A reader writes into Fr. Z to ask why Gregorian Chant is to be preferred at Mass to hymns like “Gather Us In” which the reader, a newly minted Catholic, happens to like. Fr. Z responds here, and the commenters also chime in with responses that hit the mark.
Fr. Z writes:
As a preamble, music for liturgical worship is not a mere add on or decoration. It is liturgical worship. Therefore the texts used should be sacred texts. The texts of those ditties mentioned in the question are not sacred, liturgical texts. They are not the prayer of the Church.
He then discusses the quality of the hymns under discussion. This is a more subjective argument. After all, there are people who think the hymns located in the Gather hymnal are quite extraordinary. I question the sanity of such people, but that’s neither here nor there. This is a country that consistently puts American Idol at the top of the ratings, so I’m obviously a bit out of the loop with my musical tastes.
Besides, even non banal hymns seem out of place in our liturgy. On Holy Thursday I attended Mass at St. Mathew’s Cathedral. As always, it was a beautiful, reverent, and yes, Novus Ordo liturgy. I don’t remember the entrance hymn. It was a nice hymn – something more fitting than one of the turds from the Gather hymnal. And yet there was something a bit off. It was a fairly upbeat hymn, and as Cardinal Wuerl incensed the altar it just felt jarring. Here is this solemn moment marking the beginning of the Triduum, and the accompanying music just does not fit what is happening up there in the sanctuary. It’s the sort of thing that just snaps you out of the moment, and that’s the problem.
The liturgy is prayer, not entertainment. The reason that these hymns are generally inappropriate, no matter the quality, is that they simply don’t fit in with what’s supposed to be happening. Instead of amplifying our prayers they drown them out. That’s why I find the incessant need to have some kind of music playing at all times whenever there is more than five seconds of silence so frustrating. You’ve all probably heard organists vamp when the hymn ends before the Priest has reached the sanctuary, or after Communion when not all have returned to their places. Why can’t he or she just let silence reign for a few minutes? Why is there such a need for constant noise, especially when it does not fit in appropriately with that moment in the liturgy?