Most articles in the blogosphere have a very short shelf life, which is why I am quite surprised that an article I posted on Chant Café on 2 June 2011 keeps reappearing on blogs and in my social media newsfeeds every so often. Why Praise and Worship Music is Praise and Not Worship seems to keep being resurrected, which I can only surmise because the discussion it continues to elicit is still quite relevant, and the questions it raises have not been answered to everyone’s satisfaction. What’s more, following the comments on social media on the article has been very interesting, and I think telling about where we are now with regards to the situation of praise and worship music in liturgy. Perhaps a revisit is in order.
The article has three main components. In the first part, I share my own experience with a particular use of praise and worship, the Lifeteen Mass, which was twenty years ago now, and how it caused me to reflect at the time and now on its appropriateness for the sacred liturgy. What I have found most interesting is that the most negative reactions I have come across to the article tend to parse this first section and then ignore the other two. My response to this is the following: My experience is obviously not going to be the experience of everyone; some will resonate with that experience and others will not. That’s why it is a personal reflection. I am delighted to read that there are those who have not had anything like the experience that I had with Lifeteen. I am also dismayed to read that, twenty years later, some people are having exactly the same experience I have had. I am told that the organization Lifeteen itself has repudiated many of the abusive liturgical practices which made my exposure to it so distressing, and that the guidance of Bishop Olmsted of Phoenix has been exemplary in this regard. I rejoice that this is the case. Surely it is in some way testimony to how Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI’s rich theology of the liturgy is finding its way into the Church’s life. I am also aware that there are a significant number of priests, seminarians and committed young lay faithful who credit Lifeteen and similar initiatives as powerful in their formation as Catholics. All of that is to the good. And none of that invalidates my experience, any more than it invalidates the experience of those whose history with these initiatives is entirely different than my own.
Yet, this is exactly the neuralgic point with taking experience as a locus for deciding how the Church should pray the sacred liturgy. One of the main points of the article is that we have effectively reversed what we are supposed to be doing in the liturgy: if praise is something we offer to God, then however we may seek to praise Him with a sincere heart is certainly an oblation pleasing to God. But worship is not something we offer to God, when it comes to the Mass. The Mass is the self-offering of Jesus to the Father in the Holy Spirit. Our participation in the Mass is not constructing this event under a ritual form which we find meaningful; it is a liturgical and sacramental surrendering of ourselves to the action of the sacrifice. The Mass is something Christ does in us, in that sense.
The most virulent criticisms of the article center around the pronoun “I”. I do not like what the article says because I do not feel it to be consonant with my feelings, and so I reject the idea that praise and worship is inconsistent with the theocentric, and not anthropcentric, objective of the liturgy. The injection of the subjective as the principal criterion by which many have come to evaluate their appreciation of the liturgy has led precisely to the idea that, because I like it, it must be right. A predilection for Gregorian chant, Latin, or the treasury of sacred music is then demoted from its status of connaturality with the Roman liturgy, which is supported by Sacrosanctum conciliumand Musicam sacram, to a mere option in exercising one’s preference.
The second part of the article records eleven observations about the inappropriateness of praise and worship music for the sacred liturgy. I would like to list them here:
- P&W music assumes that praise is worship.
- P&W music assumes that worship is principally something we do.
- P&W music assumes as its first principle relevance.
- P&W music assumes as its second principle the active participation of a certain age group.
- P&W music self-consciously divides the Church into age and taste groups.
- P&W music subverts Biblical and liturgical texts during the Mass.
- P&W music assumes that there can be a core of orthodox Catholic teaching independent of the Church’s liturgical law and tradition.
- P&W music consciously manipulates the emotions so as to produce a catharsis seen as necessary for spiritual conversion.
- P&W music confuses transcendence with feeling.
- P&W music denies the force of liturgical and musical law in the Church in favour of arbitrary and individualist interpretations of worship.
- P&W music prizes immediacy of comprehension and artistic ease over the many-layered meaning of the liturgy and artistic excellence.
As soon as we enshrine the principle of subjectivity in the realm of liturgical music, it is hard to see how we can avoid a situation in which our worship is balkanized along taste fault lines. The very fact that the discussion over the article remains acrimonious is because we have not moved past that principle, and in fact, as long as we are stuck there, we won’t. It is important to note that nowhere in the article do I state that the music which has grown up in the Praise & Worship milieu has no place in the life of the Church. But that is different than saying it should be in the Mass.
If we take Mass to be something that we do to “attract” people to God, then it makes sense to craft an experience which corresponds to what they feel they need in order to commune with God. But, if we truly understand that the Mass is not that, then another set of concerns comes to the fore.
The assumption that praise and worship music is appropriate at Mass because the people who make the music are sincere and the lyrics are about sacred things does not make it sacred music appropriate for the liturgy. The mind of the Church in this matter is very clear, in her documents. The General Instruction of the Roman Missal, Sacrosanctum concilium and Musicam sacram all point to a different set of concerns about the choice of music at Mass.
Namely, the sacred liturgy is something which we are given, not something we create. If we are to sing the Holy Mass, rather than sing at Holy Mass, we must sing the actual texts of the Mass: in the first instance, the Ordinary of the Mass; and in the second instance, the Propers of the Mass. The concern over the texts given to us is matched by a clear predilection for certain things in the music at Mass: Latin, Gregorian chant, and music free of vulgar or popular associations are all mentioned specifically in the documents. The issue is not the date of composition of the music, it is its dignity for the sacred liturgy. While it may indeed be the case that there are places where there are great numbers of people who “like” praise and worship music at Mass, it is not as self-evident that the documents of the Church, which express the mind of the Church on the sacred liturgy, in any way support the subversion of the liturgy by the criteria of relevance, numbers, or comfort.
The witness of many seminarians and young priests bears this point fruitfully. I have come across numerous budding levites who were formed in the praise and worship mentality, many of whom because there was nothing else their parishes was offering them. Many of them remain grateful for what they received, because it was something that connected them to their faith. And many of them also, either upon entering the seminary or at some point before or after, actually started to read the documents of the Church which spell out the expectations of the Church on sacred liturgy and music, as well as sound liturgical theology. Many of them retain an affection for the music of their Catholic adolescence, but their perspective has been broadened and formed by something much deeper. They understand that the people in the pews they have just traded in for the sanctuary are often far from that full, conscious and active participation in the liturgy as the Church envisions it in her documents. And they also want to bring those same people to it. The big question for them, and for many of us in pastoral ministry is, how do we bridge the gap?
So let us keep in mind the eleven things I mentioned in the third part of the article:
- The Church’s musical and liturgical tradition is an integral part of worship, and not a fancy addition.
- While Praise is a high form of individual and small group prayer, it is not Worship as the Church understands the corporate public prayer of the Liturgy.
- Worship is not principally something that we do: it is the self-offering of Jesus Christ to the Father in the Holy Spirit, the fruits of which are received in Holy Communion. Worship is Sacrifice and Sacrament, not Praise.
- Relevance is irrelevant to a liturgy which seeks to bring man outside of space and time to the Eternal.
- Participation in the liturgy is principally interior, by the union of the soul with the Christ who celebrates the liturgy. Any externalizations of that interior participation are meaningless unless that interior participation is there.
- The Church’s treasury of sacred music is not the province of one social-economic, age, cultural, or even religious group. It is the common patrimony of humanity and history.
- The Church must sing the Mass, i.e., the biblical and liturgical texts contained in the Missal and Gradual, and not sing at Mass man-made songs, if it is to be the corporate Worship of the Church and not just Praise designed by a select group of people.
- Orthodox Catholic teaching on faith and morals must always be accompanied by respect for the Church’s liturgical and musical teaching and laws.
- The deliberate intention to manipulate human emotions to produce a religious effect is abusive, insincere, and disrespectful of God’s power to bring about conversion in the hearts of man.
- While music does affect the emotions, sacred music must always be careful to prefer the transcendent holiness of God over the immanent emotional needs of man.
- The Church’s treasury of sacred music inspires and requires the highest attention to artistic excellence. It is also an unfathomable gift to the Church, and must be presented to the faithful so that they may enjoy that rich gift.
When I wrote this article in 2011, I was a doctoral student without the care of souls. I could afford a more theoretical and speculative look into this question, and did so against the background of my own experience. At this writing, I am pastor of a church which in many ways is like any other parish in the country: filled with people searching for God, and for love, wanting to bring others searching for the same thing into the House of God. Every time I ascend the altar for the Sacrifice of Redemption surrounded by my amazing flock, I know that it is nothing that we do which will bring that about. It is all a grace, it all is the work of God. If we celebrate the sacred mysteries as the Church gives them to us, in the beauty of holiness, then God will use that, and not our creativity, to work out His purpose in the world. And it is precisely there that the most creative work happens.