There are plenty of things that need fixing in the Catholic Church, but Thomas Day is the first commentator of my acquaintance to address the issue of liturgical music between hard covers. His first edition of Why Catholics Can’t Sing  raised eyebrows at a time when perhaps the patient might have been saved. His 2013 edition featured here, concedes that the errors of the early days of liturgical music reform are so entrenched that those remaining brave souls who soldier on to Mass each Sunday are inured to leaders, texts, melodies, and accompaniments that systematically deny them their Baptismal right of participation specifically called for in Vatican II’s “Sacrosanctum Concilium,” the decree on the Sacred Liturgy.
Day’s 2013 edition recounts the Irish tradition of “secret, quiet Mass” rooted in the painful days of English suppression on the Emerald Isle. Expressive singing was the provenance of Protestants. Catholic immigration from Ireland formed the backbone of mainstream church custom in the United States, particularly in the big cities, and that reserved devotional style of Mass participation survived Vatican II and, in many ways, colors our congregational behavior to this day. [If Day undertakes a third edition, he may wish to contrast the natural musical freedom of growing Hispanic and Afro-American Catholic congregations which are not beholden to Anglo-Irish history and experience.]
Vatican II’s “Sacrosanctum Concilium” called for skillful merging of the rich tradition of the Latin heritage with adaptations that would make for possible greater participation of the faithful, who frankly had little experience of this. The author notes a certain arrogance among many post-Conciliar American reformers who belittled the traditional pious sensitivities of Catholics as backward [his anecdote of the resistant old woman who refused to participate in the Kiss of Peace with a firm “I don’t believe in that s---“ is priceless. (p. 5)] Moreover, the self-induced pressure to “get the congregations singing” led to a grassroots development of new English hymnody “in tune with the times.” The first decade or so is remembered as the “guitar Mass” era which, as Day observes, was often relegated to the church basement or off hours by nervous pastors.
The second wave draws more of the author’s critical energy. The peppy strums of Ray Repp’s 1960’s “Sons of God” gave way in the 1970’s and 1980’s to what I call the “John Denver” era, or what more people would refer to as the age of “The St. Louis Jesuits,” a representative group of the time. In Day’s assessment, this second wave of music became embedded as the permanent template of liturgical hymnody to this day. As a friend of mine put it, you still cannot go to an ordination without hearing “Here I Am, Lord.” Day has several major critiques of that era’s product. The first is its orientation toward performance—its creators did, in fact, become “stars” in the Church music world. Second, the music product was/is often unsingable for a typical congregation—it is verbose, complicated, and inconsiderate of average range. There is not a man alive who can sing “I Will Raise Him Up.” And it requires the impediments of bulky hymnals and progressive lens glasses--or NBA arena style jumbotrons.
The third critique involves the identity of the pastoral musicians ministry as a whole. Day is in step with the American bishops’ “Sing to the Lord: Music in Divine Worship” , one of the finest documents to come out of the USCCB. Both Day and the bishops concur that the function of cantors, choirs, and musical instruments is, at the most, to assist the congregation to begin singing, and then to melt into the congregational event. It is rare to see this process unfold correctly, because in truth there is extraordinarily little congregational singing to melt into. Have you ever wondered what your church would sound like if someone suddenly pulled the plug on the microphones and the organ during a song?
If my memory serves me, Day’s 2013 critique is more inclusive of the entire liturgy, highlighting those factors which break the mood of the common Eucharist, or as he puts it, the unity of the sacred “dance.” Is it necessary, for example, for the celebrant to say “Good morning, folks” after the opening hymn and sign of the cross? He raises questions about the atmospherics of too much artificial lighting and carpeting which absorbs the sound of congregational singing.
In a different key, Day pays more attention to the liturgical publishing houses and their influence upon local church music. If the goal of the liturgical renewal is common worship in song, it would stand to reason that  we need fewer hymns and more ways to sing the Mass parts themselves, and  our parishes’ repertoires ought to be small and familiar, eliminating the “book element.” Do we need hymnals with 750 selections?
Not surprisingly, the author has numerous and thoughtful recommendations for a reform of the reform. Among others, he calls for a rejection of the common wisdom among musicians that the goal of church music is “to energize people and create spiritual excitement.” [p. 205] He calls for an abandonment of music which celebrates “the contemporary us” [p. 216], including a disturbingly large repertoire where the congregation is expected to sing in God’s voice, such as “Be Not Afraid.” [p. 73] He encourages fidelity to the Council’s priority that we sing the Mass itself [and avoid the pitfalls of the “four-hymn sandwich” format.] On this latter point, he is not afraid to introduce Gregorian Chant as well as antiphonal formats for singing the Gloria and Creed in English. And, a refreshingly novel thought, he reminds us that not every Sunday Mass need be a full musical showcase, recalling that years ago there was only one “high Mass” in every parish.
Day’s 2013 edition obviously predates the Covid exodus. But his excellent analysis of liturgical music is even more potent today: will people return to Eucharist if their place at the table is not set?
For Folks Who Can't Read Everything