The Children’s Choir
It’s no secret that the quality of liturgical music in the typical Catholic parish runs the gamut from bad to mediocre. I’ve certainly done my share of complaining about it over the years and there’s no need to repeat any of those complaints. The subject pops up from time to time on popular Catholic blogs such as Open Book, and the wells of indignation start to overflow, as they have been doing for at least as long as I’ve been a Catholic, which is about twenty-five years now. Same old song, you might say. I know it pretty well, and I’m a little tired of it.
Besides, it seems to me that the situation is improving. Maybe it’s just my parish, but we have a fairly wide range of music, including some chant and Latin hymns, and are no longer as locked in to the mostly dreary Glory and Praise standards. This variety is present not just from one Mass to another but within the same Mass, and while some complain, reasonably enough, that it makes for a sense of fragmentation that’s a price I’m very willing to pay.
But even when music at a Catholic Mass is at its worst, most parishes can provide another and very rewarding auditory experience. I refer to the sound of children. Many a time I’ve been nudged out of a darkening resentment over some aspect of a liturgy when, during the homily or in some other relatively quiet moment, I became conscious of the voices of children too young to be entirely silent on demand: laughs, gurgles, cries, whines, absurdly loud whispers, any number of sentences beginning with “Mommy,” and every now and then The Big One, when you hear the thunk of a small head banging on a pew, followed by several seconds of silence, when you know the little one is gathering up all the outrage he feels and all the air he can get into his lungs, and that these will shortly burst out in a full-blown scream of anger and pain. The experienced parent uses this awful pause to get as far as possible in the direction of an exit before the embarrassing storm bursts.
A few days ago I ran across some complaints about a priest who was very intolerant of noisy children in church and published some rather ill-tempered admonitions in the parish bulletin. I don’t know what amount of noise he was responding to. Of course when a screaming child cannot be quieted fairly quickly, the level of disruption becomes unacceptable and the parents need to take the child out. But I hope the priest wasn’t trying to get rid of the sound of children altogether, as one or two parishes I’ve encountered have seemed to want to do. The sounds of children, even their crying and whining, provide a joyful and celebratory accent to whatever else is going on in the liturgy, forcing—or perhaps I should say inviting—the jaded and cantankerous to consider: here is new life, asserting its place in the community, shouting or murmuring a promise of continuity and hope, a bit of good news no matter what else is going on. Often I seek it out. If my mind wanders during the homily, I may find myself waiting attentively for the next bit of laughter or crying. At my parish I usually don’t have to wait very long, and I always smile when it comes.