The National Catholic Review
Timothy Padgett

As a liberal Catholic, I admire the progressive doctrine of Reform Judaism. Last summer, Reform Jews gave me something else to applaud. They have been open-minded enough to restore what they call the affective side of their religion: traditions like Hebrew chant. They now acknowledge that those gestures matterand always will as long as humans are the sensuously spiritual beings they are.

Liberal Catholics ought to view this as a challenge. One of the most endearing calling cards of the Catholic faith is its recognition that awakening the senses is a powerful means of awakening the soul. The Eucharist itself, like turning water to wine, is proof of Jesus’ divine awareness of that human fact. But as Reform Jews restore their age-old customs, it is time for us to ask: in our four-decade-long zeal to make the Mass modern and relevantby burying sublime Kyries under banal Kumbayashave we also lost the vital affective side of our own religion? Are liberal Catholics, who demand dialogue on doctrinal issues, open-minded enough to demand it of ourselves on liturgical issues?

How we practice our prayers, of course, matters more than how we sing them. And this is not about a return to the Latin Tridentine Mass. It is about acknowledging that the liturgical pendulum has swung too far the other way since Vatican II, that it is time to find a healthy and accommodating compromise between Palestrina and Peter, Paul and Mary. The answer might just be found in the generation of Catholics coming after those of us who were born before the Mass was plugged into a folk-guitar amplifier.

The guitar Mass that still dominates some Catholic parishes today is largely a baby-boomer creation. But Generation X’s tastes are different, somewhere between the more celebratory air of the reformed Mass and the more reflective tone of the Tridentine. While buying up REM a few years ago, music fans between the ages of 16 and 25 also bought two-thirds of the chart-busting four million Gregorian chant CD’s recorded by an obscure community of Spanish monks. A recent article in the Claretian magazine Vision pointed out that many younger Catholics are eager to latch onto older religious practices as an avenue for spiritual growthand warned baby-boomer Catholics against dismissing it.

While recently reporting for a Time magazine article on a resurgence of interest in traditional Masses, I interviewed a twentysomething biochemist who had been a lapsed Catholic since high school. He was at odds with the pope on issues like women’s ordinationbut he was drawn back to his faith in part because he had discovered the Tridentine Mass at Chicago’s conservative St. John Cantius Church. I wondered: why can’t a parish like mine, which I applaud for permitting altar girls, also offer this young man some of the same soul-arresting tradition he finds at St. John Cantius? Why must it be either/or?

But the modern Mass risks becoming something more troubling than a baby-boomer anachronism. Reform Jews conceded recently that they had over-intellectualized their worship; and a case can be made that we have over-vernacularized ours. Face it: even the hippest Catholics squirm a little every time a parish music director steps up to the altar before the Gospel reading and swivels his acoustic guitar like a dime-store Elviswhich annoys me not only as a Catholic but as an Elvis fan. They have looked at the new computerized screens on either side of the crucifixwhich often display mouse arrows opening hymn files in Windows 98and instead of imagining a repentant thief at Jesus’ side, they envision Bill Gates, an unrepentant monopolist.

I am not issuing a snobbish complaint about kitsch. (I’m from Indiana, after all.) Nor am I alone. No less progressive a Catholic than former New York Governor Mario Cuomo has expressed a preference for a more traditional Mass. But I do fear that our liturgy has become a reflection of, rather than an alternative to, the vapid secular culture that Catholics say they want to change in the worldand in themselves. In their homilies, our priests rightfully assail the spiritual emptiness of our Home Shopping Network worldbut then yield to Masses that often feel like new age infomercials set possibly in a Wal-Mart. We go to proclaim the mystery of faith at Mass, and then eradicate the very tone of mystery in gushing waves of politically correct, hand-holding perkiness. Yes, Mass should make us feel spiritually ebullient and connected in community; but, like a Gothic cathedral, it should also move us to the more shadowy corners of spiritual introspection, into the depths of ritual symbol. Sad to say, the modern Mass has lost that balance.

So how could it possibly hurt liberal Catholics to restore some transcendence in our worshipchiefly by rebuilding our own bond with two millenia of some of the most affective religious language, music and art ever inspired?

In my reporting, I discovered a number of parishes crafting beautiful mixtures of English and Latinchiefly by reserving the shorter prayers, like the Sanctus or Agnus Dei, for chant in Latin, or using a Renaissance motet as the communion hymn once in a while instead of relying wholly on the Glory and Praise book. Hard-core reformers always point out to me that Jesus did not speak Latin: if you really want a traditional Mass, they say, why not chant it in Aramaic? That is clever, but it misses the point. One group of parishioners explained that they chant the Lord I am not worthy prayer in Latin (Domine non sum dignus) because instead of Lord I am not worthy to receive you it says Lord I am not worthy for you to enter under my roofa richer and more direct allusion to Matthew. It produces in them, they say, the same timeless transport a Jew feels when she speaks the Berakot, or that a Muslim experiences when he hears Allah akhbar from the minaret.

I was reminded of that in my own parish recently when our new music director, as if defying the Kumbaya powers, had his young cantor sing a moving Ave Maria at the end of a Mass. Most of the congregation, especially the younger members, were so surprised and stirred by it that they applauded. That might not have been the appropriate response at a Massbut it pointed up a longing that I think Reform Judaism has already recognized at the start of the new century. We should, too. Catholicism owes Judaism so many cultural debts already. One more won’t hurt.

Timothy Padgett is the Miami-Caribbean bureau chief for Time magazine.

Comments

Eileen Hosking | 1/26/2007 - 2:37pm
Thank you for “Kyrie and Kumbaya” (3/4), which clearly and goodnaturedly expressed thoughts that I’ve been fumbling after for years. With 2,000 years of ritual, music and art to choose from, it puzzles me why the celebration of liturgy seems so often to settle for the trivial and mundane, so long as it’s contemporary.

(Rev.) G. F. Werner | 1/26/2007 - 2:36pm
All praise to Timothy Padgett for his plea to “restore some transcendence in our worship” (3/4).

Our liturgy has indeed overborrowed from the entertainment media, and in consequence much of the tone of affective spirituality that once was its benchmark has been lost.

Does introspection take one to transcendence, as Padgett claims? A few years ago I was listening to an Agnus Dei excerpted from some centuries-old classical sung Mass on the local fine-music radio station in Albuquerque, N.M. After the final verse, there was a momentary pause. Then the announcer murmured in a quiet voice, “Such a beautiful prayer—dona nobis pacem.” It obviously was a moment of introspection, and then of transcendence, for her and so for me, who had been reciting that verse virtually daily for some five decades.

David Philippart | 1/26/2007 - 2:21pm
Articles like “Kyrie or Kumbaya” (3/4) set up a false caricature of the reformed liturgy today. It’s the “straw man” fallacy. Name one parish, please, that is still singing “Kumbaya” at Mass.

In a recent issue of Commonweal magazine, the Rev. Andrew Greeley berated liturgists for “banning” Gregorian chant. Well, I have been a liturgist for 20 years now, and not only have I not heard “Kumbaya” sung at Mass since 1967, when I was 7 years old, but I must have missed the meeting where chant was outlawed, too. Some progressive parishes in the Midwest began teaching their assemblies to chant the Kyrie in Greek or the Agnus Dei in Latin in the late 1980’s. (I’m not talking about the nostalgic or retrograde few that have a professional choir usurp the role of the faithful by giving a Palestrina concert at Mass.)

The parish I belong to in Chicago, whose typical parishioner (according to demographics) is a single woman in her mid-20’s, has done so at least since 1990—for 12 years. Other parishes do not do it because the pastor or the music minister judges it not to be effective toward the “full, conscious and active participation of the faithful in the liturgy that is their right and their duty by reason of their baptism” (“Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy,” No. 14). Glib articles like “Kyrie or Kumbaya” play into the hands of those who argue—against all evidence and truth—that the reform of the liturgy begun by the Second Vatican Council is a failure. How many times did Catholics in the pews chant a Kyrie (or anything at all) at Mass before Vatican II?

John M. Michels | 1/26/2007 - 2:19pm
The term “Kumbaya” as now used (3/4) is less the title of a song than a shorthand form of derision. It captures in one word an attitude of pure sentimentality, devoid of rationality and permanence.

(Rev.) Walter J. Paulits | 1/26/2007 - 2:42pm
I am in general agreement with Timothy Padgett’s “Kyrie and Kumbaya” (3/4). I have no problem with the author’s desire to reintegrate traditional music into our liturgies; our cache of extraordinarily lovely church music accumulated for centuries has been scanted. But I do not agree with his harsh put-down of today’s liturgies; he fears that they reflect, rather than act as an alternative to, our secular culture. My experience is that our vernacularized liturgies can and do invite us into “the depths of ritual symbol.” All we really need is what each person can bring to the eucharistic table: the faith to be aware that Christ lives and is here. That is real depth and the heart of real mysticism.

Mary Ann Ahearne-Ray | 3/4/2002 - 8:14pm
After reading Timothy Padgett's article, I just had to write. I am a post baby-boomer. I have led or sung with many church music groups. Nothing stirs my soul like a stringed instrument (guitar, piano, etc.) The point I want to make is that different people are moved by different music. It would be punishment for a lover of chamber music to listen to a guitar every week, and vice versa. The problem I see with current liturgical practices is that differences are not allowed. Why must all the music at every mass be the same? Why can't there be variety from week to week? Why can't the psalm be read sometimes? Fixed practices whether of a latin or folk persuasion can squash a spirit. Variety and openness are necessary to foster vibrancy and growth.

Eileen Hosking | 3/6/2002 - 7:58pm
Thank you for this article, which clearly and good naturedly expressed thoughts that I've been fumbling after for years. With 2000 years of ritual, music and art to choose from, it puzzles me why the celebration of liturgy seems so often to settle for the trivial and mundane, so long as it's contemporary.

Gene deveney | 2/27/2002 - 7:07pm
Sir; What is a Liberal Catholic? I enjoyed the article immensely; I love the Latin Mass and always seek it out. They are not easy to find but are still beautiful and edifying. I repeat, What is a "Liberal" Catholic. We believe in the One, True, Catholic and Apostolic Faith; not Liberal or Conservative just the Catholic Faith!

Gene Deveney

David Philippart | 2/27/2002 - 3:23pm
Articles like "Kyrie or Kumbaya" set up a false caricature of the reformed liturgy today. It's the "straw man" fallacy. Name one parish, please, that is still singing "Kumbaya" at Mass. Recently, in Commonweal magazine, Andrew Greeley berated liturgists for "banning" Gregorian chant. Well, I have been a liturgist for 20 years now, and not only have I NOT heard Kumbaya sung at Mass since 1967, when I was 7 years old, but I must have missed the meeting where chant was outlawed, too. Give me a break. Some progressive parishes in the Midwest began teaching their assemblies to chant the Kyrie in Greek or the Agnus Dei in Latin in the late 1980s. (And I'm not talking about the nostalgic or retrograde few that have a professional choir usurp the role of the faithful by giving a Palestrina concert at Mass, either.) The parish I belong to in Chicago--whose "typical" parishioner (according to demographics) is a single woman in her mid-20s--has done so at least since 1990--for 12 years now. Other parishes don't because the pastor or the music minister judges it not to be effective toward the "full, conscious and active participation of the faithful in the liturgy that is their right and their duty by reason o ftheir baptism." (Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy, #14). Glib articles like "Kyrie or Kumbaya" play into the hands of those who argue--against all evidence and truth--that the reform of the liturgy begun by the Second Vatican Council is a failure. How many times did Catholics in the pews chant a Kyrie (or anything at all) at Mass before Vatican II?

John M. Michels | 3/1/2002 - 4:42pm
The term "Kumbaya" as now used is less the title of a song than as a shorthand form of derision. It captures, in one word, the attitude of pure sentimentality, devoid of rationality and permanence.

Mary Ann Ahearne-Ray | 3/4/2002 - 8:14pm
After reading Timothy Padgett's article, I just had to write. I am a post baby-boomer. I have led or sung with many church music groups. Nothing stirs my soul like a stringed instrument (guitar, piano, etc.) The point I want to make is that different people are moved by different music. It would be punishment for a lover of chamber music to listen to a guitar every week, and vice versa. The problem I see with current liturgical practices is that differences are not allowed. Why must all the music at every mass be the same? Why can't there be variety from week to week? Why can't the psalm be read sometimes? Fixed practices whether of a latin or folk persuasion can squash a spirit. Variety and openness are necessary to foster vibrancy and growth.

Eileen Hosking | 3/6/2002 - 7:58pm
Thank you for this article, which clearly and good naturedly expressed thoughts that I've been fumbling after for years. With 2000 years of ritual, music and art to choose from, it puzzles me why the celebration of liturgy seems so often to settle for the trivial and mundane, so long as it's contemporary.

Gene deveney | 2/27/2002 - 7:07pm
Sir; What is a Liberal Catholic? I enjoyed the article immensely; I love the Latin Mass and always seek it out. They are not easy to find but are still beautiful and edifying. I repeat, What is a "Liberal" Catholic. We believe in the One, True, Catholic and Apostolic Faith; not Liberal or Conservative just the Catholic Faith!

Gene Deveney

David Philippart | 2/27/2002 - 3:23pm
Articles like "Kyrie or Kumbaya" set up a false caricature of the reformed liturgy today. It's the "straw man" fallacy. Name one parish, please, that is still singing "Kumbaya" at Mass. Recently, in Commonweal magazine, Andrew Greeley berated liturgists for "banning" Gregorian chant. Well, I have been a liturgist for 20 years now, and not only have I NOT heard Kumbaya sung at Mass since 1967, when I was 7 years old, but I must have missed the meeting where chant was outlawed, too. Give me a break. Some progressive parishes in the Midwest began teaching their assemblies to chant the Kyrie in Greek or the Agnus Dei in Latin in the late 1980s. (And I'm not talking about the nostalgic or retrograde few that have a professional choir usurp the role of the faithful by giving a Palestrina concert at Mass, either.) The parish I belong to in Chicago--whose "typical" parishioner (according to demographics) is a single woman in her mid-20s--has done so at least since 1990--for 12 years now. Other parishes don't because the pastor or the music minister judges it not to be effective toward the "full, conscious and active participation of the faithful in the liturgy that is their right and their duty by reason o ftheir baptism." (Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy, #14). Glib articles like "Kyrie or Kumbaya" play into the hands of those who argue--against all evidence and truth--that the reform of the liturgy begun by the Second Vatican Council is a failure. How many times did Catholics in the pews chant a Kyrie (or anything at all) at Mass before Vatican II?

John M. Michels | 3/1/2002 - 4:42pm
The term "Kumbaya" as now used is less the title of a song than as a shorthand form of derision. It captures, in one word, the attitude of pure sentimentality, devoid of rationality and permanence.