I was delighted to read the first edition of Why Catholics Can't Sing in 1990 when I was still pastoring a Catholic community. It remains the only book anyone ever threw at me—outside of high school, anyway. The 2013 edition is equally competent, and the author, Thomas Day, is honest enough in his new introduction to admit that he has mellowed a bit as a commentator. This second edition of Why Catholics Can’t Sing is mellower, too, though in a melancholic, resigned sort of way. Day observes that while some Catholic communities have established successful musical cultures, the errors and mistakes in the music practices of the immediate post-Vatican II years have become entrenched into the fabric of American Catholicism, except that they are now anchored by the weight of custom, the increasing power of the Catholic hymnal industry, and serious decline in the continuing faith education of Catholic adults on matters of sacraments and liturgy, among many other causes.
To set the table for Day’s books, it is necessary to go back to the Church Council Vatican II [1962-1965]. Vatican II was a cumbersome and stormy encounter; no teachings were produced at all in 1962. Its first product, “The Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy” [Sacrosanctum Concilium], was promulgated on December 4, 1963, by a vote of the world’s bishops of 2147-4. That many bishops voiced support for keeping the Tridentine Rite of 1570, the “old Latin Mass,” in the debates [Cardinal Spellman of New York, for example] suggests that this unanimity behind Sacrosanctum Concilium is evidence that the Council supported a moderate direction of renewal of the sacred liturgy. In fact, it is rather surprising to read the document’s directives on sacred music [paragraphs 112-121], for example, which assumes that key parts of the Mass would be sung in Latin and that the organ enjoyed a historical preeminence in the musical agenda of the Church.
Day’s 2013 narrative begins here. Those of us who lived through the 1960’s in the United States—in my case, in a seminary—remember well the rapid turnover from the congregation-passive, choir-driven Latin Gregorian Chant Mass to a flurry of full English singing—or encouraged singing—by enthusiasts who went full throttle to English and full musical engagement. In Chapter 2, subtitled “That S--t" [pp. 5-17], Day correctly pinpoints the reluctance of most American bishops and clerics to entertain a liturgical movement, even though its roots went as far back as Pope Pius X [r. 1903-1914]. American Catholics were caught flat-footed when Conciliar documents turned up in diocesan papers speaking of “participation” and “congregational singing.”
Day correctly assesses the American dilemma—collectively, Catholics looked upon Mass as a silent engagement in reverential devotion. Most Masses were low Masses with perhaps one solemn high Mass with choir in the Sunday schedule. [p. 8] [An aside: as a boy I found the Sunday low Mass so dull and uninspiring that I wiggled my way into becoming the weekly master of ceremonies for my parish’s bells and whistles solemn high Mass at 10:30 with full choir.] The author, in Chapter 3, traces this silent reticence to the hegemony of Irish influence in the American Church. Centuries of British domination in Ireland, including the persecution of priests, led to the emergence of a silent Catholic culture. Mass in Ireland, after all, could be raided at any time. In this atmosphere the ringing of bells, the playing of the organ, and congregational singing became the hallmark of Protestantism, the persecuting Protestants. “Catholic quiet” was a political as well as a devotional statement.
The Irish who came to the United States in great numbers in the early 1800’s to build the Erie Canal and later to flee the Potato Famine soon became the dominant identity of American Catholicism, and particularly the clergy and hierarchy. Few of the American bishops who attended Vatican II would come home wildly enthusiastic about liturgical reform. Cardinal Francis Spellman of New York [r. 1939-1967] supposedly remarked to a colleague after the Council’s concluding session that “none of this will get past the Statue of Liberty.” Day is somewhat unclear as to how the liturgical reforms—particularly music—caught fire at the local levels, to a degree well beyond the guardrails of Sacrosanctum Concilium itself and carried such influence in parishes despite the reticence of many bishops.
In the 1960’s, there were other ecclesial institutions with considerable local and national clout and influence. Religious orders, theology faculties, seminaries, Catholic universities, newly ordained priests, and influential Catholic publications all appeared to be light years ahead of diocesan chanceries—and, it is true, bishops were spending a lot of time at the Council and away from their sees until the end of 1965, two critical years after Sacrosanctum Concilium. And American culture itself was changing drastically. It is possible that Day felt no need to revisit this stressful era in detail. For more detail on the years immediately after the Council, see Patrick W. Carey, Catholics in America: A History , Chapter 9: “Post-Vatican II Catholicism: 1965-1990.”
Sacrosanctum Concilium had emphasized a greater need for lay participation in the Mass, building on the earlier smaller steps of Pius X and Pius XII [r. 1939-1958]. “Lay participation” in practical terms would come to mean more use of the common language in dialogue with the priest celebrant, lay ministers assisting at Mass, the shared communion cup, and singing. Of all these, singing ought to have been the easiest to address—we all have voices--until the earliest apostles of congregational singing took a sobering look at what was available in English. The only volume close to an American Catholic Hymnal was the St. Pius X Hymnal, the 1953 edition, which was in the pews of my seminary when I arrived in 1962. Seminaries and probably parish choirs had access to the massive Liber Usualis, the Latin/Gregorian Chant compendium of all music for Mass and the Divine Office [Liturgy of the Hours]. My home parish had no pew hymnals when I left for the seminary in 1962; congregations generally did not sing then, so this collective singing—little as it was--would be new to me as it was to much of Catholic America later in the decade.
There was a sentiment afloat among church reformers that most of the older traditional music of the Pius X Hymnal, which was written in four-part polyphony style for choirs, would not be helpful for liturgical participation in the post-Vatican II era, in style or philosophy. Untrained congregations do not spontaneously break into four-part harmony; nor did the optimistic atmosphere of the early post-Council years mesh with the gravitas of “O Sacred Head Surrounded” or “At the Cross Her Station Keeping,” classics of the generations ahead of me. This perceived disparity among American liturgical reformers opened the door to an era of wholesale cherry picking of existing vernacular music and, more frequently, to the composition of music for a new generation of worship. Day discusses the evolution of this new congregational composing and singing, the period we typically associate with the advent of the “guitar Mass.” I, who enjoyed singing the older polyphonic Latin hymns in seminary choir would later, in my 20’s, play a twelve-string Martin guitar and a bass fiddle at countless liturgies, including the Saturday evening folk Mass at Arlington Cemetery/Fort Myer, Virginia, and St. Mary’s Church in historic downtown Alexandria.
In 1968 the flagship hymnal of the new guitar era was “Hymnal for Young Christians,” published by F.E.L. [now defunct] If you google this publisher, you will find dozens of lawsuits; F.E.L. went to court quite often in the 1970’s because a lot of folks playing their songs on peace and justice were not paying royalties. [The Vatican II era brought many surprises, the enforcement of copyrights to feed struggling lay composers being one of them.] Although the term “folk Mass” was used to describe new guitar liturgies, there was quite a distance between the serious protest music of secular folk singers such as Joan Baez and Bob Dylan, on the one hand, and the F.E.L.-inspired stable of writers and singers on the other. The latter produced upbeat, chippy music that celebrated togetherness, not alienation. A good example from the Young Americans hymnal is Ray Repp’s “Allelu!” If you take the time to listen to the link, you can see why nervous or disapproving pastors often consigned folk Masses to the parish basement, as Day quips, or to an offbeat hour of the weekend schedule, such as Sunday night.
I should interject here the answer to a question younger readers might be pondering—who oversaw the liturgical musical renewal in the United States after Vatican II? The answer is no one. The closest thing to a liturgical music focal center was the growing publishing industry itself, such as F.E.L. and soon World Library and GIA Publications, and associations such as the National Association of Pastoral Musicians. The first American directive for liturgical music issued by the United States Catholic Conference of Bishops, Sing to the Lord: Music in Divine Worship, came forth in 2008. The United States bishops did not construct any guardrails until 2021, when it examined 1000 hymns currently in use for possible doctrinal deficiencies and found a considerable number.
It does not seem that the bishops were overly troubled by the sheer proliferation of church music around the country. Toward the end of his 2013 work, Day will argue that present day publishers like Oregon Catholic Press—a major publisher of hymnals today—are shaping contemporary liturgical music through an uncontrolled amount of new music consistently flooding the market. OCP’s most recent parish hymnal, “Glory and Praise—Third Edition,” boasts 750 song selections alone. I regret to say that I have found few liturgists or commentators besides Day who have expressed concern that the proliferation of liturgical music may be counterproductive to any sense of Church unity, let alone that quantity is no guarantee of quality. [At last weekend’s Advent Mass, one of our seasonal hymns was four years old, not exactly an Advent classic and certainly unfamiliar to those of us in the pews.] Day observes that because salaries for parish directors of music are generally less than competitive, pastors/employers do not discourage employees from creative enterprises on the side--such as composing works for the major hymnal publishers. Few are questioning if more is always better in the church domain.
The “guitar era” morphed in the 1970’s and 1980’s into a softer phase that in many ways remains with us today. Day’s treatment of liturgical music in these decades is perhaps the most intriguing—and most controversial—portion of his book. Chapter 5, “Ego Renewal: Presenting Father Hank and Friends” assesses how the celebration of Mass came to turn upon the personality of the priest and away from the integrity of the rite of the sacrament. Hand in hand, the composition of church music turned from hymns to God to celebrations of “us,” to the degree that many of the hymns of the later twentieth century have the congregation singing God’s own words from the Bible. We have become God in the expression of our music. Day gives 26 examples of such hymns [p. 73], including “I Have Loved You With An Everlasting Love” [Michael Joncas], “Be Not Afraid” [Bob Dufford], “I Am the Bread of Life” [Suzanne Toolan], “Hosea” [Gregory Norbet], “Lord of the Dance” [Sydney Carter], and “You Are Mine,” a song which has disturbing undertones given recent disclosures about its author, David Haas. [For reasons I cannot grasp, my parish continues to use Mr. Haas' music, even after his own publisher disengaged from him.]
Collectively, this music is sometimes referred to as “St. Louis Jesuits” music, after one of its prominent collection of composers. Day’s critique of its theology of musical prayer is spot on, but he goes further. The music itself, he contends, is complicated, written to be performed by specialists, not the style likely to gather a large disparate group like we folks in the pews. As a rule, while it may be soothing and comforting to the ear and the heart, it is not congregation-friendly for ease of individual and communal singing; in this respect it falls short of the participatory goal specifically targeted in Sacrosanctum Concilium. [Sing “I Am the Bread of Life” in your head; in my parish this is a Holy Thursday musical pillar, but there’s not a man alive who can reach those notes.] Consequently, recent decades of church music have conditioned us churchgoers to become hearers of the song as much as hearers of the Word. By 2022 standards, most congregations judge and applaud music they like, blissfully unaware that present day attitudes disengage them from their Baptismal right to sing unencumbered. Remember St. Augustine: “To sing is to pray twice.”
Day’s parody of parish cantors is worth the price of the book. He describes them collectively as virtuosos whose mismanagement of their role has created a pernicious feedback loop. The author contends that an individual is more likely to sing in church if he or she can hear themselves and the immediate circle of people around them. However, the super-amplified cantor drowns out the individual effort with an imposing array of audio speakers to enhance an already enthusiastic voice. Getting little feedback from the beleaguered congregation, the cantor—growing frustrated—amps up voice and accompaniment further, making matters worse. Day’s critique is echoed in the 2007 U.S. Bishops directive cited above: “In order to promote the singing of the liturgical assembly, the cantor’s voice should not be heard above the congregation.” [para. 38, p. 12] The same rule applies to choirs and instruments. The bishops’ document cites the few examples where this would not be the case, such as ‘back and forth” music like the Kyrie Eleison.
And if I may add: why are we applauding musicians before and during Mass? After all, there are many liturgical ministers at Mass, all doing their special work. We don’t applaud altar servers or ushers. If I were going to applaud anyone, it would be my parish’s deacons who obviously labor hours over their sermons with Scripture, commentaries, and resource material spread across their desks after time on their knees. In the end, all ministers work ad majorem dei gloriam, “for the greater glory of God,” not our passive entertainment.
However, if we must give out medals, my parish deserves an endurance prize for surviving the sheer volume and number of musical pieces we must experience at Sunday Mass. Day is not the first author to pinpoint the American development of the “four hymn sandwich” approach to Mass: entrance, offertory, communion rite, and closing. In my parish, we often have six sandwiches, fries, and a hot fudge sundae: three, even four communion hymns on some occasions. Has anyone read the Roman Missal’s directives on the communion rite? In the U.S. bishops’ directive, a communion hymn is the fourth musical option for Eucharistic distribution! But I digress.
In his 2013 edition, Day devotes considerable attention to other contributing factors which diminish the participatory and devotional power of the Mass. I was fortunate enough to be exposed to Aristotle’s Poetics as part of my liturgical training. Aristotle’s text, written several centuries before Christ, laid down the principles for the famous Greek dramas which have survived the test of time—all action, spoken and staged, focused on the sole element of the plot. No wasted words or gestures. Day, in 2013, laments the loss of liturgical focus on the drama of the saving presence of Christ to the personality and eccentricities of the celebrant. The author gives an example: after the entrance hymn, a fictional celebrant extends the missal’s prescribed greeting, “May the Grace of Our Lord Jesus Christ…be with you.” Unfortunately, the fictional “Father Celebrant” in Day’s narrative feels compelled to follow up with, “Good morning, folks!” As the author comments, “We can be reasonably sure that the Last Supper did not begin with the words, “Good Evening, Apostles.” [p. 39] Day refers to these unfortunate intrusions into the flow of the Mass drama as “de-ritualization” [p. 38], changing experience of the Mass into a list of fragmented tasks to be gotten through, rather than one devotional whole.
Aristotle had a word for powerful drama--catharsis, the “washing out” of the emotions. When liturgy is celebrated with focus upon the mystery of Word and Eucharist—with every gesture, word, and action addressed to that sacred mystery, without ad lib commentary and the reading of church bulletin announcements after communion, there is a cathartic experience of redemption that works a change on our inner disposition to God’s salvation. I do not have my 1990 first edition at my fingertips, but in the 2013 edition Day seems to broaden his concern for music and liturgy to the totality of how the Mass is celebrated in each place. One alternative style is monastic mass in abbeys. My wife and I have made annual retreats for many years at Mepkin Abbey near Charleston, South Carolina, and we are always engaged by the elegant simplicity of the monks’ community Mass which, incidentally, is considerably shorter in time than a typical parochial Mass. Again, more is not necessarily better.
Day is humble enough to realize that he does not have an uncomplicated road map to return liturgical music to what the Council envisioned. His final chapters provide both philosophic musings and practical advice. One of his principles has an almost “synodal” ring to it, i.e., listening to and assessing the needs of the congregation[s]. I suspect that a fair percentage of any church’s parishioners would give a favorable, or at least passable, response if asked about the parish’s music. But the question must be more specific to the Council’s teaching: can you sing our selection of hymns? Singing, as a rule, is a benchmark of liturgical participation as defined by the Council.
In this 2013 edition Day addresses the physical assets and liabilities of church structures themselves as they help or hinder singing and participation. Having built a post-Vatican II church structure myself, I recall employing engineers to examine our blueprints for acoustic issues [would our building material soak up the sound of singing] and natural lighting [positioning the building vis-à-vis the position of the Florida sun for maximum natural lighting.] Day makes an excellent point that excessive artificial lighting can alter congregational mood. In my years as a college chaplain, my students flocked to our 10 PM Sunday evening Mass—candlelight, soft classical music, and no congregational singing. “It’s a great time for me to get my head together for the week,” seemed to be the consensus among these collegians. Who was I to argue with my congregation? [The custom was established before I arrived, and I cannot take credit for the idea, but I certainly continued it.] Day might have added the most basic obstacle to sacramental participation in general, our continuing dependence upon long rectangular church buildings which provide minimal opportunity for visual engagement of the sanctuary and shut out the experience for children entirely. Most of our churches are shaped like Eucharistic adoration chapels rather than gathering sites to reenact the Last Supper.
One common sense point is the author’s observation that every weekend Mass does not need to be a “high Mass” with the Mormon Tabernacle Choir. Prior to the Council, silent or “low Masses” were common Sunday fare. I would go one step further and argue that in small congregations—such as those rural parishes in consolidation which might have 30 or 40 people at the location’s sole Mass—music is not necessary at all. There are other ways to capture unity—bring the seating close to the altar, allow the congregation to stand around the altar during the Eucharistic Prayer and Communion, etc.
The author’s remarks about the feasibility of using simple Latin Gregorian chant at various parts of the Mass—easy to remember, does not require a text—may sound ambitious, but he reports that some churches are having success with this format. In general, the author seems to prefer a musical repertoire which is sensibly limited and does not require the use of a hymnal. It is hard for me to imagine how any parish needs a 750-hymn sourcebook, nor how a typical congregation can develop a comfort zone with familiar musical texts in the face of a seemingly infinite turnover of music. But beyond that, sooner than later we are going to need to address the question of how multicultural parishes worship together in a variety of tongues. With fewer priests to offer Masses in multiple languages, Latin chant can be a part of the solution to this growing challenge of worship in a Catholic America that is becoming more culturally diverse by the day.
One of the more disconcerting observations in the U.S. Bishops’ Sing to the Lord is this: “In the present day, many potential directors of music are not of our faith tradition. It is significant as we go forward that directors of music are properly trained to express our faith traditions effectively and with pastoral sensitivity.” [para. 45, p. 14] This is a remarkably candid admission. Imagine the uproar if the same admission had been made about Catholic school principals. Parents would immediately demand to know why they are shelling out the big bucks if the principal, the catechetical officer of the school, is unfamiliar with the Catholic tradition and “learning it on the fly,” so to speak.
My conclusion, after reading [and rereading] Why Catholics Can’t Sing, having led music during the early Vatican II reform era, and a lifetime of observation, is that on the whole Catholic musicians and directors—as well as those of us in the pew--are not conversant with Catholic liturgical teaching, specifically Sacrosanctum Concilium. Nor is this poverty of Catholic formation limited to church music. In many ways, the religious education status quo is even more bleak. Put another way, the odds are that every time a diocese or a parish hires a lay minister in any capacity, that individual will be less conversant with Catholic life and history than his or her predecessor. This, alas, is the drift of the Church as a whole.
We are embracing an age of Synodality, what Pope Francis envisions as an ongoing future of grace-filled conversation oriented toward the renewal of the Church, which is semper reformanda, “always in need of reform.” In my home parish, I am pleased to work with a very motivated group of fellow parishioners who, having studied Fratelli Tutti, are moving on to study the documents of the Council. As of this writing, they are wrestling with how to go about it. [In one sense, they are already sharing the frustrations of the 2500 bishops at the first Council session in 1962, a session spent “sorting things out.”] To them, and to any individual or group embarking upon hardball study of Catholic theology and practice, I say this: never in my lifetime has there been a greater need for an informed laity to step forward as leaven for the local churches.
In the spirit of Synodality, I would encourage parish music ministries everywhere to take a sabbatical, so to speak, to examine the principles of their ministry as enumerated in Sacrosanctum Concilium, the Roman Missal, and Sing to the Lord: Music in Divine Worship. Day’s Why Catholics Can’t Sing  is a pointed text which highlights our present-day problems participating from the pew and the need to rethink how we sing our praises to God.