If you think your Catholic congregation sings well, take a visit to the local Baptist congregation. The song leader announces the song. Everyone, without exception, grabs a hymnal. They intro plays and the hymn begins. A sound comes out that nearly knocks you out of your chair. You join the singing but no matter how loudly you chime in, you can’t really make a dent in the sound. It is just another day for the Baptist, but for the Catholic it is mind blowing.
For many generations, people have wondered why Catholic congregations do not do this. We keep trying and trying. You will read no more vociferous rhetoric than to read the writings of music leaders in the Catholic Church and their frustrations at their own congregations.
Why aren’t people obeying? It’s like listening to people denounce children for failing to behave properly. They demand and demand. They even attempt to intimate people into “active participation.” They choose music based on how much singing response it gets, as if this were the only real issue.
It’s been going on for many decades and yet nothing changes.
But are we are missing the point completely? The sensibility that leads the Baptists to do these things didn’t have to be beat into them. No real training had to take place. The hymn for this community is their own voice, music that comes from the people to celebrate the people’s unity of purpose and belief.
It is their own homily to themselves and who they are, something that they believe is theirs and has its own internal purpose completely independent of any action on the altar or any other sacramental or liturgical undertaking. It is sung in the same spirit as a patriotic song at a civic rally except that the words are different. It is not forced; it is organic to the way they worship.
This kind of singing is not organic to the Catholic liturgy, which music is not an end unto itself. It is meant to accompanying some primary action taking place: processing, mediating on the Psalm between readings, engaging in dialogues with the celebrant, or some other activity. The job of singing belongs primarily to the schola and the cantor, not the people. The people know this. It has been this way from the earliest records.
The people are permitted and encouraged to sing at special parts such as the Mass ordinary (and the Sanctus can technically be called a hymn) but the music has not been divided into predictable metrics and the language is prose and not rhyming poetry. Without exception, every individual Catholic reserves the right to himself or herself to stand quietly in prayer, knowing full well that whether or not he or she sings makes no difference to the graces being offered at the Mass. We are free to participate externally or internally based on our own desires.
The music is part of the liturgy, integral and native to it. The people are not making it. It is not generated by us. They can be part of it but it is not their primary responsibility. And when they sing, it is not to reinforce their perception of membership in a community. It is to more fully participate in sacred actions taking place in a liturgical manner. It comes from within the structure of the liturgy and is not imposed from without. It does not come from the people. It comes from the prayer in which the people are invited, but not required, to participate. You can issue all the proclamations you want to. You can yell and demand. But in the end, this Catholic sense of the role of the people’s song will not change.
Here is the controversial claim that I would like to make: there is nothing wrong with this. In fact, the people might be more correct here than their pundits who are always denouncing them. And if the people ever do relent and start singing like Bapitsts, the new ethos will gut the primary focus of the Roman Rite. The Catholic ritual is not people based or people centered. It is not given by the community as a gift each to other. It is a gift from God that we offer back to God, something we receive humbly as a blessing and an occasion of grace as we offer our lives back to God in sacrifice.
This is why the hymn—which I define here in the common usage as a metrically divided, melodically strophic song with rhyming vernacular text—has no traditional place in Catholic liturgy, particularly in not Mass. (I’m completely leaving out Office hymnody that does not fit my definitions for this piece.) Even the studies tracking the use of hymns in Catholic Mass find sources for anything like the modern hymn in the post-Trent age, influenced by the growing use of hymnody in Protestant worship. Before that, it was unknown.
The people did not sing the procession. They did not sing the Mass propers. They did sing parts of the Mass texts according to local tradition and private impulse, but nothing has ever been absolutely required of them in this sense.
In other words, I would suggest that there are traditional and valid reasons why Catholics do not and will not sing at services the way that Baptists do, except on extremely rare occasions. It will never be the norm, and if it ever did become the norm, it would suggest something has gone wrong with the ritual.
A community raising its voice in this manner suggests a community in non-sacramental celebration. In a Catholic context we might see this at a pilgrimage or a celebratory gathering in honor of a parish saint. But in liturgy, something else is happening. We are transcending what we are and leaving the bounds of time and place.
The sense we have to feel is one of awe. We are to become gradually less aware of ourselves and each other and more intensely aware of the timelessness of the undertaking. The visible is present but we also become conscious of what has been previously invisible.
I recall being at a Church dance in which people were yelling out the words of the song to which they were dancing. “Makes you wanna shout! Come on now, shout!” etc. Catholics can sing just fine in this context, with lights flashing and bodies moving. What is going on here? Nothing holy, nothing miraculous, nothing liturgical. It is just a party. Here Catholics sing just like anyone else. Why won’t they do the same at Mass? I would submit that if Catholics are going to sing like this at Mass, we will need to recreate the sense that lead the same people to shout at a Church dance.
Think of observing a miracle even in a non-liturgical context. Is the impulse to sing as loudly as possible or is it to become quiet in its presence? If someone interrupts the scene with loud outbursts, we might wonder if they are fully aware of what is going on. Even in our times of mundane liturgy and plain talk on the altar, the embedded Catholic sense is still there to regard the liturgy as solemn, not something we make on our own but something to which we must submit.
The driving impulse here is toward being quiet. Yes, we are free to sing the Gloria, the dialogues, the Sanctus, the Agnus, provided it is compatible with a prayerful comportment. But we all try not to push our voices above the volume of the activity around us. This is a humble impulse. Arrogance and sticking out is contrary to what we believe we should be doing.
Let me be clear that I’m no different from any other Catholic musician here. I like to know that people are singing. It inspires me to sing the Gloria and Sanctus. I would like to hear the Credo sung by everyone every week. It gives me a lift to note that the congregation has picked up a new Kyrie and responds well to the choir’s intonation.
But neither am I naïve. Even at the loudest, Catholic singing will always be at a fraction of the volume of the local Protestants. The simple fact is that singing for them is what the Protestants do. It is what they have. It is something desired by the community because they understand their symbols and purposes.
We do different things. We are not standing in a closed circle. We are facing East toward timelessness and eternity. That changes everything. We should let this happen, adapt our expectations to it, and be grateful that Catholics have not completely lost that sense that they must decrease so that God can increase.