Saturday, June 2, 2012

Sing Along

Often I run into someone who tells me, “I was raised Catholic but…”   What follows varies a bit, but always boils down to some variation of “now I worship in some Protestant denomination or another (or not at all).”  In fact, the largest self-identified group of worshiping Christians in the US—after Catholics—is not, as one might suppose here in the Deep South, the Baptists.  It is the ex-Catholics.

It’s always on the tip of my tongue to ask these folks why they leave the Church, but it seems foolish even to ask the question when the answer is so painfully obvious:  they simply do not believe the truths of the Catholic faith and maybe they never did.  Most particularly, they don’t believe in the reality and the power of the Eucharist.  If they understood even that one truth, they’d never leave and our churches would be packed to overflowing. 

At the risk of setting myself up for an eventual St. Peter-like fall, I can say with some human confidence that, from where I stand today on the deck of the Barque of Peter, I cannot think of the circumstance that would compel me to leave my Eucharistic Lord for something else.  Certainly not for different (or even better) preaching, fellowship or better music.  Or happier people or better friends or interesting discussion groups or a livelier youth program. 

These things, nice as they are, are not my Lord and Savior and it is my Lord and Savior I encounter every time I go to Mass.  Encounter and receive, taking Him to my body in so that He can enter and transform my very soul.  In Protestant parlance, it’s hard to imagine a more personal relationship than that.  Encounters with grace in the Catholic faith are not just spiritual—they are intensely physical.  They are meant to be, for we are both soul and body and God touches both to transform us.

Even amongst the Catholics whom I encounter on a daily basis, I am surprised at how many are indifferent to the reality of the Eucharist.  Depending on which study you see—and which groups are polled—the number of Catholics who admit that they doubt the Real Presence ranges from about a third to half or more.  If that isn’t an indication that we have failed miserably in catechesis, and in living out the joy and reality of our faith, I don’t know what is.

There are many reasons for that failure but one that jumps out at me nearly every week at almost any parish in which I worship is the current lamentable state of the communion music we sing.  Before you write this off as just another nut-case diatribe against modern music (of which I admit I am completely capable), hear me out.

Music is a very effective way of communicating and inculcating information; ask any advertising maven.  It resides in the parts of our brain strongly tied to emotion and thereby music is powerful stuff.  The master heretic Arius was a gifted songwriter—and he communicated his heresies in tunes very effectively, so much so that it took a couple of centuries to clean ecclesial house.  I submit that, to the extent our communion music has moved away from the reality of Christ in the Eucharist and failed to convey the majesty and centrality of the Paschal Mystery, Catholics have missed a golden opportunity for catechesis.  To the extent that the songs we sing have embraced the watered-down, Protestant vision of the Eucharist, we have done ourselves real and lasting harm.

For reasons that elude me completely, we have traded this:

Prostrate I adore Thee, God Unseen
Which Thy glory hides beneath these shadows mean
Lo, to Thee surrendered, my whole heart is bowed
Tranced as it beholds Thee, shrined within the cloud

Taste and touch and vision to discern Thee fail
Faith that comes by hearing pierces the veil
I believe whatever the Son of God has told
What the Truth has spoke that for truth I hold

For this:

One bread, one body, one Lord of all
One cup of blessing which we bless
And though we are many throughout the earth
We are one body in this Lord

Trust me, you’ll never hear the first text sung at a celebration of the Lord’s Supper in a Protestant congregation.  The second would at least not be offensive.  Is it any wonder Catholics are confused?  Is it any wonder why they are increasingly unable to see the difference between mass and Protestant worship; why they cannot see any reason not to receive communion out of courtesy and fellowship when visiting a Protestant congregation?  And, by the way, did you notice that the focus in the last song is on us—in the former on God?

There are more:

Let us break bread together, on our knees, on our knees….

Hear that often enough and it’s no wonder our children think that we receive bread—not Jesus—at communion.  And again, note the focus on what we do, not what Christ does for us.  The entire concept of the mass as sacrifice is absent as is the Real Presence; the song almost makes it seem that man, not God, is in control through human actions: breaking, kneeling, praising.

Then there is the perennial and grammatically abrasive

You satisfy the hungry heart with gift of finest wheat.

Really?  What satisfies my heart is the incredible truth that it is not wheat at all that I am taking in, but my Creator.  The remaining lyrics aren’t wrong and they are better than a lot of the songs we sing—Jesus does call us, we do respond, we do become one in the sacrament but they are still a massive understatement of the incredible reality we encounter whenever we assist at holy mass.   The song refers (in the third verse) to the cup being the blood of Christ outpoured and there is allusion to the mystery of Christ’s presence, but the refrain keeps repeating to us: it's a gift of wheat!  The song is one that my Presbyterian friends would be completely comfortable with.  And, trust me, they are NOT comfortable with the Catholic doctrine of the Eucharist.

And another:

As the brethren used to gather
In the name of Christ to sup
Then with thanks to God the Father
Break the bread and bless the cup
…So knit Thou our friendship up

The music for that particular hymn is hauntingly beautiful—but the words emphasize Christ in the gathering of believers to the exclusion of the priesthood and the mystery of Christ truly and substantially present in the sacrament.  That particular song was composed by a Protestant (albeit, in this case, by an Episcopalian—hence the lovely tune). 

Don’t get me wrong—there’s nothing wrong with Protestant music or musicians, but one can hardly expect someone who consciously rejects the notion of a sacrificing priesthood and a sacramental faith to write songs that edify it.  And it’s time we admitted that too much of the music composed by Catholics for the mass in the years following Vatican II—Gift of Finest Wheat springs again to mind—has that same, minimalist mentality that celebrates unity over mystery, meal over sacrifice and presence, and contributes to the problem of Catholics who really don't know what mass is all about and are all too willing to leave it for something else.

I remember a priest friend musing at a retreat how foolish it is that the Eucharist separates Christians one from another.  Perhaps so, but so it has been from the beginning.  When Christ made it clear in very earthy terms that we must eat His flesh and drink His blood, many disciples left him (the first Protestants).  They were happy enough to be fed on the ordinary (and symbolic) barley loaves and fishes, but taking God Himself into their very bodies was too much to contemplate.  And it is still the same today.  Eating and drinking God Himself, in all His reality, into our lives is daunting—but necessary.  It is far too easy to be deceived by the appearances that remain after consecration.  

Our music should lead us to the deeper reality of the miracles that we experience at the mass:  the first that bread and wine become Christ Himself and the second that He remains hidden from our view but not our faith.  Ours is a sacramental faith, lived out in the rhythms of the liturgy and in community with each other and dependent on the very real grace communicated to us thereby.  It is not a “me and Jesus” faith in which the Eucharist is a symbol and communion merely bread and wine.

Don’t get me wrong: ecumenism and unity are devoutly be desired but not at the expense of the source and summit of our faith.  Not at the expense of a generation or two or three of Catholics who understand the “meal” part of the Eucharist, but completely miss the “sacrifice” and the “body and blood, soul and divinity” parts.  Not at the expense of a generation or two or three of Catholics who fail to appreciate that it’s really Jesus Christ they are taking into themselves and into their lives. 

As another abandoned hymn puts it:

The angelic bread
becomes the bread of men;
The heavenly bread
ends all prefigurations:
What wonder!
The Lord is eaten
by a poor and humble servant.

The Eucharist is the source and summit of our faith.  We need to be shouting from the rooftops—JESUS WHO SAVES US IS HERE, TRULY AND SUBSTANTIALLY, AMONG US!  Just as He said.  If we really understood that truth, really and deeply in our bones, nothing—NOTHING—would keep us from mass.  Nothing would draw us away from Christ’s Church.

We have our marching orders: declare this incredibly good news to all the world.  It’s about time we adopted music appropriate to the task.


  1. Ditto. Everything you said is true, down to my bones. And on those occasions where the Communion hymn is singing a truth (which thankfully is sung more in my parish than most), I often cry with thoughts of what the words are saying.

    Relative to your opening comments on reasons for leaving, I also agree there, but .... Those are the positive reasons for leaving; they think they are getting something better, but the REAL reason WHY they are leaving is implied by your words but not specifically said: they don't know what they have, so they look for something better. They want something that looks, tastes, smells, sounds better to their earthly senses, not realizing in their spiritual being what they have, and would lose. In short, they don't understand what their faith really teaches, and why.

    I'm starting a weekly read through the entire catechism. It's back to the basics, but so many Catholics do not understand the basics, either mentally or spiritually in their hearts. When I have glanced at the catechism, I have learned and/or been renewed. In this Year of Faith, I will deliberately read through it with friends, learning or re-enforcing my faith, so as you said, "I will have some confidence that I would never leave" what I believe with all my heart.

  2. Well written. You my friend are a kindred spirit.
    Lindsay Pace
    Reasons for Leaving the Catholic Faith
    ‎I recently read a post on Authentic Catholicism blog by Steven Thomas describing why people leave the faith. "The bare bones of it, they leave (the Catholic faith) because they do not believe Jesus Christ Himself in his splendor is offering Himself up in an unbloody manner for His beloved. They leave God to have coffee, sing songs, and talk about God." I would like to clarify and say that those who leave the Church were not necessarily looking for those things. Most, were like me, who did not have a personal relationship with Jesus and thus did not know or care about what was transpiring on the altar. We were living in the dark. Then we found the Lord Jesus and often, it was in a church or fellowship outside of the Catholic faith. Suddenly, everything was so new, different and appealing; the songs, the coffee hour, the fellowship and the highly charged positive emotions associated with our new found faith. We looked back at that "Old Catholic Church" and saw ritual, rote, and routines and still did not see Jesus in the "breaking of the bread." Had I known He was truly there and my eyes were opened, I would have forsaken the warm fellowship, positive worship experiences and yes, even the coffee, and high-tailed it back to the place where I could meet and eat God.

  3. Here here! Well said! Mass is about our Lord, not us. We're to take our eyes off ourselves and focus on nothing and no one but our loving Saviour. It's one reason among many that I converted. A drawing in to belong to a Church with focus just as the Apostles had. So much less about us and so much much more about Him. Without that proper focus, one builds a foundation on sand. I believe Jesus said to do so in memory of Him, not to reflect upon ourselves. He said so for good reason. He also said, if you love Me you will obey what I command...John 14:15. When I get lost
    within thoughts of Him, I find the courage to imitate Him.

    Mass is time to remember Him, not to think about us.

  4. Oh Amen, sister! In the last two weeks I have had to play "Lord of the Dance" and "Alle Alle Alleluia". And others, but those rankled the worst. I would still love to find a music mentor that would direct me to appropriate music for each Mass, along with the sources to purchase the music. The only thing getting me by is the quote from a wise woman, "all worship is imperfect, even the kind I like the best"!

  5. I just "stumbled across" your blog, and was cheering at your every word in this post. Came to comment because I just HAD to thank you for writing this... and now I'm cheering at the other commenters' words as well!! O hooray. I thank God that I "stumbled" over here today.