Recently, the Catholic Herald published two excellent articles by the incredibly well-educated and well-formed Sr. Joan L. Roccasalvo, entitled “Rebuilding Catholic Culture.”
In these essays, Sister Roccasalvo vigorously defends the teachings of the popes and the Second Vatican Council concerning what music is proper for use during the sacred liturgies of the Church, while simultaneously arguing against the use of modern folk-style music commonly found in many parishes.
Response to letter writers
I decided to write this piece after reading several letters-to-the-editor written by people who were very unhappy with her columns.
I actually wanted to title this column “In Defense of Sacred Music: Why the Celebration of Christ’s Death and Resurrection at the All-Holy Mass Deserves Something Better Than Low-Brow Tripe,” but that was obviously too long and I figured that “Why I hate bad Church music” would still draw the eyes of those I wanted to reach.
Some people are upset that Sister Roccasalvo condemns the use of songs that have very little value as actual music (i.e., songs that are shoddily composed, use inappropriate or heretical text, call for the use of multiple tambourines as accompaniment, etc).
Her comments have been interpreted by some as an attack on the ability of the congregation to actively participate in the liturgy. Others are offended because they believe that any music that makes them feel good is proper for use at the Mass.
I’ll be honest: when I hear comments like this, I want to beat my head repeatedly against my desk. Rather than give in to this temptation, here I will instead offer two simple points before moving into the main portion of my thoughts on the matter.
(1) Active participation at the Mass has nothing to do with singing at every possible moment, carrying dishes and banners around the sanctuary, or orchestrating giant liturgical puppet shows. I would direct anyone who doubts this to actually read the documents of Vatican II, and also to note the effect that this mentality has had on the Church over the past 50 years.
(2) The value of proper liturgical music has nothing to do with how you personally feel about it, or what your personal opinions are about music. Just think about what would happen if the only criteria for proper liturgical music were that it peripherally mentions God and/or that it makes you feel fuzzy inside — why, we might start singing songs by John Denver or Elvis or Simon and Garfunkel or the Beatles! What a crazy, screwed-up world that would be, huh?
Purpose of the Mass
Look, let’s get serious for a moment. The entire kerfuffle (read: decades-long-slugfest) over what music is proper for use at the Mass really centers on a fundamental disagreement about what the purpose of the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass truly is.
Many of those who protest Sister Roccasalvo’s articles feel that worship at the Mass is about “us” as the people of God. Because of this, they argue, we should sing songs that we like, play music that makes us feel good, and “craft a liturgy” that “reflects our community” and “validates” our desires for “self-expression in relation to the divine.”
Barf. I’m sorry, but this viewpoint is simply incorrect. Very incorrect.
The Mass has never been about “us.” It is not celebrated for us, it is not something that is intended to be modified by us, and it does not have our feelings or preferences as its fundamental purpose or end.
The Mass is, instead, where we go to worship the Thrice-Holy and Almighty God in the manner that is the most pleasing to Him. It is where we bend our knee in humble adoration before the True Cross of the Savior as we actually experience His one sacrifice on Calvary. It is where we attempt to fulfill our mighty obligations of service and worship. It is where we lay down our entire selves before Him, seeking forgiveness and mercy.
Meaning of active participation
As we worship and submit ourselves to Him in this way, the Mass is also where God in his infinite generosity and compassion gives us the gift of his very Self (although nothing we have done has merited such a gift). It is for these reasons that the Second Vatican Council exhorted all the faithful to active and fully conscious participation. Without active interior participation at the Mass, how could we ever hope to worship in a worthy or proper manner?
Here is the crucial point: no one is arguing that the Mass should become some somber and morose ritual of lamentation. Rather, what could be the cause of greater joy? God himself has become a Man and has forgiven our sins! Christ is Crucified and is Risen! Alleluia!
Offer our best and most beautiful
However, because the Mass is not something that we created; because God himself has given the Mass to the Church as the means by which He desires to be worshipped; because the Church has protected and nurtured these sacred mysteries across the ages; for these and so many reasons, it is not proper that we change the focus of the Mass from Christ to us. It is not proper or just that we do anything that obfuscates the sacred and solemn nature of the Mass. It is not proper to offer anything less than our best and most beautiful to God in the liturgy.
If you like folk-style music — great. If you find it comforting, joyful, and prayerful — wonderful. No one is trying to say that this is wrong. By no means! Hold a folk-music prayer-session at your home. Gather together with others and have a concert of praise. Even dance if you want to!
However, the Church has always, and will always, desire to offer something altogether different and far more proper to the Lord at the Mass. Love and Justice demand that we do so, and we should, in love, do so with joy.
That is what rebuilding our Catholic culture is all about.
Nico Fassino has sung and informally studied sacred music for over six years, and has been employed as a choir director at St. Paul’s University Center in Madison and St. John the Baptist Parish in Waunakee. He also serves as chancellor of the League of Distinguished Gentlemen, a registered student organization at UW-Madison dedicated to Truth, Beauty, Goodness, and fighting communism. He welcomes feedback at