“Cree-yate in meeeeee a cleeeen heart, Oh Gahhhhhd!”
That’s the responsorial my parish sang every Sunday of Lent, until the events of Holy Week moved us to Passion. No “Let my tongue be silenced if I ever forget you!” for us. Too drastic a proposition for our music minister, I guess. Whether it suited the day’s readings or not, our cantor stepped up to the plate, looked at us wearily (as if to say “Don’t shoot me, shoot the piano player”) and led us in our all-purpose riff on Psalm 51 . . . slowwwly.
“Cree-yate in meeeeee a cleeeen heart, Oh Gahhhhhd!”
I know that line is part of the Lenten cycle, but I’m not sure what “a clean heart” has to do with Lent. I’m as catechism-challenged as any other thirtysomething Catholic, but I thought sin dirties the soul. Low-density cholesterol dirties the heart. Being neither liturgist, catechist, nor cardiologist, I’d better leave that debate to those who know better. Let me concern myself with something more within the realm of my experience: Catholics and their music.
The last time I remember hearing a church full of people really tear into a current crop of hymns, I was about twelve or thirteen years old playing guitar in St. John the Baptist Church, Jersey City, New Jersey. It was, if you will pardon the expression, the early 1970s. The songs were “Sons of God,” “Shout from the Highest Mountain,” “They’ll Know We Are Christians,” etc. And: Get ready to boo. I still like those songs.
I will now sit back from the keyboard a moment while you finish drawing that mustache on my photograph.
Hey, not bad. I may grow one.
Granted, the social climate of both country and church left much to be desired in those early post-Woodstock years. The right to liberty had become the right to be a libertine, the Constitution’s penumbra was about to unleash a storm of abortions upon our inexplicably unopened penumbrellas, and at least one Catholic religion textbook I recall praised individuals referred to as the “unreligious religious.” Pretty grim stuff. Liturgical songs had weathered the turbulence of the period with elements lifted from the radical play book—exuberance and simplicity, elements those songs share with the greatest classical hymns.
No need to draw a wart on my nose. I am not putting “Sons of God” on the same plane with a hymn set to “Ode to Joy,” neither would I consider offering it an upgrade. But both can be sung by just about anybody.
It would seem today’s Catholic songwriters have Andrew Lloyd Webbers’s concern for popular singability; that is to say, none. Anyone who can manage that dissonance at the beginning of “On Eagle’s Wings” first thing on a Sunday morning is a better man/woman/child/person than I.
Is it just me, or is anybody else ready to go screaming into the night next time they hear “On Eagle’s Wings?” That song, aging though it is, is emblematic of the liturgical elevator music carpeting our Sunday worship these days. It doesn’t roll off the tongue. You have to concentrate way too hard on the melody. You shouldn’t have to worry so much about where a song is going that you have to think twice about the prayer you’re supposed to be praying twice by singing in the first place.
Does this mean people like Michael Joncas shouldn’t be writing songs? No. I’m glad there are Catholic songwriters out there. I do however think we have enough singable hymns in the canon to get us by for a while. There is no need to force new ones. Catholic songwriters have a much more important task at hand—creating a Catholic musical tradition apart from the Mass.
In 1981, I was asked to sing at my brother’s wedding. His Protestant bride chose the song “My Tribute (To God Be the Glory)” by Andrae Crouch, her favorite song. Not just her favorite religious song, but her all-time favorite song. Can you imagine? How many Catholic girls’ “favorite songs” have all you priests out there had to eighty-six over the years? A tenor friend of mine tells me he once sang “What I Did for Love” at a wedding ceremony. I assume the bride never gave the lyrics a good listen.
While I lament the various Protestant disbeliefs, I envy the Protestant ability to enjoy sacred songs off-hours. Why don’t Catholics do it? For one thing, we’ve been cowed into confining our most overtly religious actions to the seclusion of our churches. The other, somewhat more pressing, problem is that nonliturgical Catholic songs pretty much do not exist. There is, however, no reason such songs cannot be created and their enjoyment encouraged. People will sing religious songs if good religious songs are there to be sung. Since the old folk songs have joined the Baltimore Catechism in the dustbin of neglect, I’ll use their relative obscurity as an example.
A few months ago, my wife and I were visiting her brother’s family in Houston. After dinner one night, my brother-in-law and I sat around playing guitar and swapping songs. After a few failed attempts at a duet, we realized that just about the only songs we knew in common were those old “folk Mass favorites,” as K-tel might call them. We played a few and had a darn good time doing it.
What we were doing was less than worship, but more than mere reminiscence. We were singing songs we like, and like well enough to remember more than twenty years after either of us had played them regularly.
Everybody loves a love song. But are we up to the challenge of singing about the greatest love in all our lives, out in the open, where somebody other than the choir can hear us?