Church musicA couple of weeks ago, Nicole and I had the pleasure of attending Holy Mass at St. Patrick's Church in Morristown. It is a lovely spacious building with a side chapel where the Eucharist is held in reserve, and where there are many rooms to be used for its various Parish programs.
In parousing the parish bulletin, I couldn't help but notice that the 9:00AM Mass was what they termed "traditional," while the 11:30AM was deemed "contemporary." I have no problem with contemporary Christian music, and I do believe that this genre can play an important role in getting today's young people interested in Christianity-but it has its time and its place. When I was in college, we had to be contemporary-by-default-we had no organ or piano, the closest we could get was an occasional Yamaha keyboard. However, I seem to recall that the music selected was still respectful, doctrinally sound, and well-fit for worship.
Most so-called "contemporary" Masses I have observed inside an actual Parish church building are filled with music that sings of God or Christ in some generic fashion, recounts in song very little doctrine, and sounds more fit for a hippie "togetherness circle" than for Divine Worship of any sort. I once attended Mass at a parish where the opening and closing hymns sounded like something from Woodstock, and the Agnus Dei was sung to the tune of the Simon and Garfunkel song Scarborough Fair. If this was designed to appeal to the young, I felt it a poor representation of Christianity, especially to a newcomer.
Once I went to a so-called contemporary Mass where the closing hymn was a song called Yes I Know (my evangelical friends should know that this was not the song by the Gaither Vocal Band), and at the conclusion of the song I had yet to figure out what it was I was supposed to know.
Many teenagers and younger college students who attend these so-called "contemporary" Masses have lost touch with their liturgical and doctrinal roots. In with music that sounds like a rock concert, out with the great reliable standards of faith. Many of the really young folks barely know the words to such stirring anthems as Faith of Our Fathers, Ye Watchers and Ye Holy Ones, At the Lamb's High Feast We Sing, Salve Regina, Crown Him With Many Crowns, and Holy God We Praise Thy Name-just to name a few. God forbid any Latin be introduced into the equation, then the poor teenagers are totally lost. I have found that the only teenagers who can survive anything remotely resembling traditional music and worship are those raised in homes where the Faith of the Old Church is still practiced-Mom and Dad lead children in prayer every day, and that often involves the rosary.
Lest any evangelical Protestants think this is some sort of Catholic problem, I have visited many evangelical churches that are so obsessed with the contemporary that they've lost touch with their roots. I once attended a service at a church which claimed membership in the Southern Baptist Convention (I have been given to understand that this congregation has since removed themselves from that affiliation). The songleader announced that the congregation would now sing Leaning On the Everlasting Arms, which is an old evangelical classic. Knowing the words by heart, I tore into the first verse-"What a fellowship, what a joy Divine..."-and immediately after the word "Divine" I was forced to stop because I was singing it on the traditional beat and time, while the rest of the congregation was singing to a backbeat that sounded remarkably like Eddie van Halen's Poundcake. After this nauseating episode I did not leave immediately because I was with a friend, but I also didn't want to be rude. I was then subjected to a sermon about how the church needed to "change" to bring in young people, and the first change that was needed-the congregation was told-was new music. "Are we to bring back Gregorian chant," the minister asked. Of course, being Catholic, I wanted to jump up and say "Amen, sounds great to me." If what I was experiencing was a part of this new revolution, I resolved then and there that I would forever remain a religious reactionary. Both my company and I were in search of a suitable vomitorium after such henous torture of both our ears and the Three Divine Persons.
I understand that many young people find inspiration and comfort in contemporary Christian music. I think that's fine, and I enjoy some of it too. However, in our Divine Worship, we ought to give the last two generations (many of whom have no clue what the religion of their grandparents and great-grandparents was like) some taste of the classics-the hymns that are beautiful to sing and also tell of the things we believe.