My Vision for “Vibrant Liturgy” at SJCC

Pastor John Worgul

First Draft, 4.6.2021


The Union of Form and Meaning.

All good and successful art is the ingenious integration of form and meaning.  Since we are from Baltimore, let us refer to Edgar Allen Poe’s famous poem, the Raven, as an example.  We all know the story line; a man is alone in his gothic library mourning the loss of his love Lenore, when a raven, that somehow has learned the word “nevermore,” flutters in from the night as a messenger from hell to inform him that he will never see Lenore again, and that all there is left for him is despair.  As interesting as this story line may or may not be, it only comes to life and attains supreme artistry when Poe matches the poetic forms of meter, assonance, alliteration, imagery, etc.  The form itself is as important as the message, and in fact, we might say that the form is inseparable from the message.  Art is finding the right form to convey the right message. 

The same is true in music.  Let’s take the classic rock & roll song by Lynyrd Skynyrd, Free Bird.  It actually borrows forms of sacred music, but completely transforms them to create a new creed, so to speak.  It begins with an organ as a very solemn introduction, and from there goes into the body of the song with its creed, that is, He is leaving, “For I’m free as a bird now, and this bird you cannot change” and with emphasis, “Lord knows I cannot change!”  In spite of intimate relationship he cannot stay because he is a “free bird.”  Then it closes with a “fugue” like a Bach organ piece, or a flight, that ingeniously dramatizing a free bird in flight.  The forms completely carry the meaning of the song.  The meaning of Freebird could never work with a Bach piece (even though there is a remote relationship of forms), and Bach’s musical forms could never work with Lynyrd Skynyrd’s creed. 

The Meaning of the Mass

Given the above, we must understand that not all musical forms can be integrated in the mass effectively.  The mass is the dramatization of the mystery of divine love; it has a definite movement from the beginning to the great climax of the Eucharist, ending with the blessing and challenge to go out into the world as missionary disciples.  The mystery of the mass evokes responses from the human soul that go deeper than mere emotions; the joy is Christ’s joy, the peace is Christ’s peace, love is Christ’s love.  The mass can best be experience in sacred space; the place must conform to its meaning.  All the symbols in the sanctuary reflect the reverence of the place.  So must the music.  This is what JP II is teaching us in his CHIROGRAPH FOR THE CENTENARY OF THE MOTU PROPRIO “TRA LE SOLLECITUDINI” ON SACRED MUSIC

Since it [music] interprets and expresses the deep meaning of the sacred text to which it is intimately linked, it must be able “to add greater efficacy to the text, in order that through it the faithful may be… better disposed for the reception of the fruits of grace belonging to the celebration of the most holy mysteries.”

Again, whatever musical form we use in mass, they must be in conformity to the sacred mysteries, or it will cease to be effective as a true art form and fail in its purpose. So, it really isn’t a matter of musical “tastes” that can be so subjective; it is a matter of rightly discerning form and meaning.   One can have a taste for Lynyrd Skynyrd, but Lynyrd Skynyrd can have no place at the mass.  This is an extreme example to express my point; any reflective person, religious or not, can agree on this. 

The Problem of the Terms Traditional and Contemporary

The term “traditional” is often contrasted with term “contemporary.”  It all began in the 60s with the advent of rock.  I will never forget a Sunday evening service in my Baptist Church when our music director’s son played religious lyrics to The House of the Rising Sun with guitars and drum. It struck me then that there was some sort of discordance between the form and the meaning although I could not put a finger on it; now it is clear to me that the blues and the Gospel message are not natural companions.  You can imagine what the older generation thought of it!  However, that same older generation loved their Gospel songs, like one titled Coming Again, clearly inspired by the Strauss waltzes which they loved and connected with.  The discordance of it makes me ill even now.  On the other hand, I have to admit that to this day I like the old southern Gospel quartets that pick up on styles that emerged out of 30s and 40s.  They may fit well in a Baptist worship setting and resonate with my personal edification, but not the mass. 

So what do we mean by traditional?  The word comes from the Latin trado meaning “to hand down.”  Anything can be “handed down.”  Those Baptists who love their lyrics with the ball room sound would consider these old songs traditional, but this genre has by now dried up in most quarters.  The folk sound of my generation that melded with Charismatic Renewal of the 60s and 70s with some continuance into the 90s was “contemporary” back then, but could be understood as “traditional” to those who prefer it.  My kids, who are Millennials, cannot tolerate it either in its secular forms (I cannot understand why they do not like Gordon Lightfoot!) or in its religious forms.  Where can we go for a true “contemporary” experience in religious music?  Nashville?  But then, how long will it take for “contemporary” to dry up and blow away in the wind?  More importantly, how do the musical forms line up with the mystery of the mass?  The more it lines up with the eternal mass, the more enduring the music becomes.   

The Best Way to Understand Traditional and Contemporary   

The mystery of the mass is the only thing that never changes.  Every one of its liturgical forms and prayers are “trado” in the strictest sense because they carry the mystery.  Over the centuries music developed around the mass with forms that melded perfectly with the spoken words of the mass.  In regard to this, St. John Paul is so bold to say

“The more closely a composition for church approaches in its movement, inspiration and savour the Gregorian melodic form, the more sacred and liturgical it becomes; and the more out of harmony it is with that supreme model, the less worthy it is of the temple”

If this is true, then this explains why the Gregorian chant, unlike many secular musical forms, never ceases to lose its appeal in liturgy, and indeed, beyond.  Traditional, therefore, is that which conforms most closely to the mystery of the mass and handed down to us.  Contemporary would be musical forms that are created in today’s context that conform to the mystery of the mass.  Again, quoting St. John Paul,

Nonetheless, it should be noted that contemporary compositions often use a diversity of musical forms that have a certain dignity of their own. To the extent that they are helpful to the prayer of the Church they can prove a precious enrichment. Care must be taken, however, to ensure that instruments are suitable for sacred use, that they are fitting for the dignity of the Church and can accompany the singing of the faithful and serve to edify them.

And as for instrumentation he adds,

Again at the practical level, the Motu Proprio whose centenary it is also deals with the question of the musical instruments to be used in the Latin Liturgy. Among these, it recognizes without hesitation the prevalence of the pipe organ and establishes appropriate norms for its use. The Second Vatican Council fully accepted my holy Predecessor’s approach, decreeing:  “The pipe organ is to be held in high esteem in the Latin Church, for it is the traditional musical instrument, the sound of which can add a wonderful splendor to the Church’s ceremonies and powerfully lifts up people’s minds to God and to higher things”.

This, of course, does not mean that only the organ is acceptable in the mass.  However, its spiritual quality is that which orbits closest to the mystery of the mass.  Instruments whose qualities most naturally conform to secular music to convey its meaning are further out of the orbit.  This doesn’t mean that they may not be used, but that they do not naturally possess the ability to convey the mystery of the mass.  An extreme example of this is the electric guitar that distorts sound though amplifiers.  This distortion has become a central feature of rock and roll, a musical form that has become vital to the meaning conveyed. 

Evangelization and the Concepts of Traditional and Contemporary

 It is fundamental to this analysis that the mass in not essentially evangelistic.  The mass is worship, and only the people of God worship.  It is well known that in the early church, though the non-baptized were invited for the liturgy of the word, they were asked to leave for Eucharist.  It is a mystery reserved for the people of God.  For someone like me, coming in from the Protestant world, this makes sense.  When I first experienced liturgical worship in the Episcopalian church, I was completely struck dumb with everything around me.  I could not participate because everything was so foreign to me.  It took a long time for me to acclimate myself to the mystery unfolding before me.  Evangelization is not the work of the Mass, but of the people who are “sent out” into the world to make connections with people in their own environments.  Mass creates Evangelists, but is not essentially evangelistic.  

Since this is the case, we do not use music to make mass more “approachable” for those who are not initiated in the mysteries, or the halfhearted, or for the youth.  Music must be completely dedicated to worship.  If the musical forms are in union with the mystery of the mass, then it cannot help be beautiful, awe-inspiring, glorifying God.  Worship is, in fact, soul elating; a taste at that moment of eternal life.   In this way the mass is indirectly evangelistic; beauty speaks for itself, and those who have eyes to see and ears to hear will be struck with the wonder of the Holy Trinity.  If we create such worship here at SJCC, everyone around will know about it.  We will have a desire to evangelize because we instinctively talk about what we love.  We will want to invite our neighbors and friends and accompany them through the process of initiation. 

It is my impression that youth now days do not want or expect the mass to be driven by “their” music, whatever that may be.  They are smart enough to know that it does not align with the mass.  They can go to a concert if they want to hear their music, or listen to it on their devices.  What they really want is the holy. This, I believe, is why the youth tend toward the “traditional;” They have enough of the common in their everyday life and thirst for the holy.  It is more people of my generation, children of the 60s, who seem to insist on bringing the mass down to their level. 

Vision for Music in Liturgy at SJCC

I am looking for excellence.  Excellence happens when people realize that they are not mere volunteers but true disciples of Jesus Christ.  Even a few people totally dedicated can make a huge difference in the Church. This means the music director must first and foremost see him/her self as a missionary disciple, not a performer.  Such a music director knows how to do the hard work of discipleship when engaging their people, visioning what the Holy Spirit is directing, and working with the liturgist.  Such a director is able to bring out excellence all around him/her, both in choirs, instrumentalists and in the people of the congregation.  This is what “vibrant liturgy” is.  It is energetic, full of awe and wonder, and God focused.  At the end, nobody says, “Wow, what a great music director,” or “What a great choir,” or “what a great music!”  Rather, they say, “What a Great God we have here at SJCC!”  This is what JP II means with

Renewed and deeper thought about the principles that must be the basis of the formation and dissemination of a high-quality repertoire is therefore required. Only in this way will musical expression be granted to serve appropriately its ultimate aim, which is “the glory of God and the sanctification of the faithful.”

What we are looking for is something dynamic.  Anchored in the unchanging Mass, I would like to see a rich diversity of musical treasures both new and old, and instrumentation, as long as the form enhances the meaning.  I would like to see this in all the Masses rather than one mass being of one genre.  This will take all of our talent spread throughout the whole.  We will make music singable for the congregation, even teaching the congregation to sing.  Our choirs, musicians, and cantors are a choir within a larger congregational choir, which itself is within a larger celestial choir.  Again, this is not a performance!  God has placed a song in all our hearts through the indwelling Holy Spirit, and this song has got to be sung!