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

by Mary Oberle Hubley

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Music is made sacred by its association to other, related factors, each of which is indispensable:

By association with the occasion (or purpose)

By association with a sacred text

By association with that which is set apart, or separate from the worldly or profane

By association with what is truly art

By association with a particular tradition

Were a priest/homilist to liberally pepper his presentation with "ain'ts" he would insure not only an alert congregation, straining to determine if it heard correctly; but, without doubt, a gradually angered congregation. The people would consider his imposed grammatical lapse "in poor taste." They would rightly deem it a barbarism wholly inappropriate, responsible for lowering the level of the priest's discourse, no matter how edifying the homily might otherwise be. Many people would be disturbed, and many even irate, at the common vulgarism which had crept into their consciousness under the guise of the priest's homily.

Much of the music produced since the early sixties, and at use in our churches today, convicts us of using "musical ain'ts" liberally. We ought to be disturbed, and irate, at the common secularism and worldliness which has crept into our churches under the guise of church music. It is because of the secular nature of much of this "new music" that, in similarity to the strategy of the Trojan Horse, the worldly was allowed to invade our churches and, of course, the prayers and spiritual lives of our Catholic faithful. The celebration of our sacred liturgical rites was cheapened.

As defined earlier, music can roughly be divided into the sacred and the non-sacred, or profane; better yet, between the sacred and the secular. (The Latin root sæcularis means "world.")

Of secular music, that which is commonly called popular (from the Latin populus, people) is that music flooding the mass, commercial media: television, radio, film, and advertising music. This massive outpouring of media music has two ends: that of selling, and that of entertaining. Because it "costs little trouble or effort to obtain," it consequently is "worthless or not worth much”; hence, not prized or esteemed. It is, literally, "cheap."

Right around the end of the Second Vatican Council about forty years ago, a collective decision was made to borrow from the things of the world for the purpose of getting young people into church. By using the enticing things of the world -- "by hook or by crook," so to speak -- the Church would be made to look better and be more appealing; it would be more relevant to the worldly-wise youth.

The massive failure of strong Catholic witness at that time, briefly alluded to earlier, is a topic well worth attention in some other studies. Certainly it is important to seek understanding of that which amounted to an actual revolution in the field of the music of the Church in America. Understanding this phenomenon is indispensable, so that the breach in our Catholic tradition of sacred music be acknowledged and repaired.

One of the most identifiable characteristics of popular, media music is its emotional, sensual quality. It does not seek to appeal to people in the context of their higher, more worthy selves -- engaging the mind and spiritual nature of the person -- but it deliberately intends to provoke an immediate emotional response from the listener. Rather than appealing to the noble, disinterested part of the person, popular music appeals to the lower, immediately gratified part. Unaware of their vulnerability, all too often people are ready and willing to be "worked over" and manipulated; to "go with the flow" without exercising any discretion or exertion whatsoever.

For well over two thousand years, the eminent power of music in the ethical lives of men was carefully observed and commented upon. In fact, its emotional power was so suspect that Plato (one of the first in the known line of commentators) insisted in The Republic that:

Music must be of the right sort; the sensuous qualities of certain modes are dangerous, and a strong censorship must be imposed.

Plato went so far as to seek regulation of particular modes because of their suspected effect on people.

It is well to be reminded that just because a piece of music exists (and might be found in your church), it does not follow that the music is therefore good, or good for the occasion; that it is appropriate. Similarly, just because something is found in the newspaper or in print, it does not follow that it is true.