Every week or so it seems one of my fellow Catholic friends on Facebook will share an article or blog post making a case for how the Church can get itself back into growth mode here in the U.S. I wish I had a dime for every one that says 'better catechesis' is the answer, or 'stop being apologetic about preaching the real faith', etc. etc. [As if the rest of the country is going to respond favorably to aging prelates suddenly dressing in lavish vestments and lace from the 16th century.]
My favorite though are the posts about 'how to get men back into church'. Priests in the pulpit need to appeal to their manhood, blah blah blah.
Well, as a man who never stopped going to church--but who too often dreads going now--let me offer a suggestion. [And if it turns out this is only a regional issue, then apologies in advance.] It's a simple one:
Let every parish start offering one liturgy per week that doesn't have any music.
I used to think my problem with the dreariness of the modern Catholic liturgy was bad music. The guitars and the pianos. We'd gotten away from the real tradition too quickly and thoughtlessly after Vatican II.
I did the whole Latin Mass thing, for a while. When the traditional rite came back to Boston in the early 1990s, I was so there. Every Sunday at the old German Holy Trinity church in Boston's South End. I used to get into disagreements with my mom about this, because she was happy to see the Latin go; she remembered how happy her Irish parents were when the Novus Ordo, the Mass of Pope Paul VI, was instituted, and they could actually follow the liturgy in English since neither had learned any Latin growing up in Fermoy, County Cork. [Latin was never big in the schools there apparently. Or they simply never reached that grade where it was.]
My flirtation with the Latin Mass revival lasted a few years, but its re-emergence unfortunately brought back into broad daylight some of the more pathological strains of Catholic subculture, and I really didn't need at my age to start hanging out with the non-trivial percentage of traditionalists who turned out to be anti-semites and creationist kooks, and who could argue all day about how the Church never needed to apologize for the Spanish Inquisition or the Trial of Galileo.
Nope. It's music. Everything is sung now. Even at the much more traditional Novus Ordo held at my parish today: The Kyrie. The Gloria. The Responsorial Psalm. Even the Alleluia prior to the Gospel "reading" (which at my parish is also sung now by the pastor), gets an extended track on this ever-expanding program.
And I find it impossible to pray simply or even just reflect on the sermon. It hit me last Easter half way through a truly beautiful liturgy. Our choir is superb. The traditional hymns are beautifully rendered. There's a flute, a trumpet, even a violin sometimes to accompany the singers. But halfway through the Mass, I couldn't shake the feeling that I wasn't at a Mass. I was at a concert. A beautiful concert, but still just a concert. The liturgy was being smothered to death with music.
And I'm not a music illiterate. I took eight years of piano lessons through high school. I performed at my share of recitals. I have a good ear and can play a lot of old songs that I arranged myself from memory. I love Bach. And Handel. And Beethoven. And Vaughn Williams, etc.
I may be wrong, but my recollection from the Gospels is that Jesus didn't sing a whole heck of a lot during his ministry. I miss his voice, speaking plainly from the reading of the Gospel during Mass. [Even Einstein famously paid tribute to this.] And I miss the priest reciting the Liturgy of the Eucharist plainly from the altar.
This may be an Irish thing. My Orthodox friends and some of their theologians have written and spoken about the minimalist Irish Catholic liturgy here in America which, for the most part, they find appallingly deficient in rich chanting, singing, etc. I blame the British for that. And I'm only half joking when I say it, but I'll leave the details to Catholic historians.
I'm just saying, for better or worse, I miss the Mass that I learned to serve as an altar boy. It was spoken. Directly. With no music (and none of us missed music because we never really had much of it then).
I miss the lack of music now. I miss the silence.
So let me reiterate. This isn't rocket science. It won't cost a thing. It won't require any special dispensation from the local bishop or the pope.
Does the Church want to get men back into the pews? Then offer a liturgy for us old curmudgeons, once a week--doesn't matter when: 4AM, sunrise, sunset, or midnight, we'll turn out.
But to paraphrase Wolf from Pulp Fiction: once a week, please, pretty please... with sugar on top, drop the music.
[Updated: 8:16 PM]