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Sunday, July 3, 2011

America the Beautiful and other songs we should not sing during Mass

The Declaration of Mass Independence

We sing these songs to be self evident that all Masses are created equal.  That we are endowed by our creator with certain unalienable entitlements…that among these are the rights to do & sing whatever and however we want at the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass, including the pursuit of my own version of happiness.  That to secure these rights, pastoral councils are instituted among parishes – so that whenever the pastor or the bishop becomes destructive of my will – it will be the rights of the people to withhold their plate collections until such a time that we laity will be able to institute a new mass that is less challenging, less good, less beautiful and by far less truthful than the one we started with.

Of course I’m having a little fun at the expense of a truly great document, however there is a point.  Actually it is a question.  When will we stop trying to change the Mass to suit our emotions?

I am a patriot.  I come from a family of patriots – people who have served our county and some who have paid with their lives.  One of my great grandfathers even served as a field commander to Abraham Lincoln during the Blackhawk Wars.  Frankly there is no time better than this time of year – Our Nation’s Birthday – to proclaim our love of nation boldly and proudly.  In honor of this special day, our family, among other things, has supported the economy, worn red, white and blue clothing, prayed for our country at Mass, flew the stars and stripes over the garage and took a day off to remember the birthday of our country.  This will be the first year that we have purposefully skipped fireworks but, hey…it’s 115 degrees in Phoenix today and every part of me is rebelling against going outside.  We shall enjoy fireworks from the air-conditioned comfort of our living room.

I also am a Catholic and these two identities get along just fine under normal circumstances except for last night. I am a cantor at my church and after the 4:30 Mass, where I serve, I was confronted by a parishioner who complained that we did not sing “America the Beautiful”.   I think his exact words were:  “This is the most unpatriotic parish I’ve ever been”.  

I think he is right—we do not offer a “Patriots” Mass, our windows are not red, white and blue, nor do we espouse allegiance to any such saint of patriots.  Father will be so happy to learn that I deferred his question to the pastor (!)

Excuse me, but when did Mass become a piano bar?   No, it is NOT our right to sing patriotic songs at Mass, actually.  I have served in music at many parishes and much of the time, offering patriotic music serves as an appeasement in order to honor the vets, our country, or whatever thing other than God we are trying to worship.   I’ve sung God Bless America (long intro version), the National Anthem, America the Beautiful, The Battle Hymn of the Republic, My Country Tis of Thee.  I’ve done this sort of stuff on Memorial Day, Labor Day, Thanksgiving Day and Independence Day.  As a former liturgist, I have had many a fellow Catholic get downright ugly with me about why the American Flag somehow needs to be placed up near the altar during the 4th of July Liturgies, even when the 4th does not fall on Sunday.  I am exasperated with this line of thinking.  Perhaps we need to re-examine a few priorities.

My first point: The Holy Sacrifice of the Mass celebrates, honors and worships the Triune God.  The once-for-all sacrifice of Christ (Heb 9:28) is eternally re-presented to the Father on our behalf (Heb 9:24). It is the actual events of the life, death and resurrection of our Lord and Savior in which we participate, and we do so in the sublime action of sharing a meal—a supper that is our Holy Communion.  Only the Catholic Mass fulfills Malachi’s great prophecy: “For from the rising of the sun, even to its setting, my name is great among the nations and everywhere they bring sacrifice to my name, and a pure offering; for great is my name among the Gentiles, says the Lord of hosts” (Malachi 1:11). We come to praise and worship our God and King, the author of all life and freedom.  We gather at Holy Communion to be present in an eternal kingdom; a world without end; that flies one banner which is love.

My second point:  We have our priorities turned around.  I think it is the well-meaning intentions of Americans who are Catholics at Mass who want to hear these patriotic hymns that inspire our nationalistic sense of pride. I sense their plea: It is good to be an American!   If it weren’t for our religious liberty-bought at a hefty price by other Americans- we would not be able to worship as we please.  We want to offer thanks to God for America, for this great and exceptional nation who does hold certain absolute Truths to be self-evident.  Hey—that’s a swipe at relativism, isn’t it?  America is, by far, the greatest country on God’s green earth.  Who doesn’t remember how packed our parishes were directly following 9-11? We implored God through our many Masses offered, to spare us, save us and come to our aid.  We even blur the lines a bit on the secular side of things by singing God’s praises at baseball games, invoking his blessings at graduations (though it is becoming much harder) and emblazoning stunning God-centered Latin phrases on buildings and structures within our own government.  So what’s so wrong with that ambiguous blurriness?    

Nothing, at first.   But as I mentioned, the priorities are skewed.  Stating it the correct way, we have God to thank for our freedoms, all of them.  They were not free.  In our nations early history, it was not easy to be a Catholic.  There were grave persecutions of early Catholic Americans.  They went to Mass-it was sung in Latin then-and they offered prayers and petitions for our country.  There is no reason why it still cannot be so now. 

So what’s the problem with patriotic songs at Mass.  My answer: It simply is not the best way to offer praise and worship to God.  Which brings me to my third point.  There’s a whole lotta “Mass my way” going on in the church.  Have you noticed?  Ever since Vatican II, almost every aspect of the liturgy has changed.  In fact, if you compare the Novus Ordo Mass to the Tridentine Mass, it will seem like two completely different things.  I could go on and on about EMs, “clown” masses, holding hands, receiving the Holy Eucharist in the hand, and all of our various “ministers” and I just keep seeing this as the poor laity being bored out of their gourds and needing some activity to distract them from what’s really happening at that altar.  How sad this is.  This is not to say that it’s a contemptible thing to sing America the Beautiful as the recessional hymn.  This hymn could be sung after the final blessing when Mass is officially concluded making it a fair choice.  I’m just saying that we need to keep our priorities straight.   We need to keep God first.

My concluding point;  America is beautiful but Beauty is an attribute that God personifies.  America can also be, at times, very ugly.  For instance, when she forgets about the standards and values that formed her great traditions: standards that protect the inherent dignity of every human life.  And if I went into a local public school and wanted to teach the kids about why we still say “UNDER GOD” in our pledge or why the Pilgrims really left England, or how our legal code was derived, I would be roundly mocked and eventually silenced. 

Which is why we need to wholeheartedly PRAY for America; that she be conformed to the image and likeness to the One who did salvage our eternal freedom; Who ransomed us from a place of slavery, Who bore us up with His pinions, Who sheds His grace on thee, Who crowned thy good with brotherhood.

So if you should decide that you would like to make a special song request of the cantor next 4th of July at a Catholic parish in Phoenix,  be prepared to hear at least from me that the blue field of Old Glory bears a striking resemblance to Our Lady’s Mantle!   

May God bless America.

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