Songs I Never Sing (and Why)

 I'm going to get a little nitty and gritty now. There is a whole lot of "classic" "contemporary" "Catholic" music that I ignore whenever possible, and I get asked about them frequently.* I have some very practiced answers that you might find useful if you agree with me. Top offenders: Be Not Afraid, You Are Mine, Here I Am Lord, On Eagle's Wings, Gather Us In, One Bread One Body... you get the idea.

What are those scare quotes - classic, contemporary, Catholic - up there all about? Well, all three of those descriptors are false. These songs have not earned the label of classic because they are too young - the tradition of the Church is way too big for songs written in living memory to be considered "classics" yet, not alongside thousand-year-old poetic masterpieces. They've outgrown the label of contemporary by being too dated. And many of them don't get the label "Catholic" because they are theologically suspect at best.

But their being too old or too young is not the issue (dodgy theology is always a valid reason to rule them out). I just like to be able to point out that they are neither classic nor contemporary when parishioners ask why I never a) sing the classics or b) sing contemporary music. Because I do both those things - we sing songs that have been around since the inception of the church, and we sing things I wrote especially for our parish less than ten years ago. People asking after contemporary classics are always asking about specific songs that they remember and love, and that's OK, as long as they recognize what it is they are really asking for.

So what is the issue, and how can you answer those questions without being offensive? "I don't like them" is rarely a good answer, even if it's true. There's usually a bigger issue, a better "why." Here are some things I say:

1. "Within the context of the liturgy, it seems inappropriate to have the congregation sing words that have us role-playing as God." It's OK at times to put the words of God into the mouths of the choir. The liturgical texts do that, usually with a clear "SAYS THE LORD" tacked on. When it comes to congregational singing, though, let's keep ourselves in our proper place.

2. "It is too inconsistent, from verse to verse, to be easily sung by most of the congregation." Most parishioners can't even read a rhythm made up of quarters and halves, let alone the improbable number of dots appended to the notes in, say, Be Not Afraid. And the songs whose tunes change up from verse to verse? Or how about the way On Eagle's Wings begins the verse on the seventh? When the congregation is unsure, the congregation is silent. This also applies to songs whose ranges are too big.

3. "There is no prayer in that song." This is a big gun, for tough cases and serious conversations (not casual "how come you never" questions over donuts). For me, it's most classic Christmas carols - it's merely a rhyme-y narration of events. You can sing a bunch of them before Christmas Mass begins, or use them as postludes, or have a parish Lessons and Carols service. Liturgical texts need to have at least an implied prayer.

4. "It's too personal/devotional." The liturgy is the public work of the Church. If the music at the liturgy is turning us inward on ourselves, then it is taking away from the liturgy, not adding to it.

In any case, do not take these questions as a sign that you are failing. Catholics are formed by their parish. If they hear these songs in church, they associate church with these songs, and it takes a while to change those associations. It's a worthwhile task, and getting the opportunity to explain yourself a little is very valuable, both to you and to your parishioners.

Also, there may come a time for you, as it did for me, when I was asked during the homily (!!!) by a visiting priest to sing Be Not Afraid for the recessional, and I realized that none of the high school students in my choir (and probably few of the high school students in the church) knew how to sing it - because they had grown up with me as the music director in their parish, and had never heard it. You are changing the direction of the parish's perception of liturgical music with your choices.

"What we have heard and know / and what our fathers have declared to us,
We will declare to the generations to come / the glorious deeds of the LORD and His strength." (Ps 78:3-4)

*People have mostly stopped asking. Either they already know the answer, or they have given up on changing things back. Or they find me intimidating? Or maybe they like the way things are now? Hard to say.


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