At the opening Mass of the Catholic Press Association convention last week, held at Immaculate Conception church in New Orleans (the photos don’t do it justice), the cantor and choir of St. Peter Claver offered the music.

They sang the hymns and the setting in Gospel music style, and the music was — the processional hymns especially — much livelier than the music most of us sing at our home parishes. The almost entirely white congregation clearly enjoyed it, and joined in, though the woman in front of me, holding her hands about a foot apart and focusing intently on the cantor, nevertheless clapped about a quarter beat behind, and I suspect she wasn’t the only one. But she tried.

It made me ponder why anyone sings contemporary praise music, or whatever is the current term for the stuff Catholics get in the missalette and others in other forms. Some of it is all right, though quite a lot of it is bad, the  lyrics more than the music. My friend Anthony Esolen has written often on this subject, pointing out how narcissistic some of the music is, especially the song that builds to an Ethel Merman ending, “let it begin with MEEEEEEEEEEE!”

But we have several sources of music organically developed by real worshiping traditions, refined over time, expressing a Christian people’s lived experience of the Faith, whose lyrics often express a striking depth and wisdom, and humility to boot. If we want something different from the classic hymns, we have a lot of very good music to choose from: Gospel, Appalachian, etc. If you want lively music, just ask St. Peter Claver’s choir director for the settings.

Instead we get the contemporary stuff, and often not the best of it. I don’t understand it.

By the way, for any readers near New Orleans, St. Peter Claver holds a Jazz Extravaganza each year. I gave a few thoughts on singing in church, and relayed some insights from John Wesley, in  A Joyful Screech Unto the Lord .

Articles by David Mills

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