Undoing Musical Tradition? (SAP Bulletin 4/14/2024)

Growing up, my family spent many spring breaks in Washington, DC. As that quintessential nerd and history buff, the District of Columbia, with its opulent museums, monuments, and art galleries was a dream come true. It was one of the bigger contributing factors for me deciding to pursue my undergraduate degree at George Mason University in Fairfax, Virginia.

One of the highlights of my family’s spring break trips was attending the Easter Vigil Mass at the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception. Attending Mass at the National Shrine ensured that I wouldn’t have to be an altar server (my mom made me). My first time attending the Vigil Mass was captivating, and it all came back to how the liturgy itself was presented.

As part of my job and ministry, I speak with a lot of converts and people that return back to the faith. Not a single person has ever said that they came back because they missed the priest’s jokes or ad lib of the liturgy. Not a single convert has ever said that they converted because they wanted a praise band. In fact, I hear the opposite – our rich tradition that activates all senses – particularly sound and smell.

Part of being Catholic is our rich liturgy. When moviemakers need a sound in their establishment shot of a church, do they use chant or Catholic “folk” music? Do they film in churches with stained glass windows, beautiful and prominent tabernacles, or in churches with abstract art?

If you have been to the National Shrine, I think you’ll know exactly where I’m going with this. The National Shrine is the largest church of any denomination in the western hemisphere. It’s also one of the largest Catholic churches in the world. From its stunning gold leaf mosaics to its sheer size to the low rumble of the organ, it’s no doubt that the National Shrine is a place of pilgrimage for Catholics from around the globe.

It’s also where I found, an Easter Vigil long ago, my vocation. At the Easter Vigil Mass, the National Shrine doesn’t cut corners. There is a full symphony orchestra made up of pros from around the DC area. The full choir is huge (at least as far as church choirs go). When the Gloria finally rings out at the liturgy, all you end up hearing is the choir and the beating of the timpani. You feel the rattling of the pews and your chest cavity when the organ finally enters.

The church is smokey. Incense lofts through the building. Lectors come prepared and the distribution of the Blessed Sacrament is reverent, methodical, and flawlessly.

All of this goes into good liturgy. And good liturgy always leads to the Eucharist. The Catechism of the Catholic Church states:

“The Eucharist is ’the source and summit of the Christian life.’ ‘The other sacraments, and indeed all ecclesiastical ministries and works of the apostolate, are bound up with the Eucharist and are oriented toward it. For in the blessed Eucharist is contained the whole spiritual good of the Church, namely Christ himself, our Pasch’” (CCC 1324).

In my conversations with converts, returners, and young people, I’m frequently asked why so many parishes try to be something that they’re not. While I certainly have theories and personal feelings on this, I’m not 100% solid on any of them. Ultimately, at St. Anthony of Padua, our approach is to simply institute what Vatican II tells us to do… and what Vatican II tells us to do is frequently not what most have experienced to the point that we’re considered outliers. That’s a big part of why we openly share links to Vatican II documents as well as subsequent writings, clarifications, and follow-ups right on our website and even in the bulletin. We also recognize that the experiences and preferences of one generation does not necessarily translate to today and vice-versa.

The Constitution on Sacred Liturgy states:

“The musical tradition of the universal Church is a treasure of inestimable value, greater even than that of any other art. The main reason for this pre-eminence is that, as sacred song united to the words, it forms a necessary or integral part of the solemn liturgy” (CoSL, 112).

Which begs the question, why do so many do seemingly everything in their power to undo this musical tradition?

Our musical tradition provided the very foundation and blueprint of the traditions found in most Protestant faiths.

For example, take the popular Easter hymn “Jesus Christ is Risen Today.” While Charles Wesley, the co-founder of Methodism and the Methodist church, often gets the credit for writing it, the text goes back to the Catholic Church. In fact it goes all the way back to the 1300s Catholic Church… in Munich.

As we traveled through Lent, we sang a modern paraphrase of St. Thomas Aquinas’ hymn Pange lingua gloriosi in “Called to the Supper.” As we travel through this Easter season, we will be singing a contemporary setting of another ancient Catholic tune in Adoro te devote.