7 March 2017

Preaching to the wrong choir.

There's an old story I once heard from Mother Angelica.  Someone called on her talk show and complained about the quality of their priest's homilies.  Mother Angelica quickly asked her what viewers may have thought was an irrelevant question:  "How much do you put in the collection plate?"  The caller stammered for a moment and then said they put in a buck or two.  "Two bucks?" demanded Mother.  "What do you expect for two bucks? Fulton Sheen?"

I thought of this when I read a document that was released a few days ago.

In honour, so to speak, of the 50th anniversary of Musicam Sacram , a Declaration on Sacred Music Cantate Domino, signed by over 200 musicians, priests and various scholars, has been released in six languages.  Here is the link to the English version.  It is brief, only five pages, and consists of four parts: an introduction, a survey of the current state of sacred music (short version: we're in a pickle), some recommendations on how to remedy that situation, and a brief conclusion.

On the whole, it is a good document, but it suffers from the problems that plagues most such documents: first off, the wrong people will be reading it.  In my experience, the people at whom such writings are aimed are almost never the ones who read it, and if one of those people actually does come across it, they are almost always inoculated, as it were, long before they read such a document.  Usually they would consider it from a poison source, or some such fallacy.  Perhaps they will read the names and see a famous one (Fr. Zuhlsdorf, perhaps) and say to themselves something along the lines of: "Oh, he's signed it.  That tells you all you need to know right there." They may then comfortably ignore it.

The Declaration makes several sound points and recommendations, though on the whole it seems have a flawed assumption, which brings me to the second problem.  The flaw is particularly apparent in recommendation number 4, which states

Higher standards for musical repertoire and skill should be insisted on for cathedrals and basilicas. Bishops in every diocese should hire at least a professional music director and/or an organist who would follow clear directions on how to foster excellent liturgical music in that cathedral or basilica

It is curious to me that the recommendation is a very stripped down version of the usual recommendation that I have seen many times:  churches in general should hire professional musicians.  That in itself is a wildly impractical suggestion (of which I suspect the writers of this document are fully aware) for reasons I'll get to in a moment, but it seems to me in restricting the recommendation down to merely the cathedrals and basilicas (which in most dioceses amounts to the Cathedral alone) they are conceding a lot of ground.  They may be correct in their belief that such churches should be shining examples, and they are also- judging from my own experience- correct in their assumption that such churches very often are no such thing.

I cited this recommendation because it most overtly illustrates the biggest flaw in this document.  Did you catch the critical word in the passage I cited?  Yes, it's 'hire', as in pay.  With this word it becomes obvious that this recommendation is, in its own way, also directed at the wrong people.  It seems to be directed at the bishops and rectors who are in charge of the Cathedrals and basilicas.  From my limited experience with them, I would imagine that many of them would read that recommendation and say to themselves: "Oh, they want me to spend more money, do they?"  In that respect, it is a misfire, and it is the misfire that I find underpinning this entire document.  These recommendations should have come with a very clear and very stern statement aimed directly at the Catholic worshippers: if you want better music, pay for it, and a reminder of the famous libertarian saying: There Ain't No Such Thing as a Free Lunch.

Catholics on the whole are a cheap bunch, and Canadian Catholics particularly so, I am sorry to say.  Among those clergy and others who live off the generosity of congregations who travel back and forth across the border between us and our neighbours to the south  there is a joke: "Q: What is the difference between a Canadian and a canoe? A: A canoe might tip."  The place where most Catholics show their love of tradition is in the collection basket.  That is the place where they wish to maintain the customs of their ancestors, as in: "If a dollar was good enough for my great great great granddaddy, it's good enough for me!"  It is dangerous to tell these people that churches in the past were raised and furnished by the congregation sacrificing their pennies and nickels, because they will not hear the word 'sacrifice' and instead think to themselves "Nickels, you say?" In short, it is utterly pointless to tell any priest or bishop that they need to spend money on some project or other without telling the congregation to start forking out.

This is not to say we should do nothing.  I have been active as an unpaid cantor in my parish, and I have been trying to improve the quality of music at the early Sunday Mass.   I have taught my children what I could about quality music, and it seems to be working.  My elder daughter likes to sleep in.  She tried to spread her sleep habits to Sunday and tried to go to the later Mass (where the music is provided by a choir).  She did it just once.  Upon her return home she announced that we were to do whatever it took to wake her up on the following Sunday, as she never wanted to hear that choir sing again.  On top of everything else, and I quote, "They had some guy playing a harmonica!"  In his case, we might have to do the opposite of the recommendations in the Declaration, and pay him not to play.

In the end, while the document is good, I do not see it going anywhere.  Everything they ask for- better music education for children, the promotion of quality composers- costs money, and any discussion of what should be done without a consideration of how it should be done and especially how it should be paid for- well, no matter how good and how well intentioned, that discussion is ultimately doomed to be merely theoretical.  Parishioners need to know that a music program is heavily dependent upon their donations. A Luciano Pavarotti level singer would not even clear his throat for a couple of bucks.

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