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The Catholic Mass and culture.

The author raises the question whether the music of today's "culture" can serve usefully as an honour to God and a bond of community at Holy Mass. He thinks not.

In the 1940's, as a student at the Shrine of the Little Flower School in Royal Oak, Michigan, I attended daily Mass, as did nearly all my classmates. We were not compelled to attend, but did so because we considered the practice an appropriate and uplifting way to begin each school day. Typically, the Mass lasted 25 minutes, accommodating both a reverent liturgy and the full slate of classes that followed.

During a Sunday Mass at an Alberta parish in January of 1998, I found my mind wandering back to those days. My reverie had been prompted by a very long and completely unfamiliar "hymn", which about a quarter of the congregation was doing its best to struggle through. I wondered, not for the first time, why liturgical reformers had chosen to lengthen the Mass while, at the same time, drastically decreasing the likelihood that those present would be able to attend to its solemnity.

Later that day, the same thoughts occurred to me while I watched on television as Pope John Paul II said Mass for a half-million Cubans in Havana's Revolution Square. The Papal Mass, which did not reflect European culture, was nevertheless whole, not just in its essence- that is, in its Eucharistic perfection-but also as an expression of a cultural ethos. There was no Gregorian chant, no Mozart, no pipe organ. Those accompaniments to the Mass, familiar to my generation in my homeland, were replaced by traditional Cuban music, its themes sanguine, its rhythms pulsing. Yet there was no doubt, even to an outsider such as I, that the music was appropriate.

Culture and self-expression

In thinking about the apparent contradictions between the wholeness of the Cuban Mass and the halting, half-hearted attempts at participation at Sunday Mass in that Alberta parish, I remembered an important and perhaps elementary truth: culture is, to a large extent, non-transferable. I do not mean to say that inter-cultural respect and appreciation are impossible, but culture, as an avenue we all travel in expressing ourselves, helps to define its practitioners. For example, as a Roman Rite member of a Ukrainian Catholic parish for many years, I came to discern the beauty of the Divine Liturgy celebrated in that rite. But becoming a full participant would have required many more years of study and assimilation. Even then, I would have felt divided, no doubt, just as an adult who emigrates to another country often does.

Imagine, then, the culture shock parishioners must feel when a parish priest imports a "few things" he happened to pick up on his winter vacation in Guatemala, or when a liturgist inserts or, worse, WRITES, some music that he or she has decided reflects modem North American culture. The hard truth is that far too many of us do not have to imagine those things, having already experienced them firsthand.

The cross-cultural problem applies also to bona fide regional sub-cultures, some existing within Roman Rite communities and offering authentic modes of expression not shared by outsiders. When I attended a folk Mass during a visit to a maritime province, for example, I found the music entertaining, but I also recognized it as a true expression of a rich heritage that I did not share. I realized, too, that the entertainment of visitors was a by-product and that the real purpose of the expressional mode used was, unmistakably, worship.

In Edmonton, I once found myself at a so-called folk Mass featuring a performance by people whose purpose was entertainment, mostly of themselves as it turned out. The accompaniment to that Mass completely lacked authentic self-expression. Relying on the bogus, commercially generated "folk" music of the '60's, the amateur performers made a futile attempt at show-biz. Their efforts yielded only annoyance.

Likewise, the importation into non-ethnic parishes of genuine folk music or practices and music from other cultures distracts Mass-goers even if--or maybe partly because--the congregation is entertained by them. The reason is that the mode of expression employed is unique to an essential culture. And this observation suggests at least two questions:

(1) what is the proper function of our cultural accompaniments to the Mass if it is not entertainment, and

(2) aren't self-expression and entertainment the same thing? The answer to the first question is that its purpose is, simply, not entertainment at all.

Entertainment and self-expression

The distinction between entertainment and self-expression is easily apprehended. Consider the following example. At one parish I attended for a short time, the congregation was sometimes invited to join the choir in singing an American Negro spiritual. Were I an American Black, I think I would be much put off by a bunch of white Canadians pretending to worship God by usurping my cultural heritage and practices, thereby cheapening, or even parodying, them. Yesterday's minstrel show performers got away with that sort of thing because they were professional musicians and actors who were in the entertainment business. But professional entertainers who highjack culture for profit, even though they may insult a minority group in the process, are not as phony as the "music ministers" who do the same thing in the name of pluralism. Their attempts to import or invent modes of expression merely consume time, distract, embarrass, and annoy.

Beyond the insult imparted to ethnic or subcultural groups, moreover, lies the matter of the Mass itself: the re-enactment of the most authentic event in human history. How dare anyone sully it with insincerity and self-service! How dare anyone treat the Mass as though it were a masquerade party!


My thoughts on liturgical reform crystallized when I realized that the singing at the Cuban Mass was, unlike that in far too many Canadian parishes, totally unaffected. And that, I am convinced, is the key. Affectation and self-expression cannot coexist.

Performances by professional musicians and actors are in another category, of course. Their art, lying far beyond simple self-expression, embraces universal themes that transcend a single culture. No, I am talking about church congregations which are composed neither of performing artists nor of common entertainers. Reverence among members of such congregations depends upon careful attention to distinctions not only between cultures, but between valid North American culture, its attendant subcultures, and the current anti-culture, which Pope John Paul II has identified as "a culture of death."

Some readers may associate the phrase "culture of death" only with abortion and euthanasia, but those are only two of its effects. Abortion and euthanasia do not, and cannot, exist in a vacuum. They flow naturally from current beliefs and attitudes, which deny human dignity and replace it with an aberrant view of human life and purpose.

Culture of death goes beyond abortion

The anti-culture, which embodies these beliefs, bombards us daily. Its targets are human dignity, family, community, state, and even civility itself. Our children go to school to learn about the sins of their "unenlightened" ancestors, emerging with plenty of self esteem and a rock-solid foundation in political correctness.

Besides the educational establishment, which is the heart of the anti-culture, popular fiction, motion pictures, television, visual arts, and popular music relentlessly pound away at us with the same message.

In other words, the popular culture that liturgical experts and other reformers have been "shoving down the throats" of faithful Catholics for several decades not only fails as an authentic mode of expression, but it openly opposes the Christian message. As an exploiter and degrader of individual human beings, the anti-culture can never become a proper accompaniment to the Eucharistic sacrifice.

No Community

Neither can the anti-culture serve to create community, no matter how ardently some people wish it could. Reformers who substitute their own "sitcom" models of reality for the world are illusion traffickers, who are just as deadly as their counterparts in the dope trade. Far too many of them incorrectly answer--or maybe have not even thought to ask--the following question: what makes up our culture? Is it a combination of the Western tradition and Disneyland? Does it include the commercial "folk" music of the 60's, the country and Western influence, rock and roll, modern motion pictures, television, popular books, the agenda of militant feminism? Must we repudiate the western tradition in favour of a pluralistic model?

The answer to that last question would be no even if we in Canada lived in a pluralistic society. And we don't. Ethnic groups wishing to preserve their cultures continue as they have in the past. All big cities have their Polish parishes, Portuguese parishes, Italian parishes, and so on. These Catholic communities help minorities preserve their cultural roots for their children, who, like all other children, suffer daily assaults from the anti-culture. Moreover, these minority groups are far better off than the majority of Catholics, who have been forced to watch helplessly as dilettantes, posing as liturgical experts, have methodically stripped away their heritage, which comprises the best that the Western tradition has produced.

C. Edward (Ed) Collins studied epistemology and ethics under the late William Marra of Fordham. A free-lance writer, Ed has authored eight books on language.
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Title Annotation:Catholic Mass: recollections and opinions
Publication:Catholic Insight
Geographic Code:1CANA
Date:May 1, 1999
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