There’s Mass Music, and There’s Music for Mass

My thoughts tend to wander in church. The lector might open with a biblical passage describing the Israelites assailing Jericho. I’ll picture myself inside the city, as a trader bartering in the ancient streets. This, in turn, will cause me to wonder how people got along in those days without air conditioning.

So it was that, waiting for Mass to begin one recent Saturday evening, I was unruffled by the sweet, dark strains of “Night and Day.”

“It’s just me,” I thought. “Just my wayward imagination.”

It was with a jolt that I realized, “No, it’s not just me.” Someone really was playing a Cole Porter song in church. It was the violinist.

Later, as the parishioners filed out after the recessional hymn, the same musician struck up a Bobby Darin tune, “Beyond the Sea.” This may have been meant to put a bounce in our step as we exited the building, but I was feeling too disoriented to do much bouncing. Bobby Darin? Was this a Catholic church or a nightclub?

Or was it me? Had I at last turned into the brittle old square I always thought my father was? Music, after all, is largely subjective. By what authority could one anoint some musical pieces for admittance into church while excommunicating others?

I checked the hymnal. It contained hundreds of songs composed for church. Sure enough, though, it also contained a small battery of privileged foreigners — songs composed for other forums but that nonetheless enjoy the occasional performance at Mass. Among these interlopers were “America the Beautiful” and “God Bless America.”

A revelation dawned on me: Admittance into my church depended on a song’s being either composed for Catholic worship or endowed with rightly ordered patriotism. This comported with the idea of a nation under God. (For more on this, see Tim Drake’s essay above.)

That notion, however, exploded in the next instant when I thought of another song I’d heard at Mass, “Ode to Joy.” With music composed by Ludwig van Beethoven, a German living in an era when there was no German nation over which to be patriotic, the ode gets its lyrics from another German, Friedrich Schiller, whose sentiments were neither Christian-specific nor dedicated to any particular country.

I thought also of the church song “Morning Has Broken.” This was a song I’d first heard sung by the popular entertainer Cat Stevens, who, as far as I knew, was now a devout Muslim.

As if “Ode to Joy” and “Morning Has Broken” were not remote enough from orthodox Catholicism and Old Glory, I thought also of “A Mighty Fortress Is Our God.” This hymn is sung in Catholic churches even though its composer, Martin Luther, was a catalyst of the ecclesiastical revolt that would come to be known as the Protestant Reformation. If Luther enjoyed entry into a Catholic church, then why not Cole Porter or Bobby Darin or, heck, the Rolling Stones?

“There must,” I thought, “be something about the music itself.” A song’s melody could have a spiritual temperament that could qualify it for admission into church. In that case, time might be necessary. Like purgatory, time could wash away any stains or taints inappropriate in the house of the Lord, admitting only unblemished gold.

Just so. From its beginnings, the Catholic Church has worked through local cultures to spread its message, honoring differences in expressions of faith. The Catechism, No. 1207, states: It is fitting that liturgical celebration tends to express itself in the culture of the people where the Church finds herself, though without being submissive to it. Moreover, the liturgy itself generates cultures and shapes them.

I was gratified to participate in this process, howsoever humbly, by voicing my views regarding the music played at my church. Locating the church’s website, I left an e-mail message criticizing some of the music I’d heard at Mass. Before receiving a reply, I telephoned the church office. A deacon answered. Briefly and courteously, I explained why I thought some of the music played at Mass had been inappropriate and suggested that the musicians confine their church repertoire to songs of worship.

My efforts seemed to work. Next week, church sounded like church again.

The Catholic Church is no democracy; nor should it be. But through its parishes, it can respond to local, even individual, concerns — like mine — accommodating a vast variety of continually evolving customs, traditions and personal tastes within the compass of a truth that is both universal and eternal.

Michael W. Drwiega writes

from Wilmette, Illinois.

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