The first edition of Thomas Day’s Why Catholics Can't Sing: The Culture of Catholicism and the Triumph of Bad Taste  created quite a fuss—pro and con—when it hit the market. I was particularly impressed with a terse review by the Catholic novelist J.F. Powers, whose 1962 best seller Morte d’Urban chronicled the collapse of a mythical mismanaged religious order in the Midwest United States. Wrote Powers: “We needed this book, had it coming.” He was right. A quarter century later, Day compiled an updated version, Why Catholics Can't Sing: Revised and Updated with New Grand Conclusions and Good Advice . This more recent work does not diminish the brash, acerbic, and outright funny critique of typical parish music; on the contrary, the author has added depth to considerations such as the relationship of music to the persona of the celebrant at Mass and the big-business impact of such liturgical publishers as Oregon Press that works against a true reform of congregational singing.
In both editions, Day provides an insightful history into the tradition of liturgical music in the United States. Historically, the largest influx of Catholics into the United States arrived from Ireland, where the Mass was by necessity celebrated in secret, often outdoors, as England outlawed the Catholic faith. In Ireland there was neither singing nor church bell tolling in Catholic experience; in fact, singing and bell-tolling became associated with Anglican and Protestant identity. This sentiment carried heavily into the United States; there was generally no congregational singing at Mass prior to the Vatican II reforms which began in the mid-1960’s. My home parish of the 1950’s celebrated one high Mass with the choir singing the parts of the Mass in Gregorian chant. The other Sunday Masses were “low Masses,” sometimes silent, sometimes with an occasional hymn. There was no expectation, in mainstream U.S. churches, that a congregation do much except prayerfully observe.
The exception in the U.S. was the collection of non-Irish ethnic parishes where immigrants from Germany and elsewhere brought the custom of strong hymn-singing from their homelands. In non-Irish parishes hymn singing was a feature of the low Mass; the high Mass was always accompanied by Gregorian chant. Given that the majority of American Catholics [and nearly all bishops] were Irish, there was an element of snobbery toward other ethnic Catholic communities engaged in “making noise” at what Irish Catholics observed in sacred silence. Moreover, bear in mind that mainstream U.S. Catholicism was not compiling anything near a national canon or collection of congregational music, aside from Marian hymns of questionable quality. “O Mary, we crown thee with blossoms today….”
Jump ahead to 1963 and the promulgation of Vatican II’s Sacrosanctum Concilium, “The Decree on Sacred Liturgy,” specifically paragraphs 112-121 on Sacred Music. Even today it is a bit of a shock to the system to read precisely what the Council said and what it did not say about the relationship of music and the celebration of the sacraments, particularly the Eucharist. For our purposes, it is safe to say that the Council Fathers hoped to reform the rites of the Mass with a continuity to the past. Always overlooked is SC’s call for a better rendering of the Latin Gregorian Chant Hymnal; evidently, it was hoped that Latin Chant, with its long history of usage in the Church, would continue to be a staple of Eucharistic celebration.
It is at this time and this juncture that transitional reform wires became crossed. Enthusiastic reformers in the United States read Sacrosanctum Concilium as a mandate to engage the faithful in active and full-throated communal celebration at Mass. But because of the enthusiastic rush to experiment with new forms of worship, there was no time for sober reflection, historical review, or, for that matter, consultation with the laity. Nor were local bishops prepared to supervise liturgical experimentation in their dioceses
For starters, there was an egregious misreading of the term “celebration,” at least in the United States. There are multiple meanings of the word, but the problem is that in American usage “celebration” is usually equated with exuberance. And thus, the early reformers of the Mass used their influence to energize the celebration of Mass with massive doses of music, very spirited music at that, at the cost of other elements of Mass celebration, such as silent prayer, the forgiveness of sins, etc. Day correctly observes that even in the present day few parishes have a “quiet Mass” or a low-key celebration under the mistaken belief that every public Mass must have the fanfare of Handel’s “Messiah.” [When I attended the Franciscan reunion of former members in New York a few weeks ago, we celebrated the Mass with no singing—but the Eucharistic fraternity was intense.]
As Day observes, the drive for visceral participation among the liturgical illuminati tended to override all other considerations of the liturgical reform, such as continuity with the tradition or the importance of prayerful silence at Mass. The author correctly detects a strong political element among certain lay Catholics to gain a toehold of authority and influence in the liturgy [and elsewhere, as in parish decision-making policy through the new “parish councils,” though Canon Law does not require such councils.] Concurrent with this trend was a distrust—and at times an outright rejection—of any pre-Conciliar practice as old, irrelevant, and again, authoritarian. Day sees a strong strain of militant feminism in the development of congregational singing in the U.S. after the Council. I have some reservation about Day’s inclusion of feminism in the musical problem; as we will see, the primary influencers of liturgical music in the second half of the twentieth century were men.
Once the Council issued Sacrosanctum Concilium in 1963, many churches rushed ahead immediately to bring wholesale congregational singing into places where there had been none. But what, exactly, would congregations sing? I can recall as a junior or senior in high school the introduction of the first music source written for the post-Conciliar provisional Mass, World Library Publication’s The Peoples Mass Book.  You can still find this text online if you look hard. It was my first introduction to Vatican II era worship, and my initial reaction was favorable. PMB 1964 borrowed from Lutheran sources, notably such hymns as “A Mighty Fortress is Our God” and “Now Thank We All Our God.” Coupled with this were English translations of Eucharistic hymns used at Benediction [Exposition of the Blessed Sacrament], “O Salutaris” and “Tantum Ergo.” The hymnal included English arrangements for the parts of the Mass sung by the congregation, such as the Sanctus and the Agnus Dei. The PMB was reprinted several times in the 1960’s as the final official formulary of the Mass was not completed and approved by the Vatican until 1970. [In 2020 World Library Publication merged with GIA Publications and continues to publish hymnals.]
However, it did not take long for composers to create contemporary music in English for Catholic congregations, and in a desire to achieve both energy and relevance, as well as distance from the old days, the “guitar Mass” or “folk Mass” quickly captured the fascination of many and the ire of others. In both his 1992 and 2013 editions, Day expands upon several theological and artistic flaws which he lays at the feet of its generation of composers and performers, which would eventually include the St. Louis Jesuits, the Weston Monks, Michael Joncas, Carey Landry, and the Dameans. [p. 78], among others. Of their music, the author puts it bluntly: “Simply put, nearly all of it—no matter how sincere, no matter how many scriptural texts it contained—was oozing with an indecent narcissism.” [p. 65] Day cites numerous popular church songs dating back to the late 1960’s and continuing in usage to very recent times—in which the song/hymn is not directed toward God but toward the identity of the congregation. “Here we are, altogether as we sing our song joyfully….” [In my seminary, we referred to this piece as “the hymn to the obvious.”] Even worse, the wording of many hymns puts God’s expression in the mouths of the congregation; the worshipper assumes the identity of God in song. Some examples: “I Am the Bread of Life’ by Suzanne Toolan and “I Have Loved You with An Everlasting Love” by Michael Joncas. A long haul from the classic “Praise We Christ’s Immortal Body.”
When the composer Ray Repp [1942-2020] died recently, many of the newspaper obituaries referred to him as the “Father of the Guitar Mass.” As a young guitarist myself, I recall him as the first composer of Church music I encountered when I started playing at Masses in 1969. [Repp, incidentally, was something of a pioneer in advocating for the legal rights of Church composers. His music was often mimeographed and printed by parishes without payment of royalties. His struggles with his publisher F.E.L. and The Archdiocese of Chicago are a fascinating and troubling tale.]
I have several samples of Repp’s music if you have time to listen. “Sons of God” and “I am the Resurrection” would have been among the first guitar songs most American Catholics encountered in the late 1960’s, so it is worth a moment to look at the characteristics that would influence the next generation of composers whose music is still with us today. “Sons of God” is addressed not to God—as we might expect a hymn to do—but it addresses the congregation, its identity and, in some ways, its success. The lyrics of “I Am the Resurrection” are direct quotes from the Gospel, which puts the congregation in the position of assuming the identity of God and singing back to God what God has already revealed.
That said, I have respect for Repp’s body of work—I am listening to his music on YouTube as I type this afternoon. Repp and I are of the same generation; our understanding of how the Mass was to be reformed was incomplete. I was hired by several congregations in my major seminary years in Washington [1969-1974], including the military base at Arlington Cemetery, and my employers all requested the same thing— “get them singing!” Repp’s music was singable and quite manageable for musicians; the old joke was that anyone could play guitar music at Mass with a knowledge of three chords: C, G, and D7. “They’ll Know We Are Christians by Our Love” required only an E-minor and an A-minor.
Day observes that the guitar Mass was a little too edgy to carry the freight for the parish. Until I read Repp’s obituary, I had forgotten that some bishops banned guitar Masses entirely. Repp himself joked that his career would have gone nowhere if bishops had not banned his music. With a touch of humor Day comments that the guitar Mass was originally relegated to the “church basement,” and the upstairs church Mass was more traditional. My recollection is similar in that parishes segregated the folk Mass to a one time slot and used more traditional formats at other scheduled Masses. This was [is?] still the practice at my wife’s parish where the Sunday evening Mass—formerly the “Life Teen Mass”—pulls out the guitars and drums.
By the 1970’s, numerous individuals and groups were composing religious music for Church use. One of the most famous is the five-man ensemble known as “The Saint Louis Jesuits.” Wikipedia provides a professional biography of the group which began as Jesuit seminarians, and it picks up a critical turn in their careers, from folk group to general congregational composers. “Over time, new arrangements for organ and full orchestration were created for more traditional settings.” This change summarizes a major shift in church music, in the sense that the folk music mentality now became mainstream music in most Catholic hymnals across the country and remains so today. Unfortunately, the shortcomings of the old music were never corrected, and in fact new impediments developed that would hinder congregational singing for generations to come.
One of Day’s biggest criticisms of the St. Louis Jesuit generation—which includes the other names cited above: the Weston Monks, Michael Joncas, Carey Landry, the Dameans, Dan Schutte, David Haas—is that it became something of a closed shop arbiter of the kind of music suitable for churches, and as I quoted him earlier, Day believes that this generation lost its vision as leaders and promulgators of congregational singing and morphed into performers and national stars of the Church liturgical music scene. Consequently, while carrying forward the theological shortcomings of the earlier era, the 1970’s added a repertoire of contemporary music—beauty to the ear [occasionally] but impossible for a typical church worshipper to sing. Which brings us to the heart of Day’s concern: Catholic churches are filled with listeners [maybe] but not singers [definitely].
In both his 1990 and 2013 editions, Day rails against the cult of the cantor—in fact, he creates a mythical leader of song, “Mr. Caruso”—who, like the musical stars of the Church, utilizes the function of cantoring for his own self-aggrandizement. The typical church attendee, Day argues, is so inundated with noise from cantors, choirs, and musicians that he or she can barely hear himself or herself and has no connectedness to any other brave souls in the pews around them trying to navigate the “Phil Spector Wall of Sound” that many churches create by an overdependence upon electronics [or, in the church I attend, trumpets!]
Day goes on to make the case that our church hymnals today are filled with the products of an earlier era too laborious to induce enthusiastic congregational singing. I might add here three additional factors—in nearly every church I attend, the music is pitched too high for the male voice, and I have given up on congregational singing personally. Second, the wide repertoire and continuing introduction of new music prevents a congregation from developing a community ensemble of familiar music that does not require constant use of books, missalettes, or jumbotrons. And third, some of the contemporary music pouring into churches is plain awful. I was meditating after communion on a Saturday night when I swore I heard the choir and a few congregants sing “God is the surgeon of my soul.” No, I said to myself, that’s my bad hearing. But I looked up at our jumbotron and sure enough! Who writes this? Or more to the point, who signs off on this?
I laughed all the way to my car.
Next: What is the Church teaching on music, beginning with Vatican II and up to the Roman Missal and the U.S. Bishops 2007 Statement on Music. What does Thomas Day recommend as a corrective to bring communities closer together in song?
Leave a Reply.