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Catholics can’t sing

Matt Smedberg | Monday, November 3, 2003

I have recently come to the conclusion that Catholics can’t sing.

It’s not really that we can’t – there are choirs at most churches, and some kind of music program at nearly all – but that we somehow feel like the business of singing, and of finding (and writing) really beautiful music to grace the liturgy with, is someone else’s business.

The result of this attitude, which has been around since before Vatican II, is the dismal state of liturgical music today. The hymns which have become the staples of the liturgical diet – “Here I Am, Lord”, or “Anthem”, or even “Let There Be Peace On Earth” – are just not great music. The Mass of Creation really isn’t that inspiring when put next to something by Mozart or Haydn. I feel all too often like I’m being subjected to a weekly diet of schmaltz.

Music is important. It turns a Mass into something solemn and powerful – or into a farce. It can bring people to raise their minds and spirits to God – or it can get them to join their minds and spirits to each other, and forget all about God. If you want companionship with your brother, go to the dining hall. If you come to pray, go to Mass.

What I really wish, is that Campus Ministries were not so scared of using Latin in the Mass. Latin’s a really neat language, and there is some really, really cool music written in it.

Would it really scare students and alumni away from the Basilica if they heard the strains of “Kyrie Eleison” wafting from the choir loft instead of “Lord have mercy?” I don’t think so; in fact, it might bring us more respect among Catholics who still care about the liturgy, and who now see Notre Dame as a bastion of American Catholic liberalism.

Personally, I love Gregorian Chant. Now, does this mean that I think we should only have Gregorian Chant in the Mass and nothing else? Hardly. And yet, do I appreciate that, since I have been at Notre Dame, I have yet to hear any chant in a Mass, ever? Not at all. Chant is tied up with the whole history of the Church; if we let it fall by the wayside, it is a rejection of our heritage just when we need to remember it the most.

Notre Dame aspires to be the pre-eminent center of Catholic theology in this country. As part of this goal, it owes it to itself to set an example of rich, Catholic liturgy. There is an old saying about the purpose and function of liturgy: “lex orandi, lex credendi,” The rules of worship are the rules of belief. In other words, if, when we worship God, we do it in a way which is inappropriate, or inconsistent with what we say we believe about him, that can very well undermine our whole faith.