Most Catholics in our world seem to take a flippant attitude towards liturgical music. It is all-too-frequently deemed something suitable for competent amateurs, of lesser concern and of secondary importance – until, of course, it isn’t.
The news this week of the unexpected and noteworthy resignation of Johh Romeri as head of Liturgical Music in Philadelphia has put the issue of music front and center in the Catholic world. Mr. Romeri – once named “Full-time Pastoral Musician of the Year” by the National Association of Pastoral Musicians, is held in high regard as a performer, educator, and clinician in the world of Catholic music. It is worth noting that he is generally considered an aesthetic moderate, and thus, not a controversial figure.
Regarding the reasons for his resignation, Romeri cited a “constant griping” on the part of his boss, Archbishop Chaput, and “irreconcilable differences” regarding their understanding of the role of music in the liturgy. Perusing the Sacred Triduum congregational Mass handout for 2015, we can see Romeri’s tasteful selection of music, which alternated between simple chants, congregational singing, and choral polyphony. It is the kind of musical selection that might be heard in many liturgically conservative areas, and comparable to the regular and excellently executed musical fare at the National Shrine of the Basilica of the Immaculate Conception. The work of this latter has become, by most accounts, the American standard for music at a well-executed Novus Ordo. It is therefore distressing that Romeri, in his otherwise genteel and understated letter of resignation, wrote:
“This Holy Week, while [sic] some of the most beautiful liturgies I have ever conducted, was not well received by the archbishop. This is the continuation of several years of discontent on his part with the Liturgical Music at the Cathedral and at Archdiocesan liturgies. There are simply irreconcilable differences in our understanding of the role of music in the Liturgy and the role of the choir. While at this point, I am not sure just what my next musical adventure looks like, it is absolutely the right thing for me to leave this present situation.”
While Archbishop Chaput is a well-respected and highly articulate theological conservative – as well as a gifted homilist – he has never been known for liturgical traditionalism. This author recalls his time spent in Denver, where Abp. Chaput’s masses were often accompanied by a well-rehearsed but aesthetically deficient contemporary band. The kind of music presented on these occasions rarely reflected the wishes of the Church regarding proper liturgical fare. In light of this, one can only speculate that the Archbishop may be pushing his See’s music program to sound more “contemporary” and less Catholic, especially in anticipation of the pope’s forthcoming visit to Philadelphia.
Regardless of the reason, this tragic misunderstanding between competent ecclesial authority and competent musical authority brings to light a long-standing conflict between the proper Catholic aesthetic and what is assumed to be the aesthetic derived from the so-called “Spirit of the Council.”
The simple fact that Catholic liturgy has historically evolved organically along with its music – that it is traditionally a sung liturgy (as aptly documented in William Mahrt’s “The Musical Shape of the Liturgy”) – puts music near the center of the hermeneutical debate over authentic liturgical development that is such a staple of modern Catholic discourse. Yet it seems that outside of the small community of competent musical authorities, few Catholics – let alone their clergy – seem cognizant of the fact that musical choices in the Mass are anything but a “matter of taste.”
The “tyranny of taste” is part of the “dictatorship of relativism,” each boiling over, often with disastrous results, into the Church’s liturgical life. This situation is made worse by a strong lack of seminary education on Catholic liturgical music and aesthetics, along with a general attitude which precludes the competent Church musician’s natural authority in such matters. At the very least, a pastor or bishop should know that the Church has specific wishes in regards to music in the liturgy, and be able to hire a well-trained music director to execute the Church’s vision. The pastor or bishop should also be willing to consult with – and when appropriate, defer to – the director’s long developed specialty. In the case of Mr. Romeri, we have just such a specialist whose clear, Catholic aesthetic vision seems to have been senselessly pushed aside. Only time – and the future musical direction of the Archdiocese of Philadelphia – will reveal to what extent this conflict was over a proper understanding of the Church’s musical tradition and aesthetics. We’ll be watching – and listening – very carefully indeed.
Dr. Mark Nowakowski is a scholar and composer whose music has been performed internationally and released on the Gramophone-praised Naxos Records album, “Blood, Forgotten.” His writings on Catholicism, music, aesthetics, and music technology appear in numerous publications regularly, while he also maintains an active schedule as a composer and professor of music. A proud native of Chicago, he currently lives with his wife and three children in Ohio.