A lot of Catholic parish music directors today don’t seem to get it. While much of today’s “Christian Music” is uplifting and even inspirational, it is really not suitable for use at Mass.
But, these music directors will argue, people like the contemporary music we play at Mass. And it draws in younger Catholics.
However, a significant number of Catholics don’t care for it at Mass. And there is no evidence to support the claim that young people prefer contemporary praise and worship music to sacred music at Mass.
So is contemporary praise and worship music really okay for Mass? If it’s not, what’s to be done? Or should anything be done at all?
Catholics and Music
According to a 2017 Gallop survey, 44% of Protestants view music as a major factor in choosing what church to attend. But Catholics are different. Just 29% of Catholics who regularly go to Mass say music is a major factor in deciding this.
So for a whopping 71% of Catholics who regularly go to Mass, music is a minor factor or not any factor at all in deciding what church or Mass to attend. Those who prefer sacred music simply tolerate today’s contemporary praise and worship music.
But there is no question that the kind of music featured at Mass does affect the Mass. The survey, however, did not define what is meant by “music.” Apparently, to the surveyors, music is music.
Sacred music and chant is meant to add to the solemnity and beauty of the Mass. Contemporary praise and worship music is different. It is meant be performed. And it is not really meant to garner active participation from the congregation. So music is not just music.
And it turns out that even some Protestants have a problem with contemporary praise and worship music. Paul Lusher, a former music minister for College Church (a Reformed Evangelical Church associated with Wheaton College, Wheaton, IL) is the founder of the website Center for Church Music. He is not a fan of praise and worship songs.
“We believe that hymns are superior to praise and worship songs for the purposes of public worship. We also believe that the introduction of praise and worship songs at the expense of hymns is a serious matter with theological implications. Much more is at stake than what meets the eye,” he says.
Two More Surveys
Two surveys conducted by Catholic parishes provide additional perspectives on music at Mass.
One of the surveys was conducted by Christ the King Catholic Church, in Belton, TX. Christ the King surveyed parishioners on parish life in November 2019. Georgetown University’s Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate assisted with the survey.
The responses from the survey showed that 54% of the parishioners strongly preferred “Masses that are traditional in music and style.” Just 35% of parishioners strongly preferred “Masses that are contemporary in music and style.”
The second survey was conducted by St. Clare of Assisi Catholic Church in Acworth, GA. St. Clare parish apparently offers two traditional Masses and two contemporary masses on weekends. The parish conducted a “Music Ministry Survey” to find out what parishioners thought of the music at the Masses.
St. Clare parishioners apparently liked that the parish offered two styles of mass and music. The survey results noted that “Latin preference was split among the parish, 55% like it and 45% do not.” So it would appear that slightly more St. Clare parishioners preferred the Traditional Latin Mass and traditional music over the Novus Ordo Mass and contemporary music.
The Sound of Music
Anthony Esolen said in a recent article at The Catholic Thing, that most of the contemporary music being used at Mass is “lousy poetry and lousy music.”
Esolen summed it up rather well. When the singing starts, “. . . most of the congregation is silent or is murmuring, because the songs are for Mass entertainment, having been conceived in form and content after the patterns of mass entertainment.
“No one remembers the words, because the poetry is bad or nonexistent, and no one remembers the melodies, because they are bad or because they never were written to be sung by an entire congregation and its full range of human voices.”
A good example of what Esolen is talking about is the song “Alive and Breathing.” My parish’s co-music directors introduced this on our parish’s web page as a new song they will be playing at mass. It is a nice, upbeat, inspirational Christian song, but it really is not suitable for Mass. The poetry is okay at best, but there is nothing holy or sacred about this song. Give it a listen. Change the lyrics and you’ve actually got a pop song.
The Congregation is Not Singing Along
Lusher shares Esolen’s opinion. Lusher says contemporary praise and worship songs are written for performance, and because of their limited music range they do not lend themselves to strong congregational singing.
“Like much of popular culture (of which it is a reflection), its “shelf-life” is short, even disposable. That is why, over the past thirty years, few worship songs have survived.”
My own experience backs this up. From my usual vantage point near the rear of the church (when we were still able to attend Mass before the pandemic), I often looked around during the Entrance Song, the Offertory Song, and so on, to see how many people were singing. It was obvious that Esolen is on the money. Only about 3 out of 10 people are singing.
Of course our parish co-music directors have a different perspective. Both of our music directors are talented musicians. I am pretty sure they are both devout Catholics as well. I would also bet that both of them experience a sense of spiritual joy when they sing the contemporary praise and worship music. Their joy, however, is not being shared by all.
Their vantage point is from right next to the sanctuary and they are undoubtedly surrounded by people who probably share their taste in music. The folks nearest to them seem to enjoy singing the contemporary songs selected. So when our music directors glance up they see only people joyfully singing along with them. But they are not seeing the forest for the trees.
Old vs. New
Sometimes change is a good thing. But sometimes it is not. An analogy might be appropriate here.
A few decades ago I was part of a group of boys receiving instruction on how to be altar boys. The priest instructing us told us that we should think of ourselves as the invisible man. Our job was to assist the priest saying Mass without drawing attention to ourselves.
The priest explained what he meant. The focus of the Mass should be on God, he said. The people in the pews should be focused on the Sacrifice of the Mass. They should be focusing on the Liturgy of the Word and on the wondrous miracle that takes place during the Consecration. If you mess up, he told us, or otherwise draw attention to yourself, it is a distraction to the congregation.
This may be why the choir loft in many older churches is out of sight or at the rear of the church. The parish I grew up in had a wonderful organist and a great choir. The choir also had some really good soloists. To this day, however, I have no idea what any of the folks in the choir looked like.
Apparently, this ‘out of view’ thinking was by design. The choir was supposed to be invisible, just like us altar boys. The choir’s job at Mass was to add to the beauty and solemnity of the Mass with music, song, and chant without calling attention to themselves. Things have changed in this regard.
A Dumb Change
The church I grew up attending was a pre-Vatican II church. In modern, post-Vatican II churches the cantor or choir, along with the organist (or I should say keyboard or piano player and/or guitar player) are now in a prominent spot next to or near the sanctuary. Everyone in the congregation sees them. I can only assume this change was thought to be in keeping with the spirit of Vatican II. If so, I think this was a really dumb change.
I sometimes get the impression that some music directors and cantors now see themselves as every bit as critical to the Mass as the priest celebrant. If so, they are forgetting that the focus of the Mass should be on the Liturgy of the Word and the Liturgy of the Eucharist. I’ve never heard any description of the Mass that mentions a liturgy of the music.
Or maybe it’s just that they are so caught up in expressing themselves through the music they are so joyfully playing and singing that they fail to realize they are drawing attention to themselves. Maybe just turning down the volume on the amplifiers would help.
Our parish’s music directors probably disagree with Esolen and Lusher (and me). Many other parish music directors might also disagree. Music is, after all, a matter of personal preference. The fact that there are so many categories of music attests to this. But just because a song is a ‘praise and worship’ song does not mean it is proper for or suited for the Mass.
Music Appropriate for Mass
“Church teaching emphasizes that the music proper to the Sacred Liturgy possesses three qualities: sanctity, beauty and universality. Only music which possesses all three of these qualities is worthy of Holy Mass” said Archbishop Alexander K. Sample in his “Pastoral Letter on Sacred Music in Divine Worship.” He issued the letter to the Archdiocese of Portland, OR on January 25, 2019.
His letter was based on a letter he had issued when he was Bishop of the Diocese of Marquette (MI). In both letters the Archbishop drew on a host of Church Documents to highlight “some of the perennial truths regarding the Church’s teaching on sacred music.”
The neat thing about the letter is that it’s kind of like ‘one stop shopping’ for parish music directors. Rather than read all the pertinent documents on the Church’s teaching on music at Mass, music directors can just read Archbishop Sample’s letter. It’s like a Cliff’s Notes on what it is proper music. And it packs a big punch.
(Or if one prefers videos to the written word, here’s a good 10-minute video that also explains the difference between sacred music and contemporary praise and worship music. It was produced by the Diocese of Sioux Falls, SD.)
Music at Mass Should not be Performed
Music is one of the “performing arts.” It’s natural, therefore, for a musician or singer to instinctively perform the song being played and sung. (I’ve yet to meet a musician or singer who has no desire to perform in front of an audience!) And as Lusher and Esolen point out, most praise and worship music is written for performance.
But music at Mass should not be performed. All too often, however, it becomes a performance. This is evident any time a congregation bursts into applause after a song at Mass.
Applause after a song has happened a number of times during Sunday Mass at our parish. At the last two Christmas Midnight Masses at our parish the congregation also burst into applause at the conclusion of the second of two Communion songs during Mass. This is flat out wrong.
Two Communion songs has been a standard practice in our parish for many years. No one has, however, ever given me a good reason for the second song. And it is especially annoying and distracting when the second song seems to have been selected to enable the soloist or choir to showcase his, her or their talent and full vocal range as loudly as possible.
One would think that silence after Communion would be preferable to a song. Silence would allow those who have just entered into communion with Jesus Christ time to pray and fully experience the sense of being in communion with our Lord and Savior.
The Bottom line
So here’s what I suggest:
1) Parish Music Directors should set aside their personal music preferences and think seriously about the kind of music they are playing. Is it sacred music meant to enhance the solemnity and beauty of the Mass, or is it secular “praise and worship” music that is meant to be performed and really does not fit in with the Sacrifice of the Mass?
As already mentioned (but it bears repeating), there is zero evidence saying that contemporary praise and worship music is attracting more people, especially younger people, to Mass. At the same time there is more and more evidence that millennials like the traditional Latin Mass replete with traditional sacred music and chant. This is something worth thinking about.
2) Parishes with newer churches should consider screening off the organist/keyboard-player, cantor and choir so they are not visible to the congregation during Mass. The focus of the Mass needs to be on God, not on the music, the singer, the choir, or the musicians.
3) Parish Pastors should think seriously about offering both OF and EF Masses on Sunday. This may mean learning to say Mass in Latin for some priests. And this may be a humbling undertaking. However, many priests have been quoted as saying that saying Mass in Latin is a very spiritually uplifting experience.
But even an OF Mass, said ad orientum, with traditional sacred music would be preferable to only Masses with contemporary praise and worship music. I would be willing to bet many pastors (and music directors) would be surprised at how many people in the parish would opt to attend the more traditional form of the Mass.
So that’s my take on music at Mass. What say you? Do you have an opinion about the music being played and sung at Mass in your parish? Share your thoughts and opinions in the comments section.