The Celtic folk-rock band Scythian performs at World Youth Day in Sydney. CNS file photo/Paul Haring

Catholic music is a rocking success story

  • October 5, 2014

Under blue skies, dressed in black, stand the members of Christian band Darkness Divided. In the serenity of a forest clearing, the band members’ hands are stretched straight up, revealing streams of thick, dark blood pouring from wounds artificially created on their open palms. In the background, lyrics suggestive of Christ’s crucifixion are belted out supported by the severe guitar and drum sounds typical of a metalcore band. This is a scene from “The Hands that Bled,” a single off the band’s newly released album, Written in Blood.

Three of the four members of Darkness Divided are Catholic, but on tour the entire band attends Mass, said guitarist Christopher Mora.

“Our songs are all about our faith journeys and performing them is how we live out our Christian faith and share it with those out there who may not know Christ.”

The group, which came onto the music scene in 2010, does not identify itself as a Christian contemporary music band, a genre dominated by Protestant artists. Yet this heavy metal band — along with Catholic and Christian contemporaries who perform in more mainstream musical styles — are part of an evolution of worship music that exists outside of the Catholic liturgy. Worship music may generally have a strong Protestant slant, but whether it is Christian contemporary, Catholic contemporary or even heavy metal, it all has its roots in the Roman Catholic Church.

“There’s a myth going around that our Protestant brethren were the ones who began this revolution of using modern instruments in worship, but it actually started with the Catholic Church,” said Ken Canedo, a Catholic liturgical composer and author. “In fact, the first type of worship music they did in the Protestant Church was Catholic folk Mass songs.”

Protestant performers then turned it into a multi-million dollar industry, Canedo said.

Canedo is the author of Keep the Fire Burning: The Folk Mass Revolution.

It looks at the birth of the folk Mass (or guitar) Mass in the 1960s and traces its origins to Gregorian Chant. The folk Mass, he says, was made possible by the Second Vatican Council.

“There was change in the air,” Canedo said.

Pre-Vatican II, aside from church choirs, Catholics, unlike Protestants, generally did not sing in church. For the most part, going to church was a silent experience. Any singing that did occur was normally done in Latin.

Then came two developments: Vatican II from 1962 to 1965 was convened as folk music was exploding in popularity. Artists such as Peter, Paul and Mary, Bob Dylan, Woody Guthrie, Pete Seeger and The Kingston Trio were causing college students to spontaneously gather in what became known as hootenannies to sing hits like Puff the Magic Dragon and Blowing in the Wind. In 1964 a Belgium nun topped the charts in Canada and the U .S. with Dominique.

“So they were influencing seminarians and sisters in the early ’60s who picked up a guitar,” said Canedo. “And Ray (Repp) was one of the first ones who took that then-popular folk music style and tried to play around with that music with psalms from the Bible.”

Repp was a seminarian at Cardinal Glennon College in St. Louis. He began writing folk music for worship in 1962 and was first published in 1966, said Canedo. Initially, his songs were played outside of Mass, because Mass was still in Latin. But that changed when the New Mass was introduced in 1964.

Pope Paul VI not only authorized the Mass to be said in vernacular languages, but Catholics were encouraged to sing at Mass. In Canada, choirs didn’t know what do to at first.

“Very quickly, Mass went from Latin to English,” said Bill Targett the director of the office of formation for discipleship in the archdiocese of Toronto. “I think choirs were confused in the first few years. They didn’t know what their role was anymore because the choir knew 98 per cent of their repertoire in Latin.”

In the U.S., Repp and other folk composers brought their new compositions to church and, accompanied by guitars and other instruments, started to sing a style of music young people were hearing on the radio.

“There was lot of hope and optimism at the time” said Canedo. “The music that Ray Repp and his cohorts was composing captured that spirit of mid-’60s and they brought it to the liturgy, which was pretty much unheard of at the time.

Canedo says that folk music “finally helped English-speaking Catholics to open their mouths and sing in church. It was a major revolution . . . unprecedented.”

Folk music eventually “went out of vogue,” Canedo said. Popular music turned more to rock with the British Invasion — think The Beatles. The early ’70s saw a growing interest in the singer songwriter, like Elton John and James Taylor, with a soft rock sound.

“Every time you base music on what is the popular style, eventually that style changes,” said Canedo. “And that’s the style of music that evolved in the ’70s and into the ’80s. So yes, a lot of Catholic liturgical music echoed to a certain extent what was going on in the secular popular music at the time.”

But while Christian contemporary music evolved with the times, music in the Catholic Church was left behind. That was due to the popularity of Protestant radio ministry but also because Catholic music is geared towards the Mass, which must conform to strict liturgical standards.

“So we often look upon our worship experience less in terms of — for lack of a better word — an entertainment experience that you sometimes see in some of the mega churches. And I mean that in the best possible way,” said Canedo.

“Our worship is centred around the Eucharist. And it is our communion with our Lord in this bread and wine, which is the central tool not only of worship but to our faith. And so our music has always revolved around that sacred belief in the transformation of bread and wine into the body and blood of Christ.

“In that respect, it can be said that if you want to put us neck to neck with our Protestant brethren, we kind of got left behind, and gladly so. We wanted our music to be scriptural, we wanted our music to be respectful of the Catholic ritual, and it was less the praise and worship performance type mode that our Protestant brethren really seized upon.”

Outside of Mass, however, Catholics and Protestants alike are making and enjoying Christian worship music at concerts, on their computers at home and with portable devices on their commute to work and school.

Notable Canadian Catholic artists include Joe Zambon, Chris Bray and the hard-rock band Critical Mass with front man David Wang.

“Contemporary Catholic music very much holds up side-by-side with Contemporary Christian music. In fact, there’s a lot of cross-pollination,” said Canedo. “Contemporary Catholic artists still have respect and love for the Mass, for the Eucharist. But also we’re out there putting on praise and worship events just as well as our Protestant brethren, and sometimes together.”

Darkness Divided is one such band.

“Our hope is that our fans can relate to the songs that we sing and gain hope from the message we are trying to share,” said guitarist Chris Mora. “We would like to tell as many heavy metal fans who don’t know what Jesus is about, who He is, what He has done through our lives, and what He may do through theirs.” 

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