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Musical abuse

  • October 5, 2007
{mosimage}The people in the pews are the Body of Christ, and never am I more aware of this than when I am in my parish in Cambridge, Mass. The priest censes the altar. The altar server censes the boys’ choir. He then stands before the People of God and bows his head. We bow our heads. He censes us for, like the altar and the boys’ choir, we are holy. He bows again. We bow again. There is a tremendous dignity in all this — unless, of course, you are allergic to incense and sneeze.

When it is time for a hymn, the teenaged cantor climbs into the great raised pulpit and looks at the choir director. The choir director lifts a hand. The choir bursts into song and the cantor . . . does not make a sound. Instead he raises a hand. That tells us to sing.

The musicians at my Cambridge parish are professionals. Their morning’s work adds an incomparable richness to our prayer, but they are all but invisible. The music director is a handsome red-haired woman, but somehow she manages to keep out of view. The organist is hidden behind his instrument and does not acknowledge the smattering of applause he receives after the postlude. The choir director is similarly self-effacing. The cantor, who has an authority astonishing in one so young, is never audible. Not a single one of them could ever be mistaken for the star of the show. They lead us in prayer; they do not mar or dominate it.

In contrast, there is a cantor in Montreal who clearly hates the organist. She seems to deliberately sing out of tempo with him. Her musical shrieks have driven devout Catholic musicians from the pews of that church and into the pews of other, less destructive, parishes. There are also, east and west of Montreal, folk groups who, though they themselves are clearly having fun, make Sunday liturgies hell for those who wish to praise and worship God, but can’t with that racket going on. The worst folk group I ever heard belonged to the English-speaking community of a German city. I was living in the city’s seminary and loved the quiet, stately daily Masses in the contemporary chapel. That chapel was proof that contemporary liturgical design could raise our hearts to God. Well, one Trinity Sunday, the English-speaking community came to visit and change all that. The chapel did not need microphones, yet the folk group set them up. And amid their ear-splitting yowls, I realized that they were giving voice to lyrics that were frankly heretical. “By our living and our dying, we are giving birth to God,” they sang. Uh, no. Let’s get the order straight, shall we? Baltimore Catechism, page one. Who made us? God made us. Got it. Whew!

Of course, that is not the only folk group that led me away from prayer. There was one group back home who thought that the Rankin Family had provided us all with a Communion hymn. This time instead of giving birth to God, we were exploring new theories about the Resurrection. “We rise again in the faces of our children/We rise again/in the voices of our song/We rise again/in the waves out on the ocean/and then we rise again.” Once again, no. I can’t swear that the little group around the microphone sang the Rankins’ line about reincarnation, but I wouldn’t be surprised. But why bother about the basic teachings of the Christian faith? The song was so pretty.

Ministers of music are exactly that: ministers. They have a power over us ordinary people of the pews that might surprise them. At their best, they help us to pray. They reflect the glory of creation, which reflects the glory of God, to us. But if they view us as audiences, the lucky recipients of their talents, instead of as the Body of Christ, we know what they are up to. We know because when they sing we are unable to pray. We cringe under the lash of their vocal pyrotechnics.

We can complain to the bishop about bad priests, but to whom can we make our complaint about abusive musicians? Who dares to tell the lady or gentleman with the parish contract that the Mass is not Madison Square Gardens? Some ordinary Catholics are shocked when we discover that we are stuck with the parish cantor and/or organist for our wedding. We have no choice: if music we want, the parish musician we must have or pay his or her fee anyway.

Sometimes I wonder when I am listening to a bad cantor, or when I see my musician brother flee to the refuge of the parking lot, whether souls can be ruined by bad music ministry. How many Catholics simply stop going to Mass because they can’t take the professional cantor any more? How many prayers are interrupted or strangled at birth? And this is a terrible shame, for the musical tradition of the Roman Catholic Church, so old and so varied, is a wonderfully beautiful one, written to glory of God. If only all our musicians treated it as such.

(Toronto writer Dorothy Cummings is an alto. Her musician brother sticks his finger in his ear when she sings beside him at Mass. Apparently she sings slightly sharp.)

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