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.

Leave a Comment