May 15, 2006

A Choir Director’s Lament on Lyrics for Liturgy

Online Edition – May 2006

Vol. XII, No. 3

What the heck are they singing about?

A Choir Director’s Lament on Lyrics for Liturgy

by Lucy E. Carroll

Is there a real choir in your parish? If there is a choir, it is more probably a song group accompanied by guitar, perhaps with drums and bass guitar. The traditional choir, a mainstay of Catholic liturgy — with a repertoire of great beauty — has all but vanished in the parishes.

Where once Catholic choirs sang the great masterworks of Palestrina, Nanino, Victoria, Mozart, etc., now song groups gabble the pop-style pablum churned out by the powerful music publishing industry.

Where once the magnificent texts of “O Sacrum Convivium”, “Ave Verum Corpus”, and “Sicut Cervus” wove through the air drawing the listener heavenward, now the song groups are mired in secular style, and singing — well, just what the heck are they singing?

Sacrosanctum Concilium, Vatican II’s oft-ignored guideline for liturgical reform, stated that greater importance was to be given to choirs. The Holy See’s Instruction on music in the liturgy, Musicam Sacram (1967), clearly spelled out the role of the choir in the sacred liturgy. (The word “cantor” never appeared until later, when the responsorial psalm was restored, and then there was need for “cantor of the psalm”.)

Today, however, choirs have virtually disappeared in most parishes. Usually soloists perform up front, with keyboard “backup”. (Why be lost in a group when one can sing solo?)

Vatican documents state that all music texts in the sacred liturgy should be from scriptural or “traditional” sources.

The purpose of the liturgy is to lead us into the great mystery of faith, the consecration, where elements of bread and wine become Body, Blood, Soul and Divinity of Jesus Christ. Saint Pope Pius X warned that music surrounding this event must have the “dignity befitting the temple”.

The style of much church music today is secular, low-level pop music with little grandeur about it. The nature of the music is secular. That is, it is associated with non-sacred activities, feelings, and responses.

The texts, too, are often essentially secular, despite the occasional appearance of “God”. The structure and style of the music is a concern in itself, but for the moment, let us consider only the text of some of these new works.

Here is an interesting example of ideology masquerading as theology:

The light of God is shining bright
In ev’ry girl of woman born
And in her fingers and her face
Are heaven’s glory, pow’r and grace
So when she’s walking, running, leaping,
Sitting and thinking, talking, sleeping,
Don’t ever treat a girl with scorn,
But look and see the face of God in ev’ry girl of woman born

Of Woman Born”, words by Brian Wren, music by Francis Patrick O’Brien, GIA Publications #G5916 (2002)

This is the first third of the text. (Boys are included later on, you’ll be happy to know.) This song was included in a publisher’s workshop held in our area. At the conclusion of the “sing-through”, most of us sat, stunned into silence. The event-leader asked, “Now, for what occasions could you use this piece?”

A male voice in the back boomed: “The Twelfth of Never!” and was greeted with uproarious applause. The reading session leader was surprised at the negative reaction and hastily tried to justify the piece. This might be nice for something — perhaps a grade school graduation — but for the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass?

Pope Pius XII wrote: “… the chants and sacred music are immediately joined with the Church’s liturgical worship and should be conducive to the lofty end for which they are intended…. It must be holy. It must not allow within itself anything that savors of the profane [non-sacred or secular]”. (Pope Pius XII, Musicae Sacrae, #41, 42)

Is the above-quoted choral text holy? Is it lofty?

Here’s another new choral piece:

Walking on cobble-stones,
tearing my feet to the bones,
tryin’ to make it on my own,
wondering where I’m going and how I’m gonna get there,
sure can’t do it all alone.

On a Journey Together” by John Angotti, WLP #007482 (1999)

Now this might serve as lyrics for any pop, rock, or country song, mightn’t it? (No comment on the lofty nature of the poetic text!) God does eventually wander into the text in the refrain:

On a journey together
We can fare any weather
Keeping Christ the center
of our community.
On a journey together
We can make the world better
By forgiving and loving
starting with you and me.

This might work at a support group of some sort — but where is the aspect of worship and adoration of Almighty God?

The misdirected focus on “folks” instead of the Godhead in many Catholic liturgies today is obvious in this piece. It’s also a good example of the “stupified torpor” that then-Cardinal Ratzinger wrote about not long ago.

“In its essence”, he wrote, liturgical music “must be different from a music which is meant to lead the listener into rhythmic ecstasy or stupefied torpor, sensual arousal or the dissolution of the Ego”. (“In the Presence of Angels I Will Sing Your Praise”, Adoremus Bulletin, October 1996.)

Here’s an example of psychobabble further dumbed-down for kiddies. It is listed for “Choir, Assembly, Children’s Choir, Keyboard and Guitar, with C Instrument”.

I am special, God loves me
You are special, God loves you, too
We are all special children of God
And God loves us one and all.
I Am Special” by James E. Moore, Jr. GIA Publications #G-5734 (2002)

This text repeats twice. That’s it. Period. This silly ode to self-esteem would be bad enough at a children’s gathering in school. But at the Altar of Sacrifice?

Another example: A music publisher sent me a choral piece, “Christ has no body now but yours”.

“Heresy!” cried one sister at the monastery when I read her just the title. “What about His glorified body?”

“I think it means we have to do Christ’s work on earth”, I suggested.

“That’s not what it says. It’s heresy!” she repeated.

This theologically confusing text may be becoming trendy, because soon after, I received another version:

Yours are the eyes through which to look out Christ’s compassion to the world [sic]
Yours are the feet on which He is to go about doing good,
And yours are the hands with which He is to bless us now.
“No Hands But Yours”. Text attributed to Saint Teresa of Avila, music by J. Jerome Williams. Hinshaw Music
#HMC2022 (2005)

The attribution to Saint Teresa is unfortunate, because this text is unintelligible. (A different version says “yours are the eyes through which Christ looks with compassion on the world”.)

Here’s another text that is sure to confuse.

I choose you, I choose you
You shall be the way, You shall be the truth
I choose you, I choose you.
Be the road between my people and my dreams.
“I Choose You” by Rory and Claire Cooney, World Library Publications #007343 (2000)

Just who, after all, has chosen whom? Is this a vox dei text? Is it God speaking? He chooses me? But no, we cannot be the way and truth, can we? The text continues:

I am the words you drink, written in spirit and flame
I am the words that reach you, trying to teach you my name
I am the tongue of fire that lights up with love in your eyes
I am the glimmer in your heart not to grow dimmer and die!

So this is God speaking to us, after all? No dimmer glimmer, He! Finally, the text says,

I choose you, my disciple,
my beloved child
My eyes, my arms, my truth my shelter
the tongue of flame still burning from your dreams
the road between my people
and my dreams.

What! God chooses God’s people and God’s dreams?

When I read this text to my choir, they blinked in dismay. If the choir can’t understand the text, what is the congregation to think?

But if that song is confusing, here’s one with a very clear agenda:

For ev’ryone born, a place at the table,
For ev’ryone born, clean water and bread,
A shelter, a space, a safe place
for growing,
For ev’ryone born, a star overhead.
“A Place at the Table”, words by Shirley Erena Murray, music by Lori True. GIA Publications, #G-5670 (2001)

Sort of sounds like a campaign song, doesn’t it? (A chicken in every pot!) And what “table” are we talking about? If it is the table of the true Eucharistic banquet, it is not open to “everyone born”.

The song goes on:

For woman and man, a place at the table,
Revising roles, decided the share,
With wisdom and grace,
dividing the power,
For woman and man, a system that’s fair.

I am not making this up! Imagine sitting at Mass, preparing to receive the Body, Blood, Soul and Divinity of Our Lord and Savior, and hearing a song about revising men’s and women’s roles, and “dividing the power” for “a system that’s fair”. Is that why you came to Mass?

Again, let us turn to our current pope:

… when in this congregation a choir exists which can draw the congregation into the cosmic praise and into the wide open space of heaven and earth more strongly than the congregations’ own stammering is able to do, then precisely in that moment the delegated, representative function of the choir is especially appropriate and fitting. (“In the Presence of Angels I will Sing Your Praise”, AB)

Now there is a challenge! Draw the congregation into the cosmic praise! Draw them into the wide-open space of heaven and earth! The above song texts just don’t measure up to that, do they?

Perhaps all of the above songs can find a home somewhere: concerts, assemblies, special programs, non-liturgical events. But are they the right choice for the Sacrifice of Calvary re-enacted in our sanctuaries?

The untrained folks in charge of selecting music know only what the publishers send them, and these pieces, while they come with recordings (learn by listening!), do not come with warning labels as to the suitability for Holy Mass. Indeed, most music publishers would be confounded to think anyone would even question the suitability of these pieces — the current attitude toward music for Mass is, well, pretty much, “anything goes”.

Have none of these folks read Musicam Sacram? Or Pope John Paul II’s chirograph on the 100th anniversary of Tra le sollecitudini?

The publishers whose works are quoted above do have choral pieces eminently suited for the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass, although they are fewer in number compared to the overwhelming piles of quasi-sacred and downright un-sacred material.

Catholic music publishers sell their products to all denominations these days. Isn’t it odd to think that, while our understanding of the Eucharist (i.e., transubstantiation) is so different from Protestant churches, that communion texts could possibly be one-size-fits-all? Or that, given the difference in our theology, anything quasi-religious is suitable for all?

Let us restore to our sacred liturgy choral texts that raise us heavenward, texts that give worship and adoration to the God of all creation, to the Son who sacrificed for our salvation, to the Spirit that vivifies us.

Let us insist on texts that draw us to the miraculous act of transubstantiation, rather than the foibles of those around us.

Let us sing to God, not glory in each other. Let us restore sacred texts of lofty nature.

Let us pray!


Lucy E. Carroll, D.M.A., is organist and music director at the Carmelite monastery in Philadelphia, and adjunct associate professor at Westminster Choir College, Princeton; and the creator of the Churchmouse Squeaks cartoon, a regular feature of the Adoremus Bulletin.



Lucy E. Carroll

Lucy Carroll, organist and choir director at the Carmelite monastery in Philadelphia, teaches at the Westminster Choir College in Princeton. She frequently contributes essays on Catholic music to AB, and is the creator of the “Churchmouse Squeaks” cartoons regularly featured in these pages. In Memoriam: Dr. Lucy E. Carroll, DMA