Monday, March 29, 2010

Who is this Agnes?

Reader Beware: A little soapbox-y today.

Believe it or not, I never heard Latin sung at a Catholic Mass until I was in the Jesuits three years. 1994. I was 25. In the novitiate in St. Paul, all our liturgical prayer and music was in English. And growing up my parents' parish had a rich post-Vatican II liturgical music tradition. I can still remember the large choir leading the congregation in strong, evocative songs that invited people to sing.

I didn't pay much attention to any of this, being just a kid, but it certainly formed my sensibilities. So much so that when, while studying at Loyola Chicago, I heard for the first time the Agnus Dei, with its primitive rhythm and melody and Latin verses, it seemed like a prank. But it wasn't. In those three years, I'd hear that prayer sung again and again.

Over time I was just stunned that people would choose to sing such a flat and unattractive melody, a song so lacking in the spirit of the prayer, when there are such effusive and attractive English versions available.

And in part I felt as though there was some other agenda at work, that an assertion was being made as to what constituted "correct" liturgy. Latin having been the ancient language of the Church, it was only proper to include it in modern liturgies. It's a ridiculous argument, of course, and a selective one. Women were deacons in the ancient church, and yet the same people who embrace Latin do not generally seem interested in reinstating a women's diaconate, or many other of either the ancient or longstanding liturgical traditions of the Church.

Today I would not so readily cast aside all Latin hymns. Songs like the Ave Maria resonate deeply when sung well. Nor would I say that every time the Agnus Dei is sung in Latin, it's an act of liturgical aggression.

But I continue to challenge its use, not only because Latin is not, practically speaking, the language of the Church today (nor the language of any of its people), but because it remains such an unpleasant song. What are we doing at this point of the liturgy? We're asking Jesus to have mercy on us and to grant us peace. The words and tone of the music we sing here should reflect that desire, and they simply don't. As far as I can tell, we sing it simply because we used to sing it. And that's just not good enough.


Carlos said...

the best post in the series so far...

Anonymous said...

Perhaps for people with different backgrounds from your own, the Agnus Dei (or other sung pieces or other Latin pieces) ARE evocative or meaningful. Personally, I find it moving and prayerful. I know others who do as well.

Sadly, it seems that liturgical music has become a tug of war in parishes, in much the way you describe... EXCEPT that I do not think the "blame" lies entirely with the people who want traditional hymnody or Latin. I think it is on both sides and I think it has become yet another way for crabby parishioners to put one another in boxes. "OH, she's one of THOSE modern music people that wants every song to be St. Louis Jesuits." or "HE's a LATIN person. He's just likes old, slow music that NO ONE LIKES except him."

What does not resonate for you or sounds to you like "bad" music may in fact be quite prayerful for others. And not just for older people.

And the fact is, it just isn't true. Any of it. Is it so stinkin' hard to MIX the music... have some Masses that are more traditional than others, some times of the year, whatever? Or do we just want to crab instead of praying together?

Jim McDermott, SJ said...

Carlos, Thanks for the post!
Anonymous, in the Jesuits we often say de gustibus non disputandum. About matters of taste, there's no debate.

I'm with you, if it's done well, I don't think there's anything wrong with "traditional" music or V2 St. Louis SJs or anything in between. I envy you if you've found it done well in the parish to which you go. In the Jesuit communities and parishes I usually find myself at, I don't think I've heard it sung well.

(I guess there's a reason why they say a good Jesuit liturgy is one where nobody gets hurt. That is, because usually someone does!)

I think the question of whether you can mix different styles in the same liturgy, or whether you should have different liturgies using different musical/liturgical styles is an interesting one, and it's a topic I want to take up in a few weeks. My initial reaction is, heck yeah. It's a big church. Let's allow for that by having a variety of liturgies.

But I'll come back to do that.

A blessed Triduum to you both, and to all!