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Insiders debate how to praise

NCR Staff

Music directors on the job since 1990 may recall a grand brouhaha in their field. It started when Thomas Day, music department chairman at Salve Regina College, Newport, R.I., propped on the Catholic music stand his book Why Catholics Can’t Sing: the Culture of Catholicism and the Triumph of Bad Taste (Crossroad).

What, he asked, could possibly cause the odd behavior he was witnessing among American Catholics?

“To stand in the middle of a Catholic congregation, surrounded by row after row of people ignoring music they are supposed to sing, can be an unsettling experience,” he wrote.

He wondered if it might be a “sullen rebellion” against changes in the liturgy resulting from the Second Vatican Council (1962-65) reforms.

Disappointed Catholics “are not reactionaries who want to restore the old Latin regime completely and go back to public hangings as well,” he wrote, “but they do show traces of bitterness at the way the church has abruptly changed a serious act of worship into a low-grade variety show.”

In his book, Day criticized most severely the phenomenon of “Mr. Caruso” who “has such a lovely voice.” Mr. Caruso (and increasingly Ms. Caruso) is the cantor with the microphone who drowns out the congregation.

“An amplified soloist (Mr. Caruso) belting out ‘Praise to the Lord’ in front of a silent congregation produces one of the most unappealing sounds in Christendom,” he said.

And what was the National Association of Pastoral Musicians, by then 15 years old, to make and say about Day’s critique?

The National Association of Pastoral Musicians invited Day to their 1991 Pittsburgh meeting to debate the issue with Elaine Rendler, a founding board member of the National Association of Pastoral Musicians.

Fast forward a decade and renew the debate. Day first.

In 2001, Day said Mr. and Ms. Caruso are “still there on the altar. They are more victorious than ever, still a cogent reason for capital punishment.”

Comparing today to 1990, Day said it “is hard to put your finger on the pulse and say it is XYZ.” The state of Catholic music “varies from place to place. It has settled into a stable routine and, as far as I can tell, there is not much zip in most Catholic churches. They go through the motions, and there is a tired repertoire that is dragged out week after week. How much this has stained itself into the soul and lifeblood of people, I really don’t know.”

Day said he still receives calls from desperate people telling him how bad things are, and he has a collection of anecdotes to back their statements up. He spoke of two liturgies for students at Notre Dame, one by the music faculty and one a folk Mass, as “two rites almost.”

Continued Day, “I think what I called ‘reformed folk music’ is more triumphant than ever. Some of my worst fears have been fulfilled. You have a younger generation now that has no reference point. Now when they want to sing ‘traditional Catholic music’ they will sing, ‘The Church’s One Foundation’ -- an old Methodist hymn. That is their idea of tradition. I think, if I may be immodest, [in the book] I got it right.”

He said he has a lot of respect for the National Association of Pastoral Musicians as an organization, but is dismayed by its publication, Pastoral Music. “You can go for issue after issue and never come across a technical article on music. It’s all uplift, generalized meditation on worship. I think in some ways it is more of a liturgical organization than a musical one. The actual technique of music, the nuts and bolts of it, is pushed into a corner somewhere.”

Rendler thinks Day had some things exactly right in his book (see below), but that doesn’t mean she agrees on everything.

“He spoke from his experience,” she said. “Most people’s knowledge of ‘church’ is their parish. Over the years I have come to know more parishes similar to his.”

However, said Rendler, academic music “is its own critter. It took Baroque music 200 years to form. Bach’s Passion Chorale was, ‘O Innsbruck Now I Must Leave Thee,’ so let’s get on with it. I’m fascinated thinking of where all today’s music will go -- in 200 years, not in 30.”

Rendler, who in fifth grade, before Vatican II, was playing the organ for Benediction at St. Philomena’s Parish in Lansdowne, Pa., has four decades of experience in Catholic music at the parish level. Currently on the music faculty at George Mason University, in Fairfax, Va., she is music minister for the Catholic campus chapel’s four weekend liturgies.

“Judge [today’s] music not with a classical yardstick, but as something in its own right. Doing workshops around the country is fascinating,” she said. On the East Coast, a college choir chants to music by Hildegard of Bingen, the 12th-century Rhineland mystic. On the West Coast a mariachi band plays at Mass. Meanwhile, “distillers” are at work, bringing various Catholic traditions “into the entire church’s music.”

While attending college on a music scholarship, Rendler taught in inner-city public schools and experienced “a conversion … through the African-American people.

“The popularity of gospel music now infiltrating various churches is due to a hunger on our part for the lived faith experience of a people,” she said. “In the good times and the bad times, the need to praise God from your toes to your heart is so genuine we all seek it. And the black community, when it pulls it off, does it better than anyone.”

While doing her master’s at Catholic University of America “where the profs didn’t want to be bothered” by the new post-Vatican II church music, Rendler wondered, “What would happen if craft musicians dealt with this music?” And that, she said, is what has been happening.

“Even by the late ’70s,” contends Rendler, “significant parishes were starting to get the music right. The problem there is, you find a parish that got it right in the ’70s and it’s hard to shift. Today they’re in a time warp. They were once leaders and now refuse to move on.”

After serving as fulltime music minister at Georgetown University, Rendler went to Holy Trinity Parish in Georgetown until the mid-80s, then to St. John Neumann Parish in Northern Virginia. “I think my role in life is to go into parishes where the earth has never previously been turned,” she said. “You do that, then you leave and someone else comes in and plants the seeds.”

But while she is wherever she is, the Catholics sing.

“We make the place lift the roof off every Sunday” at George Mason University, she said. “I give a little talk before every Mass on why we are singing. If you want to change, you have to go outside yourself. It is in the giving, in the spoken responses, in the singing, that you receive.”

Then and now:

Listed below are quotations from Thomas Day’s 1990 book, Why Catholics Can’t Sing and Elaine Rendler’s responses, from a recent interview with NCR, follow.

  • Day: Everything begins with the pastor.
    Rendler: True. As long as the pastor doesn’t end up micromanaging the music.
  • Day: Let the assembly hear its own voice, not the voice of an ego behind a microphone.
    Rendler: Absolutely. The assembly has no microphone. For the cantor with the mike, know when to hold and when to fold.
  • Day: Put a reasonably good musician in charge, pay a reasonable salary.
    Rendler: Pay a reasonable salary to someone who understands the art of pastoral music and knows that the sound of the assembly singing is the priority.
  • Day: Occasionally sing unaccompanied music supported only by a choir. … Maybe once a month let the music reach its full potential; let the entire assembly sense that it is doing its best to pray in song.
    Rendler: I agree.
  • Day: Hymns and songs are useful, but they can die from overuse. Catholicism’s real musical destiny is in singing the actual texts of the liturgy, not songs which are dropped into the service.
    Rendler: Service music can be overdone, too.
  • Day: Avoid palpitating romantic [and] … songs that go racing along at the speed of 180 words a minute. This type of music may be biblical or even beautiful at times but it is miserably difficult and discouraging for a congregation to sing.
    Rendler: And perhaps for an organist to play with pedals. But I disagree.
  • Day: Encourage music as an art.
    Rendler: Yes. The big need is to create contemplative and devotional forms. Explore the possibilities of liturgical -- a music for the rites, for Liturgy of the Hours as well as Mass.

National Catholic Reporter, August 24, 2001