share this situation and set of convictions form an “interpretive community.” If something changes in our situation, such as the entry of new people and new relationships into our “worlds,” new convictions may emerge as the interpretive community expands.

    Remembering the “but” accounts for that possibility. Thanks, Fr. Anthony.

      1. At first glance (and listen), I was shocked. The jazz style is so overtly displayed that other associations immediately dominated my thoughts and its incongruity with what I would normally associate with the sacred liturgy was simply disturbing. Usually, however, I perceive some lack of craft that allows me to dismiss such a thing without much more thought. I couldn’t do that here. I could identify some elements that really I don’t like, such as the Kyrie and opening of the Sanctus. But (and there’s always a “but!”), when it broke into “Hosanna” I sensed some of effusive joy of the heavenly host that I hear in, say, Roxanna Panufnik’s bi-tonal “Westminster Mass” (sadly rendered liturgical obsolete by MR3). So I began rethink the propriety of the Sanctus sounding more like a night club filled with smoke rather than the temple of the Lord of hosts billowing with the same. Blasphemy? Or Incarnation? I got to thinking about what kind of establishments the holy Lamb of God would be seen frequenting in our time (substitute your own for Blake’s “dark satanic mills.”)

        However you cut it, your post and this music stopped me in my tracks. Wish I could reflect more, but I’m off to Mass to play my own neo-Cecilian music.

      2. OK…I’m back. But I was so busy blogging that I was late for Mass only to find my parish can sing “A Hymn of Glory Let Us Sing” without me (once the cantor remembered how LASST UNS ERFREUEN goes!)

        All of the reflection on Christ being raised up in glory today leads me to qualify my previous comments about the Incarnation and jazz. Of course, the Incarnation is not the whole mystery of Christ, and jazz has become a lot of things (from blues to Coltrane and beyond). So the question comes back to the piece and circumstance at hand, to which I must say that for me, knowing what I know, the jury is out and must remain out.

        I once heard Abbot Marcel Rooney say something like, “the liturgy has dimensions that are both ‘logogenic’ and ‘pathogenic,’ and so the celebration of the liturgy requires elements of both.” How far can you go down either road, let’s say with rigorous polyphony that bears the intelligent order of the Divine Logos but renders words unintelligible (is not mysterion/sacramentum that which is becoming clearer?) or with musical idioms that engage the affective and even carnal aspects of our human nature. This is where ritual chant comes in as the point of homeostasis, the perfect logogenic/pathogenic balance against which all other expressions can be weighed. Without that “scale,” can we really tell how far is too far in a given situation?

        While I watch my voice-leading and play it safe in my neo-Cecilian world, Erik Routley’s words haunt me (paraphrasing), “don’t look for absence of error, look for the creative impulse…therein one finds the Word of God.” For the moment, I’ll give Missa Pro Nobis the benefit of the doubt.

  3. “It’s interesting to compare the two, Katholikentag in Mannheim and Baccalaureate in Collegeville. We took a different approach, but I can’t claim that we got it right or that they got it wrong.”

    I would hope (and expect, knowing you) that you would have taken a different approach. Yes, both communities gathered for a celebration of the Mass, but . . . and there’s that word . . . these were two very different occasions, two very different communities of worshippers, and two very different cultures in which the worship took place.

    As one who has had responsibility for not only planning parish worship but also larger synodical (translation: diocesean) worship, I am quite familiar with the concerns you bring up. Am I pushing my tastes on the community, disguised as my expertise? Does the worship I have planned connect with the community, allowing them to have an experience of the presence of God, or does it leave them cold and distant? Does it present a good corporate witness to the world?

    The clearest safeguard against this being my tastes, my experience of the presence of God, and my witness to the world is to involve others in the planning. Carefully chosen, such a group can be a helpful and healthy check on my own impulses.


    But I have to be willing to engage with them in conversation and consultation, not simply bring them in to validate my decisions.

  4. How far can you go down either road, let’s say with rigorous polyphony that bears the intelligent order of the Divine Logos but renders words unintelligible…

    Hmmm, Kevin, that sounds familiar.;-) But, of course I’m sure you weren’t reviving the legendary Ockeghem parodies versus Palestrina’s remedies in that statement. Part’s rigorous polyphony can be regarded as an obstacle to approaching “comprehension” whilst still exemplifying the divine Logos. But! Issues of propriety will endure as long as the Church, in its wisdom, maintains the flexibility, the open-endedness of its liturgical legislation (NOT btw SttL) which is both boon to some and bane to others. This dynamic tension is perhaps necessary to represent both polar positions of what makes Catholic catholic, but the spectrum of hues in between seems to make people nuts.
    AWR, I wonder if you’d made a comparison between your ordo for the baccalaureate Ordinary and Ed Bolduc’s Mass of St. Ann that the distinctions might have been clearer? The notion of when upon hearing the Sanctus, do you KNOW you’re in church (or heaven) or a nightclub might be avoided. Bolduc’s effort is very “Hillsong” IMO. And if you’re familiar with the Hillsong genre, its ethos of praise and worship presents immediately. That seems a plus. But for many (oops, pun alert) it is still found very wanting as a Catholic expression of worship.
    It’s a great time to be a Catholic musician, eh?

  5. I get very uncomfortable with the glib way we throw around the idea that “in the past there was less division between sacred and secular music – so nowadays maybe we should not be so uptight.” There may have been times when very little difference existed between a sacred or secular ‘style’ – and for that very reason those times would not be helpful models for us in the current cultural situation. If someone says “what style of music should we use in church?” and you reply: “there was a time when we didn’t have to make these decisions” then you have not gotten any closer to a real answer.

    Musicology IS quite important in clarifying whether a past situation can be of any use in helping us understand the present. For example, when polyphony was invented and developed church composers did not approach a pre-existing popular/secular idiom and appropriate it for sacred texts. It actually tended the other way – as the motet developed from the Notre Dame school in the 13th century, it was appropriated rather quickly for secular texts (or mixed sacred/secular/macaronic texts).

    In this or other historical examples, what is perhaps more at issue than ‘style’ is the cultural development of the craft of music-making. Once a particular technique was worked out (such as an additive process elaborating a foundational tenor line, or imitative polyphony, or figured bass and monody) it was freely used for setting texts – period. There is a big difference between using the same technique to set various texts, and appropriating a pre-existing musical product verbatim. In cases like the Mannheim example, I would ask whether we are merely choosing neutral musical techniques as a mode of text setting, or whether we are trying to appropriate a whole cultural context (“Jazziness” – whatever that is) and apply it to Christianity. If we want to, can we separate a technique after the fact from its cultural surroundings? Do we want to?

  6. Sorry to flood the discussion, but I was especially struck by this statement from Fr. Ruff:

    “There are musicological problems with the sacred/secular distinction as well. For much of church history, great composers did not make the distinction. Think of the great similarity between Palestrina’s Mass settings and his madrigals, or between Bach’s chamber music and his church cantatas.”

    And yet, Mass settings and madrigals were only two of many different musical genres and styles of Palestrina’s day. And madrigals were essentially aristocratic pleasures. The same certainly goes for much of Bach’s chamber music. The same goes for Haydn’s first 80-some symphonies, until he managed to find an adoring public late in life in Paris and London. By comparing madrigals and mass settings or chamber music and cantatas, you are comparing top-quality craftsmanship by master craftsmen. So, Fr. Ruff’s statement begs the question: should sacred music be well-crafted by masters of the art of music? Or is the argument that even the desire of high quality (in whatever particular cultural tradition you are versed in) a matter of personal taste? In other words, is it just personal taste to demand quality?

    Then to narrow it down to Mannheim:

    Was this setting composed by a master of Jazz?
    Is it possible to establish who is a master of Jazz, or what particular Jazz style is of the highest quality?
    Is Jazz a musical idiom that its own practitioners would consider ‘crafted’? Beyond the melody and suggested chords isn’t it primarily improvisational? If it’s all crafted, why have practitioners such as Brubeck or Gershwin taken the trouble to compose certain ‘concert’ pieces as a distinct part of their work?
    It just seems a bit too convenient if we say “it sounds like a good [insert musical/cultural tradition] setting to me, so it is validly comparable to a masterwork by Palestrina or Bach.” This avoids so many important questions…

  7. Good questions, Jared. (To your first post.) The history of the motet seems to support your thesis. Can we say the same about the whole of Western Christian sacred music? Are there other examples of musical procedures as not merely modes of text setting but appropriating entire cultural contexts and applying them to Christianity?

    I would also ask whether or not historical text-setting techniques were really “freely-used.” Perhaps initially, at least for those with whom we credit the innovation. But was their use not also culturally conditioned? Were isorhythmic or polytextual techniques free of ulterior motives…”logogenic” and “pathogenic,” respectively. Were not other ideas in play with the advent of imitative polyphony or the dramatic indulgence of early-Baroque monody? Or are “logogenic” and “pathogenic” two sides of the same coin?

    It seems to me – with some sympathetic resonance to Charles’s observations above – that the “logogenic/pathogenic” dialectic is the unique marker and driver of music of the Christian tradition. Wilfred Mellers has proposed that Christianity as a religion of dualisms was uniquely capable of producing the miracle of European polyphony, and, I would add, the dramatic array of musical procedures and artifacts that make a permeable membrane of the temple wall.

    But then there are those who would argue that unlike the early part of the last millennium, we live in a time when the sacred is being replaced with the profane, and Christianity dwarfed by a nascent secular religion with an already pervasive culture and towering artifacts. Are the right? What is the Church’s stance? Is that the question behind your question?

  8. “Should sacred music be well-crafted by masters of the art of music?”

    I would say that craft is integral to the art of making music for worship. That “sacred” should be applied to only to the efforts of those universally recognized as “great,” I don’t think so. If one is worried about what will find its way into the “thesaurus musicae sacrae,” I don’t think that’s a worry worth having. History (and the treasury) will take care of itself.

    “Or is the argument that even the desire of high quality (in whatever particular cultural tradition you are versed in) a matter of personal taste?”

    Striving for excellence in the making is a moral obligation. Some efforts are more excellent than others. Some people are more holy than others. The time for separating the wheat from the chaff may not be yet. But…

    judgments must be made within circumstances. Of course, not all opinions are equal. Some people have more keen-honed abilities than others to recognize that which is excellent. It is both right to defer to their judgment and to continue to cultivate our own abilities to recognize excellence when we see and hear it. That which is mediocre will simply fall away. But high art is not the only means of access to the holy:

    Who is it that Don Saliers quotes that said something like, “Heaven is revealed on earth in Michelangelo’s Pieta and in a pail of fresh rain water, in a symphony of Mozart and in the naive dance of a child?”

  9. I know I’m stepping into “foreign” waters here so to speak. Still, I’m very interested in this *kind* of conversation and some of the assumptions we make. My admittedly limited knowledge of Vatican II suggests to me that there is an assumption of cultural situatedness and creativity in setting the Liturgy/Mass to music, etc. Cultures change across geography and time. So, 1960’s Europe is not 21st Century Europe. They are distinct cultures even if one has its roots in the other. So, if one is willing, let’s say, to “allow” for atypical non-Gregorian settings of the Mass in Africa due to geographic cultural differences, why not non-Gregorian settings attributed to chronological cultural change. I’m not talking about “progress” but simply cultural situatedness.

    I’ve been a church musician in Protestant (Baptist, Presbyterian, and Anglican) and Catholic (Mostly in Chicago, IL at the Cathedral) parishes for more than two decades now. This conversation is not unusual. I know you guys know this. Aesthetics, rubrics, canon law…it’s a challenging time. My inclination is to let such settings have their run. The “good” stuff will last. It will add to the already rich tradition. Why not add “jazzy” settings to the modal settings of the Gregorian. Jazz, as you know, is modal…so…It’s worth experimenting. It’s worth letting Christians find a way to express their faith in music.

    Thanks for the tenor of this conversation. It’s not easy, but it’s worth it.

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