Stones Instead of Bread: Reflections on Contemporary Hymns: Part II

by Mary Oberle Hubley

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Since those incipient days of the "new music," some of the too obviously infantile and tawdry songs have fallen by the wayside. (Do you remember singing Kumbaya incessantly? And do you remember your parish church soft-rocking to the Australian radio hit of the Our Father?) However, serious harm was caused which persists to this day. Most noticeably, perhaps, is that the cheap music with its cheap lyrics established a tone of informality and irreverence within our sacred liturgies. The texts of much of this music are so theologically innocuous as to waft one's intelligence off to the land of Nod; while some songs even sport(ed) theology contrary to the teachings of Jesus Christ.

An example of this comes readily to mind. A full generation of Catholic grade, high school and CCD children and the parish congregations were reared on the lusty Happy the Man. The middle section advises:

He seeks no gold
He wants no gain,
He knows those things are all in vain.
He needs no praise
nor honor too (sic)

climaxing with the ringing:

His only motto: "To your own self be true."1

Is the whole of Christianity, of Catholicism, possible to be distilled into a single "motto"? Unless for the saints' predilection for brevity as in "To live is Christ, to die is gain!" or the abundance of Christocentric inspirations which nourished the lives of our holy ones through the ages: but "To your own self be true"?! Did not Christ, rather, insist, "He who would save his life must lose it for My sake," and countless times abjure us to deny ourselves?

And yet for over forty years, under the ægis of the Catholic liturgy, our impressionable children and faithful were quite literally reared (in many parts of the country, this song is one of the big "hits") by its saccharine nonsense. And there is the matter of the music, specifically the melody.

If I were to successfully disassociate my remembrance of the melody from the thirty-year plus experience of it in Catholic churches, regarding it solely in itself, I would say, "How cute! What a nice, bouncy little thing! It would be perfect for a -- television sitcom theme! Or a child's play song, such as a scout song." Even though the tune is appropriate to its rather breezy, nonchalant lyrics, the question begs answering: Is the music, and are the lyrics as well, appropriate for use in our Catholic liturgies? For that matter, are the lyrics appropriate as a rendering of the great Psalm 40? The casual informality of such a song does not do justice to our profound Catholic conviction that we, in our Catholic churches, are in the Eucharistic Presence of the Godhead.

Rather, such mediocrity has gained acceptability and even a quasi-respectability within our churches and liturgies, providing the conduit through which the secular and worldly invade the domain of the sacred.

In the sixth chapter of the Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy, the Second Vatican Council proclaims that music intended for worship must possess the dignity and the "qualities proper to genuine sacred music," and that the "instruments accord with the dignity of the temple, and truly contribute to the edification of the faithful."2

As is being observed more and more frequently from even disparate quarters, the concept of the sacred is receding from people's consciousness. Throughout all of Western society there is a general erosion in actual belief in God; hence, things of God such as His works, His creation of heaven and hell, His revelation, and, of course, His Church and sacraments. It only follows, therefore, that the meaning of the concept of "sacred" is greatly distorted and diminished.

The Latin word sacer means "set apart, untouched, taboo." That which the sacred is set apart from is the "profane," from the Latin pro + fanum, literally "outside the temple." Here we can understand "profane" in its wide sense as the everyday, the usual -- not necessarily as something bad, or something to be condemned -- but the common, the popular, the trite; the secular (worldly).

In the history of all religions of mankind we find this distinction, this separation (of the sacred and the profane). Christianity has always taken great care to treat that which is sacred under sacred forms, and to exclude everything profane.

This distinction can be better understood in light of the subordination of the profane to the sacred, or rather by maintaining that the sacred holds a higher place as something above ordinary life: something nobler, more worthy, exalted as the content of religion itself ... like the desired goal which is eternal life. In this sense it is desired for worship. Monsignor Schubert continues:

When music, rhythms and instruments which are borrowed directly from contemporary profane music are brought into the church, it occasions serious consequences in scandal, separations from Church and cult, a diminishing respect for the Church, and increasing religious doubt and confusion.3


The above is indeed a serious charge; and though first enunciated in 1966, finds prophetic fulfillment in much "contemporary" music and the consequences of its use in our churches today.

It is indispensable to a clear understanding of music that one basic fact be first acknowledged: and that is that music -- its melody, rhythm, harmony and form -- is an abstract medium. As such, it is neutral. There is no such thing as a sacred triplet, or a sacred dominant chord. It is this very abstractness that makes it so difficult to be precise in regard to music: whether it is sacred, and thus fitting for use in our churches, or not; whether it is appropriate or not.

By the time of the Council of Trent in the mid-sixteenth century, general criteria for solving this dilemma had been established. Saint Charles Borromeo, then a Cardinal, was a highly knowledgeable lover of music who dedicated himself to applying these criteria in the wake of Trent. By the Second Vatican Council these same general principles were acknowledged, assuring the continuity and organic growth of responsible musical understanding until this very day. Without the benefit of these general principles, the task of appraising the suitability of music in our churches would be analagous to poll-taking: one's opinion would be as good, or bad, as another's and ruled by subjective feelings, by likes and dislikes.

 


1 People’s Mass Book (Edition B) World Library of Sacred Music (Cincinnati, Ohio) 1971: p. 322.

2 Abbot S. J., Walter M, Gen. Ed., The Documents of Vatican II (The American Press/Association Press), 1966.Articles 121 and 120, p. 173.

3 Overrath, Ibid., p. 187. Resolution submitted by Rt. Rev. Guilherme Schubert (Representative of Jaime Cardinal Barros de Camara, Archbishop of Rio de Janeiro).