Viewpoint: What’s Broken in the Church’s Liturgy That Needs Fixing?

by Msgr. M. Francis Mannion

I think that by now readers know that I am an unambiguous supporter of the liturgical reforms brought about by the Second Vatican Council. These reforms were sorely needed, and there is no going back, as some “conservatives” would wish.

The reform in the liturgy, particularly of the Mass, was undoubtedly the centerpiece of post-Vatican II developments. The liturgical changes impinged immediately on the life of worshipers. Practicing Catholic experienced the liturgical reforms first hand in their parish churches.

However, not everything is as it should be in the Church’s liturgical life. There is much unease in some quarters, and many people have a vague feeling that something is amiss with the liturgy.

What is wrong? In my opinion, the fundamental problem has to do with the manner in which the liturgy is celebrated.

Speaking generally, I do not give high marks to the way in which clergy preside at liturgy (sloppy, mechanical, soulless, artless), and the way they homilize (superficial, disorganized, prosaic, and unable to connect with people’s deepest needs).

Lay liturgical ministers are very often trained inadequately, and are unprepared to assist at Mass (this is especially true of lectors). On a regular basis, liturgical ministers simply do not show up when assigned; and they are often sloppily dressed (I continue to argue that lay ministers should wear albs, not least to cover a multitude of wardrobe sins).

Besides lay and ordained malfeasance, there are two areas in which the condition of the Church’s liturgical life is in very bad shape. These are liturgical music and church architecture.

Church music continues to have the folksiness carried over from the 1970s, and has a very outdated feeling; and there are almost no (and I mean no) good composers in the field of liturgical music today. Pastors are not willing to employ professional musicians, and musical leadership is often left in the hands of well-meaning, but poorly trained, amateurs.

The situation with church architecture is even worse, even disastrous (and I do not use that word lightly). Music programs can be improved quickly, but (modern) church buildings are apt to last for a century or more. For the first time in 2000 years, our churches are not designed to be replicas of the New Jerusalem; they do not point to heaven, and do not make present in icons, paintings, and murals the celestial hosts of angels and saints.

Modern churches are merely functional: They provide high-priced, colorless, and lifeless auditoriums for worship. (One prominent church architect who designed many Catholic churches–and renovated at least one cathedral–called his designs “non-churches”!)

The fundamental problem here is that few church architects are trained in liturgical theology, know very little about the history of church architecture, and simply ape one another. And the situation is not getting better. Church design in mired in the severe, cold, and lifeless style that began in Germany at the beginning of the twentieth century.

Some people think that all the problems would be solved if only the Church would make further structural changes in the liturgy. “Conservatives” think that we must go back to what obtained before the Council; and “liberals” think that, if only we would move forward and adapt the liturgy to the culture, things would improve vastly.

How can the problems I identify be resolved? Largely, by a massive liturgical education of clergy, lay ministers, musicians, architects, and artists. (On the matter of liturgical education in the seminaries, I’m afraid the outlook continues to be rather bleak.)

Msgr. Mannion is pastor emeritus of St. Vincent de Paul Catholic Church in Salt Lake City. Reprinted by permission of Catholic News Agency.


  1. Msgr. Manion, I take exception to your point, “there are almost no (and I mean no) good composers in the field of liturgical music today.” I am disappointed that you have such a low opinion of the women and men, many with advanced musical training, who are dedicated to composing liturgical music for the church. The post-conciliar repertoire has developed from its simpler roots in folk music to more artful and beautiful forms with each new generation of composers.

    The problem with liturgical music is parishes who settle for the amateur, banal, and sentimental without employing trained musicians and the resources necessary to lead sung worship. To borrow a phrase, it’s not that the liturgical repertoire has been tried and found wanting, but rather it has never been tried in many places.

    1. @Scott Pluff – comment #1:
      I am seconding Scott’s comments, and disagreeing heartily with Msgr. Mannion (whose posts I usually enjoy) about the worthiness of the men and women working in liturgical composition now. Their contributions of prayer and beauty are endless!
      As in every field, there are some less than marvelous and hardly more than mediocre contributions, but let’s not lump everyone under one umbrella!

    2. @Scott Pluff – comment #1:
      I was baffled by Msg Manion’s write off though I quite agree about the “manner” being a real problem. I think culture always trumps theology. The manner of celebrating the liturgy that was in place before the Council was exactly what Msg describes now as objectionable. Nothing not even a Council can get priests to change. Even now when i was in the hospital a Collegville training younger priest anointed me and floored me by rattling through the rite as if it were still in Latin. He is newly ordained but he can remember how it was done before the Council and so….
      As for singing…Outside of German American parishes when and where did Catholics sing? Right after the council in the parish church of Edina, Missouri the people sang everything. I commented on this and the parishioners said, “Oh we always sang like this.” Sure enough German American Benedictines who staffed the parish (three I think in those days) carried on the liturgy as if they were home in the monastery so the parishioners took up the parts that the monks’ community would have back home. So the change wrought by the Council was simply going into the vernacular. Now I was told in this small town, rural and isolated, had another Catholic church just down the road. ther because that brand of Catholics could not bear all the noise at the Mass and wanted something quieter.
      Another church was hardly needed except the resistance to the participation was quite heavy and the diocese had the priests in those days to accomodate the complainers. To help the music, I completely agree that money must be spent and trained people must be let into the leadership.
      My experience has been lay ministry seems like that old program “amateur hour” and there is no gong to move the worst off the altar. I suppose the offenders put up with rank clerical amateurs so instead of a bunch of incompetent clerics running the show there is a bunch of incompetent laity.

    3. @Scott Pluff – comment #1:
      It was no less a composer than Olivier Messaien who refrained from writing music for the liturgy as he recognised that he could not do better than the heritage of Gregorian chant dating from time immemorial.

      1. @Henry Law – comment #46:
        Henry, that’s not entirely true. The motet “O Sacrum convivium,” and the Pentecost Mass and Livre du Saint Sacrement were written for the liturgy. But you are correct in that he was primarily interested in writing religious music for extra-liturgical concerts. And he does certainly draw on Gregorian chant in his music.

  2. X-post from Catholic News Agency, awaiting moderation-

    I have much respect for Msgr. Mannion that dates back to his participation in the Snowbird Statement panel, and particularly for his founding of the choir school at the Cathedral of the Madeleine in Salt Lake City. His examination of typologies of musical styles that evolved in the post-conciliar era still holds some merit, if only for a means to diagnose the various ills when those styles are put into practicum. However, what really was the purpose of this article? There is …no “news,” no revelation, no insightful remedies evident. One could conclude that everyone should just concede to that faithful old standby, clericalism, and let bishop and let pastor “fix” their problems by imposition of will.
    He well knows it ain’t that simple. And Lord help the pastor or bishop (Illo and Cordileone come to mind from San Francisco) that deigns to remedy basic and fundamental issues at stake in a parish or diocese by excising a fiat from the folks, IF they are not of the middle-of-the-road, tolerant of cafeteria-mode attitudes among clerics and laity alike!
    It is absolutely maddening that blogging clerics chime in occasionally with bon mots of divine relief and intervention while the “amateur” and professional laity virtually spread themselves out like the little Dutch boy trying to plug all the holes in the dike. There are fine composers, fine musicians, fine architects et alia who are always at the ready for renewal and restoration of the flotsam and jetsam left over from the last half century liturgics. But given the propensity for our prelates to lead by following for the most part, or bore each other with Robert’s Rules at annual conferences, or bring their jovial smiles to the morning talk shows, why should Joe Sixpack Catholic think that any church “minister” actually gives a rip about his life, his spirituality, his dress, his posture, his FCAP? One thing’s always clear- that minister is very interested in the balance of Joe’s checking account.

  3. This has to be one of the most astonishing posts I’ve ever read at PrayTell (and yes, I do read a lot of them).

    “Almost no good composers of sacred music today”? How about (just to give a partial list, including famous and not-so-famous): Kevin Allen, Richard Rice, Samuel Weber, Columba Kelly, Richard Clark, Jeff Ostrowski, Colin Mawby, Adam Bartlett, Royce Nickel, Noel Jones, Arlene Oost-Zinner, James MacMillan… I myself published a book of Sacred Choral Works with 85 compositions in it, for different vocal forces. Practically every week at the MusicaSacra forum, people are sharing new compositions, and many of them are excellent in quality.

    The real problem is a lack of commitment to SACRED MUSIC, as opposed to religious songs.

    The other thing that’s amusing is the confident (though, one senses, slightly nervous) statement: “There’s no going back…” Folks, please wake up. The traditional movement is GROWING in the Church, has been and will continue to do so. Chant and polyphony are coming back. Traditional hymnody and organ are making a comeback, as well. And considering that the mainstream Church has been bleeding members for decades, it might be good to start learning from the demographic trends rather than whistling in the wind.

    1. @Peter Kwasniewski – comment #3:
      Peter, what is astonishing isn’t the contested statement by monsignor, but that he didn’t self-edit his declaration having direct knowledge of composers who are not only “nihil obstat” due to their contractual status with GIA/OCP/WLP/LP etc., but were also Snowbird signatories with him! What, Leo Nestor doesn’t qualify? Tom Savoy, Ralph Verdi, Howard Hughes……??? These fellows were at it in the 80’s and some/lots of us were employing their genius and inspiration. Paul Ford ain’t no slouch either, and he dwells herein.
      (BTW you forgot Frank LaRocca, Heath Morber, Jeffrey Quick, Mike Olbash and ahem, others!)
      I fear monsignor’s article was sort of a last gasp, not wanting to upset any names (tho’ I think he let too much Rambusch out of his bag, and there aren’t enough Stroiks floating around, yet!) Well, yes, monsignor, education is a valuable thing. Intellectual honesty is as well.

    2. @Peter Kwasniewski – comment #3:

      Peter: The other thing that’s amusing is the confident (though, one senses, slightly nervous) statement: “There’s no going back…” Folks, please wake up. The traditional movement is GROWING in the Church, has been and will continue to do so. Chant and polyphony are coming back. Traditional hymnody and organ are making a comeback, as well.

      I am certainly in agreement with you, as expected. It is important to respect that this is a progressive (or perhaps the American progressive) Catholic liturgical blog. I admonish myself, tread lightly.

      For a very long time (and certainly to this day) I have denigrated what I called the “low church”. I have thought that “low churches” are churches where a liturgical progressivism rooted in an optimistic and interpretative (rather than strictly prescriptive view) of Vatican II documents flourish. My regard of EF and ROtR churches as “high church” was not only a contrast but also a matter of pride: those who worshiped at Tridentine liturgy or who tried to tridentinize the rubrics of the Ordinary Form were not old believers but more sincere and “pure” than the “low church”. For all my intents, the “low church” could be another Christian denomination.

      Certainly, this is an extremely condescending and uncharitable view. Throughout the static Catholic believers across the spectrum need to heed Msgr. Mannion’s message. In effect, he is not only encouraging those who believe in a progressive and innovative Roman liturgy to continue creating liturgy, but also to admonish the “high church” that they have not triumphed despite some disarray in progressive circles. Yes, Tridentine liturgy has had an astounding rebound after an almost total repression for forty years. Still, the flock of progressive liturgy must also be fed, and not the dregs but with a plan of optimism.

      We the “high church” can at least in spirit support what other Catholics need for spiritual and sacramental sustenance.

    3. @Peter Kwasniewski – comment #3:
      “The traditional movement is GROWING in the Church, has been and will continue to do so. Chant and polyphony are coming back. Traditional hymnody and organ are making a comeback, as well. And considering that the mainstream Church has been bleeding members for decades, it might be good to start learning from the demographic trends rather than whistling in the wind.”

      Please tell me where these demographic trends are found. I am specifically speaking of the traditional movement GROWING in the Church part of the quote. I ask because I just don’t see that anywhere except on message boards which have agendas. Every time this assertion is made, I wonder where some actual data is, ask for it, but never receive a response. Anecdotally, some one will report that a special EF celebration was had where the Archbishop celebrated and 300 or 400 people will have attended. Even in my small town that’s practically nothing for a regular Mass let alone for a special event with the Archbishop, especially in a larger town or city.

      Yes, I am sure that the people who attend feel gratified and enjoy the liturgical experience. It’s different. It’s a little like an oldies concert where a 60s band long split up is reunifying for a comeback. People enjoy that, too. But, honestly, week in, week out, what draws more – even on a proportional basis – the OF or the EF? Because if the EF is truly that desired, the Church should offer it more, but if not, we need to let this argument go except as a now and then alternative, and realize that in general there really is no turning back. Either way I am fine as long as it’s based on actual data and not personal agenda serving assertions.

      1. @Charles Day – comment #14:

        This is a topic that needs researching – surveys perhaps of practicing Catholics. But we can look in from other directions:

        The number of EF Masses celebrated is increasing: (note the graph in the 4th question)

        Vocations to traditional orders are growing while mainstream orders are declining:

        This blog even confirms this in its complaint against young, traditional seminarians and priests:

        As a young Catholic, these things seem clear to me, but I wish there was more to offer.

      2. @Charles Day – comment #15:

        Charles: Yes, I am sure that the people who attend feel gratified and enjoy the liturgical experience. It’s different. It’s a little like an oldies concert where a 60s band long split up is reunifying for a comeback. People enjoy that, too.

        Great and interesting answer. As someone who grew up with a dad who played 60’s folk/rock 24/7, I am very nostalgic for a period I never knew.. I had to take some personal time to reflect when Mary Travers passed recently. In recent years I used to attend plenty of outdoor music festivals, less now (Jordan Zarembo loves folk music festivals?!)

        A subversive movement (in the positive sense) of roughly this time also desired to break free of liturgical rigidity and a supposed prison of historical expectation, much as the 1960’s folk players desired to escape from the postwar industrial complex. Msgr. Mannion asks fifty years on why the Ordinary Form is in stasis, and is unsure for the way forward. Might I suggest that the OF will in time receive the rigid standardization of the Extraordinary Form, a spirit apparently contrary to a liturgy which should move with the times.

        I am convinced that human beings long for rituals which, in their apparently static rubrics, communicate that the person belongs to a movement older and wiser than he or she has ever known. This wisdom in some part fuels the growth of the EF. The movement of the Ordinary Form to a rubrical stability and musical canon is not at all surprising. Can the OF still speak to current gender questions, economic inequality, and even climate change alongside a concurrent and gradual calcification of rubrics? I am not sure. Yet, I am fully convinced that no liturgy can stay absolutely fluid in the hands of human imagination before the human longing for liturgical reification becomes known.

  4. Some churches of modern design are very beautiful and functional. Some (old and new) churches of traditional design are also beautiful and functional. Some churches, modern or traditional and old or new, are not beautiful or not functional. I do not think the age or style is what matters but the quality of the design.

  5. @Jordan Zarembo

    Msgr. Mannion’s message(-) In effect, he is not only encouraging those who believe in a progressive and innovative Roman liturgy to continue creating liturgy, but also to admonish the “high church” that they have not triumphed despite some disarray in progressive circles.

    I know you are one smart cookie, Jordan, who’s been through the crucible. But the indiscretion in your rhetoric is (almost) breathtaking.
    Liturgy is inherently progressive, it is necessarily innovative. I can’t make that distinction more obvious.
    The efforts since the indult of 84 and SP of 07 cannot be regarded in any way as retrogression or nostalgic. The Divine Liturgy is, in any form, eschatological. How that reality is delivered and received by the faithful is what is at stake. To me, monsignor’s position, given his own documented history, only portrays someone who’s decided to sit on the fence and basically say “Let God sort ’em out.” That’s pitiable, because God doesn’t manage our worship of Him as demanded, he simply wants an exchange of worthy love given for love received.
    We change, we evolve, we don’t dissolve or degrade unless we’re literally dead. Change doesn’t inevitably require Gebrauchsmusick which was one of monsignor’s models. Change should implicitly require “our best.”

    1. @Charles Culbreth – comment #7:

      Charles: To me, monsignor’s position, given his own documented history, only portrays someone who’s decided to sit on the fence and basically say “Let God sort ‘em out.” That’s pitiable, because God doesn’t manage our worship of Him as demanded, he simply wants an exchange of worthy love given for love received.

      This is quite true, Charles. It is true that my use of “progressive” was not very precise or even wise. Neither liturgical movement in the recent Roman rite can be characterized by a single term.

      I also agree that a liturgy must grow unless it dies. The inability of Roman Catholics of diverse liturgical persuasions to respect each other without criticism is particularly jarring. While sitting it out is not an option, it is not feasible to demand that postconciliar reforms must be imposed on all. Similarly it is not feasible to demand that the Caroliginian-renaissance liturgy must triumph. Even a basic admission that Roman Catholics are one in doctrine, dogma, and morals but diverse in worship is beyond the reach of many Catholics who would rather see their ideals realized as a norm, either customary or legal.

      As you write, the “exchange of worthy love given for love received” is indeed the very basis of all the sacraments as well as the life of a Christian. Yet, few, save for the communion of saints, have perfectly achieved this reciprocal love. Perhaps liturgical diversity is a most trying place for Christian love because human desire for an imagined liturgical perfection clashes with irreconcilable differences. Maybe this is why Msgr. Mannion has thrown up his hands in frustration.

  6. Let me get this straight…

    Things changed with the Council and there’s no going back, which the Monsignor accepts as a good thing. Fine.

    Of course today we lack presiders who can preside, preachers who can preach, musicians who know music, and architects who have a clue about designing a church. And don’t forget the seminaries tasked with liturgical education that can’t educate about liturgical…um…stuff.

    We seem trapped between Back to the Future and Forward into the Past.

    And the solution is massive liturgical education. Uh huh.

    By whom?

  7. Over the past twenty-five years, I have been in some wonderful parishes on the east coast. I lived in Howard County, Maryland where there were several parishes within a twenty mile radius. St Louis in Clarksville, MD was exceptional in the celebration of the liturgy. At daily morning Mass there were over one hundred present. Moved to Cary, NC and St. Michael’s was one of the new mega parishes. The liturgy was wonderful and life giving. Music was truly beautiful; each mass was full and the participation of the faithful resounding in the large church. The article was good; my experience in these parishes was a loving affirmation of the present!

  8. As a retired priest who often “attends Mass” on Sunday, I am in agreement with much of Msgr. Mannions observations. I would add that I do not find the celebration of Mass a school of spirituality in many instances.

  9. Msgr. Mannion’s essays are usually helpful, but this is off base. In my experience, those who claim, “there are almost no (and I mean no) good composers in the field of liturgical music today,” haven’t made much effort to seek out good music. I’ve had this conversation many times, and when I name composers I respect, or specific pieces that I find beautiful and particularly worthy of the liturgy, the response is one of ignorance…. they haven’t heard of of it before, even when mostly the pieces are published by one of the mainstream houses. My bookshelf is full of binders with pieces that I’ve collected (new and old) that are wonderful, most of which I’ll probably never get too with my choirs! There is a lot of music published that is not very good, but that’s the nature of the business, it’s always been that way, and it’s going to get worse the easier it is for individuals to self-publish and editorial control goes by the wayside. It’s up to discerning directors of music to intentionally set aside time to wade into the creek, dig into the gravel, and find those gold nuggets.

    I do agree with Msgr. Mannion’s general assertion the biggest issue with our contemporary liturgical life is how the liturgy is celebrated. Often the personal whim of the priest, musicians, or other powerful individuals/small groups trumps making decisions based upon the instruction of the Church and the pastoral needs of the entire community. I’m sure this is done with the best of intentions, but it prevents the rites from truly taking root and bearing fruit in a community.

    1. @Jeff Rice – comment #13:
      “How the liturgy is celebrated” is absolutely crucial. My leaning is toward a restaurant that has cloth napkins and real silverware – though McDonalds plastic utensils do fill a need. I am optimistic enough to think that when something better [musically/ ritually] is offered, people will recognize this, and respond.

      1. @Roger Petrich – comment #15:
        Roger, I recognize and applaud your optimism and nod to mannerism. However, even if one could arbitrate what constitutes “something better [musically/ritually],” the odds of people “recognizing and responding” are still, at best, 50/50. What might seem to be an achievable ideal that the world’s largest bureaucracy could well achieve, an information and delivery model that could articulate standards, will never bubble up to the top levels of governance of The Church. It seems that the Church is now inextricably representing itself, not as Christ intended, but as “any and all things to any and all peoples.”
        Irony: “All ARE welcome in this place!”
        “Now what?”

  10. Msgr. Mannion is correct. There’s a lot that needs fixing in liturgy. The first thing I’d fix is using a captive audience as a performance venue for those who see themselves as musicians and presiders who “perform” the Mass. A lot of the defensiveness about musicians comes from those with an agenda that includes MONEY. Those throwaway song books that contain 600 or more entries, of which the typical parish will learn 1 or 2 but mostly sing what they’ve been singing . . . those song books generate big bucks for publishers and one supposes the big bucks trickle down to the composers. There is almost no emphasis on singing the liturgy and way too much emphasis on singing some songs while father does whatever it is he does up there. The musical settings in The Roman Missal ought to be a priority even if some of the folks don’t like them. They need to be a priority so clergy and people get used to using the books the church is supposed to use. Few parishes spend any time or energy learning to sing the Mass or sing the other sacramental celebrations. So we all wind up sounding like the Methodists or Presbyterians down the street but not as good. And not like Catholics who believe liturgy is the source and summit of what we do . . . . most of the time we sound like people who just want to get it over with.

  11. I realize this is a very short essay, and necessarily leaves out much that might nuance the argument, but the lack of nuance in the remarks on architecture parallels what others have said here about the dismissal of contemporary composers.

    There is a lot of space between modeling churches on the New Jerusalem—a strategy that is in no way an absolute norm or universal standard in the history of church architecture—and striving to create a “living room” effect, or what Msgr. calls a colorless auditorium. Consider, for instance, St. John’s Abbey. An incredibly numinous worship space that is modern. Or the vesica piscis of the Oakland Cathedral, or Our Lady of the Angels in Los Angeles. I agree with Bill Kish; the true dividing line is found in the quality of the design.

    By the way, the individual who called his church designs “non-churches” in the 1960s was Edward Sövik, an acclaimed Lutheran architect who taught at St. Olaf College. It was not Robert Rambusch. If one looks at the work of the two men side by side, one sees a very different aesthetic sense. I suspect Bob Rambusch would be highly amused to be thought to have produced “colorless” work!

  12. Msgr. Mannion is a firm supporter of chant, polyphony and the organ, so when he says there is “no going back,” he’s talking strictly about the liturgy. I think he has probably been frustrated that there are not many parishes that have followed the Madeleine’s example of a beautifully celebrated Novus Ordo liturgy that incorporates that tradition with the finest examples of modern composition, as the Second Vatican Council expected. When he talks about modern composers, that is an expression of hyperbole. There are not that many modern composers writing in modern idioms for the Catholic liturgy, with some exceptions like James MacMillan. While there is some solid composition going on, it tends to be neo-Brucknerian, stuff that wouldn’t really attract attention from a serious composition program at a reputable music school. And I’m sorry, but Kevin Allen’s music is not really that well composed. Where are the Messiaens of our day? Largely, they don’t exist – a few like MacMillan excepted, and he was not brought up in America. When Msgr. Mannion says “almost no (and I mean no)”, he is being careful not to just blame the folksy stuff (which IS a huge problem), but speak rather to quality. Good for him – we need prophetic voices like his that tend to provoke people.

    1. @Doug O’Neill – comment #18:
      Doug, we have to remember what arenas composers occupied during Bruckner’s (and all the operatic Italians’) eras. Simple Grout informs that the artistic culture of music composition still overlapped with a “liturgical” culture. After the French into the first half of the 20th C., name an academic, independent composer who maintained an obligatory relationship as a sacred music composer FOR LITURGY. Once you’ve descended to Montani from Langlais or Bruckner to Singenberger, that relationship is obliterated.
      From that reality and perspective, and mindful that folks like Penderecki and Stravinkski to Milhaud severed any ties of their magnificent sacred works from “the temple,” it’s a long haul back up for optimists like Peloquin or Vermulst. And the new choral genres opened up by Lauridsen, Part and many other fine composers aren’t often performed in any worship contexts. So, Kevin Allen has cut his cloth from within the Church, and by comparison, elicits a more Catholic ethos than anything by Rutter, and maybe even MacMillan, who (despite my tremendous respect for him) isn’t at the pinnacle of modern compositional elites such as John Adams or Corigliano, maybe even Gorecki. But, the point is really, when you hear Kevin Allen, or Frank LaRocca, IN CHURCH, you know to a certainty you’re hearing authentic Catholic music purposefully and faithfully (in accord with documents) composed with evident inspiration.
      What monsignor and most of us are lamenting here is that this conversation is a fairly worthless and moot enterprise in a vacuum-vacant aesthetic society.

    2. @Doug O’Neill – comment #18:
      Say what?? Arvo Pärt, John Tavener, Roxanna Panufnik, Gabriel Jackson, Paweł Łukaszewski, Philip Stopford, Ola Gjeilo, just to name (and exlude) a few and that doesn’t include the likes of people like René Clausen and Stephen Paulus, or my friend Roger Petrich 🙂 Thing is, and I’m stealing from something Fr. Joncas said a few years ago, comparing music written for the pre-conciliar liturgy to the post-conciliar liturgy is unfair and incorrect. Consider the Sanctus setting of Beethoven’s Mass in C verses Proulx’s Community Mass. They are trying to accomplish two very different things. There is plenty of room for great choral or organ music in the liturgy, but I think it’s clear that the vast majority of pieces need to have a component of sung participation from the assembly. The good news is there are lots of fine musicians tackling this challenge. I’m reminded recently of Peter Latona’s “Mandatum”. It includes a simple assembly response clearly is ritual music, but at the same time it’s elegantly crafted, dramatic, and immediately moving.

      1. @Jeff Rice – comment #20:
        Jeff, all those people you listed are fine composers, but I would say they are still the exception, not the rule, and thus Msgr.’s comment “almost all” is apt. I’m not comparing today’s music with music written for the pre-conciliar liturgy. I realize the difference and the need for solidly written new congregational music, which is a special skill. But the good stuff has been overwhelmed by the mediocre in the Church.

    3. @Doug O’Neill – comment #18:
      ” he is being careful not to just blame the folksy stuff (which IS a huge problem),”

      For whom? For you? For people who think like you?
      Music composed for the liturgical action and assembly participation in the Folk Idiom is not a problem at all for our parish and for countless parishes like ours. Our liturgies are thoughtfully prepared and carried out by competent and reverent ministers, ordained and lay. We sing and pray very well using this “hugely problematic” folk music!
      As I read Pere Gelineau’s “Voices and Instruments in Christian Worship”, I espouse his point about avoiding “art for art’s sake (solely)” in the composition of liturgical music , for music is the “handmaid” of the liturgy and not an end in itself!

      1. @Linda Reid – comment #21:
        The problem that I have with the piece is that it appears to take a few particular points to do with taste and then generalise from them to the state of the liturgy as a whole.

      2. @Linda Reid – comment #21:
        Yes, for me, but I consider that I am in line with the teaching of the Church documents. But more and more I get the message that there is no place for me in the Church, while there is plenty of room for people who are in line with you. And I most certainly do not espouse art for art’s sake, but that’s not an excuse to avoid quality liturgical music in service of the liturgy.

      3. @Doug O’Neill – comment #28:
        Doug, perhaps we must agree to disagree about the definition of “quality”. For me, music that that is well crafted, serves the rite and fosters the prayer of the assembly is quality music.
        I do not set myself up as opposed to church documents – I,too, am in compliance with church teaching (I do not know of any documents that forbid use of the folk idiom). The documents (as does the Church) allow for a wide variety of styles and instruments to be used at the liturgy and we use a wide variety from hymns, chants and contemporary compositions.

      4. @Linda Reid – comment #33:
        Linda, I agree that style is irrelevant – quality is important. I probably should not have used that “folk” buzzword. Yes, the documents do allow for a variety, so long as it has integrity. Then the question becomes the standards by which one judges the music. To give an obvious example, one would never criticize parallel organum for having parallel 5ths, but one could certainly criticize tonal music for having parallel 5ths. I also believe that when the documents talk about “folk” music, they are talking about authentic cultural expressions of their native land. In the U.S., the great melting pot, that becomes dicey. If there is a true folk music of the U.S., I would say it is music like the old shape-note hymnody, spirituals, bluegrass etc. Some of it is appropriate for Catholic worship, and some not. What became known as “folk” music (Peter, Paul and Mary, Kingston Trio, early Dylan etc.) may have evolved from that, but became something entirely different. What is generally called “folk” music within Catholic circles isn’t folk music at all. It is in fact firmly planted in the Western tonal tradition, just with some folk instruments sometimes. So then one can judge it from the standpoint of Western tonal music. And I’m afraid that much of it (not all, mind you) fails that musical judgment. Now, are there other pastoral factors that may come into play? Sure. But I’m talking strictly within those parameters of the musical judgment. And even if you take those other considerations into play, that doesn’t negate the musical judgment – ideally, all the music should be worthy of the musical, pastoral, and liturgical judgments at the same time, in equal measure.

  13. Quality ….. taste. Very slippery concepts that are apt to be used to justify personal preferences.

    1. @Alan Johnson – comment #29:

      Amen and amen. Hip-hop isn’t to my *taste*–and Heaven knows I’d not use it liturgically–but a thoughtful, open-minded listening reveals a great deal of skill, craft, and artistry.

  14. Has any one asked what their community wants? What a community feels & thinks about the music they are meant to sing as prayer at Eucharist?

    For some Catholic communities, it is traditional in style…. for others, it is much more contemporary… the combo of good music (as deemed by the average person’s singing ability) with good lyrics that speak to their individual faith journeys both supporting and challenging in tone…. this is what I see and hear people responding to at Eucharist!!!

    When only the choir is singing, and the faithful are supposed to be singing, but are NOT – then, no matter the quality of composition or lyrics, the liturgy planners have NOT done their job!!! It has become a performance as opposed to a celebration that we are eternally thankful that ” Christ has died, Christ is risen and Christ will come again… or any of the other phrses that share this truth!!! IF music, that is not as glorious as all you seem to believe we, the faith community need, feeds people’s souls and brings them to prayer, faith, joy, hope, peace, etc., then those are the works that should be chosen to be sung! Sometimes the KISS principle is really the best!!!

    So, give me Silent Night, Here I am, Lord, We Celebrate, All Are Welcome, Jesus Christ Is Risen Today, Set Your Seal Upon My Heart, Behold the Wood, Joyful, Joyful We Adore Thee… The people in the pews SING and PRAY these, their hearts are touched, their souls lifted up…. at least in our faith community…
    Then, the occasional masterwork can be also chosen to see if it flies – it has become a tradition for the choir to sing the Hallelujah Chorus after Midnight Mass – half to 3/4 the church stays just for that at 1:15a.m.!!!

    Is this not what good liturgy is meant to do?

  15. Talking about church architecture in such lofty terms strikes me as odd when talking about a Divine Liturgy that began in an upper room or in a house at Emmaus. Do you suppose that Jesus and the apostles were wearing appropriate worship vesture? Were there sufficient numbers of candles? And what about the musical compositions? Just the stuff from David?

    I have attended NPM gatherings for decades and never fail to be inspired and uplifted by new and not so new composers. Our Gather Comprehensive hymnal is full of hymns and chants that truly allow the people to give thanks and praise to God. We have well more than 200 pieces that are cherished by the people and which they actually sing. Thanks Marty, David, Michael, Rory, Suzanne, and the dozens and dozens of others who have enriched our liturgy over the decades since the reform.

    This Church in the USA is a far flung one and cannot be characterized by random criticisms without missing the mark. In my view, the biggest problem needing “fixed” are priests who are not driven by their personal relationship with the Lord. We have far too many functionaries some of whom are driven by agendas of various kinds. When the people are led in worship by a priest who is not mastered by chronos but by Kairos, when they can see that his praise of God is not ruled by a superficial piety but arises from with the depth of his heart, when he preaches the word of God from the perspective of his experience, strength, and hope, the people are built up into a dwelling of living stones and God is worshipped in spirit and in truth.

    The Liturgy must stop being dominated by a clericalism that communicates to the people that priests stand above and apart while they are just members of the church. Priests are no more important than the one who thinks of himself as the lowest member of the body. We are all called to be Christ to one another, each in his or her own way, in accordance with the call and purpose of God.

    1. @Fr. Jack Feehily – comment #31:

      Fr. Feehily, Wow did you hit the nail on the head. Your last paragraphs invite us to start thinking of returning more to the idea of the liturgy as a public banquet originating in the upper room with songs and psalms, and involving the entire community. Rather than simply witnessing a clerical performance on stage with lights, camera, and action by professionally trained actors in costume employing static rituals and formulas established by custom and the dictates of culture. All directed by professional script writers and choreographers driven by their own agendas.

  16. I think the illogical patchwork approach to what is and isn’t sung is the biggest problem with most masses today. I’ve been to a couple masses were almost everything was sung (save the readings and EP), and it elevates the rest of the music so much, and helped “tie it together” to such an extent, that the style of the hymns and mass setting didn’t matter as much. The one mass was all english, facing the people, with the St Louis Jesuits Mass and it was still the most High Church ROTR thing I’d ever experience up to that point in my life because almost everything was sung and itactually flowed.

    But honestly, so many decades after the liturgical reform, it is puzzling why singing the dialogues, priest’s propers, and credo are not par for the course at every Sunday liturgy. No wonder the hymns and the style they take have become such a huge issue.

  17. Msgr Mannion’s overstatements are fiskable, but in the end, there’s more substance to the residue – in too many places, pragmatic mediocrity reigns in many dimensions of liturgy. It’s easier to rationalize or get defensive about that. We embrace the servicable, and fear struggling for excellence.

  18. We embrace the servicable, and fear struggling for excellence.

    If I weren’t sure you’re generalizing there, KLS, I’d say “Speak for yourself.” I don’t play by dem rules.

    Is this not what good liturgy is meant to do?

    Liz, not really. There’s a deeply mystical and profound nature to the Divine Liturgy that, pardon the pun, ought to be divined every time it’s celebrated.
    Jack Wayne has nailed it best so far, and for the record his experience validates the principles of Musicam Sacram that William Mahrt almost gets blue in the face repeating all the time: The priestly orations comprise the little snowball that once it gains traction becomes a beautiful avalanche that envelopes everyone and everything in Creation’s embrace. I can bullet point out the licit tinkerings with ritual music I’ve “re-introduced” into practice over the last 25 years at my current tenure, and they’ve all been taken up successfully by the folks. But the best impetus towards that elusive creature FCAP will always be the chanting celebrant. After that I don’t care if a “faith community” prefers Venetian Masses, Taize Masses, Anglican-inspired Masses, Mariachi Masses (well, maybe that one) or Msgr. Mannion’s most dreaded “Eclectic Masses,” the willingness of the Alter Christus to risk elevating the Logos by song to the best of his ability will demonstrate a cultural maxim to which darn near every soul in the building will follow, as sheep do a good shepherd.

    1. @Charles Culbreth – comment #36:

      My remark was prefaced by “in too many places”. I felt it wasn’t necessary to repeat it, but now I know I was wrong to fail to do so.

  19. My parish is seriously unattractive and poorly designed – first built in around 1980 I think, and renovated in the late 80’s and again the late 90’s I think. I was not there at the time. It is very ugly and as non-churchy looking as you can imagine. There is not a kneeler in sight.

    However, our preaching is quite remarkable, Our music ministry is dynamic, maybe a bit contemporary for the taste of some, but always with a good mix of traditional. Add to that we are growing by leaps and bounds, bursting at the seams, and alive with the Spirit, with countless ministries serving in more places than you can imagine. The presence of God in our community is very clear.

    So, with that I conclude with.. what is it that Msgr. Mannion was saying?

    (We hope to break ground in the near future; our property is large, we are building a new church soon. It will not be ultra-traditional, but nor will it be an “auditorium.”)

  20. Brian Palmer : @Fr. Jack Feehily – comment #31: Fr. Feehily, Wow did you hit the nail on the head. Your last paragraphs invite us to start thinking of returning more to the idea of the liturgy as a public banquet originating in the upper room with songs and psalms, and involving the entire community. Rather than simply witnessing a clerical performance on stage with lights, camera, and action by professionally trained actors in costume employing static rituals and formulas established by custom and the dictates of culture. All directed by professional script writers and choreographers driven by their own agendas.

    With respect, Brian, your remarks above are breathtakingly naïve and moreso uninformed as to the geneology of the Eucharist despite Fr. Jack’s paean. But the portion which I have framed in “bold” is particular egregious, as you call into question not only the agenda of all living celebrants, liturgists, musicians and theologians, but those saints and seekers who comprise what we neatly package as the magisterium, who advance and defend (rightly or wrongly on points) the organic evolution of the Liturgy. The upper room and Emmaus, as honored and cited as they should, have never dictated the manner in which the Eucharistic commemoration/anamnesis was to be universally made manifest. Your and Fr. Jack’s horizontal only mentality will never take root, because (guess what?), it can’t. “The Banquet” is a human concept, as is a literally “re-enactment of Calvary” typifying of the Eucharist. Even minimalists who insist on “do the red, say the black” are not individual agents acting upon their own agendas. Period.

    1. @Charles Culbreth – comment #40:
      @Charles Culbreth – comment #40:
      Nice try Charles, but I stand by what I said. You’ve mischaracterized my point to justify a continuing culture of dependency upon court ceremonial, a liturgy left to the devices of ritualists, musicians, ever present rubrical police, and the silken and brocade vestment crowd with their penchant for liturgical extravaganzas.

      I understand music is your bread and butter and that you have a professional interest in the enrichment of the Mass. You’re probably very good at what you do in making the liturgy an unforettable and uplifting experience in your parish or in other parishes., but are you necessary? Can most parishes afford to maintain what you do? If so, should they?

      If you go back far enough in the development of all liturgies, east and west, you’ll discover the foundation for the eucharist in the concept of a banguet . Whether it is in the upper room or in Emmaus doesn’t matter. Liturgy freed from the machinations of choir directers, ministers of music, emanations from the liturgy committee imposing its will on an unsuspecting laity; and a reliance on trumpet voluntaries, the grand entrance and the like to glorify the appearance of a prelate in his pontifi. Falling back on the tired appeals to lex orandi lex credendi and the familiar trappings of faux marble altars enshrouded in clouds of smells and the tinkling of bells, etc.

      Jesus and his apostles sang the Hillel psalms at a banquet without the aid of an organ or choir. This is a model for a eucharist takeing shape moving into the 4th century. Seen in the chanted eastern liturgies which expanded their rich euchological offerings one discovers in the writings of Clement of Alexandria, Theodore of Mopsuestia, and in the Apostolic Constitutions. The east never has departed from the banguet as a celebratory framework for earthly worship. Linking the faithful to the…

      1. @Brian Palmer – comment #60:
        Brian, thanks for your impassioned, eloquent reply. As Liam noted, there’s way too much generalization in monsignor’s complaint to fisk with any coherency. And you are correct that in the abstract, minimalist, absolute sense, my participation at Mass isn’t necessary, and if one chooses to deem it so, a luxury that could even be decried as antithetical to the gospels.
        Your argument reminds me very much of an address that Mathew Fox gave at an NPM in the 80’s that basically advocated the devolution of sacred music to “songs” that are “universally” known to ALL, what I call a sort of “Happy Birthday” mentality.
        I think our point of departure is whether we’re conversing about liturgy or ecclesiology. Your concept of Eucharist and Church begins in the upper room/Emmaus and then evolves in its nascent state among the various communities of “The Way” informed by all sorts of ritual sources. I concur. However, does the O,H,C&A Church acknowledge (or not) our traditions go further back to Temple worship, to Melchizadek (sp?), or as you mention the Hallel songs?
        In any case, I’m not advocating for any cabal of professional court musicians’ interests , progressive or traditionalist. I would remind you and likely a majority of folks here that the liturgy you envision would radically abrogate centuries of development, flawed or otherwise, and would take out the necessity for not only me, but Fr. Anthony, Linda Reid, Scott Pluff and all our musical/liturgical colleagues. And lastly, having spent three hours in Vladimir Russia attending an Orthodox Divine Liturgy on a Wednesday afternoon years ago, I don’t dispute your “banquet” nexus for Eastern liturgy, but how do you reconcile the reality I saw, which evinced a continuing culture of dependency upon court ceremonial, a liturgy left to the devices of ritualists, musicians, ever present rubrical police, and the silken and brocade vestment crowd with their penchant…

      2. @Charles Culbreth – comment #64:
        Charles, With respect to your reference to a “Happy Birthday mentality”, I’m not sure I’d label singing psalms, canticles, litanies, and the reading of Old and New Testament lessons by celebrant, cantor, lector, and choir by placing it at the level of fluff pieces and other forms of popular tunes. Carols were condemned at one time because they robbed the people of scripture, or had vulgar origins unfit for the liturgy. That I can see as an exception because most carols are singable by everyone, and the medieval bawdier tunes are rarely heard today outside of restricted audiences of afficionadoes and scholars.

        Which brings us to the question, in the end, is the liturgy and the reform of it possible by making divine services a receptacle for preserving popular culture,such as ballads, tavern songs turned to carols, or the classic composers of the 17th and 18th century? Outside the liturgy and the concert hall, or following Mass is a possibility for preserving the culture.

        Nothing has to be abrogated. I don’t see how the liturgical civil war we’re experiencing can ever end without everyone admitting to a common standard of liturgical praxis permitting everyone an opportunity to participate. Sung in the language of the people, and, at the same time, making some occasional use of a Latin repertoire, particularly in multilingual settings.

        As for the Temple in Jerusalem, what were the liturgies like? I would think principally what we see in the divine office today–psalms, canticles, scripture. Nothing foreign to the people at that time, right?

        The reformed churches, particularly in Holland and Switzerland ,once forbade music other than a monotonic recital of the psalms. That included hymns (sounds like 3rd century Rome). Some of the anabaptist churches still follow this pattern. I’d estimate they have no liturgical civil war going on.

      3. @Brian Palmer – comment #66:
        I’m happy to report that A: we are actually on the same page, practically speaking; B. I think we’ve both been talking passed each other, and in the process have focused on the relatively unimportant aspects of portions of our posts. I’m good if you’re good.;-)

      4. @Brian Palmer – comment #66:

        I don’t see how the liturgical civil war we’re experiencing can ever end without everyone admitting to a common standard of liturgical praxis permitting everyone an opportunity to participate.

        What is participation? I clack my beads, some read prayerbooks, others yet make responses, still others quietly kneel. This is true even at celebrations of the Ordinary Form. The reformist notion that a “actively participating” assembly (ie. an ideologically conformed congregation) can be constructed out of persons with different senses of piety is untenable. Why, then, do so many advocates of the reformed liturgy continuously push forward a Sisyphean uniformity of action and utterance which militates against the human condition? When Mr. Caruso appears, you’ll find me in the parking lot.

        Liturgy according to academic metrics is a concept which has passed. Why keep pushing the same old contemporary hymns if relatively few sing and few have memorized scripture in this fashion? Why compose songs about scripture if the Graduale and the Liber are scripture? The way forward is an opposition to liturgical science, indeed a promotion of liturgical anarchy. This is the EF’s strong suite — there is no optimal metric for participation. Each person provides worship according to his or her inclinations and situation. Should one venerate Our Lady and light a candle while the priest intones the Preface? This is a most suitable action, as it is a personal recognition of the entry of our Lord into human time from the perspective of Our Lady and her intercession.

        A new liturgy, or series of new liturgies, cannot be generated from a liturgy which idealizes the sensibility of personal worship.

      5. Since the release of Fr. Weber’s compendium, I sense a shift in “battleground,” so to speak, Jordan. I think the magnitude of Weber’s proper book as well as those of others has shifted the discussion away from vernacular hymnsong usage to the focus of ought we (as in “THE CHURCH”) officially set our sights into creating a recognitio strategy among conferences for official chant books using vernaculars. Sure, it might be messy as so many “nations” are multilingual in practice. But English, the lingua franca of international business for the most part, could serve as the first vernacular to undergo such scrutiny (hopefully learning from the many debacles of the MR3 process) in order that the notion of a “fall back” to the Latin books as normative would have a legitimate alternative. Just thinking out loud.

      6. Charles

        I think that’s wishful thinking, as the conversation is still occuring at the margins. (Many multiples of a formerly tiny number can still yield a small number. The echo chamber of Internet epistemic closure doesn’t change that. On either end of the spectrum.) If anything, what I seet at that margin is decreased emphasis on reforming OF praxis and more energy spent on EF praxis. I don’t see the USCCB moving any closer to increasing its appetite to retackle things it has deliberately avoided tackling regarding hymns and propers. If even Cardinal George was unwilling to use his authority over publishers under his jurisdiction to push this, I don’t think Abp Sample is going to achieve much with the current headwinds in episcopal ternae.

  21. I suppose I’m just wired differently. It might have been that the clarion call of the Renaissance – ad fontes! to the source! – became hard wired into my head at an abnormally young age, but I look to the sources in liturgy and music.

    In music, it seems to me that the best thing to do is master what has come before — way before — and work one’s way forward. For me, that has been deepening my understanding of chant and of organ music. If I were to make a sweeping statement, I’d say something like, “If everyone writing liturgical music for English speaking congregations would first learn every hymn in the English Hymnal, we’d be in better shape.” You’ll see a smattering of the English Hymnal’s influence in most Catholic mass booklets, often with half the verses omitted. But! There is lyrical profundity in those waters. A thousand examples rush to mind, but I’ll start with one of Charles Wesley’s more famous ones — Alleluia, Sing to Jesus. Here’s the third verse:

    “Alleluia! bread of angels, Thou on earth our food, our stay;
    Alleluia! here the sinful flee to Thee from day to day:
    Intercessor, Friend of sinners, Earth’s Redeemer, plead for me,
    Where the songs of all the sinless sweep across the crystal sea.”

    Meaty theological content permeates that hymn, and I go through withdrawal if I go long periods without hearing its usual tune, Hyfrydol. Contrast that with one of the more insipid ones I heard in my Catholic school days, with apologies to those who like it:

    “Peace is flowing like a river.
    Flowing out of you and me.
    Flowing out into the desert
    Setting all the captives free.”

    Where’s the beef? Not in that hymn.

    With regard to liturgy, particularly Fr. Feehily’s comments about the upper room, it was, one notes, a seder meal, which is about the most formal (that is, having a set form) dining experience on the planet, with prescribed roles and responses.

  22. I agree with the comments in #44. We should as musicians know as much as we can about music that came before in our efforts to compose new music. There were many wonderful English hymn texts written before the RC Church experienced Vatican II. In fact, some Anglo-Catholics, for example the famous Canon Douglas, set English words to many of the existing Gregorian chants with some slight alterations. So when we Catholics started speaking and singing in the vernacular, did we consult a lot of Anglican texts and musical examples to help us come up with new congregational music, considering they had been singing congregationally in English for years? To a certain degree, yes (the Hyfrodol example above). However, the Church seemed to want to reinvent the wheel, and it seems like in the 60s-80s we got a lot of trite and overly simplistic songs like “peace is flowing”, “Abba Father” and “only a shadow” (many more examples of bad hymns).

    I find some interesting observations in many of the comments above. Many people are saying that they do more contemporary music at their parishes and that it works, moves the congregation, and brings people in the door. That’s great for them. Also, many people say they have blended music programs and use both contemporary and traditional music in church. I find this blend idea to not really be a blend in most parishes. It seems like many blended parishes, they will often do many more contemporary hymns and then just do a smattering of the most straight forward organ based hymns: things like Nicaea, Praise to the Lord, Joyful Joyful, etc. The musically blended churches to me seem a mile wide but only an inch deep.

    Getting back to the comment above, I find that often many more contemporary musicians really don’t know a lot of the breath of church music. As an organist growing up in a Catholic Church, I know most of the contemporary “folk” songs that are the staple of most RC parishes. I also have a broad knowledge of hymnody from the mainline Protestant and Anglican traditions. It seems like many musicians that advocate for more folk style music really are simple unaware of the great depth and breath of Christian music

  23. When we have such a range of music to choose from, gregorian, hymns old and
    new, music from Africa and other parts of the world and many Mass settings from the last 50 years, it is hard to see any lack of music to inspire the different congregations we have in larger and smaller churches. In a small parish in the UK, we find that people participate best in certain popular hymnns and will join in with a component of latin and gregorian chant as well as a good Mass settings and a mix of less familiar hymns.

    No-one has mentioned the 2011 translation so far. I think the responses are mostly accepted by congregations, but I don’t think the other parts are very comprehensible. One priest has had the clever idea of splitting all the new texts into separate phrases separated by a very brief pause. This avoids awkward stumbles when trying to find an intonation which will link the many clauses and qualifying or explanatory phrases which appear in the extremely long sentences which are typical of the translation. However, it also results in a series of unconnected expressions which, while sounding suitably religious, would be hard work for listeners to parse, put together and make sense of. Certain unfortunate wordings also stick out more, for instance, the recent prayer “that all may grasp and rightly understand in what font they have been washed” – for everyone I asked this conjured up “Times New Roman” or maybe “Zapf Dingbats”. We
    should not have to be distracted by this kind of language.

    There is already a wide variety in the liturgy, and this is no doubt appropriate given the huge differences of circumstance and culture between congregations. If the EF enthusiasts have their particular liturgies, is it not time for some brave bishops in the English speaking areas to allow use of the 1998 translation where congregations wish for it? In my experience, 1998 has been applauded by everyone who has seen it.

    1. @Cathy Wattebot – comment #47:
      Cathy:“No-one has mentioned the 2011 translation so far.”

      Oh, it has been mentioned. 😉 Perhaps not in this thread, but check the older posts.

      You make valid points, though.

  24. Regarding modern liturgical music composers: a few months before the new Missal translation went into effect, I printed out every new and revised Mass setting I could find, from publishers and public domain sources. I tried to come into the process with no pre-conceived notions of composers and publishers (well, almost – OCP was stingy with their free samples, so some of theirs got eliminated pretty quickly). I played through them, making two piles – one of settings to examine further, and one to throw in the recycling bin. The recycling bin pile was MUCH higher than the keeper pile. Most were eliminated after playing just a few measures of the Gloria. The keeper pile largely consisted not of settings by the big 3 Catholic publishers, but by the Liturgical Press and public domain. For the record, the one I judged to be the best was Gerald Near’s Mass of St. Augustine, published by MorningStar (thank you, Lutherans), although that was later eliminated as being impractical for our situation. Yes, I have exacting standards. Everything I have read from my graduate church music study, Catholic theology, and the documents encourages me to have exacting standards. Yet many label me as elitist, and how I should be more sensitive to the “common” people (which is in itself denigrating, in my opinion; my high expectations are a sign of respect for everybody’s potential). Do you realize how utterly frustrating this is? Why don’t we have more skilled liturgical music composers? Has the Church driven them away? Why haven’t the publishers commissioned Mass settings by the most skilled liturgical music composers from other traditions (people like Craig Phillips, David Ashley White, Joel Martinson, etc.; David Hurd’s Mass of St. Cecilia is a rare exception)? Now, on the cup half-full side: there is much good out there, and I’m highly grateful for the public domain sites and for publishers like Illuminare. We just need to make the effort to go out and search for it, and use it.

    1. @Doug O’Neill – comment #48:
      I would ask what are your “exacting standards”. Are they objective measures or subjective judgements?

      When I was looking at new Mass settings, one objective measure I made was to count the number of times the melody made a jump of an interval of more than one step. I also looked at the variation of intervals. For instance, in the Sanctus of Luke Mayernik’s St Gregory the Great, he uses a perfect fifth 6 times. So without any aesthetic judgement (which was positive in my case for this setting) I can discern that the congregation will be able to sing this well and pick it up quickly.

      Another more sociological test, but still measurable, was to simply invite parishioners along with the choir to come together to sing through some different settings. It was fairly simple to tell after singing through a piece two or three times if it was going to be difficult to pick up, if it was sung well from the first instant, or if it gained momentum over the course of a few times through.

      1. @Jeff Rice – comment #50:
        Objective measures, based on my training and knowledge. While the sociological/pastoral tests are important, that first test I made intentionally did not take those factors into account. The follow-up was that I invited a few choir members/parishioners to sing through the short pile, as you describe in your second paragraph. That’s when we eliminated the Near possibility (basically, I and some others loved it, but most concurred that it would be very difficult to implement in a parish with many visitors, because it was more difficult to learn; although I might try it in a more stable parish with a good number of music-reading congregants). I would imagine that when many dioceses/parishes were examining Mass settings, they did the sociological test without the standards test. It’s important to have both. Honestly, in the parish where I now work, we sing a Mass setting that I think is pretty lousy, put into practice before I arrived, with the encouragement of the diocese. But they sing it pretty well, so I’m not planning to rock the boat by changing it any time soon.

  25. RE objective evaluation of musical quality:

    This can be difficult, because it’s not necessarily possible to say that one composition is inherently better than another in an absolute sense. However, it is certainly possible to evaluate craftsmanship within a particular tradition, given that the tradition has its own unique history, master artists, materials, etc.

    I think many people bristle at the idea of evaluation, because they assume that someone is trying to hold one tradition up as better than another: e.g. is a Bach fugue “better” than a masterful piece in the Hindu raga tradition? That type of evaluation seems impossible to me. However, given a hymn, mass setting, or choral work clearly positioned within the western tonal tradition, YES it is possible to make an informed judgment as to quality. Those people who claim total relativism WITHIN a particular tradition strike me as either disingenuous or genuinely uninformed as to the tradition in question. It is also important to remember that evaluation of quality is not primarily a comparative task. In other words, the goal is not to settle some impossible question like “which Bruckner motet is best?” Or the old favorite “is Bruckner or Brahms the best?” The point is simply to search for marks of quality craftsmanship in a particular work.

    I don’t mean to be unkind or dismissive, but I don’t think people are well enough informed to have the discussion about musical quality (much less evaluate pieces) unless they have put in the time to study the tradition in question. By which I mean important compositional treatises (my top two are Gradus ad Parnassum and Schoenberg’s Theory of Harmony) and study of composers and their work. Everyone is entitled to have personal taste, but not everyone is qualified to evaluate craftsmanship.

    1. @Jared Ostermann – comment #52:
      “I don’t mean to be unkind or dismissive, but I don’t think people are well enough informed to have the discussion about musical quality (much less evaluate pieces) unless they have put in the time to study the tradition in question.

      I certainly agree with that on an intellectual level, and I would never try to claim that I could judge the craftsmanship of one composition against another, regardless of tradition.

      But, the problem is that in a liturgical context one of the Church’s stated goals is congregational participation. The finest technical composition in the history of humankind is merely a museum piece (or the subject of study for a music class) if people can’t (or won’t) sing it. I do not have to have any particular training to tell whether people are singing it or not.

      1. @Charles Day – comment #53:
        First, not every piece needs to be sung by the congregation. But you are right – for those pieces meant for the congregation, singability is critically important. There is no need for a dichotomy here, though. A piece can (should) be both well-crafted and suitable for whatever purpose it is intended to fulfill. These are two different parts of the judgment process. A piece that is only singable or only well-crafted does not pass the test.

  26. Yes, of course it is possible to evaluate the skills shown in a composition. I have taught the stuff professionally. As an aside I have to say that a comment about parallel 5ths in the 21st century had me shaking my head. When did the language stop developing, exactly?
    However, for me in the context of liturgy compositional skill is less than half the story.
    Music chosen needs to both fit the occasion, and also to be a match to the performing skills that are available. I can’t be the only one who has sat wincing in the pew while a bit of Palestrina etc is mangled by an inept choir. Or while a ham-fisted organist renders a piece of Bach unlistenable. Or while a choir bellows their way through Missa De Angelis and Credo 3 as though they were at a football match, while imagining that this is proper chant.
    Personally I would rather have simple fare competently and sensitively done according to the resources and skills that are available. There is far less danger of the terrible distraction caused by teeth being set on edge.

    1. @Alan Johnson – comment #54:
      Here again I would say there is no dichotomy (not sure if you are implying one) between craftsmanship and practical context. I would never say that a piece is good for liturgy or appropriate for a particular choir simply because it is well-made.

      As far as evolving language, I find Schoenberg’s Theory of Harmony extremely enlightening. Even though he doesn’t feel bound by the old rules, he thinks it is worth tracing their origin and understanding WHY they might have arisen. He is the prime example of a progressive composer, but at the same time he thinks we can only move forward in music if we put in the work and study to understand where we have come from, and why. That strikes me as a very Catholic approach to composition. And in that way the conversation becomes more nuanced than simply “parallel 5ths are bad and sloppy” or “we can do parallel 5ths if we want – it’s the 21st century!” I think it’s usually pretty clear when part writing ‘errors’ are intentional compositional devices, and when they are simply mistakes.

      1. @Jared Ostermann – comment #57:
        Point one – Maybe you wouldn’t, but the evidence of my ears is that plenty of places are subjected to the ministrations of choirs etc who attempt things way beyond their ability to perform in a manner that enhances the liturgy.
        Agree with the second point as well. Sometimes progress involves paring down so that the text is carried and “pointed” rather than being the excuse for a bit of compositional swaggering.

  27. Comment #44 expresses points I have been working through. Mgr Mannion’s post immediately to me missed out one significant element: there are almost no – and I mean No – (to use his hyperbole) – good lyricists. Most churches where I find myself almost never have a hymn written more recently than 1980 – recently when an almost traditional hymn turned up (How Great Thous Art) a key adjective ‘Mighty’ [thunder] had been changed by OCP to rolling – an insipid weaker image. Mostly week after week it’s drivel – metaphors of abysmal confusion and imagery of no particularity. Thinking about it took me back to the era when the new Mass came in and with it new music. Up til then hymns were pretty much the relics of Benediction and Marian hymns with a few others ‘catholic’ enough eg Praise to the Holiest in the Height – Firmly I believe and Truly etc. They tended not to try Anglican or other protestant hymns at that point as there was big resistance to going over to that. However one day at school we got our first new hymn: Spirit of God in the clear running water. My fellow 11 year olds thought this was astonishingly awful and to this day I have no idea what the line :’blowing to greatness the trees on the hill’ Is supposed to mean. Yet we are trapped like flies in that 70s amber – sugar before meat – disdain for precision and meaning. Why bother for eg to re-paraphrase Psalm 99/100 again when one has All People That On Earth do Dwell? A hymn too ultra-prod to make it into a catholic church in the early 70s but which leaves everything I hear now on Sundays dead in the murkily stagnant mire. Regarding architecture, I was at UCLA on Sunday at an event held in the dreary mid campus buildings. How different from the sensational lay out of the 30s upper campus, known to so many moviegoers even if they don’t know where it is. But down the hill all the 70s/80s banality – the church is still mostly in that time. It missed the post-modern moment because it was a partly a revival of tradition and we couldn’t have that. So…

    1. @Timothy O’Brien – comment #56:
      Timothy your negative comment about the Medical Missionary song “Spirit of God” illustrates how far we need to bear with each other in the matter of music in the liturgy. Many find Miriam Therese Winter’s songs good. This one centres on creation “groaning in one great act of giving birth” (Romans 8) and as such may not be very accessible to young boys. “I cannot come to the banquet” is for me another memorable one – sadly they appear in few hymn books, perhaps for copyright reasons.

      Choosing a mix of styles, sources and epochs according to the community can be an effective way forward, where we can learn to find value in what others appreciate, but we at first find alien, and reject.

      1. @Cathy Wattebot – comment #61:
        I am sorry that in the constraints of space my comments about lyrics in general nowadays, and my recollections of first experience of a new type of hymn, conflated into a blanket negative comment of Spirit of God. With that mention I was recollecting accurately an experience. Despite that boyhood experience I would now say that Spirit of God overall is something for which I have affection. When the imagery is precise it is good – especially in the second verse and the tune has a pop joyfulness which is unforced. I’m sorry it never turns up now – though not sorry it doesn’t turn up all the time as it did then and was probably a factor in our reaction to it – as if it had become the only hymn. However one reason we had that reaction to Spirit is that lyrically all it’s meaning is on the surface. There’s a place for simple songs and stories but it shouldn’t become the standard of excellence. Contrast with another hymn that became fashionable in that moment (because of Cat Stevens) Morning Has Broken by Eleanor Farjeon. These lyrics are contemporary in language and form (well 1930s but the high point of modern literary output in English at least). They resonate because the words convey different levels of meaning and the interaction of meanings between the light at play in Eden and God’s recreation in the last verse is inspired. The Scottish folk tune seems very current as does all the best art. So for me it is not about “what we first find alien, and reject.” After a lot of experience writing about arts in various form I have come to the conclusion that when something really is new AND good no matter how alien it seems at first it always attracts one in to find out more about it even if the first reaction seemed to be a profound repulsion. I accept that in every art people can’t get it right all the time, but most of what we sing week after week is as disposable as the dreary books in which they are printed.

  28. It’s amazing that the original discussion involved selecting music for the congregation to fully participate in, but has devolved into whether or not the “professional” church musicians, composers, etc., are qualified to write. I’ve seen nobody speak to the issue of what the people want to sing. There must be a reason that one of Msgr. Mannion’s non-qualified musicians penned On Eagle’s Wings and it has been a favorite of the lowly incompetent congregations in each parish I’ve served.
    Perhaps we should start by locking all of the self-proclaimed music experts in a room and then ask the unwashed, unqualified other just plain folk what music they would prefer to be able to sing in order to fulfill their full participation. But don’t forget that “None At All” should be a valid response.

    1. @Sean Keeler – comment #59:
      Sean, you are mis-characterizing the discussion. Nobody thinks congregations are incompetent. People deserve to be treated with dignity and respect, and their opinions recognized. But the fact remains that the issues of quality/integrity and popularity are separate. Because something is well-composed doesn’t mean people will like it, and because people like it doesn’t mean it’s good. The Grammys, for instance, I find weird, because they are attempting to recognize artistic merit within a popular music genre. What’s the point? On the issue of “self-proclaimed music experts,” you sure don’t want to hire trained musicians for a roofing job, and they are not necessarily attuned to pastoral needs, but you can trust them more or less to make a musical judgment. Why? Because they have studied music. Professional musicians are not “self-proclaimed”; they have been acknowledged that way by virtue of their study and degrees earned. I would hope that the church would value that as a contribution and service.

      1. @Doug O’Neill – comment #62:
        As a graduate musician who has been involved in a voluntary capacity (parish musicians don’t get paid in the UK except for funerals and weddings) in parish music for several decades, I think the trick is to assess the musical ability of the assembly and match it with the singability of the music and the liturgical demands of the particular day.
        That becomes crucial where there is no choir to hold the congregation’s hand and where this no desire for an “animator” up front.

  29. Jordan Zarembo Why compose songs about scripture if the Graduale and the Liber are scripture?

    Jordan, two responses to this:

    (a) I don’t think most composers write songs about scripture. They write songs based on scripture. That is entirely laudable, at least in principle.

    (b) I don’t think anyone could describe the Gradual and the Liber as scripture. They contain settings of scripture, yes, and other texts too, but they of themselves are no more scripture than the book of the Lectionary for Mass. Whenever we sing a scriptural text, whether in Latin or English, one translation or another, whether in Gregorian chant, fauxbourdon or something more recent, we are making use of a vehicle which mediates the scripture. But the even the vehicle is not scripture, let alone the book that contains it.

  30. Liam, right-o, as I said, I was just thinking (wishing) aloud.
    I must say this whole thread has been pleasant to delve through, what with it starting with a fairly innocuous article by Msgr. Mannion. Maybe that was his intention. 😉

  31. If we had singable, prayable music and good preaching that inspired instead of retold the Gospel, this whole discussion goes away…my God I’m entry 76… wow. There are good musicians, great ones, and good preachers, great ones. Just so far between and far apart.

    The people are asking for this and are flocking to where it is…do we think the EF is going to bring the droves heading to Christ-tertainment houses of worship back?

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