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Made for Beauty: Liturgy and Music

By Deal W. Hudson
4/24/2014 (3 years ago)
Catholic Online (www.catholic.org)

How do we inform and reshape the Catholic culture in a way that consistently acknowledges that we were made for beauty?

Some might flinch at my use of the word "satisfying" to describe a liturgy, but I used it deliberately because I want to think aloud about the fact that we were made for beauty as much as we were made for goodness and truth.  To be satisfied by the shape, form, and celebration of the liturgy is precisely what we should feel as we worship. To bask in the real presence of Christ should not require closing your eyes and ears but rather to have both fully engaged. 

Highlights

WASHINGTON,DC (Catholic Online) - Every Easter my family travels to downtown DC to attend Mass at Immaculate Conception Church - not the Basilica - located in what is called the Shaw neighborhood just behind the Convention Center.  Msgr. James Watkins has, perhaps, no peer as a homilist, and from the decoration of the altar laden with flowers, to magnificent music, and full-throated liturgy responses, Mass at Immaculate Conception is invariably moving and satisfying.

Some might flinch at my use of the word "satisfying" to describe a liturgy, but I used it deliberately because I want to think aloud about the fact that we were made for beauty as much as we were made for goodness and truth.  To be satisfied by the shape, form, and celebration of the liturgy is precisely what we should feel as we worship. To bask in the real presence of Christ should not require closing your eyes and ears but rather to have both fully engaged. 

That evening, my wife Theresa read me an email exchange with a longtime friend who has been involved in liturgical music for over 20 years.  Her friend was lamenting the ugliness and banality of the music that morning at her parish.  (This is a theme that I have addressed regularly in the past 30 years of writing for Catholic audiences, and the situation, as far as I can tell, is not improving.)

Only an hour before Theresa read me the email exchange, I had noticed a lively exchange on the Facebook page of Barbara Nicolosi, well-known Catholic screenwriter and film critic.  Barbara, who I have known for many years, had started the thread with a delicately phrased complaint about the music at her parish on Sunday morning.

"It grieves me more than I can say, but the music at our Easter Mass could only be described in a charitable way as the exaltation of ugliness."

Much of the reaction to Barbara's initial comment criticized her for saying anything negative about her Easter Mass. Barbara unfortunately, but understandably, deleted those comments. But there was also a consistent theme of support, suggesting this complaint is more widely held than imagined.  Such as:

"Ours sounded like the sound track to a 70's movie."

"I will rejoice in the fact we did NOT have Liturgical Dancers."

At least the priest didn't do a Jazz Hands Jesus dance."

"The Novus Ordo Mass reflects a new theology. The music is just a side effect."

"When the music and responses sound horrific, it's a mockery...especially when people around you are trying to stifle a cry, laugh, or a snort laugh! The focus and reverence to the Mass is lost for all those sitting around the giggles!"

"A charitable way to describe the music at your Mass was that it significantly reduced your time in purgatory as well as dramatically enhancing your self control while demonstrating your love of Jesus--by not plugging your ears."

"Ours was... unusual. It began (pre-Mass) with a strange rumba version of a hymn I couldn't place played on the organ with some of the fancy electric stuff going on -- the Latin beat, and some tinkling bells. Like Mass with the Mighty Wurlitzer. After that it was a mishmash, some good and some bad,  but very cheerful."

But here is the best one, in my opinion:

"Thank goodness the Mass isn't only about the music. Or we Catholics would be atheists by now."

Theresa gave me permission to publish an edited version of the exchange with her friend. She had written a note about our wonderful experience at Immaculate Conception Church that morning.

Her friend wrote back:

"I'm jealous of your lovely Immaculate Conception Easter experience. I sang at my parish, where the music and the music direction ranged from banal to downright awful."

Note to the reader from Theresa:

"In case the reader is wondering, I've known this friend for nearly 20 years, and she is far from crabby, but extremely patient and non-judgmental."

Theresa responded:

"We have parish hopped quite a bit the last few years, and a lot of it has to do with music. We are just tired of having to give up a part of the worship experience that for us is so vital."

Her friend wrote:

"Agreed! I am SO, SO SICK of 'checking the box.' The priests here are far more dogmatic than pastoral. I don't WANT to get used to this or think it is normal, or worse, acceptable. The music directors are just awful, and all of them think their "Music Ministry" is vital and flourishing. I have sympathy for anyone with the music director gig, having done it myself, but I find them to be unprofessional and lazy, and I'm tired of holding my nose for the Sake Of The Faith. I think I'd rather just go to a weekday Mass that has no music at all."

To which, Theresa responded:

"The dogmatic outweighs pastoral here as well. It's amazing to me that music means nothing to most pastors. The congregation gets nothing and expects nothing. Poor Jesus. God created us for music. It's why we crave it. Shame on the seminaries for not teaching young priests the importance of it. If people hear the beauty of joyful music they will pack the pews AND the offering plate. The clergy don't get it."

"The clergy don't get it,"  but, and Theresa would agree, some do get it, and it is immediately apparent in their liturgies. Here is the challenge, as I see it, how do we inform and reshape the Catholic culture in a way that consistently acknowledges that we were made for beauty?

© Deal W. Hudson, Ph.D

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Deal W. Hudson is president of the Morley Institute of Church and Culture, Senior Editor and Movie Critic at Catholic Online, and former publisher and editor of Crisis Magazine.This column and subsequent contributions are an excerpt from a forthcoming book. Dr. Hudson's new radio show, Church and Culture, is heard on the Ave Maria Radio Network.

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