The Word became flesh . . . so what?

A few weeks ago, I was interviewed for a National Catholic Reporter article about the document from the USCCB’s committee on doctrine about evaluating hymn texts for use in liturgy. As someone who has spent the majority of the past thirty years evaluating hymn texts as 1) a liturgical music editor; 2) a hymn text author and; 3) a Sunday-by-Sunday liturgical musician, it’s not surprising that when the interview was over, thoughts about the subject continued to marinate in my head. They all could be expressed as: “If the Word matters, then words matter.”

Words matter . . . EVERYBODY’S words. A quote from me that appears near the end of the NCR article states that, in my view, we are just now (or recently) having conversations that we should have had thirty or forty years ago. Over the course of years, I’ve observed a number of times the oddity that, given the Council’s emphasis on assembly participation, the ritual book used most often by the assembly (the hymnal) wasn’t treated with the kind of care that other books were (in the U.S., anyway). The assembly’s book seemed to be viewed as less important. It’s an example of what I’ve sometimes called a “Tridentine hangover,” the mindset that if the right words are said at the right time by the right person, then the liturgy has been accomplished. (For a number of Roman Catholics—then and now—this means the priest saying the words of institution prior to the elevation.) Some will say that this lack of hymnal evaluation proves that only the proper and ordinary texts from the Missal should be sung, to the exclusion of all else. Others will rewind to the days of the call for a national Roman Catholic hymnal. I don’t think that these two approaches are necessarily the only ways to accomplish a liturgically and doctrinally sound book for the assembly, though there are definite values that each contributes.

Words matter . . . and who writes them. Vatican II, in its instruction to composers, states that texts must be in conformity with Catholic doctrine, drawn chiefly from scripture and liturgical sources (CSL, par. 121). In the first generation of post-conciliar vernacular music, there were many examples of this instruction being followed. (And many violations. Yes, I use a broad brush here.) Contributions to the repertoire by Fr. Lucien Deiss, CSSp, and the St. Louis Jesuits adhered particularly close to scripture. As we moved forward, there was increased influence on liturgical music from popular music, and it was presumed that the person who wrote the music also wrote the words, no matter their liturgical//theological/poetic expertise or capability. The popular music process of recording/sheet music/concert tour became more common as well. The new and innovative came to be valued, along with an American Bandstand method of evaluation. (“It had a good beat; everyone liked to dance to it.” Ask your parents, kids.) Positive ecumenical movement which should, by all means, be preserved and encouraged, meant that texts by Protestant authors appeared increasingly in Roman Catholic hymnals. Please know: I am not anti-ecumenical; the repertoire has also been enriched by these authors. However, a presumption emerged that if a hymn was in a book used at Mass, then whomever wrote it must be Catholic. (I once heard a noted speaker, unintentionally, refer to a text by an ordained Protestant woman as being by “one of our Catholic authors.”) Implementing denominational purity tests or checking academic credentials will accomplish little, and runs the risk of quenching the Spirit (I Thess. 5:19) In an ecumenical framework, however, we would benefit from greater care in our assessments, particularly for topics like Eucharist or Mary and the saints.

Words matter . . . all the time. An unfortunate response to the doctrine committee’s document is one that might be referred to as “galloping infallibility.” A day or two after the document was issued, parish musicians were asking what songs they could/couldn’t use. The document was, first of all, issued by the committee for other bishops. Secondly, it is a guidance document, particularly for bishops (as is the case in Chicago, where I live and work) who oversee the approval of hymnals for use in Roman Catholic parishes. Even if it had wanted to, the doctrine committee doesn’t have the canonical authority (nor does the USCCB) to tell individual bishops what can and can’t be sung.

A second unfortunate response was found in the backlash stating it was shameful for the bishops to do this, given all of the more important issues they have to deal with. Again, first of all, this document wasn’t worked on by the entire conference but only a committee. Secondly, because there are other, more important issues to be dealt with (I agree with this, by the way) does not mean that this issue isn’t important, or that it shouldn’t be dealt with. It was a bit sad for me to read/hear my fellow liturgists and liturgical musicians deeming these matters “unimportant” rather than placing this document in balance with other issues. Truly, issues of immigration and family separation, sexism and racism, ongoing sexual abuse revelations, the death penalty, and others are incredibly important. Yet it seems that the surrounding culture’s ability to focus on only one issue at a time, making every significant issue a house-on-fire crisis, leaves us understanding the liturgy as a means by which we lurch from crisis to crisis, rather than being a source of strength and guidance in times of uncertainty.

In my book Words That Work for Worship, I point out that the same truth can be presented in scripture, a theology text book, a sermon, and a hymn text. The same truth will not be offered the same way in these various modes of expression. This would seem to indicate that a healthy dialogue among theologians, hymn poets, preachers, and catechists—to name a few—would be beneficial. (One could, I suppose, turn the Catechism into metered and rhymed verse, but it likely wouldn’t render a happy result.) I pray that the increasingly non-dialogic nature of the surrounding culture doesn’t also infect us here.

Jesus taught that the law is made to serve people, not the other way around. People matter more. Yet he didn’t say the law was unimportant or useless, only that people matter more. In that spirit, if the Word matters, then words matter. In this season of the Word-made-flesh, let us all continue to enflesh that Word in every word and action of our lives.

2 comments

  1. Perhaps this old context from the old dispensation, as it were, may explain:

    The Missale was the priest’s book.
    The Graduale was the choir’s book.
    The Kyriale was (notionally at best) the congregation’s book.

  2. Alan – Words matter — and you have, I think, very carefully and very-well chosen these words. Thank you for sharing.

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