Why Football Fans Can Sing . . . And Catholics Still Can”t

I need to begin this post on liturgical music with the disclaimer that I”m neither a liturgist nor a musician. My perspective is that of someone who loves the Mass and who can also carry a tune.

In addition, I want to focus on a very narrow aspect of liturgical music–namely, the selection of hymns for Sunday and Holy Day Masses. To understand my concern, bear with me as I draw a comparison with the music at a professional sports event.

Has anyone ever been to a game where to get the fans fired up they continually play songs that nobody knows (or likes)? Or where they played loud music or otherwise incited noise while the home team had the ball? (For those of you who might not know, the idea is to be quiet when your team has the ball, so they can hear the quarterback better.) Or has anyone been to a baseball game in which they substituted a new song for “Take Me Out to the Ballgame” for the seventh inning stretch?

The answer to these and other such questions is “definitely not.” In other words, professional sports teams recognize the importance of playing the right music at the right time to help create the appropriate environment for cheering on the home team. It”s not rocket science, and any team organist not on board with that concept will soon be looking for other work.

For some reason, though, this concept is lost on many parishes that I”ve visited over the years. So many times I”ve gone to Mass absolutely ready to worship–and sing!–only to experience music selections that are so foreign to me (if not banal or repulsive) that it”s more of an annoyance or distraction than an aid to prayer. Does it have to be that way?

Now, those who provide the music for parish liturgies have several things to keep in mind. They should strive for excellence in execution, calling forth and utilizing the musical gifts, talents, and instruments at the parish”s disposal. Since the purpose is divine worship, not entertainment, the appropriate amount of reverence and decorum must be maintained. And since the music is calling forth something deep within us, the music ministers should be Spirit-filled and not simply going through the motions.

But all that aside, what can we say about the musical selections themselves? I’2012-04-24 18:32:38′ve come up with three points that I think summarize what the Church is looking for in this area.

(1) Know the Mass. Surely, all music ministers know (or at least should know) the general parts of the Mass. Yet, maybe–through additional training, courses, retreats, lectures, workshops, homilies, etc.–they can come to a more accurate and profound understanding of the Mass so that the musical selections flow from an intense awareness of the movement of the liturgy. After all, don”t we expect the team organist to be fully “into” the game?

(2) Honor the Tradition. The easiest thing for the team organist is to fall back on songs that everyone knows and likes to hear at sporting events. These songs have multi-generational appeal and encourage everyone to sing along. Musicians are creative by nature, and they naturally want to try new and innovative things. Yet, they have to respect the fact that many decisions have already been made for them (e.g., “Take Me Out to the Ballgame” in the seventh inning). Similarly, the Holy Mass is not generally the time for musical innovation–especially if it”s to the detriment of our rich liturgical tradition, including the Gregorian chants, which Vatican II especially singled out as having “pride of place” (Sacrosanctum Concilium, nos. 114-16).

Traditional hymns like “O Come, O Come Emmanuel” (Advent), “For All the Saints” (All Saints Day), “Crown Him with Many Crowns” (Christ the King), “Jesus Christ Is Risen Today” (Easter), “The Glory of These Forty Days” (Lent), or “At That First Eucharist” (Corpus Christi), just to name a few, are time-tested and, if executed well, help the faithful enter into the theme of the day or season.

I will say that Christmas is the one day everybody seems to get right. Could you imagine going to Midnight Mass on Christmas and hearing only one or two songs you recognize? Thank God for classics like “O Come All Ye Faithful” and “Joy to the World,” which are such an integral part of the liturgical celebration of Christmas.

(3) Ease in Newer Music. At football games, we do hear some newer music. However, new music isn”t introduced at the game. Rather, if a song has become a big hit or was sung on American Idol, only then do they consider using it, because only then does it have sufficient familiarity and widespread appeal among the fans. 

If there”s a beautiful new hymn we want to introduce, let”s teach the faithful before Mass and use it with some regularity so that it becomes familiar to all of us. Note to music minister: The fact that a new hymn is in the Music Issue of the missalette does not mean it”s beautiful. It simply means that it”s in the Music Issue!

Now, on this point there is a significant difference between the approach for football music and for liturgical music. Football music is catering primarily to emotions, and we”re looking for songs that are popular for their own sake. Liturgical music does not ignore the emotions, but it also must engage the whole person, including one”s thoughts and the exercise of one”s will, so as to elevate the soul. Some new liturgical music selections may be “catchy” and become familiar through (over)use, but that”s not the measuring rod for excellence in liturgical music.

Thank you for letting me get all this off my chest–I feel much better! God bless all of you as Christmas approaches. And may all your Christmas liturgies be “joyful and triumphant”!    


6 Responses to “Why Football Fans Can Sing . . . And Catholics Still Can”t”

  1. M. Forrest says:

    As a musician, I heartily approve this message! Great comparison to sporting events, Leon. As a musician, I would make two other suggestions.

    First, if at all possible, DO NOT put musicians and singers in the front of the Church where they are seen. Being placed in front of the congregation tends to create the appearance of a performance and all too often I witness pianists, organists, choir member et all behaving precisely as though the are giving one. Making eye contact with the parishioners, making emotive gestures, etc. The musicians become the central focus of the parishioners rather than helping parishioners to focus on God. And the musicians themselves are too easily distracted by the parishioners rather than keeping their minds and hearts focused on God.

    My other suggestion has to do with a very nice but misguided notion that all voices raised in worship to God are beautiful. No doubt, they are beautiful– to God. But to people in the pews, those who have little or no musical acumen can become as much of a distraction as the excellent musicians who turn it into a "show." Choir directors really do need to tell some people that singing in the choir may not be their particular gift.

  2. M. Forrest says:

    "et all" – sorry for the literary stutter. Should have been "et al"!

  3. John Elfering says:

    My pet peeve is something that is likely at the Christmas Masses — applause after a homily or after a hymn. I know people have good intentions, but to me it belittles the homily or hymn. It takes something meant for God and makes it as though it was mostly for us — like giving a group gift to someone and then members of the group congratulating each other on how well they shopped for it and wrapped it. I have nothing against complimenting a priest on his homily or the choir on their music or the wrapper of a gift on the beautiful job wrapping a gift, but it just seems tacky to do it at the point we should be focused on the one we are giving the gift to.

  4. Lucien Tenebrae says:

    @John Elfering: In fact, Pope Benedict has written (paraphrasing), "when applause starts, worship stops at Mass."

  5. M. Forrest says:

    John and Lucien,

    Yes! That”s part and parcel of what I was talking about – turning the music into a performance rather than worship. Great quote (paraphrase) from Pope Benedict.

  6. leon says:

    Nice comments. Michael, ever notice that we never really see the organist or DJ at pro sports events? That”s because the game isn”t really about them. And as an aside, I wonder what Raiders” fans would throw at the organist if during the game he played some weird song that nobody ever heard of.

    The one who should receive the applause is Christ. Of course, we have other more appropriate words and gestures for use at Mass (kneeling, bow, "praise to you, Lord Jesus Christ, etc.).

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