Imagine the scene, if you dare—for some readers this might be triggering or flat-out traumatic. There he is, a once-young, now-aging priest celebrating Mass, arriving at the homily, with Britney Spears headset microphone in place, center “stage” (er … Sanctuary), ready to “share” (not a homily, God forbid!), dripping and gushing with vacuous platitudes and, in all seriousness, stereotypically diva-like gestures and postures.
And everyone is just beaming and smiling.
God is just soooooo big, he insists, that no creed, no doctrine can have anything meaningful to say about him! Wait, strike that—not “him”—what was I thinking? The masculine pronoun for God never passes his lips. It is always “God’s-self,” never “himself” or “he” anything. In fact, he leaves the dazzled assembly with the sense that God is really just this amazing, infinitely squishy plush pillow, a gooey, androgynous shepherd figure who really just wants to hug the stuffing out of you.
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And still he is not done with this ghastly assault on his captive “audience.” To drive home his faux-homily, he approaches the edge of the Sanctuary where a pre-set, purple Kurzweil SP-88 stage piano awaits his delicate fingers.
In full vesture, he giddily plays a soft, arpeggiated accompaniment, while the lead musician of the Mass, a keyboardist with big hair who must have time-travelled from an ’80s band, begins to sing his part of their slurry duet. The priest, eyes mostly closed, soulfully sings a paraphrase of Psalm 23 with his musical partner. The barely recognizable “biblical” text seems mmm-kay with the enraptured crowd as the last vestige of a lounge-singer’s favorite major-seventh chord is heard through the harmonized “oooohhhh….” emanating from priest and singer as it mixes in with the tinkle of chimes that ends his … homily.
The chasuble-laden star arises from his keyboard’s throne as the adulation and applause washes over him like a warm wave. He bows slightly, and, sadly, the moment is over.
Well, not really over. It’s on video, actually. This is why I can unabashedly say that I witnessed the whole monumentally appalling mess that passed that day for an Easter Season Mass, which, by the way, ended with the same show-business priest styling his way through the triple-Alleluia dismissal on a digital-keyboard pad, surrounded by every last child who came to church huddled in the Sanctuary with him and holding white feathery fans, all with arms extended, ostensibly blessing themselves as the recessional music begins. The priest pumps his fists and shouts, “Go, team, go!” just before exiting the Sanctuary. He smiles and schmoozes his way down the center aisle, glad-handing and hugging everyone on the edges of the pews, while applause mixes with the heavily synthesized postlude.
And so, I ask—when will our priests sing again?
Hopefully, never, if this were to be the template. But it’s NOT the template, not by a long shot. Yet, we Catholics in the pews, with virtually few exceptions, no longer even “know what we don’t know” about the Roman Rite’s true patrimony of sung liturgy.
We need to be honest with ourselves. It wasn’t just the ambiguously cited “spirit of Vatican II” that undermined the Church’s sacred-music patrimony. The loss of our true Roman Rite identity as regards sacred music runs much, much deeper.
If we re-phrase the question in my essay title to “When Did Our Priests Stop Singing?” we might get a better sense of the problem.
Remember the oft-repeated axiom that “singing is praying twice”? Well, it is. And praying twice can seem, well, twice as hard as praying once. I’ll be the first to acknowledge that, when a priest “sings the Mass,” he needs to work much harder than he does if he just recites the Mass prayers.
There are eminently practical reasons why the Church’s liturgy developed its practice of “High Mass” and “Low Mass,” with the Low Mass being the Mass the priest did NOT need to sing. But I would assert that this practicality has come to us at a huge and costly price. It was the “Low Mass” model that won the day after Vatican II. This should have been no surprise, since it was the “Low Mass” model that had effectively won the day long before Vatican II.
What today we rightly imagine to be the pinnacle of Roman-Rite liturgy—the solemn High Mass—requires the priest to chant the Mass in Latin. Period. This, of course, is perfectly sensible—such a solemn High Mass involves everyone participating in our rightful and true heritage (fully, consciously, and actively, of course—right?) by singing in Latin, whether via chant or polyphony.
However, long before Vatican II there was a problem—it was the Low Mass, not the solemn High Mass, that was the most common liturgical form encountered by average people in the pews across the globe (I’d imagine this to have been true particularly in the young United States).
With the Low Mass, priest and congregant both could justifiably avoid the most difficult form of “praying twice”—they didn’t have to sing in Latin. The priest merely had to recite the Latin, with the people’s responses ingrained in their minds in a similar recitation, whether or not they understood the texts.
In attending a Low Mass, too, there was not much “dialogue” between priest and people. Indeed, it was the altar boy’s duty to provide the “people’s” Latin responses. Likely, what engaged the people most in those days was the permitted use of vernacular hymns in the Low Mass, in place of sung Latin antiphons and hymns.
There’s an unfortunate truth that we need to acknowledge: long before Vatican II, it was quite probably a rarity to find a Church in which the solemn High Mass was accorded pride of place in the life of a parish. This fullest expression of the Roman Rite was more typically sitting on a shelf, just out of reach, for both priest and parishioner. And throughout the first half of the twentieth century it was noticed by the Magisterium.
Ironically, what can be called the root of the “Liturgical Movement” of the twentieth century really was focused on reclaiming the fullest expression of our musical heritage. On paper, this looked edifying and worthy of pursuit.
However, having everyone sing the liturgy in Latin—including the priest—is, for many, many people (including many priests), really, really hard. It involves sincere effort, genuine preparation, and true devotion.
No matter what the century, most folks honestly don’t want to work that hard.
And that’s the real shame of it, in more than one sense of the word, given that the word “liturgy” is defined as the work of the people. The “Liturgical Movement” kind of morphed along the way, such that these much-harder aims were put on the shelf right along with the musical patrimony of our Rite. A quite opposite direction emerged—doing the easier thing, not the harder thing.
Thus, by the time we get to Sacrosanctum Concilium in 1963, the whole thrust of liturgical “renewal” has utterly shifted from what it was at the beginning of the century. Now, the Council Fathers opted to pay duly respectful lip service to our patrimony, but, instead of shaking loose from the liturgical laziness everyone seemed accustomed to and to be more fully moving toward, the document paved the way for real people in real places to jettison the entire patrimony of sacred music all at once.
With this, even the idea of “Low Mass” and “High Mass” disappeared because now priests could avoid even reciting the Mass in Latin. No more Latin, for everybody! Whew! Seminarians everywhere breathed deep sighs of relief. Just as many Catholics did, too. Easy-peasy!
We now have the liturgy we deserve, but not the one we truly need.
Make no mistake. If you think about it, it is absurd to imagine a restoration of our sacred-music patrimony without the priest singing his part, too. The fact is, we won’t have a return to our roots unless the priest deliberately chooses to chant the liturgy in Latin once more. Without his full, conscious, and active participation in the fullest expression of the Roman Rite’s liturgy, no one else can succeed in this noble and necessary endeavor.
If we end this essay much like we began—with an imagined liturgical scene—think how devastating it would be to have the most exquisite Latin-chanting choir and assembly in a Mass today, but then have showboating, effusive, gushing, me-priest come out and sing a show tune during his “homily.” One is not like the other. The dignified attempt at true, pure, sacrificial worship exemplified by the Roman Rite would remain lost to us, inaccessible.
To be frank, the “reform of the reform” rests in the hands—and the voices—of our Catholic priests. Once they decide to sing the Roman Rite again, everything else that is undignified and unseemly will be vastly out of place. No more clown Masses, no more talk-show-host clerics, no more vapid, vernacular, contemporary-music hits mumbled by sleepy pewsitters and led by pop-inspired singers. It would all fall away faced with the blazing core of true, Christ-centered worship found in the faithful and liturgically hard-working priest, the one among us truly acting in Persona Christi Capitis.
However, if our priests remain averse to even speaking our Church’s universal language, Latin, they will as a matter of course never seek to “pray twice” with it either.
Then we’ll be stuck with the superficial and thin cheer arising from that priest whom we call our highly entertaining “singing priest,” the one who impressed us all so deeply with his stage show. While he effusively glows with pride about just how impressed everyone was with his musical performance, he will dismiss us from the Source and Summit of our faith with the adolescent, “aren’t-we-all-so-wonderful” phrase: “Go, team, go!”
Editor’s note: Pictured above is a detail from “The Recital” painted by Max Scholz in 1906.