AMERICA Magazine

January 14, 2022

In the opening chapter of Why Catholics Can’t Sing, Thomas Day probes the excuses that Catholics give for not singing during Mass. This non-singing condition is exemplified by an entire congregation that will stand or sit silently through a complete rendering of “Silent Night.” I can recall meetings in my own parish where the pastor or his assistant and other interested parties would search for ways to improve congregational singing. These meetings always began with the statement “Why don’t the people sing?” The answers ranged from the organ being too loud, the music being unfamiliar or the hymns being just not meaningful. Day mentions these and many other so-called obstacles. His own experiences in the Catholic churches of France and Germany, where congregational singing is strong, are quite different.

Day claims much of the restraint is cultural. For example, Irish Catholics by necessity had to conduct a subdued worship in fear of retaliation by the Protestants. This so-called restrain was the Irish Catholic’s badge of distinction from his Protestant countrymen. The many centuries of oppression left a strong legacy, which when transported to American retained its controlled, subdued quality. As Irish Catholics rose to positions of power and authority in the church, their heritage and influence became apparent.

Day says Catholics are taught at an early age “Control thyself.” Restrain in one’s religious expression was expected. Probably every Catholic over the age of 40 can recall the pre-Vatican II Mass. The choir sang, the priest had his back to the congregation and the congregation remained silent, or in the case of many of the faithful, said the Rosary. This pre-Vatican II Mass was a personal devotion. The reforms of Vatican II, like congregational singing and the handshake of peace, we all very foreign to the congregation that had spent the past 400 years in quiet contemplation. But, claims Day, this was not always the case. Exuberance and outward manifestation of belief was an integral part of the early history of the church.

Another important cause of the singing malaise is the deritualization of the Roman liturgy and the accompanying personalization of the Mass by the priest. While not new to the church, the most recent addition to deritualization is the celebrant’s “Good morning, everybody” at the beginning of Mass or the “have a nice day” at the end. The personalizing of the music is reflected by the many musical themes that emphasize “I” or “me” instead of “you” or we.” This personalization music is depicted in the reform-style music that Day calls “ego-renewing.” He lists songs like “Gonna sing my Lord,” “All that I am,” “Make me a channel of your peace” as some of the most flagrant examples of narcissistic music. In all of these examples, the “I” is emphasized over the “we.” In other cases, these ego-renewal hymns suggest a type of deification of the congregation: “ Here I am, Lord.”

Finally, Day offers some good advise for improving congregational singing. First, he urges the pastor to define music’s place in the parish. If the pastor deemphasizes music, the congregation is less prone to participate vocally. Avoid amplification of the cantor’s voice, so that the congregation can hear itself. Hire good musician and occasionally use a cappella singing. On some occasions, gather all of the musical resources of the parish at once for a major performance, and on others eliminate all of the music. Give the congregation the opportunity to choose. Also, “avoid contemporary music which often times has a beautiful text” but is too difficult for the congregation. As a substitute, “sing the actual text of the liturgy.” Finally, Day advises that “good congregational singing beings with an outstanding hymnal.” He provides several examples.

While Thomas Day’s Why Catholics Can’t Sing answers the question in a very provocative and evocative manner, his views are admittedly personal. At times, his arguments appear somewhat tenuous, but he never leaves the reader too far behind. Why Catholic Can’t Sing is a well-written book that approaches a serious topic with both humor and candor. And while his attacks on contemporary fold music sometimes appear a bit harsh, one need not look very far to find horrendous examples.

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