Why Catholics (Still) Can’t Sing

Why Catholics (Still) Can’t Sing

“Why Catholics Can’t Sing” is actually the title of a book that was published about ten years ago. The author, a veteran Catholic organist and choir director, gave an in-depth analysis as to why, compared to the robust singing of most Protestant churches, Catholics “can’t” (or won’t) sing.

Now of course there are plenty of Catholics who do sing and there are many fine liturgies where everyone is “into it”. But in the main, as is the author’s contention, most Catholics have to be prodded, poked, and threatened by some well-intentioned, perspiring song leader, whose job description seems to include the words “raise the dead”. (Actually, many song leaders are quite capable of causing the death of certain members of the congregation with their own bare hands by the end of most Masses.)

Since the renewal of the liturgy after Vatican II, we have done many things in an attempt to remedy this problem. We have brought in guitars and drums, composed more contemporary, foot stompin’ music, moved the choir to the front, installed expensive sound systems, employed all sorts of audio-visual aids, appointed and anointed brave song leaders, created upbeat song books, brought in church music experts, sponsored liturgical workshops, clapped our hands, raised our hands, wrung our hands, and hung multi-colored felt banners from the rafters proclaiming (or threatening) “When You Sing You Pray Twice!” (Actually, amongst Catholics it’s especially true. When you hear the singing at most parishes you have to pray twice.)

And still, aside from a few of the same hardy, vocal souls in the first few pews, the majority of the congregation either lip-synch along with the few that do sing with an occasional audible tone or don’t bother to move their mouths at all (except to yawn).

I have been involved with liturgical music as an organist, pianist, guitarist, choir director, composer, liturgy planner, etc. since 1974, and am a veteran of the post-Vatican II music wars (those in the liturgical music arena will know what I mean).

I have done everything in the area of Church music from playing with Bob Hurd (well known contemporary liturgical composer) to singing under the baton of Paul Salamunovich (one of the world’s premier experts on sacred music and present director of the Los Angeles Master Chorale). And I was in the choir that first sang Dan Schutte’s hand written “Here I Am Lord” to 5000 people at a CCD conference with the rest of the St. Louis Jesuits.

I was there, guitar in hand, at the birth of what came to be known as “The Folk Mass”, “The Guitar Mass”, “The Youth Mass”, whatever you want to call it. For twenty plus years it was my Sunday mission to “raise the dead”.

However, today my guitar lays silent within its case and I have devolved into one of those anonymous lip-synchers entrenched in the pew with my name on it half way back in the middle of the church.

Why?, you may ask. It has been said that the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result. Does that answer the question?

So I now watch with some amusement at enthusiastic newcomers who think that with new songs, louder instruments, bigger choirs, more microphones, and hipper liturgies that they can do what 30 years of liturgical innovations have not been able to do: get us Joe and Jane Lunchbuckets in the pew to open our mouths. I don’t question their good intentions, but it will never work.

At the risk of sounding simplistic I’d like to tell you why. All the song leaders, choir directors, composers, and liturgical experts, despite earnest efforts and temporary successes, will ultimately fail to effect large scale audible change in the pews because the ladder of success they are attempting to scale is leaning against the wrong building.

The problem is not the people in the pew. The problem is not supportive or un-supportive celebrants and pastors. The problem isn’t even good or bad choirs or song leaders. The problem is the music itself. The majority of music that we attempt to use in our contemporary liturgies is simply not structured for congregational singing. Most of our songs are exactly that, songs.

The song, as a music form, due to its inherent musical structure, is intimate in nature and is meant to be listened to or sung by a small group. It’s simple musicology. So after 30 years of attempting everything under the musical sun to get everyone to “join in”, what do we still have? We have alot of people who listen to songs sung by a small group.Surprise!

So what’s the answer? …Oops. Out of space. Will have it for you next week.

Tim Rohr