A blog by the magazine's editors and contributors


Why Catholics Can't Sing

Over at MOJ, my fellow MOJ blogista, Commonweal contributor and law prof, Rob Vischer, posted a lament about why he liked almost everything about being a convert to Catholicism except the singing at Mass, where he gets the sensation that he is at a "very sleepy campfire sing-along." He is so right, as I wrote in this follow on post at MOJ, though the real question is why Catholics can't (or won't) sing:

I was touched by Rob's cri de coeur about the dreariness of Catholic liturgical music and congregational singing. And I can't dismiss his despair about what passes for music in our churches as the lament of a not-yet-fully-assimilated evangelical convert still longing for "Amazing Grace" and "Rock of Ages." This cradle Catholic agrees entirely with Rob about not just the lousy singing but a body of music that. at best, combines the Carpenters with bad show tunes or Sesame Street singalongs. If you think I am just being some kind of snob, check out Thomas Day's terrific book. "Why Catholics Can't Sing: The Culture of Catholicism and the Triumph of Bad Taste." The book begins with this intriguing passage: "Contemplate this very odd situation. Today, a large number of Roman Catholics in the US who go to church regularly--perhaps the majority--rarely or barely sing any of the music. (I have heard a congregation of fifty elderly Episcopalians produce more volume than three hundred Roman Catholics.) If you think about it, this stands out as a most curious development in the history of Christianity." Day does not provide a simple explanation for why this is true (ie, it all went to hell in a handbasket because of Vatican II. Actually, it was pretty bad before that too.) Instead, he argues that "The uneven singing of the American Catholic congregation is really a symptom, not the disease itself. It is the result of a human history that stretches across the centuries, not the result of some recent artistic or musical development." I will leave it to our readers to turn to Professor Day for an explication of that history.



Commenting Guidelines

  • All

I am a Catholic and I sing, often with great fervor. But I only sing hymns that I like, mostly older hymns, and some of the best are of Protestant origin. I regard the musical side of most of the recently composed hymns as dreary and insipid. I suspect that this is not entirely a communal attitude, but there it is.

Thomas Day's book has been hashed and rehashed countless times. I think he overstates his case and relies too much on subjective experience.We now have a cultural phenomenon against music participation in the West. Not only have we evolved away from music-making with our hi-fi stereos, Walkmans and iPods, but with the advent of cable tv and the music video, music now becomes a watching experience above and beyond being a listening one.That said, there are Catholic parishes doing a good job with congregational singing and high quality music. Probably not enough, admittedly, but in my line of work, I don't see much of the poor ones.

I think Todd is on to something. We've become a culture of watchers.I also think that singing with people requires a certain amount of trust, kindness and community feeling. Last time I saw this truly happen was 25 years ago in a tavern Up North on St. Patrick's Day. Mr. Kinney the bar owner brought in his 90-year-old mother Mary Rose, and everybody burst spontaneously into "My Wild Irish Rose" and collapsed in tears. This was at 11 a.m. So maybe it's not just the hymns, though many, as Joe says, are insipid. Anybody homesick for those good old Protestant hymns can visit

In my opinion the best participation happens with the ordinaries and providence has it that the ordinaries are supposed to be sung before hymns in our tradition anyway. In other words our common tradition has an order of preference governing the singing at a solemn Sunday (or Sat. pm) Mass: the priest's parts, the ordinaries and only then hymns should be introduced. Sadly, in most cases our liturgists reverse the order.I do not refer here to the weekday (low or recited) Mass.When is the last time you heard a sung "Credo" in English at a parish Sunday Mass? How about the "Our Father" the "Gloria" and the other ordinaries? Did you hear the Reproaches on Good Friday or the "Were you there" hymn? Variables like the psalm, collect, post-communion, the sequences on Pentecost and Easter, and yes that rare thing called the Introit (Entrance chant) should also be sung - the hymns used to replace the Introit are frequently of lesser quality than a chanted introit with the Gloria minor and the sequences are sometimes treated like unwelcome add-ons and (libera nos) are recited.And it is not just parishes that see this order reversed. Convents and religious houses are just as negligent in many cases.Why do liturgists discourage the singing of some ordinaries (esp. the Credo and the Reproaches) and some variables (introit)? I heard a wonderful English language credo on a few occasions in a Ruthenian parish. It is very easy to sing - it does exist.In my experience the people tend to sing the ordinaries whenever they can with more gusto than they grant those *sigh* OCP hymns. I am not against contemporary hymns - there are many good ones out there and I do enjoy singing them but I believe the ordinaries and variable prayers should be given first place.

I was born and raised Baptist, and I entered the Catholic Church on Easter Sunday 1977. I love the Church and would never leave her, but I still miss those hymns I sang as a child and as a young teenager.About 4 years ago I presided over a weekly communion service in a nursing home. I and several ladies came in to conduct the service. One of those ladies was herself a former Baptist, and she always played the piano. About half of the nursing home residents who attended this communion service were not Catholic, but they showed up week after week anyhow. So prior to the communion service itself, we started having a sing along of old Protestant hymns. The nursing home residents - both Protestant and Catholic - loved it, as did the three of us who came in to conduct the communion service. Sometimes you just can't beat harmonizing to "In the Garden." And when I'm low, I often find myself pulling down from my bookshelf at home an old battered hymnal my Baptist grandmother gave me, and I'll leaf through it finding some wonderful hymns that console me.

The Maid brings up an interesting question I don't know the answer to: Who decides what gets in the hymnal?BTW, we sing the Gloria, the refrain from the psalm, the bit before the Gospel reading and the Holy, holy, holy Lord, God of power and might. The Gloria they're using now is unsingable, but others are not and people tend to sing those more than they sing the hymns. Mark, my dad's family were strict Welsh Methodists. Your hymn sing sounds wonderful! Do you sing "Brighten the Corner" (I used to think the words were, "Some poor failing struggling seaman you may guide out of a bar") and "Just a Closer Walk With Thee"?

Jean:I indeed know "Brighten the Corner" and "Just a Closer Walk with Thee." How about "Softly and Tenderly" ("You who are weary come home") or "Little Brown Church in the Vale" ("No place is so dear to my childhood") or "Blessed Assurance" ("O what a foretaste of story divine!") or "The Old Rugged Cross" or "How Great Thou Art"?Once, a lady from the nursing home and I harmonized on "Softly and Tenderly." I took the melody line, and this 80-year old woman took the harmony line. That one brought down the house!It's not that I dislike what I sing in Church today. I'm also a monastic associate at New Melleary Abbey (Trappist house utside of Dubuque, Iowa), and I love chanting the psalms, for example. It's just that I like those old Protestant hymns as well. Protestant churches would do well to absorp some Catholic chants, and Catholics would do well do absorb some old Protestant hymns. I'd love to hear "Softly and Tenderly" at Holy Communion. I mean, how can you beat hearing "Softly and tenderly Jesus is calling" as you approach the Body and Blood of our Lord?

Like Jean, I have often wondered where they find these newer hymns, and who decides which deserve to be in the hymnals. My parish uses missals published by Oregon Catholic Press, and many of these new hymns are copyrighted by the publisher. OCP is apparently a major force in Catholic church music, and very influential as provider of all sorts of guides on how to put liturgies together. So I looked up OCP on the internet and found this article by J. A. Tucker on The Hidden Hand Behind Bad Catholic Music. It might help to explain why parishes get hooked on this kind of material when you would think they had much better options.

Jean,At the church we usually attend on Sundays singing of the Gloria, Responsorial Psalm, Sanctus, and Agnus Dei is the norm and there are usually four hymns. On a good day at least three hymns are "traditional". The Lord's Prayer is sometimes sung, but I have not heard a singing of the Creed, much less does anyone preach on it. (Why let anyone know that we are not Unitarians?) The Agnus Dei sometimes is done in Latin, for no announced reason. The choir's Latinity is not great. Come to thing of it neither is their pronunciation of English. One difficulty with the habitually sung parts is that the music is not always what is in the missallette (spelling?). Further, sometimes the organist varies the music without explanation. I would think that the best way to get participation is to offer less variety in this department. People will sing with more confidence if they know the music.My own preference among Protestant hymns is especially for ones with German music, but I am also very fond the hymns by Charles Wesley.

I am a cradle Catholic who went on a 15 year "sabbatical" and was a member of an evangelical look-alike church in San Francisco. It was there that I leared about singable music, most good, but some dreadfully horrible ("Beulan Land" and the like).I now am a member of a small parish in SF that has the most dynamic music program ever. On Sunday at the 10 AM we get about 300 people, who sing like 3,000! We have a wide variety of music ... traditional, trad Protestant, some Orthodox (real, not neocon) chants, Latin, and contemporary.The key seems to be the ability of the music director to choose wisely and regularly offer some variety. It is also necessary to attract folks into the choir who love to sing and express that love clearly and regularly.We also have a pastor who sings well and enjoys doing it. He is clearly singing along whenever appropriate, and oft times sings parts of the mass on his own.In our parish (Most Holy Redeemer on Diamond Street, in case there are any Bar Area lurkers here) those who don't sing lustily are in the definite minority.

I like "Be Thou My Vision"...and many similar hymns.I have noticed that the people tend to participate more when an ordinary is sung in Latin. One reason might be the ease in singing most of those chants compared to the musical jumps in the popular vernacular versions but it also may be inspired by the way the use of simple Latin ordinaries echo the continuity we have in our liturgy with the faith of our parents and grandparents.I enjoyed that link to Crisis explaining the hegemony certain groups have over liturgical music in the country. I wonder what will happen with the new Mass translation? I wonder if those publishers support the delay in reforming our translation or might they support the reform knowing it will bring about the purchasing of new materials?I still would like to explore the reasons so many professional liturgists give for doing the things they do be it the neglected creed, the invisible Introit or the silencing of the Reproaches.

Yes! Thank you, Susan, for that link. I sometimes say the "Hail Mary" in Latin because that's how I learned it from my little friends in the neighborhood who learned it at Catholic school. (They also learned how to baptize people in emergencies, and used to ask me to pretend to be a car crash victim so they could practice.)

Why Catholics can't sing:1. The staying power of the fallout from the Tridentine era ("let the choir do it"), and2. An unwillingness to pay for a good music program at their parishes ("where there's a will, there's a way").

I am fortunate enough to be an itinerant member of the choirs of two cathedrals: Holy Name(Bombay, India) and the Good Shepherd (Singapore). My personal experience is that Catholics definitely can sing. In both choirs, we regularly sing Credos, Glorias, Pater Nosters, Sanctus' and Agnus Deis. Not to mention the four Marian antiphons. Christmas brings with it the joy of singing Sweelinck's Hodie Christus Natus Est, Stille Nacht, In Dulci Jubilo et al. Passiontide: Lauda Ierusalem, Pange Lingua, The Reproaches AND the "Were You There" hymn, and the Stabat Mater. Not bad for amateur choirs.

I am a devout catholic mass singer, but it does seem like many of the singers at my parish either can't sing or they don't put much effort into it; and some of them only do it to perform. I do however think thats kinda stereotypical, because I do my best with my group to sound nice, and we practice many times. Everyone messes up at times, even Protestant singers, but that doesn't mean that there should be no music at the Catholic Masses, if they did that at my church I would be devastated, because I love church music. GIA and OCP are the most prolific publication companies, but there is lots of other stuff out there. I've had little bits and pieces of experience in many areas of Catholic Music, and I tend to prefer the contemporary music. But keep in mind one thing, ALL Catholic music must be approved by one of the Catholic Publications company before it can be used for liturgy. If it's in one of the GIA, OCP, WLP, or any of those companies' hymnals, then it's acceptable for using in church, but of course there's some that are more appropriate for different seasons. I wish everyone would stop complaining about the music being used, I mean there's lots of stuff that could be used that 's been approved; there should be some degree of comformity among parishes in terms of music, but on the same token, if there was no variety in music, church would be very monotonous. One thing I do wish, is that the Mass of Creation be faded out for awhile. It has been used contunuously by SO MANY parishes for over 20 years. Some more exciting mass settings include the Mass of God's Promise; Mass For the Life of the World; Jesus, Compassion of God; Do This in Memory of Me; and others. I'm actually trying to write a few settings to have published, as soon as the new Mass Translations are finished. When I sing at weddings and funerals, I try to avoid the Mass of Creation AND the Celtic Alleluia, which seems to be the most common combination. I'm not against contemporary music, but to a certain degree there should be a fine line between acceptable and not acceptable music.

I'm from the Philippines,a former altar server. Now I'm handling the children's choir in our chapel (St. Joseph the Worker Chapel),a mission area of our parish (Our Lady of the Most Holy Rosary Parish). Here we got many parishes and ministries that produce fine Filipino and English hymns and antiphons for the Mass celebrations. We regularly sing almost all of the songs needed for the celebration,the Kyrie, Gloria, Pater Noster, Acclamation, Lamb of God. I don't think Catholics can't sing, last Holy week when all the mission areas gather in our parish church.All the choirs, the religious in our community sung as one big choir occupying a big part of the church, and the congregation sing to a high degree with the choir. The music director must offer a wide variety of hymns that people can catch up and sing it as a reflection/prayer. Through prayers and acts we can bring all Catholics a heart singer in front of God.

Add new comment

You may login with your assigned e-mail address.
The password field is case sensitive.

Or log in with...

Add new comment