Today’s Church Music: “Have You No Decency?”

In today’s installment, I humbly offer a solution to temptations against purity and a solution to bad church music.

What Are They Thinking? • Saint Aloysius Gonzaga (d. 1591), as a young man, would become embarrassed when friends at the dinner table told lewd stories. (Today, such stories are paradoxically labeled “adult content.”) The young Gonzaga would excuse himself immediately. While I cannot associate myself with Gonzaga’s level of holiness, I can relate to his actions. I have never laughed at “dirty” jokes—although I believe I have a good sense of humor. I ask myself: “What is going through their minds? Why do they find smutty jokes amusing?” Mark Twain once said: “There’s no such thing as an uninteresting life. Such a thing is an impossibility. Beneath the dullest exterior, there is a drama, a comedy, a tragedy.” Surely this is so because human beings deal with millions of thoughts each day. Yet others cannot perceive them, because (needless to say) thoughts are hidden in one’s mind and heart. Fulton J. Sheen—speaking of cerebral sexual sins which men try to hide from God—famously lamented: “And so we have little secret gardens … that we tend.”

A Young Man’s Primary Cross • God has blessed me with a beautiful wife and family, but that doesn’t preclude my knowing what it means to have temptations against the Holy Virtue of Purity. Moral theologians tell us the “primary cross” for a healthy young man (prior to marriage) is the fight to remain pure in thought and deed. Father Peter Gee used to refer to innocence as a precious flower; “and be careful never to crush your flower” he would warn. Everyone reading this article probably knows that innocence is not valued by our society. Indeed, we’ve reached a point where most Americans have no idea what sexual immorality means. I’m not saying they reject it—I’m saying they don’t know what it is. We also, it would seem, have reached a point where there’s no “decency” when it comes to church music, and I’ll elaborate in a moment.

Airplane Indecency • You probably think I’m trying to convince you that I’m very holy—but you’re wrong. My point is: I simply don’t understand what goes on in the heads of many Americans. How can somebody watch pornographic scenes in a movie theater surrounded by hundreds of people? Aren’t they embarrassed? I’ve witnessed other human beings in a crowded airplane watching vile images. Aren’t they ashamed? Saint Charles Garnier (d. 1649) as a young man—reminiscent of Saint Aloysius—refused to partake in lewd conversations and frequently used his own money to purchase indecent books (which he promptly burned). If I possessed Father Garnier’s level of sanctity, I would have unbuckled my seatbelt and strode across the airplane to demolish that television screen.

Does Nobody Hear This? • When I witness music at many “Ordinary Form” Masses, I find myself asking: “Don’t people hear this cheesy music? How is everyone okay with this?” I’m not trying to be coy; I truly cannot imagine what’s going through their minds. After all, aren’t we at church? Don’t we believe the Second Person of the Blessed Trinity becomes present on our altars? Why does everyone tolerate such goofy, uninspired, secular, undignified music being used for Mass? The Catholic Church possesses the most glorious and unspeakably powerful musical traditions—why have we abandoned them for “toothpaste commercial” music? Every other event chooses a fitting musical style: (a) television sitcoms; (b) wedding receptions; (c) movies; (d) department stores; (e) even carnivals have suitable music! Vatican II insisted that every liturgical celebration is an actio praecellenter sacra (“preëminently sacred action”). Yet today’s Catholic music—often mimicking Broadway or Disney songs—does not sound “set apart” at all.

A Solution To Impurity • I’ve been blessed to know some truly magnificent priests. Several are so filled with holiness that just thinking of them—the innocence in their faces—is enough to drive away evil thoughts. I realize some will find this difficult to believe. (Of course, I’ve also dealt with evil priests, but I prefer not to dwell on those.) So one solution for temptations against purity is to call to mind a holy person’s face.

A Solution To Bad Music • I have been asked to write a series of articles exploring the current state of Catholic music, and something I will return to constantly is the new Saint Jean de Brébeuf Hymnal, published by Sophia Institute Press. There is so much I could say about this book! I could talk for hours about Father Brébeuf—one of the Church’s greatest saints—and why he’s such an awesome hymnal patron. I could talk about the exciting rehearsal videos (for each individual voice part) being offered free of charge. I could talk about its English translations, created by outstanding Catholic priests and bishops. But today, I would like to emphasize the “purity” of the Brébeuf melodies. They are fresh, dignified, traditional, and—to be honest—a delight to sing. Did you know it’s impossible to sing when you’re angry? Try it sometime; you’ll see. As Wilfrid Jones has pointed out, singing authentic sacred music is like no other human activity; it requires your mind, body, and heart. Perhaps the best thing about the Brébeuf Hymnal is that faithful Catholic priests can obtain this book for their music directors, saying: “Take this book. Use it. Everything it contains is suitable for the Holy Mass.”

Photo by Steven Van Elk on Unsplash

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Jeffrey M. Ostrowski holds his B.M. in Music Theory from the University of Kansas (2004) and has done graduate work in the fields of Musicology and Education. In February of 2011, Mr. Ostrowski was elected President of Watershed. His scholarship has focused on the historical performance of plainsong and polyphony of the High Renaissance, resulting in several early music CDs and an internationally broadcast television documentary. In 2002, he became the first to produce a compact disc using “multi-track” recordings for Renaissance polyphony. He has been frequently chosen as presenter for national musica sacra gatherings. He founded—and still oversees—the Sacred Music Symposium, which promotes authentic church music at the grass roots level. While serving as adjunct choirmaster at Corpus Christi Cathedral, he played the pipe organ for televised Masses on hundreds of occasions.

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