Nothing Is Too Cheap For God

March 23, 2008

A coworker of mine was recently reading through a discussion forum and came across a post that said “Since Vatican II, it seems that nothing is too cheap for God.”

I don’t think that Vatican II can be blamed for the mediocrity that passes for “art”, “architecture”, “music”, and “education” in the Church today, but the council can certainly be noted as the point when the decline, which had been noticeable in some areas, metastasized into the whole Church. But you would have to do some pretty incredible acrobatics to attribute the decline to something actually in the documents.

You can look back to the 19th century to find the beginnings of simpering Jesus holy cards and the feminization of male saints in art and holy cards. You can go back to the 1920’s through 50’s to find the decay of architecture which led to churches looking like bomb shelters. You can also find the roots of the rot in seminary education earlier in the century as evidenced by various decrees addressing the problems with education and theology training.

The point still holds that following Vatican II, what had been confined to small pockets of the Church not only spread but became the defacto law of the land without any law to back it up.

It seems that part of the problem is the abandonment of classical education which had pointed to a world where there are absolute truths. Or even more radically, where beauty is NOT just in the eye of the beholder but is actually a tangible quality that can be objectively assessed. In fact, the entire modernist palette of the arts and education is a clear repudiation of both absolute truth and measurable beauty.

Take, for example, your average “Catholic” religious education programs. Most of them have made it on the bishops’ approved text list by being altered just enough that outright heresy is replaced by ambiguous theological statements. There is no goal to teach the Faith and teach it well. The only goal is to sell books, and the less work that is required to make them acceptable, the better.

Or, take your average parish choir. In ages past there was actually an attempt to offer what was best to God. Now, we are subjected to whoever will get up and “sing,” regardless of their actual skill. We are also subjected to the most trite music – I am sure that one of the songs sung at Mass last week was from Jesus Christ Superstar – because the choir director felt like singing it, not because it is a quality piece of music actually worthy of offering to God.

Or, take your average parish church. The churches built today are being built by the most affluent Catholic population in the history of our country and yet the result is usually an auditorium-like building with as little adornment as can possibly be had. In fact, most of these buildings could be converted into theaters with about an hour of work. Is this really worthy of God? How is it that the poor immigrants who came to this country in centuries past were able to build churches that would still be awe inspiring today if they weren’t being torn down to make way for clam shells and concrete boxes?

I believe that the restoration that Pope Benedict wants is starting in the right place – with the liturgy intertwined with sacred music. The liturgy is really the cornerstone of the Faith in visible form. If you have reverent, solemn liturgy it is very difficult to say that it belongs in a concrete box. It is also very difficult to say that the typical music found in a parish choir is worthy of well celebrated liturgy. They are really antithetical.

During the Triduum we attended services at three different parishes. The variations in music and the quality of the liturgy, at least for the weekend, matched each other perfectly.

On Holy Thursday we attended a Mass at a parish that you can always trust to be “okay.” No wacky stuff, bells regularly, decent homilies most of the time and servers who generally know what they are doing. The Mass was reverent but the music was pretty mediocre. Most of the songs were dramatic and sounded like the tunes had been borrowed from Rodgers and Hammerstein musicals.

On Good Friday we attended services at a parish that recently did a renovation that included the addition of a ten-foot Christ in agony crucifix above the altar, the replacement of the “loaf of bread” tabernacle with something that actually is identifiable as a tabernacle and general architectural changes that emphasize the sanctuary and tabernacle as the central focuses in the church. The parish also regularly uses bells and patens and both priests there give excellent homilies that challenge your practice of the Faith in a good way. The music for the liturgy was almost perfect – solemn, well executed, with a mix of Latin and English hymns. The one thing I don’t understand is why, even during Lent, the piano is considered an essential part of liturgical music.

On Sunday morning we attended Easter Mass at Holy Ghost in Denver which has a long-standing reputation for excellent music and liturgy. The church is run by the Oblates of the Virgin Mary and they have shown their dedication to quality liturgical music by hiring a paid! choir that required auditions before its twelve members were chosen. The Latin Novus Ordo Mass was accompanied by a Mass setting, probably by Mozart, that included an orchestra. From where I was listening in the church basement with a sick child, the music still sounded incredible.

My hope is that with the recent restoration of the old rite to a “normalized” status in the Church, the bar for liturgy in general will be raised. From the many posts on the topic by Fr. Z, it appears that this is the Pope’s goal and one that may actually be achieved without a single new document on the subject being issued. As proof, I have heard of parishes in our city actually using a chant ordinary where the mere mention of Latin a couple of years ago would have caused either seizures or spontaneous combustion among the musicians and liturgists. There has also been a general move towards more reverent liturgy in our diocese which I think can be partially attributed to our new (of five years) bishop who seems to think that following the GIRM is actually a good idea and has been encouraging our priests to do the same. It has been several years since I have seen a glass or clay chalice in use and for the most part, liturgical texts are read as written.

I have also heard that one of the parishes in town is revamping its altar server training with the goal of having honest-to-goodness installed acolytes in a few years. I think that would put a parish in our diocese in the rarefied company of Lincoln, NE when it comes to liturgical correctness.

So, how can we assist with the renewal of Catholic culture? First, I believe that a return to a more classical approach to education where truth is actually treated as truth and where an emphasis is placed on understanding the Great Books of Western Civilization is essential. Pearson College at the University of Kansas used to have a classics program that become the root of the Clear Creek Monastery in Oklahoma. One of the founding members of the college, John Senior, wrote two visionary books on the topic of Christian culture that are just coming back into print.

Second, I believe that an actual love of God must be cultivated among all the Faithful. Most people would be aghast if it was suggested that they give the music or the art in their parishes to someone they love as a gift. They would probably choose something of higher quality as a gift. And yet, this lack of quality is what is offered to God each day at Mass. To achieve the goal of love of God will require a lot of patient education. This education may offend people who have come to believe that liturgy is all about community instead of worship and that mediocrity (though they wouldn’t put it in that term) is the best that can be expected. A true love of anything will always naturally bring about an improvement in the quality of attention given to the beloved. We need to abandon the idea that nothing is too cheap for God and return to the notion that nothing is too good for God.

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