Friday, June 14, 2019 - Updated: 3:41 pm
At the beginning of summer, a couple of suggestions for books to read. They’re not exactly beach reading. They’re books with meat on their bones, as my grandmother said about things that met her standards for seriousness. One’s a happy book, one not so happy.
First, there’s Pittsburgh’s own Mike Aquilina’s new book. He was, among other distinctions, an editor of this newspaper. He and his wife were also my and my family’s sponsors when we entered the Catholic Church, so I may not be entirely objective about his writing, though I will try to be.
His new book is “How the Choir Converted the World.” It has the painfully cute subtitle of “Through Hymns, With Hymns, And In Hymns.” Mike likes puns. It is one of his faults. (As I said, I’m trying to be objective.)
We think, “Music in church, of course we have music in church.” But we might not have had it. In an interview with the Macau Catholic Weekly, Aquilina explains that the early Christians weren’t sure about music. (In case you’re wondering, Macau sits across a bay from Hong Kong. Now part of China, it was a Portuguese territory until 1999.)
“Music had all kinds of shady associations in the ancient world,” he writes. Prostitutes used songs as advertisements and pagan temples got people to take part in orgies with music. Worse, “the worshippers of Moloch used loud, frenzied music to drown out the screams of the children they sacrificed.”
Not surprisingly, some Church Fathers were having none of it. They “banned particular instruments, or female voices, or techniques of trilling and such.” Others allowed it because they understood singing to be an act of worship.
Weirdly, hymn-writing got a big boost from the heretic Arius. He’s the one who claimed Jesus is less than fully God, which led to the first ecumenical council, which led to the Nicene creed we say at Mass on Sundays.
He put his bad ideas into song. “His heresy became like the ad jingle you can’t get out of your head,” Aquilina writes. Several of the Church Fathers of the time “were roused to take up the art because they saw the success of Arian hymnography. It’s as if they woke up and said: Why should the heretics get all the good songs?”
Aquilina’s is the happy book. The not-so-happy book is Stephen Bullivant’s “Mass Exodus.” It has the depressing subtitle “Catholic Disaffiliation in Britain and America since Vatican II.” (The publisher says the book will be out at the end of the month.)
Bullivant has been here. He spoke to the diocesan young people two Octobers ago. A sociologist teaching at a Catholic college in England, he had been an atheist but discovered the Catholic faith.
He explores what St. John Paul II meant when he said in 1990 that “Entire groups of the baptized have lost a living sense of the faith, or even no longer consider themselves members of the church, and live a life far removed from Christ and his Gospel.”
Bullivant offers a diagnosis. He tells a gloomy story, but as the pope also said, “The church cannot shirk the responsibility of making a courageous diagnosis which will make it possible to decide on appropriate therapies.”
In America, Bullivant writes in the Catholic Herald, “a third of cradle Catholics no longer identify as such, with half of these now being religious ‘nones.’ In the U.S., there is roughly one convert for every seven who leave.” Something similar is true for almost every country in Europe and the Americas.
Only about 15% of people who were born Catholic go to Mass every week. The number is even lower in England. The number of young people who identify as Catholic and actively practice their faith is very low everywhere.
People leaving is called “lapsation.” (It’s the way sociologists talk. Sorry.) People bailing entirely is called “deconversion.”
In Pittsburgh, we’re used to meeting people who say “I’m Catholic” but don’t go to Mass. They’re lapsed. At least they have half a foot in the door and maybe we can get them back in.
Even here, increasing numbers don’t have that. They’re deconverted. They’re walking away from the door as fast as they can. We have our work cut out for us. Bullivant’s book gives the information we need to figure out what to do.
Mills is writing a book on death and dying for Sophia Institute Press.