Leon J. Podles :: DIALOGUE

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Singing in the Reign

February 14th, 2010 · 8 Comments

Commonweal is having a discussion in the decades-old topic “Why Catholics Can’t (or Won’t) Sing.” 

The lack of singing at Mass is a symptom that the liturgical renewal was not a popular movement: it was developed by a small group of enthusiasts and scholars and imposed on the laity without any consultation. Catholics have a strong attraction to a priori reasoning: according to theological principles, the liturgy should looks like this (full active participation) so let’s change it so that it does look like this. There was a weak sense of the realities of the situation. 

The standard low Mass had its faults, but it was familiar, and people were used to it it and had no real objections to it. Breaking the habit of the low mass was one of the reasons that mass attendance has declined precipitously. 

Catholics who continue to go to Mass do so mostly out of a sense of duty and many if not most would be relieved if the laity were never asked to sing again. 

The situation of elites imposing their agenda is often a function of narcissism. The cantor and the choir and the musicians want to give a performance, and often do not care if the congregation sings. I have watched cantors and organists change tempos so that the confused congregation would stop singing and everyone could pay attention to the performers. Even if the cantor is not a narcissist (it occasionally happens), sound systems guarantee that the cantor’s voice will dominate everyone else’s.

When the congregation does sing, it often shows an equal narcissism and likes songs of the utmost theological questionableness: “Ashes” for Ash Wednesday, “To Dream the Impossible Dream,” and similar self-indulgent, emotional bathos. 

I do not see any easy way to cultivate congregational singing. Traditions cannot be made to appear at command. Catholic schools used to teach music, but there are fewer and fewer students in these schools very year.

PS: I wish Catholics would sing. When I go to Protestant services and everyone sings enthusiastically, it really increases the experience that we are praying and praising together.

Tags: Liturgy · Music

8 responses so far ↓

  • 1 Mary Parks // Feb 14, 2010 at 1:45 pm

    It doesn’t help that the stated model of contemporary (since the late 60’s) Church music is Broadway musicals. That is, once the faux folk singing was passe. My husband and I have a hobby of identifying songs by whether they are first, second, or third act, what part of the act, etc.

  • 2 Joseph D'Hippolito // Feb 14, 2010 at 4:43 pm

    “The situation of elites imposing their agenda is often a function of narcissism. ”

    It’s also been Standard Operating Procedure for the Vatican for centuries, Leon. You seriously expected Vatican II to change that?

    “When I go to Protestant services and everyone sings enthusiastically, it really increases the experience that we are praying and praising together.”

    Leon, is it possible that Protestant congregants (especially in Evangelical churches) have a greater appreciation of who Christ is and what He did on the cross than Catholic congregants?

  • 3 Tom Nealon // Feb 14, 2010 at 9:49 pm

    Your post begs the question–why do Protestants sing? I agree with much of what you say; however, I go to a rather traditional Catholic Church where we often sing the great Protestant hymns by Wesley, Watts, Heber and others. However, there is not the Protestant fervor in the singing. I get angry because the hymns are often emasculated with inclusive language. But whatever happened to early Sunday morning Mass with no singing at all? It does seem that the music has been largely foisted on Catholics–much of it is music no one could love–although some of the new stuff is quite good, even if traditionalists don’t like it.

  • 4 Father Michael // Feb 15, 2010 at 10:09 am

    It seems to me that there’s some variation in the Catholic Church with regards to how enthusiasically (or not) congregations sing. I’ve been to several Polish Masses and was edified that people sang with real gusto. As well, a friend took me to his Ukrainian Church and the people practically lifted the roof! On trips to Ireland on the other hand, I found the situation similar to North America.

    I’m with Tom on hymns being “emasculated” by polically correct changes in the lyrics. Surely an example of an elite imposing its will on the majority.

    My own best experiences of (non-ethnic) Catholics singing has been in Charismatc renewal. Perhaps with the growing number of Hispanics (who many observors say have been strongly influenced by the Charismatic Movement), congregational singing will become more a phenomenon welling joyfully from “below” as opposed to dictated from above.

  • 5 Jake // Feb 16, 2010 at 2:57 am

    You might enjoy the book “Why Catholics Can’t Sing” by Thomas Day
    He argues one (of many) of the reasons is the experience of persecution by the Irish.

  • 6 Joseph D'Hippolito // Feb 16, 2010 at 9:16 pm

    Jake, could you please elaborate about those persecutions and how they might have affect the ability or desire to sing?

  • 7 Christian // Feb 17, 2010 at 3:46 pm

    Our parish robustly sings a traditional selection of hymns accompanied by a fine organist.

  • 8 Jake // Feb 18, 2010 at 4:42 am

    In a nutshell, when the Mass is illegal, it becomes a quieter service. In contrast, the singing of the victors at their services, becomes offensive to the ears. Thus a preference for quiet Masses and avoiding singing.

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