Help me explain sacred music to teenagers
  • marajoymarajoy
    Posts: 781
    Any links to previous threads or other resources like YouTube videos are welcome!
    I currently teach choir to a group of high school and junior high homeschoolers. I would like to sit down with them and have a longer, directed conversation about why we do music that is "sacred" at Mass. The hard part is, most of them go to "typical" suburban parishes, and don't see anything resembling "sacred" music on a regular basis (or ever,) so how am I going to try to discuss/explain this without appearing disrespectful to their current churches? (They have lately been wanting to know why we haven't been doing more "fun" music. Upbeat/contemporary?)
    I don't think it's going to work to come at it from the angle of "because church document x, y, and z say so." They are going to need to know WHY.

    I'm thinking of addressing it with these points-
    -we don't come to Mass for *ourselves*, we come to worship God and do what He wants.
    -but how do we know what God wants? (why does he care what kind of music we do?) here's especially where you all can help me out!
    -something with the idea that there are certain things that are appropriate for different situations...if you were going to meet an earthly king, you would dress nicely and not in sweat pants? Or imagine a queen walking down the aisle at her wedding, would she be walking in to a song by Beyoncé or Katy Perry? It's obvious that for some situations there are certain ways of acting and certain types of music that would be appropriate or inappropriate! (Help me out with other examples?) Shouldn't Mass, where we come to worship the Most High God have similar prescriptions?
    -other ideas?
    -what about how to explain why some churches use whatever kind of music? Other than just saying they're wrong and "don't get it..."

    This seems like such a basic thing to explain...why am I having such a hard time?! I guess if it were easy and truly obvious, then there would be no "liturgy wars," no?
  • canadashcanadash
    Posts: 1,454
    The newest topic at Canticanova:

    There are a number of good articles at Canticanova as well. I've found these to be very helpful.
  • I have a similar quandary... I wonder if providing them with some audio examples of beautiful sacred music vs. more secular-sounding music that is used in church might help. I think beauty is recognizable to most people, even if it isn't what they are accustomed to hearing. Especially if the text is similar in both cases, perhaps the contrast would be even more jarring and obvious.

    If we think about what secular music tends to do (create an emotional response that is centered on "me") vs. sacred music... maybe that would also help... Maybe explaining that that type of music may have its place in non-liturgical settings because of the difference in the goal of the event...

    My husband and I are considering teaching CCD to the 12th grade class next year (our pastor has asked us to take this on) and this is one issue I'd like to discuss with them at least during one session. Perhaps provide them with something else to think about...

    I will be interested in suggestions others have here, too...
  • CHGiffenCHGiffen
    Posts: 4,367
    I read the CanticaNova feedback article cited above, and I almost choked, laughing at the name of the questioner and the salutation in the reply:
    Cary Okee

    A. Dear Mr. Okee:

    That said, Gary Penkala's response is right on target.
  • haha... missed that entirely.
  • canadashcanadash
    Posts: 1,454
    All of his questioners have similar witty names. Those are entertaining in themselves! The answer is on target though and the question is, unfortunately, timely. I was just asked to have my choir sing "The Prayer" at a wedding.... sigh.


    I think that, if I may say so myself, I and others made some good points on the above page.

    Long version short: When you go to Disneyworld, they don't play music like you listen to on your I-Pod. It's a very special, particular music for that place and time. Why wouldn't church also have specific music appropriate to what we do there?
  • Beauty is something that makes (at least some) people "tear" up. It hits from deep... deep... inside. I am a male, I usually don't cry... but when our choir sings a beautiful hymn, that changes. I have taken my mom to our Parish at our Easter vigil, she cried because of the beauty.

    Maybe a better example is the choir, if singing proper beautiful sacred hymns, sounds like a "choir of angels" singing and filling the church. Pure beauty.
    Thanked by 1JulieColl
  • JonLaird
    Posts: 209

    I have done this twice, once with a parish youth group and once with a college campus ministry. In the process I learned that any approach which relies upon a "this vs. that" of musical styles is doomed to fail on the grounds that it fails to sufficiently demonstrate the "why" and pits well-intentioned people against each other unnecessarily. The approach I recommend is this (assuming you have a fairly reasonable group which will not give you silly responses, ):

    1. First ask what is liturgical music primarily about -- the text or the melody? Of course you must establish the primacy of the text of what we are praying, that it is more important than the melody.

    2. Following this, launch into a short demonstration of how liturgical music came to be sung. It is not difficult; take the Kyrie of the Mass.
    a. "Now, where did music come from in the liturgy? We can actually walk through exactly how it happened. Let's take the Kyrie from the Mass." If necessary, explain what it means and that it is a very ancient part of the liturgy.
    b. "We could just speak it simply, and that would be fine. Let's try it just as if we were at Mass." Speak it back and forth with them as if at Mass.
    c. "But let's try something different." Sing it recto tono with them. "Singing something adds some solemnity to it. Singing it sets it apart from our everyday speech. Do you sing conversations to people?" Look at one of them and sing recto tono "Hello [name], how are do? Did you get my email the other day?" (they will laugh) "Since the word 'holy' means 'set apart,' and singing something sets it apart from normal speech, we could say that singing the words of the Mass makes it even more holy."
    d. "But what we just sang was very simple. We could add even more solemnity by having some variety in the melody. Try this with me:" Then sing Kyrie XVI, or a similarly simple one, or make one up on the spot.
    e. "Over time, singers created more and more melodies. Some were very simple like what we just sang, and others were more complicated. Try this one with me." Then sing Kyrie XI or VIII, or any other that is somewhat or very melismatic. A couple will try to respond if they know it, but if not, most might chuckle that you expected them to memorize it that quickly.
    f. "As you can see, some simple melodies you can pick up right away, and some might take a while to learn." Then I say the following from my own experience (after having demonstrated the first part of Kyrie VIII): "I grew up hearing that long Kyrie in my church as a kid, so I had already known it very well for years before I was your age. If it's the first time you have heard it, it probably sounds too complicated, but you would be able to sing it after a little time and effort."
    g. Explain, if you like, how different types of chants are very simple or very ornate depending on their function and depending on who is supposed to sing it (cantor(s), choir, congregation).
    h. Explain and demonstrate, if you like, some English chant, especially anything from the Missal.

    3. Next explain that different repertories of music like this were standardized in different places throughout the Christian world. Simplify the history of Gregorian chant by saying that Pope St. Gregory the Great was a great reformer of liturgy, that a few centuries after he died, the church standardized the liturgy and music all throughout the western Christian world, that the chant then disseminated was a combination of the repertories from different places and was named "Gregorian" in honor of Pope Gregory. If you like, show one of the images of Gregory receiving the chant from the Holy Spirit and explain the pious legend.

    4. Describe the invention of some singers began to sing another melody (or two or three or four) with the original melody. Play audio samples of recreations of early polyphony. Explain that this culminated to a high point of beauty and expression during the Renaissance.

    5. Don't go any further in your regular lesson with discussion of musical styles. Instead return to the original point: that the music is a way of "heightening" the text and making it more solemn more holy. Explain that this is why the church says that chant and the musical forms that stem from it (like polyphony) are the model for the best forms of music for the liturgy. If you like, show how traditional hymns are polyphonic. End of lesson.

    6. As for the inevitable question "Why doesn't the music at my church sound like this?", I will address that in another post because I need to get ready for a funeral this afternoon.
  • Liam
    Posts: 4,047
    Well, when it appears a question appears to be reversed-engineered in its pat-ness from the desired expository answer, understand that the Q&A format isn't necessarily a great way to do this. There is a custom among advice columnists to anonymize questioners with humorous monikers, one has to be careful to avoid making it look more like a setup that is "inspired by" various things rather than a genuine question from a real bona fide questioner.
    Thanked by 2Adam Wood CHGiffen
  • marajoymarajoy
    Posts: 781
    That is excellent @JonLaird, I look forward to your follow up!
    Posts: 39
    I can't wait to see where this thread goes, as I am almost exactly the audience that marajoy described!
  • ryandryand
    Posts: 1,640
    The best way to dissuade teenagers from contemporary Christian rock is to play some of it for them.

    That'y my story, anyhow.
    Thanked by 1Bobby Bolin
  • Try this:
    The best praise and worship to the Lord is using biblical text.
    Such as Psalm.
    So use biblical text in music as much as possible.

    Because if you sing with Peace theme , it is seems good and catholic , but nobody want to hear Imagine by John Lennon in Church, do they?
  • @jefflokanata - yes lots of people want to hear imagine and other songs they think of as religiously meaningful. They have probably never listened closely to the lyrics and never will. but the music produces an emotional response, which they like and which they associate with thinking and feeling about being good and religious things.

    I like jonlairds approach.

    We need to help them move from prayer and worship styles based primarily on evoking an emotional response to the prayer and worship styles which are reason based. (which I think was explained well above by jonlaird)
    Of course chant produces an emotional response too but that is not its primary purpose.

    I think I would put it like this:

    Wrong worship = music and prayers which make me feel good (emotional response); may be followed by right action but not necessarily, (failure to feel good about the worship means the worship has failed)
    Right worship = music and prayers directed at God because it is right, reasonable, rational to worship him; followed by an emotional response because of putting right reason into right action (emotional response does not always follow up but this is not a failure to worship)

    Ratsinger wrote on the difference between Appollonian and Dionysian music, that is what I am trying to get at.

    'The writings of Plato and Aristotle on music show that the Greek world in their time was faced with a choice between two kinds of worship, two different images of god and man… one the one hand, there is the music that Plato ascribes, in line with mythology, to Apollo, the god of light and reason.

    This is the music that draws senses into spirit and so brings man to wholeness. It does not abolish the senses, but inserts them into the unity of this creature that is man. It elevates the spirit precisely by wedding it to the sense, and it elevates the senses by uniting them with the spirit. Thus this kind of music is an expression of man’s special place in the general structure of being.

    But then there is the music… which we might describe as ‘Dionysian’. It drags man into the intoxication of the sense, crushes rationality, and subjects the spirit to the senses….
    The Apollonian/Dionysian alternative runs through the whole history of religion and confronts us again today. Not every kind of music can have a place in Christian worship. It has its standards, and that standard is the Logos.'

    Joseph Ratzinger, Spirit of the Liturgy
  • JonLaird
    Posts: 209
    Once you have described by the above method the intimate connection between the purpose and history of liturgical music -- namely, that it began as a flexible sort of cantillation to emphasize the peculiar sacredness of the given text, and that the highest forms of liturgical music are those that emulate this chant in making the music the servant of the text -- you will probably have various questions as the students attempt to reconcile what you have described with their actual experience.

    Regardless of the questions, ultimately the approach I recommend boils down to instructing the students in humility and charity. Here are two big guidelines (assuming that you have teens who are not leaders who select music...the approach would be different for them):

    1. Do not address particular weaknesses of individual contemporary songs AT ALL. Don't make a particular judgment of the piece, but instruct them how to approach any text they encounter at Mass: focus on the text and think about how they can apply it to improving their own life. If they are concerned that the text is bad, that is, that it cannot be squared with their faith in any way, encourage them to thank God for the blessings He has given them in their own lives and to meditate on bringing all of their sins, sorrows, and joys to the altar to be offered up to God.

    2. Defend the people responsible for choosing bad/mediocre music (music directors, pastors in other parishes/schools), even more strongly than you would defend yourself for your own choices. Always give them the benefit of the doubt and make every excuse for them. Describe the widespread loss of our music heritage after the liturgical reform, and that most people running music programs now had nothing to do with that, but grew up without the benefit of chant, and now they are generally wonderful people who do their best to praise God with music and help others do the same. Explain that it is extremely difficult to select music for Mass, and no matter what you choose you can never please everybody. Also explain that a lot of people do not receive sufficient education in their Catholic faith, and therefore sometimes choose bad texts without understanding what they are doing.

    While the above guidelines might address several different approaches from questions, there are two questions that I think it is important to mention specifically (Liam's warning notwithstanding), because they occur so often:

    -How can you really tell if a certain song is ok or not for Mass?
    Discuss in a general way why some types of music throughout history have been considered not appropriate for Mass. (Main reasons I use: text is theologically inaccurate or even not sacred; music reminds us of secular situations; melodies or rhythms designed to evoke certain emotions or feelings rather than draw us deeper into the text). If there's a follow-up about a particular song, revert to #1 above, unless the song they mention is blatantly heretical, in which case you need to be honest about it, keeping in mind #2 above.

    -Does it matter/does God care what kind of music it is, as long as the words are from the Bible?
    Remind them that the text is the most important thing, and we have a responsibility to set the text to music in such a way that it draws us deeper into the prayer. As a result, we need to avoid music that distracts us from the text by making us think of non-sacred things or just caters to our feelings. For the benefit of those with strong attachments to any kind of music, add that all of us have to make certain mortifications when we come to Mass: the talkative must be silent, the restless must be still, the stingy must be generous, the easily-distracted must concentrate, the melancholic must be in a crowd, the closed-minded must listen...and all of us must put aside our personal preferences and pray the words, regardless of what kind of music is there. To this you might subjoin that anyone who applies themselves to this method in humility will, after a time, be free from their attachments and find that they can pray and be at peace within, regardless of external things.
  • Some thoughts you may have already had:
    Teach them the most profound and interesting chants you can find.
    Give them a challenge.
    Talk less and have them sing more.
    Bring them to colloquium. Blow them away with beauty on a grand scale.
    They will learn the sacredness by singing the prayers. The same prayers many of their patron saints sang.

    They can find the newest trends without help from adults. But they need you and people like you to give them their heritage.
    Thanked by 2Richard Mix JonLaird
  • dad29
    Posts: 1,902
    1. First ask what is liturgical music primarily about -- the text or the melody? Of course you must establish the primacy of the text of what we are praying, that it is more important than the melody.

    Glad you put this first; it's "Sing the Mass" rather than "Sing AT the Mass."
  • aria
    Posts: 85
    JonLaird: Wow, thank you for such detailed instruction on your approach to the OP's question! It's really fantastic. In your second post, you indicated that you would speak differently to a group of people who select music. If you have time (no rush), I'd like to see your 'script' for them, as well. Thanks!
    Thanked by 2bonniebede JonLaird
  • mahrt
    Posts: 512
    My lecture for the Lumen Christi Institute in Chicago, "What Makes Music Sacred?" might have something useful for you. You can see it on Youtube under my name, William Mahrt. I watched it recently, and noticed that it was not exactly a scintillating presentation, since they wanted a read lecture, but I think the points in it might be of interest.
  • Mahrt, I find your lectures engaging indeed.
  • bhcordovabhcordova
    Posts: 820
    This topic has been most helpful to me! Thanks, everyone!
  • johnmann
    Posts: 175
    I don't know where any of you are coming from but my peers and I were dismissive of Gregorian chant as late our early 20's. At that age and younger, contemporary Christian pop is many orders of magnitude more popular than sacred music and it's perfectly consistent with their concept of worship. So first, I don't think telling them that it's somehow less worthy will work.

    I'm not sure what will work but expressing how sacred music enriches you personally couldn't hurt. Also, what might have persuaded me personally back then was if chant was presented not as the music of uptight anti-altargirl trads but of enlightened intellectuals. Or perhaps a lesson in small-t tradition not as a static practice always in conflict with modernity but just a small way in which we preserve the treasures of our spiritual forefathers.
  • chonakchonak
    Posts: 8,301
    As a modern internet-savvy organization, we (CMAA) offer some basics about sacred music at our FAQ page:

    The answers, drawn from our older FAQ booklet, are written in a rather dense style with a lot of quotations from the Church's teaching on sacred music, and it probably could use a rewrite to make it easier for a non-specialist audience. For a starter, I added a right column to the page with some notes to summarize each section.
  • One could also see the document written by Dr. Mahrt entitled "Gregorian Chant as aParadigm of Sacred Music." He quotes Cardinal Ratzinger at the end in regards to "utility music," and only using what is comfortable and serviceable at the parish level. Very insightful.
  • JonLaird
    Posts: 209
    JonLaird: Wow, thank you for such detailed instruction on your approach to the OP's question! It's really fantastic. In your second post, you indicated that you would speak differently to a group of people who select music. If you have time (no rush), I'd like to see your 'script' for them, as well. Thanks!


    I apologize I have not been able to answer until now, but I took advantage of your "no rush" to think and pray on it a bit, since I have never addressed directors, and therefore my view is based on my experience as a music director in my parish, and not as a director of directors. I am not certain whether you are still thinking of a teenage audience or adult, but either way the essence is the same, so I will tell you what I think and leave the application up to you. With God's help I will be as complete as I can, and hope others will correct, amend, and add what is necessary wherever I have failed.

    The difference is that the discussion would continue by imparting to your audience the great responsibility they have in choosing the words and music in the liturgy, that they are deciding what the congregation is going to pray, and what melodies they will hear. Their goal, as stated by Pope St. Pius X and reiterated by John Paul II, is the sanctification and edification of the faithful -- not the satisfaction of their personal preferences, and a music director must be a servant wholly dedicated to the fulfillment of these lofty goals. All of us, as I stated above, must to some extent set aside our personal preferences in order to be a part of the liturgy; stated another way, each of us must let go of earthly attachments and send them up to be sacrificed on the altar, if we are to truly receive Christ as worthily as we can -- on our tongues, in our hearts, in our lives.

    Once divested of the feeling that it is necessary to satisfy the preferences of individuals (whether his or her own, or those of others), the music director must simply apply himself or herself to a humble obedience -- obedience, that is, to the will of God as it is made manifest to us in various ways. Primarily that holy will arrives to us in three visible parts: two related parts are the received musical heritage (see my earlier posts for significance of this) and present liturgical law of the Church (which is divinely guided in its guardianship of the liturgy and which clarifies and narrows down the receive heritage), and the third part is the direction of the pastor or other superior, who must be obeyed to not only in external action but by submission of the spirit (in all things, of course, except sin).

    I mentioned the three visible parts, but there is equally important an invisible part: the light of Christ in our own hearts. We will do very well by simply taking the received tradition and applying it according to the law of the Church in the particular way it is applied by the pastor. But if we are to decide what the very prayers are of our fellows who are taking part in the highest and holiest action in this life, then (unless we are programming the Gregorian propers which are absolutely ensured to be a perfect prayer on that day and in that part of the Mass) how can we truly do well without divine direction? Therefore, music directors who seek to be faithful in their task must do all they can to be free of their own earthly attachments and convert themselves from sin and selfishness by prayer, meditation, and cultivation of virtues in order to clear away all that clouds the Light of Christ within. A good spiritual director would be helpful in this regard.

    Have compassion on those who challenge you, because although they will not admit it right away, their defiance is most likely fear that if they follow the path outlined (that is, discovering the will of God), they will have to give up things they love so much (certain songs or styles of music). But who among us, clinging to selfish purposes, has not had this fear of what God has in store for us? Yet we must still seek, distrusting ourselves and trusting God, if we desire eternal things. Assure them that if they truly seek the will of God with all of their heart, mind, and soul, they cannot go astray. If they truly seek and God leads them to what they already are doing, then so be it. But do not forsake the journey out of fear of the destination, for the journey to God only leads to heaven, and often collects companions on the way.
  • Have compassion on those who challenge you, because although they will not admit it right away, their defiance is most likely fear that if they follow the path outlined (that is, discovering the will of God), they will have to give up things they love so much (certain songs or styles of music). But who among us, clinging to selfish purposes, has not had this fear of what God has in store for us? Yet we must still seek, distrusting ourselves and trusting God, if we desire eternal things. Assure them that if they truly seek the will of God with all of their heart, mind, and soul, they cannot go astray. If they truly seek and God leads them to what they already are doing, then so be it. But do not forsake the journey out of fear of the destination, for the journey to God only leads to heaven, and often collects companions on the way.

    Thanked by 2JonLaird canadash
  • Here's another approach

    Schedule a field trip to a beautiful (i.e., traditional) parish church-- large or small doesn't matter -- when a choir -- someone else's -- is singing something beautiful from the repertoire of sacred music, preferably from the choir loft of the church, so that sacred music is heard in its proper context.
  • A couple years ago I had a conversation with my (Protestant) teen nephews about sacred music. What made sense to them was when I said all music in church should lead us to God. This is what worship is, our movement toward God.

    In a Catholic context, I would be more explicit. The Mass is "God's show", not ours. IF we accept that it is truly God present in the Eucharist--Body, Blood, Soul and Divinity--we must approach Him on His terms, not ours. (And this is the most important issue to establish with teens. Is this God or not?) Then, what are God's "terms"? Truth above all. (This is so important for teens--they have such great BS radar. I have three teens myself--I know whereof I speak.) What we offer, in music and everything else at Mass, must be Truth. That eliminates everything with lyrics that do not speak Truth, everything that does not embrace Truth, everything that glorifies self over God. This gives them something to think about. What is Truth? Then you can get into Church history, what the Church has handed down as God's Truth and where the Church is guiding us today.
  • marajoymarajoy
    Posts: 781
    A little update and an additional question-
    I gave this as a presentation to the students today, and I believe it was well-received, but we didn't have any time for discussion or questions, other than one, which I have actually wondered myself, and so have no idea how to answer this student.

    How do you draw non-religious people (who prefer the more "emotional" or "Dionysian" music) into worship, while using sacred music? Could an argument be made that we could bring them into Catholicism with music that appeals to their emotions, and then as they grow in their faith, they will come to appreciate music that is more appropriate for Mass? Is that an exception to "what kind of music should we use at Mass?" or if not, then how do we bring them into Right Worship?
  • I have for a while toyed with the idea of offering monthly or bi-monthly (2x a month, rather than every 2 months) devotional service, basically as a chance to sing and hear the music that my parishes love that I am slowly trying to phase out of the Masses, along with the great chants and pieces that they ought to know (some of which, according to MS, may also somehow not be appropriate any longer for Mass).

    I wonder if that model may be an avenue for bringing in people to the faith without sacrificing the propriety of music at Mass.
    Thanked by 1marajoy
  • MatthewRoth
    Posts: 1,224
    Indeed, we really need a place outsideof Mass and the liturgy (I include Exposition of the Blessed Sacrament in that, since it is governed by the church's law...) to place things like contemporary Christian music, but it needs to draw people back into the Mass at the same time. That's how popular piety in all forms ought to be. Using CCM at Mass where people assume their personal postures of prayer is really a more active version of people praying the Rosary at Mass, IMHO.

    marajoy, what intrigues me is that non-religious people often have a keen sense of the beautiful. I say at Mass always put forth the beautiful, especially if one is always able to do so. Give the best of what we have and what the church asks.
    Thanked by 1marajoy