Last month, I wrote about Christmas songs, particularly the ones people don't much like. My husband Thad dislikes Do You Hear What I Hear; and though it's past Christmas now I just found this great commentary on the song by comedian Tim Hawkins:
Now, I know there are probably people out there who love the song Do You Hear What I Hear. Perhaps they have fond memories of singing it, or of hearing their children perform it at a children's Christmas pageant. Perhaps it's the sort of song that just pleases them for reasons they can't quite analyze. Music is, after all, sometimes a very personal thing.
Every time I write about sacred music, I hear from some people who point this out. Who are we, goes some of the thinking, to impose our ideas about sacred music on our fellow Catholics? What if Gather Us In is, to them, a stirring and fitting song for a processional hymn? What if they cry whenever they hear On Eagle's Wings because the song was played at their grandmother's funeral? What if Let All Mortal Flesh Keep Silence or a chant setting of a prayer in Latin leaves them cold?
These emotional responses to songs or hymns are deeply personal, and shouldn't be dismissed out of hand. But the problem, when it comes to sacred music, is that when sacred music is part of the liturgy it can't be understood chiefly at the level of personal appeal; it can't be too much at the whim of the personal tastes or emotional responses of the music director, choir, congregation, or even pastor. Why? Because the Mass is not private. It is the highest and best act of worship, and it requires a certain amount of unity and uniformity in its music as in its ritual.
So instead of asking ourselves with sacred music as we do with secular or popular music, "Do I like this?" we should be asking whether the music fits with the Church's idea of fitting worship. This is not something we have to guess about; this is something that the Church makes pretty clear, by preferring chant, by differentiating between the sacred and the secular or profane, and by her rich history of sacred music from which we can draw and in which we can find inspiration.
When we join in song at Mass, are we listening to the Church? Do we hear what she hears, in terms of what ought to be sung? Or do our personal preferences, our likes and dislikes that can have a million different explanations, get in the way?