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New Catholic Hymnal is Nothing to Sing About

We tend to treat music like entertainment breaks from the serious phases of our church services, writes Convivium Publisher Peter Stockland. But music ought to be so much more. Today, Peter defends the core of music: to lift our hearts, and our voices, towards God's love.

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New Catholic Hymnal is Nothing to Sing About August 1, 2018  |  By Peter Stockland
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Proof that the Church has no shyness about irony is affirmed in word that Canada’s new Catholic hymnal will be unleashed during Lent two years hence.

I cannot think of a fitter time in the liturgical year to take the wrapper off a fresh compendium of joyful noise, mumbled verses, and music by committee than during the 40 days inextricably linked to sack cloth and ashes. Enhancing the sense of lugubrious ecstasy is the promise that Music for Catholic Worship will include “new hymns by Canadian composers” including such hotly anticipated titles as “Rain Down.” I can feel the tears in my eyes already.

To be absolutely clear, none of the above is meant to be dismissive of the hard and vital work done by the composers. It is not mean to diminish in anyway the National Council for Liturgical Music that has overseen the compiling of the new hymnal. Nor does it denigrate the devoted choristers, organists, and instrumentalists across Canada who will make its praise ring out. 

I am, however, one of those for whom the very phrase “new church music” rhymes with “seagull in a blender.” I say this readily admitting to being a total musical drone, a bottom feeder on the scale of musical knowledge. My entire understanding of music rests on three years of junior high school band, which was only possible after the first month because the school authorities so deeply feared letting me take shop class as an alternative. 

But if 40 years of journalism teaches anything, it’s awareness of when people are bluffing. People, fellow Catholics, when it comes to what we do musically at our contemporary Masses, we are all but unanimously huff, puff and bluff. Nor is this a matter of the old trope about Catholics being unable to sing. If you’ve joined some of our fellow Christians at a “modern” worship service, there is a strong chance you’ve been affronted by among the most appalling caterwauling outside the local SPCA.

I go annually, for example, to the National Prayer Breakfast in Ottawa, as well as to its complementary leadership dinner the evening before. Though officially ecumenical, its inspiration is self-evidently Evangelical. Befitting an event organized by parliamentarians, the combined events routinely attract compelling gusting to phenomenal speakers, including the likes of Os Guiness, former Governor-General David Johnston, and Kim Phúc who was immortalized in the photograph of the Vietnamese girl set alight by napalm. But the music? I’m sorry. And so is the music.

To be fair, there have been two captivating performances in recent years, one by opera star Ben Heppner, the other by the choir of St. Patrick’s High School in Vancouver. The rest? Trust me, being treated to the overwrought oeuvre of Guy Love and The Word Warblers is not the best way in the world to overcome cold hotel ballroom scrambled eggs and half-cooked ham: “Jeeeeeezzzzzuzzzzzzz, I looooovvee yewwwwwwhoohoohoo. Jeeeezuzzz, you loooovvvee meeeheeheehee….” 

Second verse, same as the first. If you’ve been anywhere close, you know the drill, and why it feels like one is being pressed into your ear.

The problem is not that it’s bad performance, but that it is performance per se. In that, we Catholics share the shame. As “modern” Christians, we treat music like entertainment breaks from the serious phases of the service. No doubt that is why so many of us suddenly spend such time displaying intense fascination with the tops of our shoes, or with discovering it is humanly possible to let your lips drop apart and flap back together without emitting a single croak from your throat and no one around you will ever know. Bluffing hardly covers it. 

I am going out on a limb here, though, to suggest that’s not what music, particularly music directed at love of God, is supposed to be. In an interview several years ago with journalist Krista Tippett, the Irish poet John Donohue said: “Music is what language would love to be if it could.” 

Tippett then suggested that if music contains such beauty, perhaps it should be seen as “a bridge we can walk across to each other, a bridge that might help humble and save us.”

Such aspiration to the transformation of salvation is why we lift our hearts, and our voices, toward God’s love. The irony is no hymnal in the world will help in that crossing unless our hearts are first convinced songs of praise are infinitely more than just another musical interlude in the world. 

The above column was published earlier this summer by the Catholic Register.


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