The new songbook will replace the Catholic Book of Worship III, which was released in 1994 but became outdated with the revision of the Roman Missal and other liturgical texts. Register file photo

Peter Stockland: New Catholic hymnal nothing to sing about

  • July 24, 2018

Proof that the Church has no shyness about irony is affirmed by news that Canada’s new Catholic hymnal will be unleashed during Lent two years hence.

I cannot think of a fitter time in the liturgical year to take the wrapper off a fresh compendium of joyful noise, mumbled verses and music by committee than during the 40 days inextricably linked to sack cloth and ashes. Enhancing the sense of lugubrious ecstasy is the promise that Music for Catholic Worship will include “new hymns by Canadian composers” including such hotly anticipated titles as “Rain Down.” I can feel the tears in my eyes already.

None of this is meant to be dismissive of the hard and vital work done by the composers. It is not meant to diminish the National Council for Liturgical Music that has overseen the new hymnal. Nor does it denigrate the devoted choristers, organists and instrumentalists who will make its praise ring out. 

I am, however, one of those for whom the very phrase “new church music” rhymes with “seagull in a blender.” I say this readily admitting to being a total musical drone, a bottom feeder on the scale of musical knowledge. My entire understanding of music rests on three years of junior high school band, which was only possible because the school authorities so deeply feared letting me take shop class as an alternative. 

But if 40 years of journalism teaches anything, it’s awareness of when people are bluffing. When it comes to what we do musically at our contemporary Masses, Catholics are all but unanimously huff, puff and bluff. Nor is this a matter of the old trope about Catholics being unable to sing. If you’ve joined some of our fellow Christians at a “modern” worship service, there is a strong chance you’ve been affronted by among the most appalling caterwauling outside the local SPCA.

I go annually, for example, to the National Prayer Breakfast in Ottawa, as well as to its complementary leadership dinner the evening before. Though officially ecumenical, its inspiration is self-evidently Evangelical. Befitting an event organized by parliamentarians, the combined events routinely attract compelling speakers, including the likes of Os Guiness, former Governor-General David Johnston, and Kim Phúc who was immortalized in the photograph of the Vietnamese girl set alight by napalm. But the music? I’m sorry. And so is the music.

To be fair, there have been two captivating performances in recent years, one by opera star Ben Heppner, the other by the choir of St. Patrick’s High School in Vancouver. The rest? Trust me, being treated to the overwrought oeuvre of Guy Love and The Word Warblers is not the best way to overcome cold scrambled eggs and half-cooked ham: “Jeeeeeezzzzzuzzzzzzz, I looooovvee yewwwwwwhoohoohoo. Jeeeezuzzz, you loooovvvee meeeheeheehee….” 

Second verse, same as the first. If you’ve been anywhere close, you know the drill, and why it feels like one is being pressed into your ear.

The problem is not that it’s bad performance, but that it is performance per se. In that, we Catholics share the shame. As “modern” Christians, we treat music like entertainment breaks from the serious phases of the service. No doubt that is why so many of us have discovered it is possible to let your lips drop apart and flap back together without emitting a single croak and believing no one around you will ever know. Bluffing hardly covers it. 

I am going out on a limb here, though, to suggest that’s not what music, particularly music directed at love of God, is supposed to be. In an interview several years ago with journalist Krista Tippett, the Irish poet John Donohue said: “Music is what language would love to be if it could.”  Tippett then suggested that if music contains such beauty, perhaps it should be seen as “a bridge we can walk across to each other, a bridge that might help humble and save us.”

Such aspiration to the transformation of salvation is why we lift our hearts, and our voices, toward God’s love. The irony is no hymnal in the world will help in that crossing unless our hearts are first convinced songs of praise are infinitely more than just another musical interlude in the world. 

(Stockland is publisher of and senior fellow with Cardus.)

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