J. A. Tucker
It usually starts with the missalettes — those lightweight
booklets scattered around the pews of your parish church. They contain
all the readings of the Sunday Masses, plus some hymns and responses in
the back. There's nothing between the covers that would offend an
orthodox sense of the faith, and most of the songs are traditional by
So, what's the problem?
Well, if your missalettes are like those issued in more than half
of American parishes, they're copyrighted by the Oregon Catholic Press
(OCP) — the leading Catholic purveyor of bad music in the United States.
Four times a year, it prints and distributes 4.3 million copies of the
seemingly unobjectionable booklets (which OCP doesn't call missalettes).
But that's just the beginning of its massive product line, where
each item is integrated perfectly with the others to make liturgical
planning quick and easy. To instruct and guide parish musicians and
liturgy teams, the OCP prints hymnals, choral scores, children's
songbooks, Mass settings, liturgy magazines (with detailed instructions
that are slavishly followed by parishes around the country), and CDs for
planning liturgies and previewing the newest music.
This collection of products, however, does not include a hymnal —
or anything else — designed to appeal to traditional sensibilities (its
is deceptively misnamed). The OCP's experts
never tire of promoting the new, rewriting the old, and inviting you to
join them in their quest to "sing a new church into being" (as one of
their hit songs urges). The one kind of "new" that the OCP
systematically avoids is the new vogue of traditional music that has
proved so appealing to young Catholics.
The bread and butter of the OCP are the 10,000 music copyrights
It employs a staff of 150, runs year-round liturgy workshops
all over the United States, sponsors affiliates in England and
Australia, and keeps song-writers all over the English-speaking world on
its payroll. In fact, it's the preferred institutional home of those
now-aging "St. Louis Jesuits"
who swept out the old in 1969 and, by the
mid-1970s, had parishes across the country clapping and strumming and
tapping to the beat.
The OCP also sails under the flags of companies it has acquired,
established, or represented along the way: New Dawn Music, Pastoral
Press, North American Liturgy Resources, Trinitas, TEAM Publications,
White Dove Productions, and Cooperative Ministries. Every time it
purchases — or assumes the distribution of — another publisher, its
assets and influence grow.
Power Without Authority
But while the OCP dictates the liturgies of most U.S. parishes,
it has no ecclesiastical authority. It's a large nonprofit corporation —
a publishing wing of the Diocese of Portland (VOCAL correction, Archdiocese of Portland) — and nothing else. It has
never been empowered by the U.S. bishops, much less Rome, to oversee music or liturgy in American parishes.
The OCP's power over Catholic liturgy is derived entirely from
its copyrights, phenomenal sales, and marketing genius. Nonetheless, it
wields the decisive power in determining the musical culture of most
public Masses in the United States.
And once a parish dips into the product line of the OCP, it is
very difficult to avoid full immersion. So complete and integrated is
their program that it actually reconstructs the sense that the liturgy
team has about what Catholicism is supposed to feel and sound like.
But few of those subject to the power of the OCP understand that
it's the reason why Catholic liturgy so often seems like something else
entirely. For example, pastors who try to control the problem by getting
a grip on their liturgies quite often sense that they're dealing with
an amorphous power without a name or face. That's because very few
bother to examine the lay-directed materials that are shaping the
liturgies. Too many priests are willing to leave music to the musicians,
fearing that they lack the competence to intervene.
Meanwhile, the nature of the OCP is completely unknown to most
laypeople. Many Catholics shudder, for example, when they hear the words
Glory & Praise
, the prototypical assortment of musical candy
that was already stale about 15 years ago but which mysteriously
continues to be repackaged and rechewed in parish after parish. "Here I
am, Lord," "Be Not Afraid," "City of God," "One Bread, One Body,"
"Celtic Alleluia," and (wait for it) "On Eagle's Wings" — these all come
courtesy of the OCP.
But at the publisher itself, this moldy repertoire is not an embarrassment. On the contrary, the publisher brags that Glory & Praise
whose copyright it acquired in 1994, continues to be the best-selling
Catholic hymnal of all time. And what about those prayers of the
faithful that seem far more politically than doctrinally correct?
They're probably from the OCP, too. A new edition of its Prayer of the Faithful
is printed every year. (In what is surely great news for the
unrepentant, the OCP brags that the volume helpfully includes "creative
alternatives to the Penitential Rite.")
Hijacking Of Catholic Truth
It wasn't always like this. Before 1980, the OCP was called the
Oregon Catholic Truth Society. It was founded in 1922 in response to a
compulsory school-education law that forced Catholics to attend public
schools. Archbishop Alexander Christie got together with his priests to
found the society. Its aim: to fight bigotry and stand up for truth and
In 1934, the Oregon Catholic Truth Society released a missal called My Sunday Missal.
It was good-looking, inexpensive, and easy to use. It became the most
popular missal ever (you can still run across it in used bookstores).
But the rest of the story is as familiar as it is troubling.
Sometime in the late 1960s and early 1970s, the Oregon Catholic Truth
Society began to lose its moorings. Catholic truth had to make room for
the Age of Aquarius. Thus, in the course of a single decade, a
once-reliable representative of Catholic teaching became reliably
unreliable. Money given to the organization to promote truth was now
being used to advance a revolutionary approach to Catholic life, one
that repudiated traditional forms of the faith.
The only thing that did
not change was the breadth of its influence: Under the new dispensation,
it was still a powerhouse of Catholic publishing.
If you've been keeping up with the OCP's latest offerings, you
know that the songs from the mid-1970s don't begin to plumb the depths.
The newest OCP hymnals are jam-packed with music from the 1980s and
1990s, with styles meant to reflect the popular music trends of the
time. (Actually, they're about five years behind the times.)
They sail under different names (Music Issue, Journeysongs, Heritage Hymnal, Glory & Praise
but the content is similar in all of them: an eclectic, hit-and-miss
bag with an emphasis on new popular styles massaged for liturgical use.
(Worst choice: Spirit & Song
, which "encourages the youth and young adults of today to praise God in their own style")
Some of the newer songs sound like variations on the musical
themes you hear at the beginning of TV sitcoms. Some sound like
Broadway-style love songs. Others have a vague Hawaiian, calypso, or
blues feel. You never know what's going to pop up next.
Not all of it is terrible. In fact, there are real toe-tappers
among the songs. The question to ask, however, is whether it's right for
. The answer from the Church has been the same from the
second century to the present day: The Mass requires special music,
which is different from secular music and popular religious music. It
must have its own unique voice — one that works, like the liturgy
itself, to bring together time and eternity. It's a style perfectly
embodied in chant, polyphony, and traditional hymnody.
The OCP revels in its ability to conflate these categories;
indeed, that's the sum total of its purpose and effect. And judging from
its newest new line of songs and CDs — "we just couldn't wait until our
next General Catalog to tell you about it" — your parish can look
forward to a variety of ska and reggae songs adapted for congregational
How It Hooks You
But let's go back to that innocent, floppy missalette. The OCP
claims it has many advantages. Missalettes "make it easy for you to
introduce the latest music to your parish, and changes in Church rituals
are easy to implement." Thus the missalette is "always up-to-date."
It's also quite a bargain. If you buy more than 50 subscriptions
to the quarterly missalette, you receive other goodies bundled inside.
You'll get a Music Issue (the main OCP hymnal) to supplement the
thin selection in the missalette. In addition, you'll receive a keyboard
accompaniment book, a guitar book, the Choral Praise Comprehensive, a handy service binder, two annual copies of Respond & Acclaim for the psalm and the gospel acclamation, biannual copies of Prayer of the Faithful, two subscriptions to Today's Liturgy
(which tells liturgy teams what to sing and say, when and how), and one
master index. And the more you buy, the more you get.
Why would you want all this stuff? Well, if you're in parish
music, you'll quickly discover that the missalette has too few hymns to
cover the whole season. The Music Issue
seems like an economical
purchase. But there's something odd about the OCP's most popular music
book: There's no scriptural index. How do you know what hymns fit with
what gospel reading?
No problem. Just buy a copy of Today's Liturgy
, which spells it all out for you. If you want a broader selection of possible hymns, you can also order the OCP's LitPlan
software or its monthly Choral Resources
, which is visually more complicated than the Federal Register
(but still contains no scriptural index).
If you follow the free liturgical planner closely, you'll notice
you can purchase a variety of choral arrangements and special new music
(copyright OCP) that match perfectly with the response, the hymnal, and
the missalette (copyright OCP), which is itself integrated with the
prayers of the faithful (copyright OCP) and the gospel (not yet OCP
copyright). And so it goes, until you follow the complete OCP plan for
each Mass, from the first "Good morning, Father!" to the last "Go in
peace to love and serve others!" By making each element dependent on the
next, the OCP has ensured a steady — if trapped — clientele.
But why should the liturgy team go along with this program? The
average parish musical team is made up of non-professionals. Its poorly
paid members are untrained in music history; they have no particular
craving for chant or polyphony, which often seems quite remote to them.
Most musicians in average Catholic parishes would have no idea how to
plug into the rite an extended musical setting from, say, the high
Renaissance, even if they had the desire to do so.
The OCP understands this point better than most publishers. In an interview, Michael Prendergast, editor of Today's Liturgy, pointed again and again to the limited resources of typical parishes.
The OCP sees serving such needs as a core part of its publishing
strategy; its materials keep reminding us that we don't need to know
Church music to get involved.
Lack of familiarity with the Church's musical tradition would not
be a grave problem if there were a staple of standard hymns and Mass
settings to fall back on. But it has been at least 30 years since such a
setting was available in most parishes. The average parish musician
wants to use his talents to serve the parish in whatever way possible,
but he's at a complete loss as to how to do it without outside guidance.
The OCP fills that vacuum.
Under its tutelage, you can aspire to be a real liturgical
expert, which means you have attended a few workshops run by
OCP-connected guitarists and songwriters (who explain that your job as a
musician is to whip people into a musical frenzy: loud microphones,
drum tracks, over-the-top enthusiasm when announcing the latest hymn).
These "experts" love the OCP's material because it allows them to keep
up the pretense that they have some special knowledge about what hymns
should be used for what occasions and how the Mass ought to proceed.
Real Catholic musicians who have worked with the OCP material
tell horror stories of incredible liturgical malpractice.
arrangements are often muddled and busy, making it all but impossible
for regular parishioners to sing. This is especially true of
arrangements for traditional songs, where popular chords give old hymns a
gauzy cast that reminds you of the 1970s group Chicago.
The liturgical planning guides are a ghastly embarrassment. Two
years ago, for example, the liturgical planner recommended "Seek Ye
First" for the first Sunday in Lent ("Al-le-lu-, Al-le-lu-yah"). In
numerous slots during the liturgy, OCP offers no alternative to debuting
its new tunes. When traditional hymns are offered, they're often drawn
from the Protestant tradition, or else the words are changed in odd ways
(see, for example, its strange version of "Ubi Caritas"). The
liturgical instructions are equally pathetic. On July 8 this year, the
liturgical columnist passes on this profound summary of the gospel of
the day: "Live and let live."
The Middle Way?
Nevertheless, the OCP seems to have solved a major liturgical
rift affecting today's local churches. Just as every parish used to have
a low-Mass crowd and a high-Mass crowd, there are now two factions in
parishes: One wants more "contemporary" music of the sort seen in
Life-Teen Masses— loud, rhythmic, and rockish. Another wants traditional
music and sensibly asks whatever happened to the hymns of the old days.
These two groups are forever at loggerheads and have been so for
decades. In fact, most pastors are so sick of the dispute that they'll
do anything to avoid talking about music at Mass.
This is where OCP steps in and serves as the peacekeeping
moderate. After all, it's an established music publisher, and thanks to
the missalette, it doesn't appear (at first) to be particularly
partisan. Its literature contains enough traditional material to allow
the liturgical team to claim they're sensitive to the needs of both the
contemporary and traditional factions. Indeed, the OCP eschews the most
extreme forms of grunge-metal Life-Teen music (though its Spirit & Song
comes close). At first sight, it does appear to take the middle ground
between two extremes. In truth, however, it's only slightly behind the
curve of the most radical liturgical innovators — as it's always behind
the curve in the popular styles it tries to imitate.
What about the other option of splitting up the Masses according
to style, so that those who like traditional music can have their own
Mass and the people who compose for the OCP can have theirs? Prendergast
rejects this. Whether the style is traditional, contemporary, folk, or
even "rock," Prendergast says, "everyone in the parish has to be exposed
to it." And what if a pastor just doesn't like rock and other
contemporary styles? Prendergast says, "I would talk to the [chancery's]
Office of Worship about him." I asked whether that means he would turn
this poor priest in to the bishop. His response: "I would try to arrange
for him to attend a workshop on liturgy."
With a great deal of knowledge, careful planning, and conscious
intent, it is possible to manufacture decent liturgies even if the OCP
music is all you have. You'll have to dig to find the good hymns (10 to
20 percent in the typical OCP publications), but it can be done. It's
also true that not everyone involved with the OCP wants to destroy all
that has gone before. There are probably many people on its middle-aged
staff who from time to time cringe at the music, just as the people in
the pews do. For his part, Prendergast is sure that he thinks with the
mind of the Church, and there's no reason to doubt his sincerity.
In fact, there are periodic signs of hope. Regular readers of Today's Liturgy
might have been astounded to see the recent one-page article buried in
its pages that urged children be taught Latin hymns and chant. "The
Second Vatican Council did not destroy the tradition of chant," said the
writer, who was a student of the excellent English composer John
Rutter. "We can still claim our chant heritage as part of the living
Church's journey into the future." Indeed we can! But the news seems to
be slow in getting around the OCP office. (The same issue contained a
blast against a poor old lady who read a prayer book during Mass instead
of singing goodness knows what.)
What's completely amazing about the entire OCP family is how
lacking it is in self-awareness. The poor quality of contemporary
Catholic music is a cultural cliché that turns up in late-night shows,
Woody Allen movies, and Garrison Keillor's Prairie Home Companion
It is legendary among real musicians. Ask an organist what he thinks
about today's Catholic music, and you will receive a raised eyebrow or a
What You Can Do Right Now
The truth is that no one
is happy with the state of
Catholic liturgical music — least of all musicians — and the OCP is a
big part of the problem. So, what can you do?
Step 1 is to get rid of
the liturgical planning guides and use an old Scripture index to select
good hymns that have stood the test of time (if you absolutely must
continue to use the OCP's materials).
Step 2 is to rein in the
liturgical managers and explain to them that the Eucharist, and not
music, is the reason people show up to Mass Sunday after Sunday.
is to get rid of the OCP hymnals and replace them with Adoremus
or something from GIA (no, none of these is perfect, but they are all an oasis by comparison).
Update 2013 St. Joseph's Salem has St. Michael Hymnal. A step towards Sacred Music. It is beautiful and does not include changes in wording to have a static gender neutral meaning.
Finally, reconsider those innocuous little missalettes. These
harmless-looking booklets may be the source of the trouble. Parishes can
unsubscribe — accept no OCP handouts or volume discounts. There are
plenty of passable missalettes and hymnals out there, and all the choral
music you'll ever need is now public domain and easily downloadable for
In his book, The Spirit of the Liturgy
2000), Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger states clearly that popular music does
not belong at Mass. Indeed, it's part of "a cult of the banal," and
"rock" plainly stands "in opposition to Christian worship."
This is very strong language from the cardinal. And yet we know
that many liturgy teams in American parishes will continue to do what
they've been doing for decades — systematically reconstructing the
liturgy to accommodate pop aesthetic sensibilities. The liturgy is
treated not as something sublimely different but as a well-organized
social hour revolving around religious themes.
It's up to you to decide the future course of your parish's
liturgy: reverent worship or hootenanny.
Despite what the OCP might tell
you, you can't have both.
J. A. Turner is the choral director of a schola cantorum and writes frequently for Crisis
© 2002 The Morley Institute