A few weeks ago, my husband and I visited a Catholic church that had the most gorgeous pipe organ. We were all set to enjoy some fine sacred music during Mass, but for some reason, most of the hymns were accompanied by the tawdry tinkling of a piano.
Now please don’t misunderstand me. Pianos are fine in secular settings, but when it comes to church, give me the majestic tones of the organ any day. As for guitars, drums and tambourines, they’re just dandy at rock concerts, but using them at Mass is like wearing tattered blue jeans to a big meeting with the boss.
People go to church to worship God, and I don’t think it’s too far-fetched to expect the lyrics of hymns to reflect this goal. In a hymn like “Holy God We Praise Thy Name,” the words remind us of how infinite God is, and how everlasting his name is. In a hymn like “How Great Thou Art,” there’s no doubt that the words are praising our heavenly Father.
Compare these hymns with some of the folksy, feel-good songs that are being played in many churches today. The lyrics of these ditties generally put the spotlight on people, rather than on God. One particularly heinous song contains the puffed -up phrase, “We are the light of the world,” which always makes me think, “Gee, I thought Christ was.”
Other egregious songs have lyrics that refer to “gathering us” and “shepherding us” — and it’s easy to arrive at the conclusion that the congregation is singing about themselves, not God. And don’t even get me started about “Come to Me and Drink,” which always makes me envision Jesus as a bartender.
Traditionally, sacred music in the Western Church has meant the sonorous tones of the organ. This is appropriate accompaniment for hymns composed by Bach, Palestrina and Mozart. Today, sacred and secular are being sadly confused. Some music directors don’t seem to realize that sacred means something special and holy, and quite different from the everyday, which is one reason Catholic churches feature steeples and stained glass.
Of course, it’s possible to worship God in a dingy auditorium while sitting on folding chairs – and this is exactly what has happened to many of our Protestant brethren, who stripped the sanctuaries of sacred trappings at the same time that they did away with the tabernacle. But Catholicism is based on the premise that we are incarnate beings, and settings do matter.
After all, eating a gourmet meal accompanied by crystal and china is radically different from gobbling down burgers housed in Styrofoam. Continuing the dining analogy, it seems that replacing Mozart with the feel-good, folksy songs played in many churches today is like following a fine glass of French champagne with a cup of flat seltzer water.
There’s a vast treasury of traditional Catholic hymns, so why are we turning our backs on beautiful and uplifting music? If you like rock and roll, that’s just dandy — you can play it in your car. If you like guitars and tambourines, that’s great – you can enjoy them on your back porch. But when it comes to Mass, let’s have music that offers a foretaste of heaven, where I have to believe that the choirs of heavenly angels are not singing feel-good folk songs.
Lorraine’s latest mystery, “Death of a Liturgist,” is about a liturgist who meets a violent end after trying to get everyone grooving at Sunday Mass by changing the music to suit his taste.
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