So this will probably be one of my longest blog posts ever, but we’ll go with it. As many of you know, I am part of the Rutgers Catholic Student Association. One of its main features is using modern praise and worship music in its events, retreats, etc. I, however, due to who knows what, do not participate in it. People have asked me why, and I can generally give what I can within a 2 minute conversation, but I will now hopefully articulate into writing why I do not participate.
I think I can trace my opinions back to my early childhood. Of course, I never understood what going to Mass meant, but I do remember an organ and piano. I was also raised to be quiet and to be respectful and solemn at church, and it was like that and still like that for me.
In 2002, I moved from Jersey City to South Plainfield and attended Sacred Heart Church, the largest church in the Diocese of Metuchen (even bigger than the cathedral!) It was there when I received my first Confession, Eucharist, and Confirmation. I learned of the real presence at Mass, and the respect and solemnity that was required. Mass is not for me, in that it is the highest praise of God because God and Heaven was actually there, outside time itself.
So there I was in middle school channel surfing, and I stumble upon this Evangelical channel, and I see this rock band singing praise music. The congregation had their hands up all energetic and swaying around and singing their souls out. All I thought was, well, good intentions, but they don’t have the Mass, hence they are missing the fundamentals of everything.
A couple weeks later, diocesan youth day was being hosted at my parish. Honestly, I didn’t want to go, but being the largest parish, hosting hundreds of teenagers and young adults, it would be weird if the host parish didn’t have anyone there (our retention rate is tragically low). So being one of the first youth lectors of the parish, I was asked to attend, and so I did.
It was basically a one day retreat, complete with talks, confessions, and Mass. Honestly, 8th grade me thought the talks were corny, so I was just waiting for Mass because the Mass is the Mass and it is always good. So there I was, sitting in the pews, while things were being set up, and I see this band setting up near the sanctuary. Guitars, electric bass, drum set, amps, microphones. My heart dropped. I was afraid and confused.
Then the Mass started. The processional started, and while we were standing up, there was the music. The people around me were singing, many with their hands raised up, some with eyes closed, some swaying. My gut reaction was “hold up, I thought we were Catholic? Why are we doing this? Only Protestants do this!”
For the rest of the liturgy, the music was noise. And it was the same thing, over and over again, hands up, swaying, doing all this stuff DURING MASS. 8th grade me was confused. Where was the organ? Where was the solemn dignity? The bloodless re-presentation of Calvary is being presented to us and all of you are swaying around? I was scared and for the first time in the universal church, I felt alienated. Almost cried.
After the final blessing, they announced that the rest of the evening will be praise, and they all stood up, some holding arms with each other, doing the same thing. I walked out of the church, called my mother to pick me up, and told myself I would never attend anything like it again. I felt like the church was insulted. We were given many resources, and yet they chose to do that in an attempt to be “relevant” to the youth. And thus caused my many years of trepidation every time I see a guitar set up in church.
Honestly, after that, I never looked into it more. I would read about church history and how everything was in Latin and stuff like that. Things like that always fascinated me. To know I was part of a church founded by Jesus Christ himself, with over 2000 years of history. Holy Mother Church blossomed from the blood of the martyrs and was there for both the peak and fall of the Roman Empire. She was there teaching truth, whether the world wanted it or not.
I’d say that my experience of Liturgy changed for me in my sophomore year of high school, when my family went to Rome for spring break. We attended Easter Sunday Mass at St. Peter’s Square with Pope Benedict XVI. It was honestly the most beautiful thing I have ever attended. Everything except the first two readings were in Latin, all the music was chanted, everyone was dignified and respectful. At the start of his homily, Pope Benedict started by saying Happy Easter in the many languages of the visitors there. Even with all the languages there, we were united in prayer under the language of Holy Mother Church. We all knew what was going on. It was truly universal.
After that experience, I began to listen to more chanting. Even now, I have in my computer and phone, various chant settings of the Mass. I self taught reading chant notation, for just in case I attend a Mass that uses it. This was the music of centuries of Saints. Why not emulate them? High school me (well, let’s face it, that’s still me) was picturing every Mass I attended as a chanted Mass.
During this time, I began to be informed of certain dilemmas in the Church. I hear of various places, especially in the Philippines, (I am Filipino, by the way) where teenagers lose interest in the Church because it is “boring.” They either leave and stop practicing or they go to Protestant or Charismatic places because it is more “exciting” or “energetic.” These were the original groups that were into the loud music and swaying around. If that is reason enough to leave, then I concluded that the faith foundation that should have been built up in the beginning was not there. The people who left were looking for external, superficial benefits for one’s self, when they were not looking to focus on God. Letting the drama of praise of worship affect how you pray risks the temptation of looking for that feeling everywhere. Without a firm foundation of faith, in the face of both silence and noise, the temptation to fall into that trap becomes more prevalent. This then highlights a major problem that has been ingrained for some time: modern catechesis is terrible. For example, out of my Confirmation class of about 40 something people, only 2 or 3 of us practicing Catholics today. The dilemma for churches today is how to relate to this lost generation. Do they appeal to the youthful energy, or stay firm in the truth and teach what is right?
By appealing to the youthful energy and changing to look externally “modern” we risk separating the church by age groups, which should never happen. The church is universal and should be the same to everyone. Of course that is a fantastical notion, but still should be the ideal.
It was during college that I learned a great deal about worship. I was under the impression that the Mass of Paul VI merely translated the Mass into vernacular, and that the current Mass has been the same for over 1900 years. I learned about the Extraordinary Form last year before my junior year of college. A Mass where priests did not make up things as the Mass went along, a Mass where priests did not put on a show, but rather faced God and led the people to him.
Curiosity led me to find a church that offered the Extraordinary Form (St. John’s in Allentown) and I felt spiritually uplifted in ways I couldn’t describe. Not only was there the music of centuries of Saints, but this was the Mass of centuries of Saints. Lex orandi, lex credendi; the law of praying is the law of believing. If the Mass is the highest form of prayer, then we must afford it the highest focus of ourselves towards God. This was a Mass that didn’t try to relate to you or cater to your worldly needs; rather, it grabbed you and brought you up to see God and instill the desire to learn more of Him.
This Mass requires humility and an open mind. You need to let the Mass change you. And I say that as a lover of both the Ordinary and Extraordinary Forms.
Now of course, being part of the Catholic Student Association apparently means praise and worship is the norm. If anything, at least they do it right. Students are well informed of their faith, and the trap I mentioned above doesn’t seem likely here. Heck, there are many students here who love chanting and Latin as well, and St. Peter’s, New Brunswick is basically my church home during the school year. Why then do I not participate?
I could say the music is corny, but that would be the same superficiality I mentioned above when I say that people leave because the church is boring.
I think the best thing I could say is I don’t participate because I want to be there for those whose voices haven’t been heard. I want to be there for those who do not have the faith foundation, but desire it. I want to be there for those who are left behind in the noise, just as I was back in 8th grade.
After all, “we live in a society in which it seems that every space, every moment must be ‘filled’ with initiatives, activity, sound; often there is not even time to listen and dialogue…let us not be afraid to be silent outside and inside ourselves, so that we are able not only to perceive God’s voice, but also the voice of the person next to us, the voices of others.” ~Pope Benedict XVI
Then one day, I pray for day that we may all be united, “May they all be one, just as, Father, you are in me and I am in you, so that they also may be in us, so that the world may believe it was you who sent me.” ~John 17:21
“Liturgical worship is given a more noble form when the divine offices are celebrated solemnly in song, with the assistance of sacred ministers and the active participation of the people” ~Sacrosanctum Concilium
“Gregorian chant, as proper to the Roman liturgy, should be given pride of place, other things being equal. Its melodies, contained in the ‘typical’ editions, should be used, to the extent that this is possible.” ~Musicam Sacram
Have a blessed day