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Thursday, August 21, 2003
A TALE OF TWO PRIORITIES

Too many people think that the arts are optional. Especially in the Church. Especially in rectories.... sigh.

Story... A couple of years ago I was running the liturgy at my parish somewhere here in L.A. We had one overworked priest and half of our people were "undocumented aliens." Very poor parish. Well, the music was horrible every weekend. The worst of the worst. Most of the time we had no musicians, but then on really bad weekends, a middle-aged couple, Mary and Steve, would show up and and wail very flat and loud, strumming the same three chords on their cursed guitars regardless of the hymn.

The pews were mostly empty. Only a few of us suffering stalwarts would trickle in week after week, staring blankly ahead, victims of the liturgical beauty lobotomy.

So, then, in a moment of crazed desperation, I drove to UCLA one Sunday after Mass and stormed the music school. I found three student musicians and a soprano - all very talented and broke - who were willing to come and play and sing for us every week for forty dollars each.

I took up a collection from some of the other desperate pew martyrs, and unearthed one fairly wealthy old lady who agreed to subsidize the musicians for a year.

So, I went to Father and told him my good news. He was dismissive and petulant.

"I don't want to offend Mary and Steve. They've been volunteering for years."

"Yes, Father," I offered, "but they are awful."

Then, his eyes narrowed.

"This kind of elitism is what Vatican II was supposed to stop. The point now is for everybody to sing, not for just a few." And then a pithy bit, "God judges our hearts not our vocal chords."

Resisting the impulse to scream, "GOOOOOOOD GRIEF!!!!!", I made the point that the addition of trained musicians would cost the parish nothing. He moved from petulant to annoyed.

'Of course it will! Whoever is giving money for the music will certainly give less to the parish. Besides, once we start this, we'll have to find a way to keep it up, won't we? Suppose the donors drop out. Then, what?"

In the end, Father refused to allow the musicians to disrupt the perfect awfulness of our Sunday morning liturgies.... He did, however, ask me who the donors were so that he could hit them up for the parish food bank.

Our dear pastor and persecutor was suffering under the misconception that feeding his people bread was essential, but feeding them beauty was an extra. So sad. Beautiful music would have roused the people out of numb comas and created a powerful climate of prayer. Praying together better would have made us a stronger community. Hearing beautiful music would have made us want to make our lives "works of art" to borrow from JPII, and so we would have been roused to greater generosity, kindness and solicitude. Finally, beautiful music would fill the pews and, [drily] the collection would have gone up.