Volume 118, Number 4, Winter 1991
WHY DON'T CATHOLICS SING
Every once in a while a book is published that falls into the category of
"must" reading. Thomas Day's compelling book, "Why Catholics Can't Sing"
(Crossroads, 1991) is that book. It is "must" reading not only for church
musicians and the clergy, but for all Catholics who care about the liturgy.
It is an excellent survey told in a clear style and an interestingly
humorous manner. One might wonder about the authority of the author who
would tackle this topic. Day, who is chairman of the department of music at
Salve Regina College in Rhode Island, where he is professor music theory
and history, has his doctorate from Columbia University.
Day makes a point. He is right. Catholics do not sing. They are not
encouraged to sing. The Germans brought their love of congregational
singing to this country, but the Irish had only their folk music. He speaks
of the energy and the enthusiasm of the singing in the Protestant churches
in this country and in the Catholic churches of parts of Europe. It is
still possible in parts of Europe to hear choirs sing Masses with
orchestral accompaniment, to hear first-class organists perform, and
congregations participate in Latin Masses with hymns and sections of the
Mass as they have done for centuries. But in the United States, churches in
the last thirty years have been built as barren structures with no place
for a pipe organ and an acoustic that does little to encourage music, vocal
and instrumental. Is the lack of congregational participation in the United
States the fault of the people or is it caused by their up-bringing? Does
the answer lie in a suppressed people?
The Irish people were persecuted for centuries. Their glory is that they
"kept the faith." There was little opportunity for singing at Masses
celebrated behind the hedge rows; one did not have to attract the attention
of English soldiers by singing. The silent low Mass was the norm. The
American hierarchy is largely Irish in origin, and the lack of a liturgical
musical culture among them is easily traced to the historical events of the
past four hundred years. The musical developments in our country since the
council may well be understood if we admit those facts and developments.
Music in church has become confused. Since the council, congregations have
not been taught good strong hymns. Instead, as Day writes, "Mr. Caruso,
upstairs, sings with amplification." There are folk groups, reformed folk
groups, and "sweet-song" hymns. We have the St. Louis Jesuits, the Weston
Monks and many others, singing "comforting words and easy-listening
sounds." Sanctuaries were remodeled with carpeting and hanging plants,
giving a "homey look" to what should be a temple of prayer.
Day compares a Protestant minister to some of our priests. The minister
delivers an eloquent sermon and knows all his people by name, since they
hired him. But so many priests attempt to create a rapport with the
congregation in a manner that is quite offensive to many people. For
example, they use the greeting, "Good morning," which is truly out of place
at the beginning of the liturgy, just as "Havernice day" is out of place at
the end. These expressions are not appropriate for a celebrant dressed in
ancient ceremonial vestments; they make the congregation uneasy. The
amplified sound that discourages the congregation from singing should be
thrown out. The congregation must hear itself. The three-chord guitarists,
who give "new meaning to the word 'monotonous'" can go out along with the
mikes and speakers.
The Second Vatican Council specified that the treasure of sacred music
should be preserved. Choirs were to support congregational singing. What
happened? What went wrong? Unfortunately, the liturgists had little
background in sacred music. Those who thought they did--Gelineau, for
example--tried to take over the music for the Mass, ignoring the heritage
of ancient music. It has been a constant battle. The "elitist" musician vs.
the unknowledgeable man in the pew, or more so, the musicians vs. the
Day writes of a Mass celebrated in "an old-fashioned" Benedictine
monastery. He calls it a "charismatic event." It reminded me of a visit I
made to Solesmes in 1950. It was a glorious experience to hear "Gaudeamus"
for August 15, the last time those propers for the Assumption were sung,
since the proclamation of the dogma brought a new set of chants for the
feast. It was the most meaningful ceremony and the most expressive chanting
I have ever heard.
Day talks about the suppression of everything before 1960. I recall, as a
music teacher at Saint Rose School in Meriden, Connecticut, from 1949 to
1953, training a vested choir of boys who walked in procession, sang hymns
and sat in the sanctuary. There was a girls' choir too which sang chant,
hymns, responses in Latin, etc. And the congregation had a hymnbook and
also sang. At one confirmation ceremony, the children sang Schubert's
"Hallelujah," arranged for three-part choir, while Bishop O'Brien stood at
the altar and listened, not leaving until after the children finished their
I remember too attending services at Monsignor Martin Hellriegel's Church
of the Holy Cross near Saint Louis, Missouri, in 1948 and again in 1959.
The usher presented each person with a "Liber Usualis" at the door. If the
book were put down for only a second, the usher reappeared and opened the
book to the proper page. Everyone was expected to participate, an activity
that was most unusual at that time. From 1948 to 1953, I was the
representative in New England for the Gregorian Institute of America,
responsible for teaching choirs and organists, introducing them to
Gregorian chant. Rather strangely, Day claims that Catholic parishes got
rid of their boy choirs in the 1940's and 1950's.
Now it appears that the liturgical renewal must begin all over again. Day
suggests that we "smash" the microphones, and I heartily agree. He wants
good, plain and wholesome music: a few basic hymns and unaccompanied chant-
like singing. Gregorian chant has an aesthetic, an hypnotic sound. It is
impersonal, humbling. Church music should elevate the people to prayer. The
problem with music at present is that it is unsingable, unmetered, and not
Pride of ownership should be developed over the years. Unfortunately,
things that have meant a great deal to people have been mocked: rosaries,
medals, missals, preparation for first Communion, Latin chants. Now there
is need for positive references.
The Church has moved away from its chief ritual, the Mass. We should
rather try to restore the essence of the ceremony of the 1950's, the
reverence for the most holy of actions. Too often today, the Mass seems to
be the background instead of the music.
A superior church music program in a parish can only be attained if and
when the pastor assumes a constructive, cooperative role with his music
director. The pastor must be in charge. First-rate people chose other
first-rate people. Second-rate people chose third-rate people! The pastor
must be capable of teamwork.
The question of pay is ever present. To have better church musicians there
must be a better remuneration. Unfortunately, the long and arduous training
demanded of musicians is not recognized by many pastors, who hire for less
money, people who lack both training and experience as church musicians.
Few churches pay the salaries needed to attract the type of musician they
People are constantly introduced to hymn after hymn in the missalettes,
which get thrown away at the end of the season. Day is right in saying,
"Trash belongs to nobody." We need simple chants and good strong hymns. Why
is it that we hear so many contemporary "hymns?" I keep hoping for some
chant or a solid hymn. It is impossible for the man in the pew to choose
what hymn he wants, since an unknowledgeable person does not know what he
wants. No one can want what he does not know. Catholic people can sense
inappropriate music; they may protest by not singing.
Day insists that a good Catholic hymnal is an absolute necessity. It
should contain chant and simple responses. With a core repertory
established as the music of the people, then other music can be added
later. He suggests that music be contemporary in the sense that it speaks
to the congregation.
Many people have been converted to the Catholic Church through the years
by a deeply prayerful involvement with its chant and its music. This is
what Day and many more church musicians wish to have restored to our