Thursday, March 31, 2011


Can you stand one more observation about Catholic music?

The other day I was up in the choir loft playing music on our organ that I learned as kid. Here are the words to one song:

‘Neath olive trees,

‘neath olive trees.

Dost know the heart that here is weeping,

Dost though the blood-stained tears recall?

For thee each burning tear He offers,

For thee the sacred rubies fall.

To cleanse thy soul,

To cleanse thy soul.

Behold the man!

With scourge the heartless rabble beats Him!

In streams His blood most precious flows,

But not a word is heard from Jesus,

In silence to His death He goes.

To cleanse thy soul,

To cleanse thy soul.

I was quite taken with these words and brought deeply into contemplation. (And I realize that is me. It won’t be the same for everyone.) And then later I had the opportunity to sing at Mass quite a few of the more “modern” hymns. Here is a sample of one of them:

In these days of Lenten Journey

WE have seen and WE have heard

The call to sow justice in the loves of those WE serve.

WE reach out to those who are homeless,

To those who live without warmth. In coolness of evening WE’ll shelter their dreams;

WE will clothe them in mercy and peace.

Now, there is nothing really wrong with this song though God is quite left out of the picture. As much as the first song is focused on God and what He does, the second is hyper focused on us and what WE do. Here is another from my childhood:

Jesus asks for loving mercy,

Mercy for His enemies,

From the heavy Cross He carried,

Prompting us to bend our knees.

“Please forgive them loving Father,

All who’ve made my sorrow greater.

Men offending You know not what they do.

Here is another more recent one:

WE rise again from ashes,

From the good WE’ve failed to do.

WE rise again from ashes,

To create OURSELVES anew.

If all OUR world is ashes,

Then must OUR lives be true,

An offering of ashes,

And offering to you.

I will give the benefit of the doubt that the final “you” is God. Now, grant you, you can cherry-pick the best and the worst from the old and the new and come with a number of complaints and virtues of the music of the times. There was some pretty bad stuff written in our past and some pretty good stuff in more recent times. It may also be the case that we ignored ourselves a bit much in the past and it is good to put ourselves on the spot and say, “Hey! Get to work! God will do this but He wants you to work on it too!”

That being said, walking down the aisle preparing to celebrate the source and summit of our faith, embarking on an intimate contact with our God with His Word and His Body and Blood and all we can sing about is ourselves quite misses setting us up for what we are about to do. “Lift up your eyes from whence cometh your help!” not “We are called to be spiffy.”

This was on my mind today as we sang for Mass and I just kept thinking, “Gads, another song about us.” So perhaps I am being a tad strong, but I don’t believe entirely incorrect. We are coming to the Supper of the Lamb, it’s His party, and our music should more fully reflect this.

It is not a matter of old verses new. Really good versus semi-good. The advantage of the old is that we have left behind much of what was poor and kept the better half so the pickings are perhaps better. The new has a fuller mix of the good and the bad. Pastors and music ministers need to be on their toes about the music that they pick. Just because it is in an “approved book” and everybody likes it and all the local parishes are singing it does make it a good song for Mass. “If your best priest friend sang that song while jumping off a bridge does that mean you have to do it too?”

That sounded funnier to me when I thought of it than it does typed out.


ck said...

"For thee the sacred rubies fall"...what a beautiful image.

lgreen515 said...

So who picks the songs? In my former Protestant church, the pastor picked all the songs.

-Former Protestant-

Foxie said...

There are tons of modern songs which concentrate on Jesus... like Once again, For the cross, Light the fire again, ...

Anonymous said...

" . . . The advantage of the old is that we have left behind much of what was poor and kept the better half so the pickings are perhaps better. The new has a fuller mix of the good and the bad."

Excellent point. The "old" ones do seem to be more devotional.

Some of the "new" songs (that focus on "we" instead of "He") would work very well at prayer meetings or other religious gatherings, where we are specifically focusing on our personal relationship (or lack of one) with the Lord. Unfortunately, not many people attend prayer meetings etc. So, modern authors publish their songs in books intended for Mass.

Matt W said...

“If your best priest friend sang that song while jumping off a bridge does that mean you have to do it too?”

You wouldn't have to, but singing that song would make you want to.

Beth Lemer said...

I love all the older songs, however they do get 'old' after a while. In with the new!

Fr. V said...

515 - depends what parish you are in. Here it is the leaders of the music programs in union with the music director of the parish - and occassional input from me . . . So shame on me.

Wondering - 2,000 years of music it is odd that we can only come up with a handful of "old stuff" to sing - though it would hardly be lucritive. But I agree with you to a point - I am not against ALL new stuff - just the bad new stuff.

Anonymous said...

Your instincts are correct," Gads, another song about us". The Mass is about you and the sacrifice you offer to the Father on behalf of God's people. If you follow that insight to it's logical end you will one day at least be saying the N.O. Ad Orientum and at most you will be saying the E.F.

Anonymous said...

If the text of the hymn is sacred but badly set to the music or simply unmusical, then I, for one, do not think it is worthy of the Holy Mass. Today's church music (post 1950) is secular, heavily syncopated (to appeal to the youth)and downright ugly, reminiscent of a commercial jingle. Text AND MUSIC are necessary for hymns that are to elevate the congregation from this earthly existence. As our church music director would say, "legato, legato, legato.' There is very little legato music in the Catholic Church today.

Anonymous said...

dear father v.----in all due respect--where have you been--just take a moment and browse through some history regarding what has happened to Catholic music--a brief encounter with wikiapedia should suffice--i have grown weary of this subject--so much so that i had to exit the novus ordo praying of the Holy Mass--i just can't bear what has happened---i know all the arguments---holy mass is not about the pastor's homily or the music, etc.---sorry, i am such a pitiful catholic i need all the help i can get to get off this earth and move toward the heavens---sorry folks "on eagles wings just doesn't do it for me----hence the need for some other worldly music--not text about me and my needs set to pitiful, popular tunes-sincerely, nancy ulrich

Anonymous said...

I'm late to this party, I must admit, but I have just now gotten caught up on my Adam's Ale! On this issue, I completely agree with Father Valencheck! There has been more than one occasion where I have literally cringed at the lyrics to a hymn and been unable to force them from my throat. Strangely, this only happens when the hymn is a modern one. I, too, have privately wondered who on earth has chosen some of these hymns and why we so seldom sing anything written before 1950. Some people have told me privately that it is because the repetoire was dictated by the preferences of the prior pastor. I, personally would greatly appreciate some changes to the hymn lineup that reflect our wonderful Church history and -- dare I say it? tradition! We may be able to take this history for granted, but will the young people of St. Sebastian be able to one day say the same? If they don't learn it now, when will they? Sacred music is certainly a big part of our heritage and maybe we owe it to them to let them experience it. And I'll bet that if I (uncool and middle-aged as I am) think that some of these modern hymns are corny, you can well imagine how they are viewed by the kids.