Much has been said of a United States Catholic Bishop committee releasing a guide titled Catholic Hymnody at the Service of the Church. The guide has received cautious praise from Catholics, for it tackles many of the problems with post-Vatican II hymns (finally, we can at least agree that heresy in a hymn is indeed a problem). A recent article by Anthony Esolen at Crisis Magazine explains what is at play. Esolen praises the guide’s formidable qualities, such as wishing to rid the Church of ditties like All Are Welcome, yet ultimately compares the guide to a white cake with pink icing. “Even when such a thing is cooked all the way through and is not laced with arsenic, still, a diet of white stuff with pink icing does not a healthy body make.” In other words, because our expectations are anything but great, the guide is given praise for seeking to extract the poison from modern hymnals, yet it offers little to nourish the soul.
More to the point, while the guide is full of hopeful words, will it produce actions?
I am right now flipping through a hymnal. It is the Breaking Bread 2021 hymnal released by Oregon Catholic Press. Now this yearly hymnal is a staple at many parishes, enjoying immense influence on the Catholic liturgical landscape in North America. Of note, the latest hymnal boasts on its inside cover: “Published with the approval of the Committee on Divine Worship, United States Conference of Catholic Bishops.” That is an important claim.
What do we find in said hymnal? It is a hymnal that is tiresome, inane, fruity, and worthless. It is heavy on “bread”, “us”, and the St. Louis Jesuits, and weak on the Holy Sacrifice, God, and real saints. “I am your song” and “sing your song in me” are its theology, Dr. Seuss its poeticism, and Celine Dion-styled sentimentality its melody. We are told that All Are Welcome – committee’s guide be damned – not once but in two featured songs. There is a hymn inspired by Pope Francis’ Laudato Si where we must sing: “All praise be to you through Sister, Mother Earth.” Finally, we are barraged with the usual unintelligent babble, such as singing a new Church into being (how prophetic), living as bread for others, and – because of our diversity – going forth to make a difference. Not repulsed yet? You can read my full review here.
But if I had to describe the latest Breaking Bread 2021 hymnal in one word, I would actually choose a number. Forty-four. As in, last I checked, there have been forty-four women who have accused Catholic composer David Haas of sexual misconduct. Forty-four! And still, STILL, after all the Church has been through with abuse and cover-ups, our latest Breaking Bread 2021 hymnal unabashedly publishes the music of David Haas. One wonders what the magic number is before accusations are taken seriously? Perhaps Theodore McCarrick knows.
Breaking Bread 2021 must be removed from all parishes immediately. It is an offense against Catholicism. It is an offense against beauty. It is even an offense against the many trees which were cut down so that it might be published yearly (I thought the publishers were inspired by Laudato Si?). It is a hymnal built upon the same “spirit” which impelled men to smash high altars to the ground in the name of God; the same “spirit” which refused to teach children basic catechism; the same “spirit” which now advocates Holy Communion for all, while covering a multitude of grievous sins in the Church. It is the “spirit” of a new Church indeed. And there it rests in a surfeit of parishes which have imbibed the same “spirit”, while casting off the one true Spirit.
But surely, one may say, such a hymnal will be removed now that a committee from the United States Bishops has released a guide calling for some sanity in liturgical music. Surely! (As though there was ever a document by a committee that mattered). The truth is that Breaking Bread 2021 was released for the start of Advent, November 29, 2020. Meanwhile, the guide, Catholic Hymnody at the Service of the Church, is dated September, 2020. If the Catholic bishops truly cared about the words from their committee, they would never have allowed the Breaking Bread 2021 hymnal to be sent out to parishes in the first place, much less remain in these parishes. No, until there is action, the guide is simply a collection of empty words from yet another ersatz committee.
Permit me a personal anecdote to illustrate the what I mean by empty words. I am recalling a time when I once sang with my siblings in a small-town church choir. Our mission was simple: to restore the Church’s music tradition. These were my younger years when I was naïve enough to believe that the “reform of the reform” was both possible and worthwhile. We sang chant, polyphony, and traditional hymns at a Mass once a month (we were not permitted more Masses than that). Many loved it. A few did not.
One day a man approached us immediately following Mass. He berated us for singing Latin at Mass, and noted that our bishop forbade it. Not one to take such an attack passively, I sought out justice. Thus began a lengthy pursuit for answers from the pastor, the bishop, the papal nuncio, and finally the bishop once more. Eventually the bishop assured me that Latin was cool, and even apologized for all the trouble we endured. I went away satisfied.
What happened? My siblings and I continued encountering ceaseless abuse at the parish. Eventually we stopped singing there, tired of being treated as an annoyance and second-class radicals. All are not welcome, apparently. As for the man who accosted us in the church that one Sunday? He was made a permanent deacon by the bishop. The assurances of the bishop were nothing but empty words.
When bishops actually enforce Catholicism, instead of occasionally paying lip-service to it with a music guide from a liturgical committee, maybe then I will become a believer that change is possible. But until then, expect a white cake with pink icing on display, while the room continues to imbibe the arsenic of post-conciliar Catholicism. And expect a Mass where such rubbish as Breaking Bread 2021 is there to welcome you – to welcome all – as you are, in diversity, and in being bread for others, even singing songs in others, so that Mother Earth may rain down the spirit of a new Church into being, while you go make a difference.
Empty words indeed.
Dan Millette is a husband and father of four. He teaches in Saskatchewan, Canada. Millette is a graduate from Our Lady Seat of Wisdom College in Ontario and has a Master of Arts degree in theology from Holy Apostles College in Connecticut. His personal blog is www.bravestthing.com.