I don’t mind the odd mystery in church, but there’s one I can’t seem to solve. Why is it that Catholics won’t sing hymns at Mass? I have to admit it, the Protestants have this fantastic tradition of singing hymns. They’ve got their great gospel choirs, gospel quartets and little singing groups.
They’ve got this whole tradition of singing their hearts out for Jesus, so why, despite my best efforts do Catholics refuse to sing? Why do they remain with arms crossed, mouths closed and hymnbooks resolutely remaining in the pew?
Here are some of the proposed answers, but I don’t buy any of them.
1. Catholics don’t sing at Mass because the hymns are all goopy, modernist, sentimental trash about walking on the beach with Jesus and eagles and ‘gathering together’. These hymns are usually unsuitable to be sung by a congregation, and nobody knows them, so people just don’t sing. Partially true, but not all the contemporary hymns are awful, and for goodness sake, why don’t they know them when they’ve been sung over and over again since the 1970s? After all, at least they are easy to listen to and not difficult theologically or linguistically. So why won’t they sing?
2. Catholics don’t sing at Mass because the hymns are all archaic, incomprehensible, overly theological Victorian lyrics put to thumping old hymn tunes that nobody likes and nobody knows. Just the opposite to number one. They don’t sing modern hymns, but they also don’t sing the old hymns. They don’t know them? Come on. Not even old standbys like ‘Now Thank We All Our God’ or ‘Alleluia Sing to Jesus’?
3. Catholics don’t sing because they’re all Irish and the Irish considered hymn singing to be a Protestant, Anglican Methodist sort of thing so they reacted against it and never learned to sing hymns at Mass. Nonsense. Not all American Catholics are of Irish descent and why would a cultural argument which was perhaps appropriate 50 or 100 years ago still remain in America today? Besides its not just the Irish American Catholics who don’t sing hymns. Nobody does. Are we to believe that the Irish revulsion at hymns somehow infected the Mexicans, the Poles, the Italians and the Nigerians?
4. Catholics don’t sing because singing is a girly, arty farty kind of thing for sissies and Catholicism is more manly. Errr. Then why don’t the Catholic women sing either?
5. Catholics don’t sing hymns because they still don’t know how to participate at Mass. They think Mass is something you go and watch like you do a play at a theater. Maybe, but then they do tend to respond to the people’s parts of the Mass pretty well and they often sing the Mass setting well.
6. Catholics don’t sing hymns because they’re a hard hearted bunch who don’t really love Jesus. Hmm. No doubt that applies to some Catholics, but not all. In fact most of the people I know who go to Mass regularly love Jesus pretty much. Sorry, that won’t stick either.
7. Catholics don’t like to use books and hymn sheets to read words. They like to respond with the stuff they have memorized. That’s why they’ll sing one verse of ‘Faith of Our Fathers’ or ‘Holy God We Praise Thy Name” but nothing else. That’s interesting. Maybe we should just sing the same four hymns over and over until they memorize them. But is that really the case? They are happy to pick up the bulletin and read it (often during the homily…)
8. Hymn singing is essentially Protestant. Catholics have an instinct against it. That instinct has to do with the nature of liturgical worship. They sense that the hymn somehow doesn’t fit with the action of the liturgy so they just instinctively opt out. They don’t mean to be negative or not to participate, they are just participating more by listening and watching and paying attention to God’s presence in a nice contemplative, laid back way. So what’s wrong with that? Hmm. Maybe you’ve got something there. Then again, maybe you don’t. Maybe what you think is them being ‘contemplative’ is not contemplative but complacent.
9. Nobody ever taught these people how to sing. They’re shy. They’re insecure about singing. Protestants are brought up with singing hymns all the time. They’re used to it. Nonsense. Everybody can sing. I mean there are a few people who sound either like a cat scratching a chalkboard or a drunk bullfrog, but most people can sing. Look around at the ball game. People sing the national anthem and pep songs well enough.
10. Hymns are emotional. Catholics don’t like public displays of affection. They’re more reserved and they don’t go in for all that ‘me and Jesus’ emotional stuff. C’mon. The hymns they do sing are very emotional–sentimental even. Take the Lourdes hymn or Hail Holy Queen. These are emotional and Catholics sing them well enough, and the modern hymns they do like (Amazing Grace and Eagles Wings) are very emotional.
11. Catholics know deep down that the Mass is not the place to sing hymns. Their refusal to sing is their unconscious way of telling the priest to stop foisting hymns on them all the time and to simply have the choir sing the Introit, Gradual and Offertory and have a decent organ with a fine organist play grand music to walk in and out by. Now that would be radical! Scrap the hymn singing schtick altogether and do what the rubrics say? Actually have a choir or schola to sing the Introit, the Psalm, the Gradual and the Offertory? If we did that you know what would happen?
Everyone would say, “Father I really miss not singing hymns at Mass. When are you going to bring hymn singing back…”