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Struggling to catch the beat

NCR Staff

Three-and-a-half decades ago, Catholic church music changed--seemingly overnight. In the late 1960s, in came the changes of Vatican II (1962-65) and out went centuries of melody and verse. New liturgy demanded new song, new accompaniment -- and in a hurry.

Until then, the priest was king-celebrant, the organ his chief minister. In the Mass of those days -- apart from the homily and the demands for money -- the hymn from a predictable pre-Vatican II repertoire was the only English heard during the liturgy.

Even so, in most U.S. parishes in the 1950s and ‘60s, “the organ wasn’t much of an instrument,” said Dan Wyatt, music ministries director at the St. Francis Cabrini community in Littleton, Colo. “They were not that well built. Maybe cathedrals had wonderful instruments, but most parishes didn’t.” The main function of an organ was to accompany the chants, he said.

New American names replaced 19th-century composers in the church hymnals. The 1970s brought in Ray Repp and Joe Wise, said Wyatt, then came the St. Louis Jesuits, and the Glory and Praise songbook.

“The next wave, into the ’80s, was the contemporary work of Michael Joncas, David Haas, Marty Hagen,” Wyatt said. “Now some Latin texts are coming back, and you’ve got the Taize offerings” -- meditative chants based on a mantra or single phrase that were developed by a monastic community in eastern France after World War II. Finally, there’s a recent revival of Gregorian chants, Wyatt said.

In yet another step, St. Francis Cabrini is about to inaugurate a three-octave, seven-bell hand bell choir.

The organ, which lost its repertoire of accompaniments and traditional literature when the Latin Mass was retired (some churches tore out their organs and replaced them with keyboards), has returned with increased stature. Other instruments, too, guitars and pianos, flutes and percussion, string instruments and brass, are all finding leading places with increasingly fine repertoires.

So, too, music from the voices of congregations in those U.S. Catholic faith communities, possibly in a third of the country’s 19,000 Catholic parishes, where music is a ministry that is savored, supported and swells the attendance at Sunday Mass.

To illustrate the sweeping changes in liturgical music, NCR talked to representative music ministers around the country, and stopped in at the 25th anniversary meeting of the National Association of Pastoral Musicians here. From a June 30 children’s choir festival to a July 6 closing convention Eucharist, practically every hour of every day offered a workshop, a master class or a fine performance. Beyond that, thousands of church musicians came to honor the association’s founder, retiring president and executive director, Fr. Virgil Funk.

Modern Catholic liturgical music has its critics. But during one hour on July 5 in Washington’s St. Matthew’s Cathedral, to single out but one event during the National Association of Pastoral Musicians meeting, their criticisms would have been stilled. Put together the Washington Symphonic Brass, organist Mary Beth Bennett, 50, of the nation’s top Catholic choristers, and at least 1,200 Catholic parish musicians. Give them as director Leo Nestor, music director at the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception, and the resultant 60 minutes of soaring praise can stand comparison with any period in church music history.

As for the composers of that afternoon’s music, their birth years were bracketed by 1505 (Thomas Tallis, That Virgin’s Child) and 1950 (John Hunter, Psalm 150).

To catch the evolving world of parish music, articles in the pages following reflect on National Associations of Pastoral Musicians under Funk, recall the “Why Catholic’s can’t sing” controversy of a decade ago, and describe the state of parish music from the perspective of three people who direct it.

Arthur Jones’ e-mail address is ajones96@aol.com

National Catholic Reporter, August 24, 2001