The Grotesqueness of the Mass and the Problem of Evil

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I would like you to imagine the classic love story. You know the one: The daring knight rescues the damsel in distress from the fiery dragon. The details really don’t matter. All the story needs, seemingly, is a knight, a dragon, and a princess. However, it seems that there is one other element needed in the story, and that is the element of danger. For the story to work, the knight must triumph in the end, but only after a battle in which he might have lost. And this seems to be true, not just from our perspective, but from the perspective of the princess as well.

I mean, if the story is to be believed, the princess loves her knight, and love seems to include a desire for the beloved to be safe from harm. Yet, imagine how the princess would feel if the daring knight, instead of facing the dragon in hand to hand combat, camped a mile away from the castle with a sniper rifle, killed the dragon from a safe distance, and then waltzed in to pick up the princess. A bit anticlimactic isn’t it? Don’t we all feel, as much as we might not like to admit it, that if we were the princess, we’d prefer our beloved risking it all to save us? Don’t we, in a secret place in our heart, want our knight to be scarred?

Now, I’m not going to try to understand the motivation for this desire. I don’t know where it comes from, I only know that it seems true that we have it. But, I do think it has to do with what comes after the knight’s daring rescue. While the knight and princess gallop away on a snow white stallion, isn’t there already a natural bond forged by their shared experience of the dragon? If the knight had faced no danger and suffered no injury in his battle with the dragon, wouldn’t the princess, as much as she loves her knight, feel estranged from him? Wouldn’t she ask herself, “Does he understand what the dragon did to me?”

I have often had that question about my relationship with God. Knowing how much my sin has hurt me and made me despicable to myself, and reflecting on the glory and perfection of God, I sometimes have asked myself, “Does He understand what sin did to me?” The answer God gave me at the cross, and continues to give me every day in the Mass is, “Yes, because sin has done it to me too.” There seems to be a deep psychological reason that the bread and wine are consecrated separately in the mass: We want a God who knows what it feels like to have his blood separated from his body, in the same way that we have spilled our blood living in a broken world. Of course, we want a God who is all-powerful, who triumphs over sin and death, no denying that, but we also want a God who bleeds in the process. We want our God to carry the same scars we do.

That is “the grotesqueness of the mass.” In the mass, as a continuation of the eternal sacrifice of Christ on the cross, God makes himself vulnerable to us, so that He can share in our weakness. Our suffering becomes the point of encounter with God. In the mass, God enters our brokenness, our loneliness, our anger, our numbness. That is the horrible beauty of the Mass and the cross: that the hour of good’s triumph over evil is when good is weakest. It is when God looks most like a man. God suffers with us, in order to make Himself capable of being understood by His creatures who have so long suffered under sin, that they are unable to comprehend a life of love without suffering.

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And yet, we know that this is not the end. God chose to suffer not just to meet us in our suffering, but to bring us out of it. We have hope that there is a love that transcends suffering, and though, in our broken human condition, we can’t experience it now, (or at least, our experience of it is limited,) our hope in God is that some day we will. That is why the problem of evil (Why does a good God allow suffering in the world) is not so much a problem as it is a recognition of our broken selves. As fallen men and women, our experience of our own brokenness makes us want others to have experienced our suffering. This is not because we are evil and sadistically want others to suffer, but because we want to know we are not alone. The cross not only gives us that reality, but also the hope for something more: something we cannot fully comprehend now, but something we know we’ve been missing. Evil exists because in our broken state, we need evil to help us recognize the good. In the evil of the cross, we see the ultimate good, and that ultimate good gives us hope for a good without evil, a love without pain, a final victory over sin.

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Post by: Niko Wentworth

Main image: The Deposition from the Cross, Bl. Francis Angelico, 1434

Adventures in Liturgy: Funeral, or Celebration of Life?

Recently, I was distributing Holy Communion during a Mass of Christian Burial. The coffin was to my immediate right, and the family of the deceased to my immediate left. The Communion Procession was moving in an orderly fashion, when suddenly there was a bottleneck. When I looked up to see what was happening, I couldn’t believe my eyes: having just received Our Lord in the Blessed Sacrament, people were greeting members of the immediate family who were sitting in the front row. I was stunned! I whispered quietly, “Please keep moving, you are blocking the other communicants.”

How did we get here? Answering this question is simultaneously simple, and equally complex. While one may say people no longer know how to act properly in public, I propose that there are other realities at work as well.

The General Introduction to the Order of Christian Funerals states, Christians celebrate the funeral rites to offer worship, praise, and thanksgiving to God for the gift of a life which has now returned to God, the author of life and the hope of the just.[1] Our worship, whether at a funeral or many regular parish Masses, has become so anthropocentric, that we have lost a grip on the reality that we gather to worship, praise, and thank God; instead we often make ourselves the source, center, and end of our liturgical celebration. At a funeral, we gather not for a celebration of life, but to encounter the mercy of God and the promise of eternal life found only in Christ.

Secondly, we live in a world without sin. To admit that there is sin in the world and that we are sinners does not mean that we are bad people. To admit that we are sinners and that there are acts that are objectively right or wrong, proclaims that we are human beings who need to be redeemed through the Paschal Mystery of Christ. Death is a consequence of sin. The Church through its funeral rites commends the dead to God’s merciful love and pleads for the forgiveness of their sin.[2] To admit that we are sinners is to acknowledge that the deceased, and all those present, is truly human, and that God alone is the healer of our pain, and the source of forgiveness.

Death is very hard, and the reality of separation from those we love most dearly is heart wrenching. At the rite of final commendation and farewell, the community acknowledges the reality of separation and commends the deceased to God. In this way it recognizes the spiritual bond that still exists between the living and the dead and proclaims its belief that all the faithful will be raised up and reunited in the new heavens and a new earth, where death will be no more. [3]We have come from God and we are returning to God: our origin is a reality, and to return to God our goal. Is this basic reality present to the minds and hearts of believers today? While life is to be lived and lived to the fullest of the potential God has given us, do we keep before us that our time on earth is not what gives us meaning, but rather that we are destined for God? The preaching, life, liturgy, and catechesis of the Church needs to proclaim loudly that our citizenship is in heaven, and from it we await a savior, the Lord Jesus Christ.[4] A celebration of life fails to lead us to embrace our true citizenship.

If the Liturgy truly forms our faith and shapes our living, our approach to death and the Rites of Christian burial may reflect more accurately that we believe that all the ties of friendship and affection which knit us one throughout our lives do not unravel in death.[5]

Post by: Fr. Jordan Kelly, O.P.

Main image: A Funeral at Ornans, Gustave Courbet, 1850

[1] Order of Christian Funerals, hereafter OCF, #5.

[2] OCF, #6.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Philippians, 3:20.

[5] OCF, # 71.

Christian Rock and Rocky Soil

It used to baffle me. “How can so many of my peers who were so ‘churchy’ and ‘involved’ in high school have just drifted away in college?”

It doesn’t baffle me any more.

If you are a new DRE, youth minister, or high school chaplain in the USA, here’s a sobering reality check: the chances are that a lot of the kids volunteering on the weekend, helping lead retreats, signing up for work camp each year, etc., etc., will fall away when they leave high school. No, not all, and probably not most, but many. Some will eventually find their way back, maybe by a chance encounter with a priest, or a random itch of their conscience, or if and when they get married in the Church and decide it’s time to “get serious.” Some will find their way back, but not all.

Why does this happen, how does this illusion of commitment work, and what can be done to prevent this?

Despite the provocative title of this article, music is only part of the problem, though it is one of the best examples of the core conflict – trying to choose both God and mammon in parishes and ministry programs.

But let’s talk music first.

It is possible for rock music to be authentically Christian and still be good rock. But the Christian message must be indirect, or else there will be a lack of proportion between what is being said and how it is being said. Proportion is an essential element of beauty, and who wants music that isn’t beautiful to be used for worship?

Here is one comparison between two songs with similar themes but achieved in radically different ways.

This song is a first-person account of someone trying to overcome some life obstacles.

The lyrics are vaguely Christian, but it seems like even if they were more direct it would not help much – it would still be inappropriate for worship, because it is taking a music genre entirely from and for the world and trying to Christify it explicitly. That is why it’s so awkward, at least for me, even just to listen to.

Furthermore, the music itself in this example is just plain second-rate. The message itself also is very self-centered, which would be one thing if it wasn’t marketed as “Christian” and there wasn’t the almost artificial insertion of a mini-prayer in the lyrics, “God, I want to dream again.” I’ve never heard this at church, but I don’t frequent Protestant megachurches. I can certainly imagine it being used.

The next song is about a couple of kids whose lives are going terribly wrong, starting with one who gets shot on his way to school.

This is good rock music. It’s also profoundly moving, albeit in an unexpected way. Nobody would play this at a church, and rightly so, but I argue that this is a much better example of “Christian Rock” than the first song, not only because it is better musically but also because it knows what it is: the artists don’t try to insert the explicitly other-worldly into a worldly genre, apart from a one-off Scriptural reference (“the blind leading the blind”). Instead, they vividly illustrate real world problems and the emotions associated with them. This leads the listener to the simple consideration of the bleakness of sin and the need for something dramatically good to counter young people’s hopelessness. Finally, they suggest that the solution is at least in part our responsibility: “We are, we are, the youth of the nation.” That’s about a thousand times more Christian and artistic than the previous song. (The band, P.O.D., is loosely self-described as Christian, by the way.)

Anyway, as an alternative to Christian Rock at church, we have masterpieces like this available to us:

It’s very hard to pull off something like this well – and it really MUST be recited live – but that is part of what makes it worth so much as an act of worship. It involves serious dedication. Sacrificial worship doesn’t only mean killing goats, of course: it can also mean slaving away for a few dozen hours just to produce one beautiful arrangement for a single Mass. God likes that.

“But I like the churchy Christian Rock. So do lots of other people. In fact, a lot of the people at my church come because we play that kind of music.”

Now we come to the root.

If it were a simple matter of aesthetics, one taste does not rule over other tastes. Chocolate is not inherently better than vanilla, etc. Except we are not talking about ice cream, we are talking about the public worship of Almighty God and spiritually encountering Him in that worship (which is distinct from emotionally encountering Him). There is an objectivity to music and worship, which is why the objection that “classical” music is just the “rock” or “pop” of the 17th century (etc.) does not work. Certain kinds of music do not appropriately resonate with our soul inasmuch as it is ordered toward loving and encountering the otherworldly. As the famous saying goes, “Lex orandi, lex credendi” – as one worships, so one believes. If someone heard a “Christian song” without knowing the language in which it’s being sung, and he thinks it’s probably about some guy’s girlfriend, for example, there is a big problem. If God, as the Author of Grace, is going to be treated directly, He deserves something more than what your girlfriend deserves, as nice as she may be. And the more one treats God like a girlfriend in worship, the more one is likely to think of God that way. It’s just how human beings work. When your girlfriend gets boring or too challenging, you can leave her for someone else. When God or the Mass or the one true Church is treated like a girlfriend in worship, when they get boring or too challenging, they are all too likely to be left for something else. And the more one tries to dress them up like some other “girl,” the more one will realize that it would be easier just to go after that girl instead. We can’t make God in our image, and when we figure that out, the choice is forced upon us: we either destroy our little idol and worship God on His own terms, or we go seek the thing that we were trying to make Him into.

The trumpets that will blare at Our Lord’s return will be playing music closer to Mozart than to Meatloaf, and not for no reason. If I don’t like the Parousia’s music – or even Heaven’s music – will it be because God doesn’t know what’s “relevant,” or will it be because He knows there’s something more objective about transcendence than my fleeting emotional inclinations?

Liking secular-ish Christian-ish music and feeling good about God on its account is not wrong in itself.

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Go on ahead! Feelings and emotions are NOT evil. But they are only GOOD if they are in line with reason.

What is wrong is when those things are at the foundation of one’s spiritual life, instead of the imperceptible indwelling of the Holy Spirit and sanctifying grace expressing themselves in the exercise of moral virtue and frequent prayer (even continuous prayer, to the point where instead of talking to yourself to think through the mundane tedium of your daily life, you talk to God). If and when well-performed secular-ish Christian-ish music and/or nice feelings about God become inaccessible for some reason, a person who had seemed to grow up in the spiritual life so quickly is liable to become “withered by the sun and die,” so to speak, just like the seed sown in rocky soil (Mt. 13: 1-23). Such a person will eventually notice that the world (or even some other church) gives quicker and easier nice feelings, and that continuing to pray and go to Mass diligently is really hard when faced with that alternative. And why resist? “If spirituality is all about the feels anyway, when I get them, great, when I don’t get them, then I just won’t kill anyone or rob any banks, and I’ll go to Heaven, or something like that. But maybe the whole ‘organized religion thing’ is all just a psychological prison anyway, and a nondescript ‘spirituality’ is where it’s at.” And down the slope we go. People don’t usually think or express their desires in exactly these terms, but they often act based exactly on the ideas found in them.

If you live in the Western world, this process is almost certainly happening with people in your parish, especially to millennials. The problem, of course, is not limited to music – the approach of condescending indefinitely to worldliness can permeate the air of entire parishes. Let pastors who are looking to “Rebuild” be aware of the lesson of Aaron and the calf… Money and popularity do not make a parish a spiritual success. Your sanctuary may be tricked out with the latest live streaming gear and some nifty projector screens, and your band may make a 6 figure salary due to generous tithing, but if there’s not perpetual or nearly perpetual adoration; if there aren’t vocations; if there aren’t long lines at the confessional; if people are not praying before and after Mass in silence… these deserve more attention.

The Protestant megachurches and the world will always win the game anyway. They produce better, flashier, trendier stuff, including morals and doctrine. They produce better rock music. They condescend to our worldliness better. Therefore, the game ought not be played. Our Lord did not play the game, though He was invited to by the Devil. (Mt. 4: 1-11)

Christ condescended to our worldliness by becoming a human being. Beyond that, He used language and images we could understand. He identified with us in our need for food and drink, as with the woman at the well, or with the Eucharist itself. He pointed out the way to perfection to the Rich Young Man and to those wondering about divorce by meeting them where they were, and yet He did not insist on poverty or celibacy as Commandments. All this condescension, however, actually serves the will of the Father by calling people to look beyond the world. Christian Rock, as commonly understood, does not do this, but instead lowers God more than He lowered Himself by putting Him into a worldly genre of music which can certainly make people feel nice feelings but cannot lead one to contemplation as it is understood by the spiritual masters. (In fact, prolonged silence is one of the best things for that.) And of course, some other parochial and ministerial projects fall into the same trap. We must not be in the business of making good novices: we must be in the business of making saints.

The longer one pretends he can find God in the storm, the earthquake, and the fire, the more likely he is to miss the small whispering sound that calls a soul out of the cave. God showed His might on Sinai with signs of His fearsome power, but now, in the invisible life of grace, the signs of His love manifestly prevail – and lovers very often want to be alone together in silence, do they not?

Education in the spiritual life must become a greater priority in parishes, especially youth ministry programs, if we are to stop the bleeding of parishioners looking “to be fed” somewhere else – back in Egypt, that is, where there were melons and leeks and fleshpots.  We especially ought to curb the enthusiasm in our young people for getting chills and thrills on retreats – and certainly for “speaking in tongues” and being “slain in the Spirit,” for goodness’ sake – and instead teach them that the greater effects of prayer and the sacraments are in an undying thirst to do what is right out of love for God and the pursuit of union with Him at the expense of any and all other pleasures. Growth may seem slower, but it will be steadier.

Better, more subdued, more dignified music is just one part of the solution. Christ our Rock is more spiritual than worldly, after all.

Post by: Eamonn Clark

Main image: The Sower, Vincent Van Gogh, 1888

The Liturgical Creeps

In my time in parish work, and in my exploration of the world’s great (and little) churches, I have encountered many interesting phenomena. As you might imagine, that involves a spectrum, with the simply “good” on one end and the simply “bad” on the other, with plenty of ho-hum stuff in the middle. But there is also a category of things sort of “in the middle” which don’t really fit well into such a simple paradigm. They deserve their own little separate space.

In psychology, there is something called the “uncanny valley.” Here is a chart:

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At this point, I’m not exactly sure how I would rearrange the variables on this chart to explain these experiences, but they are definitely of the kind that would fit into that valley which just feels “off.”

Electric candles – especially votive candles – are a big one.

Yes, it’s cheaper. Yes, it’s less dangerous. Yes, it’s cleaner. But isn’t that all part of what makes it not as good? It seems far “less human” than it should. All you do is put in a coin… Some electrons move… And there you go. That’s it. No careful management of the flame as you transfer it from a candle already lit, no satisfaction of getting your wick to light, no organic timeline for when it will go out, and nothing is actually burnt up and “wasted” on God. The last bit is probably the most important. Here’s 2 Sam. 24:22-24:

But Araunah said to David: “Let my lord the king take it and offer up what is good in his sight. See, here are the oxen for burnt offerings, and the threshing sledges and the yokes of oxen for wood. All this does Araunah give to the king.” Araunah then said to the king, “May the Lord your God accept your offering.” The king, however, replied to Araunah, “No, I will buy it from you at the proper price, for I cannot sacrifice to the Lord my God burnt offerings that cost me nothing.”

King David was worried about not spending enough himself for a burnt offering of oxen. One can only imagine the king’s reaction if Araunah had offered to put coins into a candle machine that just moves electricity in a circle.

This does not necessarily mean that the one using a candle machine is doing a poorer job praying, but perhaps over time it could have an effect on a person’s perception of worship, leading to the thought that what’s in your wallet is more important than what’s in your heart… After all, there are no “suggested donations” for a machine.

Another big one is recorded music.

We don’t accept lip-syncing at concerts. Why would God accept a recording from a CD at Mass? This can be especially prevalent at funerals, where a well-meaning family wants their loved one’s favorite song played, and while it is certainly difficult to deny a grieving family, the songs are often inappropriate and are never anything much more than a catharsis over memories when what the funeral rite is primarily for is prayer for the soul of the deceased.

Recorded music also shows up outside liturgies as “filler,” when silence is, I suppose, too unsettling. You will find this in many churches in Rome, Paris, and beyond. While the music is often “good,” the fact that it is an mp3 means that those voices and instrumentalists are not actually there praying with you – it just sounds like it. And to me that can be a bit more unsettling than silence.

Notice once again the lack of “waste” – it is a mere digital re-presentation of someone else’s work.

On the other hand, once I walked into Wieskirche in Bavaria and there was a magnificent little choral arrangement being sung by a small group. Wonder and joy, the opposite of the liturgical creeps?

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Notice the real candles. The detached altar was nothing to write home about, but everything else was!

The “liturgical creeps” are then, I suppose, when something a little “fake” is helping mediate or ground prayer that reduces the “waste” of human effort. It’s a working definition, at least.

Perhaps you have had the experience yourself. What else fits into the liturgical uncanny valley?

 

Post by: Eamonn Clark

 

Main image: Opening title from the popular 90’s kids’ show, “Are You Afraid of the Dark?”

Uncanny chart: By Smurrayinchester – self-made, based on image by Masahiro Mori and Karl MacDorman at http://www.androidscience.com/theuncannyvalley/proceedings2005/uncannyvalley.html, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=2041097

Some art in the Roman Forum!

I was in the Roman Forum the other day to see Santa Maria Antiqua… It is the oldest church in the Forum, connects to the Imperial Palace, was the one-time seat of the Bishop of Rome, and it has some killer frescoes. Due to ongoing renovations and excavations, it is rarely open – this year it allowed visitors in for a few months, and the last time it did so was 1980. Sadly, as of tomorrow (Sunday, 10/30/16) it will be closed for who knows how long (the figure I heard was 20 years). Since you missed your shot, let me provide it for you!

First things first… Behold, the first basilica in the world!

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It has a sunroof.

No, it is not the brick building. That’s the old Roman curia – before it was a Church thing, it was a Roman thing. You are looking through the basilica, which is a ruin. You can see the pillars sticking up out of the ground. Once again, before it was a Church thing, it was a Roman thing. We baptized both ideas, and they stuck around.

Another first… Behold, the first real CCD classroom on planet Earth!

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The church itself is to the right, and leads up towards the Imperial Palace and observation platform. Hold that thought.

Before there was coffee and donuts at RCIA, there was the Oratory of the 40 Martyrs. If you teach Sunday school, here you can go back to your roots. Let’s take a look inside, shall we? (Click to enlarge the photos.)

The Byzantine influence is almost as clear as the weathering. But all throughout the site there are slightly different styles, reflecting the fact that there were many different patrons and artists at work over the ages. Like the rest of the Forum, there are layers, and analyzing this site is made especially difficult by the unique character these frescoes have among contemporary Roman works.

Here’s the exterior of the church:

Santa Maria Antiqua is called “Antiqua” for a reason… She’s been around since the 5th Century! After Constantine, the Forum became more than just a safe place for Christians, it became an opportune place for worship.

Into the church we go!

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The hanging picture is called an “iconostasis.” Notice the use of arches, with the apse in the back (surrounding the iconostasis). Many of the frescoes are in rough shape, but we will look at some of the better preserved ones.

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The left side of the nave.

Yes, even the pillars were decorated. See the one on the right there? This place was like stepping into an ecclesiastical coloring book. Every inch was covered, it seems.

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Close-up of the wall.

Here is an image of some the frescoes in one of two “corner chapels,” on the right side of the nave near the back… It is called the “Chapel of Physicians” (or the “Chapel of the Medical Saints”), where there would be constant intercession for the sick, whether the infirm were present or not. (The other is the “Chapel of St. Theodotus” on the left.) Apparently St. Francis visited this place, by the way, when he was in Rome.

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The saints pray along too! They cover all four sides.

The apse has the earliest Roman image of Mary as a Queen, and the image of the Cross (in the Chapel of St. Theodotus) is notable as well…

Pope John VII was totally enamored with Santa Maria Antiqua. Not only did he commission a ton of work on the church, he also moved there, way back at the start of the 8th Century before there was an Associated Press to misunderstand why he might do such a thing. However, only about a hundred years later, an earthquake would cover much of the church, leaving it dormant for 1,000 years or so. (The Chapel of the Medical Saints apparently remained accessible, and somehow people forgot there was a church attached!)

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Another view. This looks over where the ambo would have been toward the main altar.

Here there was a main altar and a “holy table” further back near the apse where the gifts would have been prepared.

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From the holy table toward the main altar.

To make sure that everyone understood that Christianity was not ditching its Jewish roots, there was significant emphasis on the Old Testament. Here is a sarcophagus with stories of Jonah and some more frescoes of OT events:

It was lunch time in Rome, which beckoned, but in the end the platform won out. The long climb was definitely worth it. Panning left to right:

There’s just too much to point out. Sorry. But do notice that the corner of the church is on the top left. The rest of the view is mainly out towards the Quirinal Hill and Capitoline Hill (the Forum is on the Palatine).

Considering that you will probably never actually be inside this amazing church… you’re welcome for the quick glimpse inside!

Post by: Eamonn Clark

Sing to the Lord a New Song – in an Old Way?

“I heard there was a secret chord, that David played and it pleased the Lord.” But if you can’t figure out what that chord was, maybe just try singing. God made your voice, after all.

With roots going back to ancient Judaism, singing is an integral part of Christian worship. St. Paul tells us to “be filled with the Spirit, addressing one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody to the Lord with all your heart” (Eph 5:17-19). One would guess that musical instruments would be helping to make this melody, adding another musical layer and aiding proper pitch, tempo, and rhythm.

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Aulos Player

However, the Fathers of the Early Church came down very hard against the use of any musical instruments in the liturgy. For example, St. John Chrysostom says rather forcefully that “where aulos-players are, there Christ is not.” By exploring their reasons, we’ll uncover some theological underpinnings to the Church’s use of chant in her liturgy.

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Hebrew Psalter, 15th century AD

Jewish Roots

“Praise him with trumpet sound; praise him with lute and harp! Praise him with timbrel and dance; praise him with strings and pipe! Praise him with sounding cymbals; praise him with loud clashing cymbals! Let everything that breathes praise the Lord!” (Psalm 150:3-6)

Although the Temple at one point was known for its loud instruments, Judaism itself cast aside musical instruments in the wake of the destruction of the Temple in 70 A.D. When the Romans left Jerusalem devestated, the Jews dispersed throughout the Roman Empire abandoned their harps and lutes, as they had once done in the Babylonian Exile 600 years prior:

By the rivers of Babylon there we sat and wept, remembering Zion; on the poplars that grew there we hung up our harps. For it was there that they asked us, our captors for songs, our oppressors, for joy. “Sing to us,” they said, “one of Zion’s songs.” O how could we sing the song of the Lord on alien soil? (Psalm 137: 1-4)

Like the Babylonian Exile, the destruction of the Temple fundamentally changed Jewish worship, and the “lute and harp” lost out.

Another reason musical instruments lost out was that pagan cults were known for playing musical instruments. And since the early Jews had a real fear of obfuscating the sacred and the profane, the association of musical instruments with paganism was enough to render musical instruments unclean.

When the Early Church looked for guidance in how to conduct their worship, they seemed to follow suit. But the Church Fathers didn’t stop with just condemning the use of musical instruments in the liturgy of the Church; they went on to condemn them in other aspects of secular life. For example, St. John Chrysostom calls musical instruments “the devil’s great heap of garbage.” St. Augustine adds: “The pipe, tabret, and harp here associate so intimately with the sensual heathen cults, as well as with the wild revelries and shameless performances of the degenerate theater and circus, it is easy to understand the prejudices against their use in the worship.”

Because of this great aversion to musical instruments, early Christian liturgical music was exclusively vocal. The liturgy would be sung but only in a subdued fashion, using a form of singing called “cantillation” that resembled speech more than song.

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St. Clement of Alexandria (d. 215 AD)

Patristic Interiorization

“He who sings, prays twice” – this aphorism often attributed to St. Augustine is actually a distillation of his commentary on Psalm 73:

For he that sings praise, not only praises, but only praises with gladness; he that sings praise, not only sings, but also loves him of whom he sings. In praise, there is the speaking forth of one confessing; in singing, the affection of one loving.

Perhaps better distilled as “Only the lover sings,” singing adds to our praise the element of love, the internal disposition of the heart. The act of singing, involving the mechanisms of the human voice, expresses that love of God or, even, is that love of God. Something much more profound is happening in the song of the lover than a mere doubling of prayer.

But what about musical instruments?

Although Jewish and Christian worship changed, the Old Testament did not. How did the Early Church contend with the many instances of musical instruments in the Old Testament?  The Church Fathers interiorized the external musical instruments featured in the psalter. Chief among the Church Fathers in that area, St. Clement of Alexandria writes on Psalm 150:

The Spirit, to purify the divine liturgy from any such unrestrained revelry, chants: ‘Praise Him with sound of trumpet,’ for, in fact, at the sound of the trumpet the dead will rise again; ‘praise Him with harp,’ for the tongue is a harp of the Lord; ‘and with the lute, praise Him,’ understand the mouth as a lute moved by the Spirit as the lute is by the plectrum; ‘praise Him with timbal and choir,’ that is, the Church awaiting the resurrection of the body in the flesh which is its echo; ‘praise Him with strings and organ,’ calling our bodies an organ and its sinews strings, for from them the body derives its coordinated movement, and when touched by the Spirit, gives forth human sounds; ‘praise Him on high-sounding cymbals,’ which mean the tongue of the mouth, which, with the movement of the lips, produces words.

Far removed from the “unrestrained revelry” of pagan culture, the human voice alone sufficed for authentic praise of God. All the references to musical instruments are made into allegories for the human body, each signifying different aspects of our physical anthropology.

But more than just our bodies, God made the whole human person – body and soul – in His image, capable of praising Him in melodious song. The early monk Cassiodorus writes that “the notes previously observed as issuing from musical instruments are now seen to emanate from the rational bodies of men.” Connecting this to the Incarnation, St. Clement of Alexandria writes:

The Word of God, scorning the lyre and cithara as lifeless instruments, and having rendered harmonious by the Holy Spirit both this cosmos and even man the microcosm, made up of body and soul – he sings to God on his many-voiced instrument and he sings to man, himself an instrument: “You are my cithara, my aulos and my temple,” a cithara because of harmony, and aulos because of spirit, and a temple because of the word, so that the first might strum, the second might breathe, and the third might encompass the Lord… The Lord made man a beautiful breathing instrument after his own image; certainly he is himself an all harmonious instrument of God, well-tuned and holy, the transcendental wisdom, the heavenly Word.

The Word of God became flesh – with human lungs, lips, tongue, and voice – and continued his eternal praise of the Father, now as one of those “beautiful breathing instruments.”

The definitive departure from “lifeless” Davidic musical instruments made room for such interpretations of the psalms. With this anthropologizing and allegorizing of the psalms with the elevated anthropology of the Incarnation, we have the beginnings of a theological foundation for liturgical chant.

Theology of the Unassisted Voice

When the Word became human flesh in the Incarnation, the study of human nature became a study of God – anthropology became a theology. Likewise, the study of the human voice reveals in some way the mystery of Christ. According to Dom Mark Kirby, the human voice in the Church’s liturgy prepares “in a kind of renewal of the mystery of the incarnation, an acoustical body for the Divine Word” (“The Psalmody of the Divine Office,” 17-18). In this way, liturgical chant is a participation in Christ’s mediation to the Father, as manifested in the Incarnation.

Here (with some help from Dom Kirby) are some theological musings on several aspects of the unassisted human voice.

Breathing: Within the Trinity, “the breath of God is indissociable from the word of God, and the word of God cannot be uttered save in a communication of the breath of God.” (“Toward a Definition of Liturgical Chant,” 15). Breathing thus images the action of the Holy Spirit in singing. In a cappella singing, pauses for breathing are left unfilled and exposed. Through the breathing necessary for supported singing, “the human person, fully alive, expresses likeness to God. Breath, life, and word constitute an inseparable triad in the divine economy of creation and redemption” (Ibid.). Together, the co-incidence of breath and word resonate in the human heart, the inner sanctuary of the temple of one’s body, where one prays to the Father in secret (Matt 6:6).

Memory: Unlike visual art which is stretched spatially, music is stretched temporally, requiring the human memory to link words across time into a coherent discourse. “Liturgical chant,” according to Dom Kirby, “being heightened discourse, engages the memory of both singer and hearer, becoming a disclosure, in time, of the timeless mystery, a contemplative unfolding of the Word” (“Toward a Definition of Liturgical Chant,” 14).

Communion: The prayer of the Christian is never solitary; every prayer is uttered in union with Christ and in communion with His Church. Chant captures this aspect of communion. The propers, antiphons, and psalmody chanted in the sacred assembly make present that communion of persons, all praying ecclesially with the voice of the Church. Chanting the prayer of the Church together leads to a uniformity without homogenization, a unity without loss of identity – each unique voice aids the others in a common song of praise. Even when chanted alone, the prayer of the liturgy is united with the prayers of all the faithful from the rising of the sun to its setting, stretching throughout space and time.

Disposui
16th Century Chant Manuscript – Psalm 89: “I have made a covenant with my elect: I have sworn to David my servant. Alleluia.”

Silence: Chant begins and ends with silence: “the context of liturgical chant is, before and after anything else, silence. It originates, with the word, in silence. Like the Word, it ‘springs from the silence’” (Ibid., 20). More than merely assisting prayer, chant is prayer. In fact, chant is a participation in the highest prayer of Christ’s mediation to the Father. As such, chant should not feel rushed or busy, but must rather be irrigated with silence. The pockets of silence are little Mount Horebs wherein we hear the “still small voice” of God (1 Kg 19:12). This prayer does not need musical instruments filling in the gaps of singing and supporting the sound of the human voice with additional melodic layers. Rather, in liturgical chant, the exposed and vulnerable human person encounters the Father most authentically in silence.

What Next?

In chant, the human voice alone carries the word and expresses the fullness of the human person – body and soul. Chanting the text without accompaniment, one’s voice, one’s prayer – one’s whole person – is exposed to God. Chant is thus a full, conscious, and active participation in the prayer of the Church in the liturgy.

As the Church spread throughout Europe and the influence of paganism began to wane, musical instruments lost their negative associations. No longer seen as “the devil’s heap of garbage,” the Church began to reintroduce instruments into worship. With a little help from Charlemagne, the pipe organ became a prominent feature of medieval churches. As a “breathing” machine operated by bellows, the pipe organ was seen as an appropriate mechanical approximation of the human voice.

Vouet,_Simon_-_Saint_Cecilia_-_c._1626
St. Cecilia (d. 230) anachronistically depicted playing the organ

But before the organ became a staple of church construction, the initial vacuum created by the Church Fathers’ opposition to musical instruments was filled by a theology of the unaccompanied human voice. Even though the Church no longer fears a connection to pagan worship, it was that initial aversion that occasioned the development of a robust theology of the unaccompanied voice – a theology whose praises are often unsung.

Such a theology became the basis for the great depositum orandi – deposit of prayer (to coin a phrase) – in Gregorian Chant. To this day, Gregorian chant is still “specially suited to the Roman liturgy” and “should be given pride of place in liturgical services” (Sacrosanctum Concilium 116).

Like the Early Church, the negative cultural associations of some contemporary genres of music ought to be taken into account in developing liturgical music fitted for the worship of the Father through, with, and in the incarnate Son. But more importantly, we ought not to turn our back on the larger theology of chant rooted in the Incarnation.

 

Post by: Deacon Peter Gruber, C.O.

 

Main image: The Worcester Psalter
The Initial of Psalm 97

Re-Turning Towards the Lord

Let’s be bold and ask the question: if the priest has his back to the people when he faces ad orientem, Who does he have his back to when he faces them?

Robert Cardinal Sarah, Prefect of the Congregation for Divine Worship, recently gave an address to the “Sacra Liturgia” Conference, entitled “Towards an Authentic Implementation of Sacrosanctum Concilium.” In this address, he said the following:

…[It] is very important that we return as soon as possible to a common orientation, of priests and the faithful turned together in the same direction—Eastwards or at least towards the apse—to the Lord who comes, in those parts of the liturgical rites when we are addressing God. This practice is permitted by current liturgical legislation. It is perfectly legitimate in the modern rite. Indeed, I think it is a very important step in ensuring that in our celebrations the Lord is truly at the centre.

Cardinal Sarah’s appeal to return to ad orientem worship is not made in a vacuum. There has been a growing interest in the traditional practice that has kept pace with a growing scholarship in this area.

The whole question of the orientation of the liturgy takes as a starting point the fact that the liturgy is the communication of something innately beautiful – that, in the highest sense of the word, liturgy is an art.

In his Post-Synodal Apostolic Exhortation, Sacramentum Caritatis, Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI argues that beauty is no mere decoration, but rather an “essential element of the liturgical action, since it is an attribute of God himself and his revelation.” The gestures and signs of the liturgy form a sort of divine choreography. This divine choreography – the “ars celebrandi” – arises not from arbitrary or superficial principles, but from the astounding depth of the Paschal Mystery and the truth of the Christian faith. For our purposes, it is important to see that the ars celebrandi cannot be underestimated for its ability to invite real immersion into the liturgy. Indeed, for Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI, it is “the primary way to foster the participation of the People of God in the sacred rite.” With stakes so high, it is necessary to embody within the celebration of the Mass the right imagery.

Behind the recent remarks of Cardinal Sarah, there is a world of theological debate about the choreography of the liturgy – particularly the orientation of the priest. To situate the debate, we will examine two major works on the topic: Turning Towards the Lord by U. M. Lang and The Spirit of the Liturgy by Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger (now Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI).

Within this context of liturgy as art (and without delving too much into the liturgical polemics in the wake of Cardinal Sarah’s address last week), we will investigate some of the reasoning that advocates for versus populum have used, the response by those who advocate ad orientem, and the prevailing recommendation to correct the issues.

Arguments In Favor of Versus Populum

First, it will be most helpful to have an idea for the argument for keeping the new practice of celebrating Mass versus populum.

1. Advocates of versus populum would point out that the Mass originates in the Last Supper on Holy Thursday. In that context, Christ was reclined around a table with his apostles. Thus, the Mass in the modern day ought to be reflective of a communal meal, with priest and the people facing each other in order to be true to the origins. Doing so would fulfil Sacrosanctum Concilium’s call for “active participation” in the liturgy by the faithful, by inviting them into the communal act in so direct a way. Since “active participation” is such a major concern in the last century’s liturgical reform, it has seemed most expedient to construct new altars that invited versus populum celebration.

2. By way of anticipating objections, advocates for versus populum are guarding against “archaism” in liturgy. Pope Pius XII, in his encyclical Mediator Dei, warns against any misguided archaism:

The liturgy of the early ages is most certainly worthy of all veneration. But ancient usage must not be esteemed more suitable and more proper, either in its own right or in its significance for later times and new situations, on the simple ground that it carries the savour and aroma of antiquity … [I]t is neither wise nor laudable to reduce everything to antiquity by every possible device.

Lest the Church fall into this archaism, supporters of versus populum argue that we must allow the liturgy to develop the way that it has. New forms and new practices are all the more fitting for new ages of the Church. Accordingly, they argue that there is no reason to reverse the trend of celebrating versus populum.

Responses to these Arguments

Is the appeal to bring back ad orientem celebration simply “archaism”? Are its proponents just advocating liturgical nostalgia?

Quite the contrary. The defense of ad orientem celebration is robust, thorough, clear, and convincing. Lang points out several flaws in the reasoning for versus populum. That the Last Supper was merely a meal, Lang takes issue. The Mass did begin as a meal, but its development did not end there. The Eucharistic sacrifice commemorates the Passion, Death, and Resurrection of Jesus – the Paschal Mystery. It is not merely a meal. Lang explains: “it was the new reality, not the meal as such, that Christ commanded us to repeat in memory of him” (93). To think that the development from the Jewish festal meal to the distinct act of liturgical worship in Christianity could or should be reversed, Lang concludes, would be “a most deceptive archaism” (93).

The second flaw with the appeal to the Last Supper is that it does not match up with the reality of the actual meal in the first place. According to Lang, “it was customary for the diners to recline on couches arranged in a semicircle, with small tables being used for holding food and dishes. In this arrangement, the place of honour was on the right of the semicircle” (93). In effect, it is not true that the Last Supper would have meant that the people would face each other, as has been perpetuated by the art of the 13th century onward. Although a contemporary reading of the Last Supper meal would impose such a reality, it is more likely that all the diners were facing the same direction at the time. Thus, the appeal to the Last Supper fails, not only because it is a mistaken view of the Mass as merely a meal, but also because it does not take into account the actual historical conditions of the Last Supper.

If the image of a meal does not fully capture the symbolic meaning of the Mass, are there other ways in which we may understand the Mass? Ratzinger puts forward another image: the Exodus. In the liturgical exodus, the priest is not just a “presider” – rather, like Moses he leads the people towards the Lord from slavery to the Promised Land. The priest facing the same direction as the people expresses the meaning of pilgrimage in our participation in the Exodus of the New Covenant – the Paschal Mystery of our Lord.

As a final response to the proponents of versus populum, Lang addresses the accusation of archaism:

This is not a form of archaism, if only because it was the virtually universal practice in the Latin Church until the most recent times and is part of the liturgical heritage in the Churches of the Byzantine, Syriac, Armenian, Coptic, and Ethiopian traditions. (98)

The practice of offering Mass ad orientem simply has too rich of a history and is too universal in its usage to be oversimplified to archaism.

The Defense for Ad Orientem

Having discussed the flaws in the versus populum argumentation, it is fitting to look at the whole argument for facing east in the offering of Mass. We will look at this argument based off the history of Church, the symbolism behind the orientation, and the necessity of maintaining proper symbols.

The history of the Church’s liturgical celebrations and the symbolism contained within these decisions are so interwoven that we will discuss them together. The Jewish custom for worship consisted in the synagogues facing the temple. All the ritual celebrations pointed back to Jerusalem as the focal point of Jewish worship. It was here that God centered his relationship with His chosen people.

As the Christians developed their own identity and broke from Jewish customs, it was no longer important to face the temple. Now, Christians faced towards the New Jerusalem. How could this be manifested in the direction of worship? Facing the east quickly became the Christian response, not only in liturgy but in prayer in general. Lang gives some biblical examples:

[F]or instance, the sun of righteousness (Mal 4:2), the feet of the Lord standing on the Mount of Olives, which lies before Jerusalem on the east (Zech 14:4), the day dawning from on high (Lk 1:78), the angel ascending from the rising of the sun with the seal of the living God (Rev 7:2), not to mention the Johannine light imagery. (41)

In addition to these examples, the Son of Man came with power and glory, appearing as lightning in the east, shining as far as the west (Mt 24:27,30). For the early Christians, the image of the rising sun was very significant. They would face that direction in order to face the Lord.

This eastward orientation held true nearly universally and affected all types of Christian prayer. Origen (around AD 231) explains the connection in his treatise On Prayer:

It should be immediately clear that that the direction of the rising sun obviously indicates that we ought to pray inclining in that direction, an act which symbolizes the soul looking where the true light rises.

In case Origen is not enough of an authority, St. Augustine is in agreement: “When we stand at prayer, we turn to the east.”

The architecture of ancient Churches points out that the liturgy was almost always celebrated ad orientem. In the cases where the doors were facing to the east, which was a minority, the celebrant and the people would all look to the doors together. When, as was the case most often, the apse faced east, the celebrant and the people all faced the apse. The common direction became important no matter what the architectural direction was. (Remember that pews are a recent invention, and most ancient churches did not have seating of any kind except for the elderly and infirm.)

Finally, the defense of ad orientem drives home the point most powerfully when it argues that the symbolic significance of the direction of prayer is of utmost importance. Lang states:

The sacrificial character of the Eucharist must find an adequate expression in the actual rite. Not even the best mystagogical catechesis can make up for the decline of understanding of the Mass among Catholics, if the liturgical celebration sends out signs to the contrary. (115)

So it is clear that there is significant symbolic importance to celebrating the Mass ad orientem. Does this hold true for versus populum as well? The Congregation for Divine Worship, explains albeit in a 1993 editorial, that the symbolism does not hold up for versus populum:

It is fitting to explain clearly that the expression ‘to celebrate facing the people’ has no theological sense but is only a topographical concept … Theologically, therefore, the Mass is always facing God and facing the people. In the form of celebration one must be careful to avoid confounding theology and topography, especially when the priest is at the altar. It is only in the dialogues from the altar that the priest speaks to the people. All the rest is prayer to the Father, through the mediation of Christ in the Holy Spirit. This theology must be visible. (Quoted in Lang, 126)

As a sacred art, liturgy grips the imagination with symbols that carry divine meaning. If you change the symbol, you lose that meaning. If you want to retain the symbolism – if you want to ensure that the meaning of “facing God” is maintained – then you ought to make sure that symbolism is expressed visibly.

Unfortunately, liturgical practice in the last few decades has forgotten the cosmological and theological significance of the celebration of the Mass ad orientem and has thus changed its practices unnecessarily. Lest in our celebration of the Mass we betray the imagery that most befits it, the Church indeed must reconsider how she intends to incarnate the Mass’s deep reality in its ars celebrandi.

Recommendations for the Future

Since it seems that the significance of the liturgy as a procession and as a sacrifice to God is best protected in the celebration of the Mass ad orientem, it is fitting to provide the scholarly recommendation for how to amend the liturgy in its current situation. Ratzinger says, “This mistake should be corrected as quickly as possible; and it can be done without further rebuilding” (84).

Cardinal Sarah gives the following exhortation:

I ask you to implement this practice wherever possible, with prudence and with the necessary catechesis, certainly, but also with a pastor’s confidence that this is something good for the Church, something good for our people. Your own pastoral judgement will determine how and when this is possible, but perhaps beginning this on the first Sunday of Advent this year, when we attend ‘the Lord who will come’ and ‘who will not delay’ (see: Introit, Mass of Wednesday of the first week of Advent) may be a very good time to do this. Dear Fathers, we should listen again to the lament of God proclaimed by the prophet Jeremiah: “they have turned their back to me” (2:27). Let us turn again towards the Lord!

How ought ad orientem worship be implemented? First, with prudence, catechesis, and confidence. But what will ad orientem look like in the particulars of the Mass? That may be outside the scope of this post to make concrete suggestions (others, like Fr. Ryan Erlenbush, have provided some much-appreciated guidance). The point here is that the Mass, as a divine choreography that communicates supreme beauty, ought to express visibly its intrinsic orientation – its ars celebrandi ought to be configured to Christ’s prayer to the Father.

Ad orientem worship is not only well-founded in theology and history, but is also spiritually advantageous to the faithful. Cardinal Sarah, recognizing the demands of pastoral charity and prudence, sees this upcoming Advent as a great opportunity to “turn again towards the Lord.”

-Post by Jacob Gruber

 

Main image: Pope St. Pius X celebrates a Pontifical Mass in St. Peter’s Basilica.

Why is only this called Praise and Worship?

Deep in the silence of the Roman catacombs, a dim light grows brighter from around the corner as several torchbearers approach. There is urgency in their demeanor, but there is also a peacefulness. As they turn into the long, narrow corridor, the figure of an emaciated but sturdy pontiff can be seen slowly making his way behind them in full vesture. He is preparing to celebrate Mass over the tomb of one of his favorite martyrs, but he is trying to escape the notice of the emperor’s soldiers above. He turns to one of his deacons: “We’ll keep the volume on the amps down this evening, but I think we can still use the drum set.” The little group starts their liturgy to a hushed rendition of “Gather Us In.”

Suddenly, several of the emperor’s guard are heard rushing down from above! But the worship leaders will not be deterred, singing all the louder, “Gather us in, the rich and the haughty, gather us in, the proud and the strong…” The men get closer and closer. “Not in the dark of buildings confining, not in some heaven light years away…”

You decide what happens next: Are the soldiers so touched by the devotion and beauty of what they encounter that they are miraculously converted, or is this pope martyred for having terrible taste in music?

This is a ridiculous example meant to illumine a serious problem… The crisis of liturgical music, and even more broadly, the crisis of Christian music today in general.

Before we get into it, can we atone for the sins of the video above with a sample of something that won’t offend our sensibilities and is possibly similar (albeit very distantly) to what might have actually been sung in such a setting?

Ahh. That’s better.

We can realize the disparity in the dignity of the two pieces. We laugh at the thought of acoustic guitar accompanying someone like Pope St. Sixtus II, whose mere memory emboldens faith and charity. But when we imagine him being surrounded with this wonderful a capella piece performed by Ensemble Organum, it moves the mind to another world – we sense that this chant has a gravity and that anything done while it is sung is at least similarly serious. (And yes, it is a capella… The deep tones are droning.)

You will no doubt agree that this music is ordered to the praise and worship of God. Why then, does “Praise and Worship” refer to a class of music with such vast differences, like “Gather Us In,” (which, to be honest, is really more like a hymn than real P&W) or the stuff you would hear on the local Christian music radio station?

It starts in the same time and place that many other important things began to be destroyed: the late 1960’s in California. Coming on the heels of the secular music revolution going on at that time, “Jesus music” made its debut. A small group of hippies figured out that “free love” wasn’t all it was cracked up to be and starting becoming “born-again” Christians. Then they simply incorporated biblical messages into the music they were already playing in the back of the van and on the street corner. The growing popularity of the music of the ecumenical Taizé community in France also had some influence over the new genre, which is not so bad in itself, but when combined with 70’s guitar gets a little strange.

Credit needs to be given for the desire to leave a terrible way of life and to embrace and share the Christian faith. But if you are listening from far away, you ought to be able to tell whether a song is more likely to be about the Incarnation or about dropping acid. It is fundamentally a problem of proportion between means and ends. (This will be explored in other posts.)

The novelty of such a strange mix took off, and it turned into a bona fide industry within a few years. Soon it became “contemporary Christian music,” even having its very own magazine.

This all of course also conveniently followed the Council, which had set the stage for a plethora of misguided innovations.

So whence did the name “praise and worship” come? Perhaps there was some event or concert that first popularized the phrase, or maybe some big producer started talking about the music in that way. But that it has become accepted terminology – over and against Mozart – is surely more than hearing other people use the term. There must have been some kind of large-scale interior breakdown of the sense of latria (adoration) in order to identify praising and worshiping with only a specific kind of Christian music, and music of dubious liturgical quality at that. It would seem that the Church of What’s Happening Now deemed its music to be superior to all that had gone before, and thus gave it the truly dignified title of “praise and worship” – as if it were the first time music had ever been used for such things… And this is to make no mention of the often self-centered lyrics that sort of miss the point of praise and worship to begin with. (This one might be the worst.) If the songs you sing at church use personal pronouns more than “You,” “God,” “Christ,” etc., then there might be a problem.

Maybe this theory is a little “out there.” But then again, the 70’s were “out there” too.

How is this for a thought: if it isn’t praising God, or aiding in the worship of Him, then it really isn’t Christian music at all. It might be about Christian themes, it might be done by people who are not afraid to say they are Christians, etc. But if we really want to bestow the name “Christian” onto something, it had better be ordered toward Christ. We should remind ourselves how seriously St. Ignatius of Antioch took that title.

There’s no easy solution to this. But let it be known that the official stance of CRM is that all Christian music is also Praise and Worship music. Maybe introducing this idea in our parishes and schools could help recall to mind the truth of the matter and tone down some of the craziness.

 

Main image credit: http://www.confrontmagazine.com/wp-content/uploads/2014/09/crowd2.jpg