The Changing Landscape of the U.S. Catholic Church: Care for the Grieving, Fervor for the Unfolding

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This post originally appeared in the Fall 2018 issue of AIM Magazine. A Spanish-language version of this article can be found here.

From time to time, music director friends of mine will express frustration when people in their congregations get downright angry when songs at Mass are sung in a language other than English. Frequently, the culprit causing this angry reaction is a newly-introduced bilingual (English-Spanish) piece such as a responsorial psalm or communion hymn. It should be noted that even though the serving size of the other language might only be a couple of words or a short phrase, it can be enough to set off a storm of backlash among some pew-dwellers.

It’s easy for those of us who plan liturgies or lead music to take such comments from the pew personally, or as an affront to our ministerial efforts. After all, how could a fellow Christian person spew such contempt for another? For those at the bench or director’s podium, it can be exhausting trying to fend offcritics of what we simply see as a good- will gesture. But if we truly purport to serve with pastoral sensitivity, we must not be too quick to dismiss their outrage. Let me explain.

Fear and Frustration

Once I was presenting a workshop on bilingual music, and a bystander exclaimed from the back of the room,“Tell them they should sing in English. This is America!”

I could see signs of obvious disbelief from others in the room at this outburst. Rather than engage in a heated public debate, I simply told the person, an elderly woman, directly, “Thank you for expressing your sentiment. I would love to hear what you have to say afterward.” Finding a space to speak one on one, I invited her to share more. She stated that her parents had come to this country and had learned English, so that’s what she honestly felt everyone needed to do.

“These people all come here and expect me to sing in their language. Why should I have to change for them when I was already here?” she fretted.

Trying to frame it in a less generalized way, I responded gently, “You’re not changing for everyone else, you’re just letting a family member—others in your Christian family—know and love God in their own way, just as you love God in your own way. If your mother had been unable to learn English for whatever reason, wouldn’t you still have wanted her to worship God in whatever way she knew, even in her native tongue?”

When thought of abstractly as an invasion of her ideology, the notion was cause for fear. As soon as it became personalized, the matter was cast in a slightly different light, just enough to see another’s perspective.

Anger, Jealousy . . . Grief

It is important to remember that these reactions come from a place of anger — more precisely, anger as a stage of grieving, anger that is expected and natural. For many Anglo churchgoers, especially older generations, the mere presence of non-English words at Mass signifies the loss of something they had taken for granted, depriving them of something familiar and expected. (The irony, of course, being that what they miss is the non-vernacular language of the pre-Vatican II Mass many of them knew.) Fr. Ken Davis, OFM Conv., in an article titled “From Gomer to Gomez: Joy and Grief in Hispanic Ministry,” insightfully draws a parallel between the stages of grief and the loss some may feel as the Church they knew changes before their eyes. This romanticized past he refers to as a “Catholic Mayberry” (if you’re old enough to recognize the 1960s TV show reference). Coping with this lossfirst manifests as anger. We in ministry must be aware of the potential grief-in- progress. Treating anger with more anger only ignores the very real pain at stake.

Let us not forget that serving all those in our flock with true pastoral sensitivity requires an awareness of how different members are affected by change. Especially if a community has been accustomed to certain ways for a long time, any shake-up of this norm can come as a shock to those who might be quite content with the way things are. Thus, while a parish eagerly welcomes new sheep into the fold, some “pastoral care of the grieving” may be needed for existing members to accept these new members. The older brother in the Gospel parable of the prodigal son can be a helpful reminder of the natural human tendency to misinterpret attention to another as less love and value for oneself—jealousy. As the merciful father reminded the young man, “My son, you are here with me always; everything I have is yours. But now we must celebrate and rejoice, because your brother . . . has been found” (Luke 15:31–32). For the father, love for the newly-arrived didn’t equate to any less love for the already-there.

Diversity and Hospitality

Let me affirm the courage of liturgy planners who take the bold step of challenging their congregations with unfamiliar music selections, from diocesan-level celebrations to weekend parish liturgies. Twenty, thirty, or more years ago, the thought of a non-English vernacular hymn sung at an English Mass would have been unheard of. But this nation’s congregational tapestry has diversified substantially over the years, and while English remains predominant in many areas, one cannot deny that among the sea of faces in our assemblies there are those for whom English may not be their native tongue. Singing in another’s language extends a welcome to the stranger among us—to those in the shadows of the farthest pews who have journeyed here from afar and timidly step into our sanctuaries in search of inclusion and acceptance in time of prayer. It is a linguistic gesture of hospitality.

Dominant cultures are uniquely positioned to extend this gesture of hospitality. Pastoral leaders readily acknowledge the merits of communal singing in another’s language. But there can be a hint of mistrust, reluctance, even resentment on the part of those in the dominant culture, who may feel unwittingly roped into an effort they don’t agree with, and others who outright resist taking any part in it whatsoever. Liken it to a mother telling an agitated child to go share his toys with his baby brother, even though at that moment he can’t stand the fact that he even has a baby brother and absolutely hates him. The mother’s request will hardly be carried out with enthusiasm. But at some point, even rivaling siblings grow up and learn to appreciate what family is. Thus, the well-meaning liturgy planner presses on, knowing that it is a good thing to ruffle feathers and rattle comfort zones. After all, we’re talking about true communion here. In fact, we can draw a kind of musical analogy to the sign of peace, which invites us to seek out not those with whom we share the most, but those with whom we may have the greatest differences.

Acceptance, Embrace, Peace

Recall that the human journey through grief has the potential to arrive at peace by way of acceptance. So, we pray that for those who find themselves thrust onto this journey of grief, it may lead them one day to a place not only of acceptance, but of embracing the new and seeing Christ in the unfamiliar. In this series’ previous article, Dr. Patricia Hughes wrote about opening doors, specifically “opening doors to Christ.” In order to do so, the door of acceptance of others needs to be propped open, too. It’s a heavy door, and heavy doors take strength to pivot on their hinges against their own weight and natural resistance, but we must open this door further and further, until with each push it finally stays open to the future. It is then that we can face with fervor the unfolding of Christ’s plan for us, his church.

Peter Kolar

Peter Kolar

GIA Publications

Peter is the Editor for Spanish and Bilingual Resources at GIA Publications. He is an accomplished composer and pianist known for his creative use of both classical and Latin-American musical forms. Peter holds a masters degree in music composition from Northwestern University and sits on the board of directors for the Southwest Liturgical Conference. He resides in El Paso, TX, where he is the Director of the Diocesan Choir.