Washington -- The usual suspects swept the top places in an online poll sponsored by the National Association of Pastoral Musicians (NAPM). The poll asked which "liturgical songs" (is that an oxymoron?) most fostered and nourished the respondent's life, reported Mark Pattison for the Catholic News Service (Jan. 25, 2006), in his article "'On Eagle's Wings' tops all songs in online liturgical music survey."
'On Eagle's Wings,' the song based on Psalm 91 by Fr. Michael Joncas (pictured right), topped the charts by a handsome margin. Two songs made popular by the St. Louis Jesuits -- 'Here I Am, Lord' and 'Be Not Afraid' -- came in second and third, followed by 'You Are Mine,' by David Haas.
The musical poll was featured last year by NAPM in an issue of its membership magazine, Pastoral Music. Announcements about the poll were distributed to diocesan newspapers in an effort to get the input of "rank-and-file Catholics," according to J. Michael McMahan, the association's president. Respondents could vote for only one "song," and about 3000 people participated in the poll. Of the 25 "liturgical songs" mentioned most, "songs" written after the Second Vatican Council took not only the top four positions, but six of the top nine, and 12 of the top 25. The fourth-ranked "song," 'You Are Mine,' received 138 votes, 81% more votes than the fifth-ranked song, "How Great Thou Art," which got 76.
McMahon cautioned against the notion that the choices were exclusively from post-Vatican II compositions. There were votes for hymns such as "Holy God, We Praise Thy Name," "Ave Maria, and "Amazing Grace," he said.
Other contemporary Catholic "songs" in the top 25 were 'We Are Called' (11th place), 'I Am the Bread of Life' (13th), 'The Summons' (14th), 'Shepherd Me, O God' (19th), 'One Bread, One Body' (22nd); 'Hosea' (24th). A British Catholic newspaper conducted a similar survey, which found 'Here I Am, Lord' to be the top choice of its readers.
"Liturgical songs"??? Aarrrgh ... What happened to "hymns"? But of course, these aren't "hymns" ....
One of my sons, Benjamin, once observed the radical contrast that immediately appears when one takes any one of these "songs" and juxtaposes it alongside, say, the traditional hymn, "Let All Mortal Flesh Keep Silence ('Silent' in some translations)" based on the "Prayer of the Cherubic Hymn" from the Litany of St. James, written during the 4th century. The former are not uncomfortably performed (I use the term advisedly) with the audience slouched and swaying with the music or drooped over their pews, while the latter induces an uncomfortable sense of inpropriety with such postures, behaviors and dispositions -- which is probably why so few like it. The former connote a comfortable sense of familiar and informal bonhomie, while the latter provokes a sense of distressing discomfort at being placed in the immediate presence of The Holy, which, if Rudolf Otto is right, is the uncanny -- the mysterium tremendum et fascinans -- in the presence of which one cannot help but experience awe, wonder, and even fear and dread.
In his brilliant critique, Why Catholics Can't Sing: The Culture of Catholicism and the Triumph of Bad Taste, Thomas Day carefully analyzes many of the "liturgical songs" of contemporary Catholic parish liturgies, both for musical quality and theological quality, and finds them seriously wanting. I cannot recommend the book strongly enough. On the musical side, the problem is not simply a relativism of taste (some like pop tarts, while others like chef salads). The problem is that there are objective criteria for aesthetic excellence and little of this popular post-Vatican II fare is more than slipshod. Furthermore, not only is this a matter capable of being dismissed as a mere quarrel over preferences of taste, it has a direct bearing on the honor, respect, and reverence that is due to God.
On the theological side, most of these "ligurgical songs" are not overtly heretical, but tend towards banality, at best -- toward detracting from the circumspect and reverence due to God because of His infinite holiness and the infininite debt of gratitude we owe Him due to His sacrifice of His Son for our salvation. Much of this is lost sight of in contemporary "liturgical songs," where the focus is on me, on us, on ourselves as a community, and so forth. Speaking of narcissism, there is one "liturgical song" in which I found a phrase (I am not kidding) referring to "the wonder that is me." While not overtly heterodox, these "songs" can have a corrosive effect by dint of their constant diversion of focus away from the One we come to worship (Christ) to ourselves, our feelings, our experience, our achievements, and so forth. Furthermore, there are some "songs" that do have theologically questionable passages in their texts, though I will not tackle that problem here.
My good friend, Chris Garton-Zavesky, has written a collection of parodies of contemporary "liturgical songs," which I would love for you to have a chance to see sometime. They brilliantly bring into focus what is particularly awry in the majority of these "songs" -- and, most of the time, that is their focus. I see no ill-will harbored here toward the authors of these "liturgical songs," but rather a horror and dismay that Our Lord should be served up such insulting schlock as these "songs." Can this be called 'worship' (etymology: "worth" + "ship")?