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Losing my religion: How Church music causes unbelief

February 8, AD 2017 9 Comments

Imagine for a moment you are an enemy of the Catholic Church. You wish everybody could just leave this horrible institution.

Yet you know that a full frontal intellectual attack on the tenets of Catholicism would probably only provoke a defensive reaction. Rather, your method has to be more sophisticated. It has to be something subtle, subliminal. Something which Catholics might listen too and mouth regularly, believing that by doing so, they are fulfilling their sacred obligations. As you scratch your head wondering if such a scheme is even possible, you decide to visit a typical Catholic parish on a Sunday.

And you smile.

“No need for me to do anything,” you say to yourself. “They are doing it to themselves already.”

In case you might be wondering, I am referring to the music at Sunday Mass. My thesis is as follows. That often enough, that there is a real danger that the music we use at Sunday Mass does more to unevangelize Catholics than do the so-called “enemies of the Church.”

Consider what the Mass is. It has been called many names. “The Holy Sacrifice of the Mass.” The “Eucharistic celebration.” The “sacred liturgy.”

At the Mass, a Catholic is supposed to be present at the memorial of the death of Jesus. The Catholic nevertheless considers it a celebration because Christ did not only die but rose from the dead in forgiving love. Hence, His one hour on Sunday is supposed to be the participation in a public and sacred act (the word “liturgy” once referred to public and solemn acts performed by important people in Athens).

Yet very often, our music does not reflect this. In fact, in many subtle and often unnoticed ways, what we sing is often contrary to what we believe Sunday Mass is about.

I will highlight two main problems: that we often have lyrics in songs that that make it seem that we are really not worshiping, and that we often chose melodies that do not convey what the Holy Mass is about. More often than not, these problems overlap in one song.

Consider the following example: “Here we are, all together as we sing our song, joyfully… Altogether as we pray we’ll always be/Join we now as friends/to celebrate/the brotherhood we share, all as one/Keep the fire burning, kindle it with care/And we’ll all join in and sing.

This song with the awe-inspiring title “Here We Are” is problematic not for the sentiments of brotherhood it expresses, (which no Catholic can possibly object to) but in what it does not say.

It does not express the reason why Catholics are summoned to worship every Sunday. That we are saved by Jesus Christ; that by assembling on a Sabbath, we are proclaiming to the world what the destiny of Creation should be.

Instead, what we get are vague sentiments of friendship over a fireplace. The melody too reflects this. It practically invites you to sway your head from side to side and snuggle up with loved ones. This begs the question: do we really have to assemble every Sunday for one hour to celebrate “brotherhood”? Why can’t we do it at home or in a restaurant?

Or consider another popular ditty: “Sons of God, hear His Holy Word/Gather round, the table of the Lord/Eat His body, drink His blood/then we’ll sing a song of love/Allelu, Allelu, Allelu, Allelu-uia!

If this was spoken and not sung, one could actually transform it into a solemn call to listen attentively to the Lord and partake of the Eucharist, even though the last line about “singing a song of love” is a bit tacky.

But all is ruined when it is accompanied by the melody. It is that of a lullaby. If someone wanted to wean Catholics off belief in the Real Presence, they could not have found a better melody tacked to the lyrics.

If I can sum up my concerns in one phrase, it would be this: “Music maketh a man.” A person becomes what he hears and sings.

August Wilhelm Roesler, Music in the Monastery

August Wilhelm Roesler, Music in the Monastery (1837)

If you are exposed to such music Sunday after Sunday from childhood, the subliminal and tacit message, probably not even intended by those who selected the music itself (which makes it doubly tragic) is as follows:

“The great theme of salvation is something unrelatable to you. We understand, so let’s talk about more ordinary things like friendship, a fireplace, cookies and milk.”

“The idea of the Real Presence is something we don’t really believe. It’s something for children. A lullaby would be good enough.”

The Church has launched a New Evangelization, and desires very much to help Catholics re-encounter the Person of Jesus Christ.

I fear that we might be fighting a losing battle if we do not first get our music right.

____

Image: PD/US