Music resonates deeply within our souls, and so it tends to be a very divisive issue to discuss, since each person is unique and tastes thus vary widely. This is all the more the case when we bring our relationship with God into the picture and talk about music that is part of our worship of Him – at Holy Mass. At the end of the day, so many discussions of this topic never really get beyond the point of “what I like” versus “what you like”.
While personal taste is the criterion for what we listen to in our cars, homes, and on our iPods, it is not – nor ever has been in the teaching of the Church – the criterion for what we hear and sing at Mass. But most folks today do not even realize this; they don’t realize that, in fact, the Church actually supplies the words for the music to be sung at Mass: before the sign of the cross there is the “Introit” (opening chant), then again before the offertory, and again during communion. Not to mention the responsorial psalm and the various other acclamations and Mass parts (alleluia, mystery of faith, etc.). There is a text for each of these parts of the Mass that is provided by the Church (and often taken from Sacred Scripture); there is also a chant melody for each and all of these texts.
But the Church also allows us to develop new melodies, and even provides guidelines for how that is to be done. For example, one very important principle is that the melody is supposed to serve the words. Another way of putting it is that one should not just decide on a catchy tune and then force the words to fit it (oh, we could come up with so many examples of this in modern Church music!). And so there is an entire body of music that has been handed down through the centuries, with chant as its foundation and so many other works by sacred music composers enriching it besides.
The Church also does allow us to sing other hymns at Mass, and this is what has become most common – and created new divisions – in normal parish life today. Often the hymns chosen do not have anything to do with the texts that the Church had preselected for that Mass; perhaps they relate to the readings, perhaps not. But the unified nature of the Mass texts is often compromised when we go about picking individual hymns according to whatever criteria might exist in this or that parish. Not to mention the fact that most places eventually get into a rut, where they sing the same relatively small collection of hymns over and over again throughout each liturgical season.
But this brings us back to the issue originally at hand: the differences and divisions that also result from the choice of hymns. And at some point we must get beyond the matter of taste and various technical issues and go a bit deeper: What is truly appropriate for Mass? How have we justified discarding the texts that the Church provides for us and replacing them with hymns that we choose according to criteria of taste and other subjective factors?
This recently-published article by Jeffrey Tucker examines these matters and I think makes an excellent contribution to what is often a divisive discussion. Be sure to read it!