Wednesday, July 17, 2013

Yup, American Catholics Are More American Than Catholic

I’ve been told that American Catholics don’t like to sing. Or they can’t. Or they won’t. Or something. There’s even a whole book devoted to trying to explain the phenomenon. I read it, and I found it interesting, although I don’t know how much stock to put in his theory that the Irish lack a sacred music tradition because the English proscribed the mass, which then had to be done in secret: no singing aloud. (Get it?) And the Irish are responsible for everything wrong with the current American church. Whatever your theory, though, the point is, Catholics in the United States don’t sing.

But in my local parish I sing in the choir, and I’ve noticed something really obnoxious: although all the psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs are sung in a kind of seventh grade, do-we-have-to?, mumble, any patriotic songs we sing are belted out. I mean, seriously, belted out. It’s like Sacred Heart on Memorial Day weekend turns into a New Year’s Eve dance where everyone’s got a solid quart of champagne in them and the band’s rocking out “Living on a Prayer.” So … Catholics do sing.

I’ve complained about this before to people, and one of the most common responses I get is that people sing songs they know, and they happen to know the patriotic songs because those songs are constant, whereas all our other songs change pretty much every mass. Parish music programs are always pushing (or are being required asked to push) on the congregation the latest in praisey-waisy, sing-along schlock, and nobody knows any of the songs. The congregation hears them once a year for about five years, and then Oregon Catholic Press mercifully drops them from Hymnbook Monthly, and we never hear of them again. And there’s a certain amount of truth to this explanation, but there’s more going on than just this.

In my parish and just about every other parish I’ve ever been in, the closing hymn is not much more than an afterthought. (Actually, it literally is an afterthought, since technically the mass has ended by then.) The congregation sings a maximum of two verses, one while the priest is pausing after the final blessing to collect the various altar servers, deacons, readers, and concelebrants, and one while all these people process out. If the choir is obnoxiously insistent, they might be able to squeeze in one more verse as a kind of postlude, singing people out into the parking lot, but when our choir tried this too many times, devout people in the congregation asked us to cut it out. They felt an obligation to stay and sing with us but were extremely embarrassed to be the only ones standing in the pews singing while everyone else was already sitting down at the lunch buffet.

This has been my nearly-universal experience, and if I ever thought that Catholic singing habits had to do just with familiarity, these last two weeks have been most instructive. On July 7, the Sunday after the 4th of July this year, our director of music scheduled “America the Beautiful” as a closing “hymn”. Well, fine. Not what I would consider ideal, but since it’s after mass, technically it’s okay. And true to form, the congregation wound up and knocked it over the fence. We got through all four verses. I paused after the second one, just to see if our momentum was going to carry us on through a third. It was. But after three I closed the book, thinking, “We’ve gone above and beyond the call of duty, now. How long does this congregation want to keep paying us time-and-a-half?” But everyone just tucked into that fourth verse like a pride of lions on a dying wildebeest. I was a little annoyed, but not surprised at all.

This past Sunday, however, the director of music scheduled “Holy God, We Praise Thy Name” for a closing hymn. Now if any hymn in the hymnal is familiar to Catholics, this one is. It’s the oldest of old standards. It’s based on a Latin hymn that dates back to St Augustine’s time, and the tune’s been around since before the Declaration of Independence. People not only know it, they know to do the grace notes that aren’t even written in the music: “Infi-IH-nite thy vast do-OH-main, everlasting is thy reign!” So if there’s a song they know, and they know that they know, and they know they can sing, it’s this one. But we barely got through one of the three verses before people were picking up their purses and fumbling for their car keys. God’s reign might be everlasting, but his divine liturgy better not interfere with brunch. We did manage to squeeze in a second verse, but the celestial hymn wasn’t loud enough to justify the initial “Hark!” It was really more of of a “hey.” If you could weaponize irony we would have been investigated by the NSA.

So, why is it, American Catholics, that you can bring down the house with a song about America, but you’re embarrassed to raise your voice in praise of God? Is it because in all that talk about “the importance of my faith” you recognize that’s all it is, your faith? Whereas, America – that bright, beautiful name that stands for liberty and justice for all – is your sole real source of public values? Scold, scold, scold. Wag, wag, wag. All right, I’m done. I’m still highly annoyed, but I’m done.

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