Action Alert!

Why Don't Catholics Sing?

by Catherine Downer


Catherine Dower's excellent review of Thomas Day's book Why Catholics Can't Sing. Dower agrees with Day's description of the Catholic Church in America, deprived of beautiful sacred music.

Larger Work

Sacred Music

Publisher & Date

Church Music Association of America, Volume 118, Number 4, Winter 1991

Every once in a while a book is published that falls into the category of "must" reading. Thomas Day's compelling book, Why Catholics Can't Sing (Crossroads, 1991) is that book. It is "must" reading not only for church musicians and the clergy, but for all Catholics who care about the liturgy.

It is an excellent survey told in a clear style and an interestingly humorous manner. One might wonder about the authority of the author who would tackle this topic. Day, who is chairman of the department of music at Salve Regina College in Rhode Island, where he is professor music theory and history, has his doctorate from Columbia University.

Day makes a point. He is right. Catholics do not sing. They are not encouraged to sing. The Germans brought their love of congregational singing to this country, but the Irish had only their folk music. He speaks of the energy and the enthusiasm of the singing in the Protestant churches in this country and in the Catholic churches of parts of Europe. It is still possible in parts of Europe to hear choirs sing Masses with orchestral accompaniment, to hear first-class organists perform, and congregations participate in Latin Masses with hymns and sections of the Mass as they have done for centuries. But in the United States, churches in the last thirty years have been built as barren structures with no place for a pipe organ and an acoustic that does little to encourage music, vocal and instrumental. Is the lack of congregational participation in the United States the fault of the people or is it caused by their up-bringing? Does the answer lie in a suppressed people?

The Irish people were persecuted for centuries. Their glory is that they "kept the faith." There was little opportunity for singing at Masses celebrated behind the hedge rows; one did not have to attract the attention of English soldiers by singing. The silent low Mass was the norm. The American hierarchy is largely Irish in origin, and the lack of a liturgical musical culture among them is easily traced to the historical events of the past four hundred years. The musical developments in our country since the council may well be understood if we admit those facts and developments.

Music in church has become confused. Since the council, congregations have not been taught good strong hymns. Instead, as Day writes, "Mr. Caruso, upstairs, sings with amplification." There are folk groups, reformed folk groups, and "sweet-song" hymns. We have the St. Louis Jesuits, the Weston Monks and many others, singing "comforting words and easy-listening sounds." Sanctuaries were remodeled with carpeting and hanging plants, giving a "homey look" to what should be a temple of prayer.

Day compares a Protestant minister to some of our priests. The minister delivers an eloquent sermon and knows all his people by name, since they hired him. But so many priests attempt to create a rapport with the congregation in a manner that is quite offensive to many people. For example, they use the greeting, "Good morning," which is truly out of place at the beginning of the liturgy, just as "Havernice day" is out of place at the end. These expressions are not appropriate for a celebrant dressed in ancient ceremonial vestments; they make the congregation uneasy. The amplified sound that discourages the congregation from singing should be thrown out. The congregation must hear itself. The three-chord guitarists, who give "new meaning to the word 'monotonous'" can go out along with the mikes and speakers.

The Second Vatican Council specified that the treasure of sacred music should be preserved. Choirs were to support congregational singing. What happened? What went wrong? Unfortunately, the liturgists had little background in sacred music. Those who thought they did--Gelineau, for example--tried to take over the music for the Mass, ignoring the heritage of ancient music. It has been a constant battle. The "elitist" musician vs. the unknowledgeable man in the pew, or more so, the musicians vs. the liturgists.

Day writes of a Mass celebrated in "an old-fashioned" Benedictine monastery. He calls it "charismatic event." It reminded me of a visit I made to Solesmes in 1950. It was a glorious experience to hear Gaudeamus for August 15, the last time those propers for the Assumption were sung, since the proclamation of the dogma brought a new set of chants for the feast. It was the most meaningful ceremony and the most expressive chanting I have ever heard.

Day talks about the suppression of everything before 1960. I recall, as a music teacher at Saint Rose School in Meriden, Connecticut, from 1949 to 1953, training a vested choir of boys who walked in procession, sang hymns and sat in the sanctuary. There was a girls' choir too which sang chant, hymns, responses in Latin, etc. And the congregation had a hymnbook and also sang. At one confirmation ceremony, the children sang Schubert's "Hallelujah," arranged for three-part choir, while Bishop O'Brien stood at the altar and listened, not leaving until after the children finished their singing.

I remember too attending services at Monsignor Martin Hellriegel's Church of the Holy Cross near Saint Louis, Missouri, in 1948 and again in 1959. The usher presented each person with a Liber Usualis at the door. If the book were put down for only a second, the usher reappeared and opened the book to the proper page. Everyone was expected to participate, an activity that was most unusual at that time. From 1948 to 1953, I was the representative in New England for the Gregorian Institute of America, responsible for teaching choirs and organists, introducing them to Gregorian chant. Rather strangely, Day claims that Catholic parishes got rid of their boy choirs in the 1940's and 1950's.

Now it appears that the liturgical renewal must begin all over again. Day suggests that we "smash" the microphones, and I heartily agree. He wants good, plain and wholesome music: a few basic hymns and unaccompanied chant- like singing. Gregorian chant has an aesthetic, an hypnotic sound. It is impersonal, humbling. Church music should elevate the people to prayer. The problem with music at present is that it is unsingable, unmetered, and not congregationally oriented.

Pride of ownership should be developed over the years. Unfortunately, things that have meant a great deal to people have been mocked: rosaries, medals, missals, preparation for first Communion, Latin chants. Now there is need for positive references.

The Church has moved away from its chief ritual, the Mass. We should rather try to restore the essence of the ceremony of the 1950's, the reverence for the most holy of actions. Too often today, the Mass seems to be the background instead of the music.

A superior church music program in a parish can only be attained if and when the pastor assumes a constructive, cooperative role with his music director. The pastor must be in charge. First-rate people chose other first-rate people. Second-rate people chose third-rate people! The pastor must be capable of teamwork.

The question of pay is ever present. To have better church musicians there must be a better remuneration. Unfortunately, the long and arduous training demanded of musicians is not recognized by many pastors, who hire for less money, people who lack both training and experience as church musicians. Few churches pay the salaries needed to attract the type of musician they need.

People are constantly introduced to hymn after hymn in the missalettes, which get thrown away at the end of the season. Day is right in saying, "Trash belongs to nobody." We need simple chants and good strong hymns. Why is it that we hear so many contemporary "hymns?" I keep hoping for some chant or a solid hymn. It is impossible for the man in the pew to choose what hymn he wants, since an unknowledgeable person does not know what he wants. No one can want what he does not know. Catholic people can sense inappropriate music; they may protest by not singing.

Day insists that a good Catholic hymnal is an absolute necessity. It should contain chant and simple responses. With a core repertory established as the music of the people, then other music can be added later. He suggests that music be contemporary in the sense that it speaks to the congregation.

Many people have been converted to the Catholic Church through the years by a deeply prayerful involvement with its chant and its music. This is what Day and many more church musicians wish to have restored to our worship.

© Sacred Music, 1991, Church Music Association of America, 5389 22nd Ave. SW, Naples, FL 34116.

This item 3554 digitally provided courtesy of