No “one-size-fits-all” spirituality
Different ways to pray or sing are opportunities to broaden our horizon
By Susanne Janssen
Recently, I stumbled over an ad for a Facebook group shunning the songs of two composers who started writing contemporary religious songs in the 1980s.
Don’t get me wrong: there’s nothing wrong with disliking some of the newer church hymns. Maybe you prefer traditional hymns. Or Latin? Or no singing at all.
What made me sad, however, was the way in which the people who liked those songs were treated. Ridiculed. Insulted. Mocked.
As frequently happens when people share posts in a group, they assume that fellow readers share their opinions and attitudes. They shared many good laughs about people who still sing those songs, some of which expressed, in their opinion, definite heretical content. Or whimsy. Or something like a group hug.
But how can we claim to know which songs are suitable for church use or not? Perhaps we forget that many hymns currently sung at religious functions have already been evaluated and officially approved for liturgical use?
And it goes further: the Catholic Church — unlike other, small or local Protestant churches — has more than one billion members. How could they ever all worship in the same way?
Let’s take a look at Catholicism and its history of diversity. From its beginning, the Apostles had to face a different tradition, and discern carefully. The first major decision, already reported in the Acts of the Apostles, was whether Gentiles who wanted to become Christians needed to be circumcised or not (Acts 15:5–29).
While some who came from the tradition of the Pharisees wanted to require circumcision, Peter rose and shared his experience evangelizing the Gentiles. In the end, this first Council sent out the following in a letter.
“It seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us not to burden you with anything beyond the following requirements: You are to abstain from food sacrificed to idols, from blood, from the meat of strangled animals and from sexual immorality.” (Acts 15:28–29).
The members of the Council took their time to carefully examine, discuss and discern the truth. This “communitarian discernment” cannot be done without a process that contains understanding, listening, questioning, accommodating.
Over the centuries, the Catholic Church, due to her nature as katholikos, meaning universal or all embracing, always included a broad approach to live out the faith. From hermits, to committed families, to the faithful living with the poorest on the streets, there’s no “one size fits all” spirituality.
Just think of all the different charisms that saints brought to the Church, from intellectual gifts to discovering the poor. The Church today would certainly be different without St. Francis of Assisi.
But today it seems that we have lost the ability to discern together. Some people, confronted with the complexity of our modern world and the scandals that have shaken the Catholic Church, seemingly don’t want to listen anymore and have determined that they know the truth.
Can there be an alternative to this increasing “My way or the highway” attitude? Instead of shutting down on criticism or new ideas, why not change perspective and try out something new?
I remember two experiences I had that deeply enriched me, both with people of faith from traditions that were very different than mine.
The first happened when I was still in college. I tried to live out my faith with more actions than words. I was paired up for a presentation with a young woman who never wore jeans, but calf-length skirts instead. During our presentation about liturgical hymns in the 16th century, she gave witness to her love for Latin chants as proper Church music. Although my upbringing was different and I enjoyed modern songs during mass, I was touched by her genuine love for the Church and her coherence. Despite being nourished by different traditions, we became friends.
The other occurred around 10 years later, while attending gatherings with members of different evangelical churches who were charismatic in their worship. They even had a drum set, electric guitars, keyboards … everybody was getting up and repeating the words while moving their bodies to the music.
Not me, I thought. However, why not out of love try to sing the words that without a doubt formed beautiful lyrics? And somehow, I felt God present in this new form of prayer. Overcoming my limiting judgments helped build bridges and relationships.
And I realized, there lies a deeper problem than just not agreeing with how someone lives out their faith. God invites us to welcome the strangers (Mt 25:35), and maybe the stranger is the one who loves pop-style hymns, or who instead treasures the old Latin chants.
Not tolerating and actively insulting those who like different music or worship styles can also cause scandal, because while holding on to a tradition, we forget what we are called to: “love one another, as I have loved you” (Jn 13:34).
The Bible, regarding loving and welcoming those who are different, is unambiguous.
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