Yet more weeping and wailing and gnashing of teeth over music in church. I regularly hear two complaints about traditional hymns. The first I do not understand and hope a musician out there might be able to illuminate me. Why do so many people complain that hymns are too high pitched to sing? I don’t find them too high pitched and I have a moderately deep baritone voice. I suspect it is simply because people are not taught to sing nowadays and so they don’t know how to reach high notes. Anyway, I am anxious to be informed if anyone has any ideas.

The second grumble is that traditional hymns are ‘boring’ and ‘we are losing the young’. The biggest red herring in all of the  idea that young people like praise and worship music and older people don’t, and that we must have groovy praise and worship music ‘for the young’. I am regularly asked to celebrate the local life teen Mass. I can see the young people in the congregation. They don’t sing the rowdy, lively music which is on offer any more than they sing the traditional hymns. In fact, when I ask them about it they say they hate that music. Then I look around to see who is singing the praise and worship music and really enjoying it, and it is usually their parents and grandparents. It’s the older generation who are playing the guitars and swaying their hips to the music while the kids cringe.

The fact of the matter is that styles of music do not align with age groups. Plenty of old people like praise and worship choruses. Some young people do too. Likewise, plenty of young people like classical music and traditional hymns and so do plenty of older people. Taste in music isn’t determined by age. At St Joseph’s Catholic School we experimented with praise and worship music at Mass. The students themselves asked for it to stop, and asked to have more classical music. So go figure.

The type of music at Mass is not the problem. Mass doesn’t suddenly become ‘exciting’ or ‘reverent’ if you just choose a different type of music. What needs to happen for the Mass to become meaningful and reverent (and therefore intriguing and wonderful) is something far different far simpler and far more difficult.

What is needed is a constant conversion and renewal in the church. If priests and people prayed more, if they gave more, if they stopped sinning, if they believed and practiced their faith then the worship would be lively and meaningful and real. One particular musical style or another might help, but if the heart isn’t right, then the most splendid or the most exciting music in the world will not change hearts.

Guest blogger Mantilla Amontillado is the founder of Veritas Vestments. She holds a degree in Ecclesiastical Haberdashery from Salamanca University. She has done the pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostella three times on horseback and is engaged to the famous matador, Senor Augusto Torquemada.

Hey hon! I sorry I not been talking for so long, but my business, Veritas Vestments is going real fast like one of the bulls that is running through the streets of Pamplona. You are asking me about when I am getting married to Augusto. This is not so good right now. Augusto is having problems. Better not talk about this right now hon. Okay? So I am visiting my cousins in America when they take me to the school Mass for the little ones. I am amazed. The children are singing loud and clear and you know what they are singing hon? Chant music. I think it comes from this monastery in France called Tevye or Dizzy or something like this. So it is very beautiful and the words are in Latin and the children, they love this quiet beautiful music. Then the next week I am visiting some other friends and they take me to another Mass for their children and it is not so good. Up front of the church is a woman and a man who are wearing clothes that are too tight, and I have to tell you hon, it would be difficult to find clothes for those two that are NOT too tight. So they are playing guitars and singing folk songs with the children about Jesus shining and gathering together. But I am noticing hon, that none of the children are singing. It is only the old fat people who are singing. So I am thinking about this and you know something? Read More


Go here for a post on banal hymns at Mass.  Here are more moanings and musings on bad church music. To be more positive, some time ago I wrote a four part series on what makes a good hymn.Here’s the first part. Here’s part two, here’s the third and here’s the fourth.


The children, they don’t know if the music you are giving them is old music or new music or folks music or chanting from the medieval monks. They don’t know, so why not give them something beautiful? So I am asking my cousins who like the old fat people singing and they tell me, “Mantilla you have to give the young people the music they like!” So I say, “But they don’t like this music! They are sitting there looking embarrassed that their old fat people are singing protest songs about ‘making a difference.’ I think what you mean when you say, ‘Give the young people the music they like’ is really saying ‘We will give the young people the music we like to think that they like but it is really the music us old fat people like.’

Look hon. I think this is not so smart. Music is not young or old. Music is good or bad. Church music is not young or old, it is sacred music or not sacred music. Too much of this music is not sacred. It’s like something from a Broadway musical or maybe a not so good pop music group. It’s like my vestments hon. We don’t make vestments out of tin foil and pipe cleaners and put flashing lights and a battery pack in it for the priest to try to make it cool for young people. We just make good vestments out of good materials with good craftsmanship and then the young people like them and the old people like them. You know what I mean hon? It’s the same with everything. So since that time in America I am all the time humming these chants from that monastery called Dizzy and now I am realizing what a chant does. It gets into your mind and your soul and before long it is helping you pray more. You know what I mean? Maybe that happens too with the other kind of music; it’s a tune that sticks in your head, but do you really want to be singing some marshmallow kind of song all day long about Jesus walking on the beach and making footprints? I don’t think so hon.

One of the most regular grumbles I receive is about my choice of hymns for Mass. It’s a minefield because I am convinced that the vast majority of people like or dislike a hymn in a purely subjective manner. I guess usually they have memories of hymns they like because of their childhood or because a particular hymn pushes a particular emotional button for them.

What people don’t seem to realize is that there are actually some criteria for choosing good hymns. The fact that so many of the hymns in our Catholic hymnals are terrible musically, heterodox theologically, contain execrable poetry, maudlin sentiments and trashy pop psychology doesn’t help. People need to learn that just because a hymn is published doesn’t make it good. Furthermore, just because it’s popular doesn’t make it good.

So what are the criteria for decent hymns? I’m going to do several posts on this topic to cover the territory. I hope they help. First thing: we choose a hymn for what it contributes to the liturgy. A gospel song may be inspirational. It may be decent musically. It may be okay poetically. It may be very popular, but it may not be suitable for the liturgy. Everything in the liturgy is meant to complement and focus on the action of the Mass. The music needs to be appropriate for the particular part of the Mass in which it is used.

In other words, we don’t just choose hymns because we like to sing them. The processional hymn is a modern form of the introit. The words should lead us in praise to God as we enter into his presence. This is a first and basic principle for a hymn. It should be obvious that a hymn is a song of praise to God. It is directed from us to God. It’s simple. However, an awful lot of modern hymns are not songs of praise to God at all. They’re about us. Go through your contemporary Catholic hymnbook (Notice that it is called ‘Gather’ not ‘Worship’) and see how many of the hymns are not about God at all, but they are about us, our gathering together, our mission in the world, our life, our love, our fellowship. Read the words. It’s amazing how many hardly mention God at all. These are not hymns. They’re pep songs and when we use them we turn worship into a pep rally.

The processional should not only use words of praise to God, but the music should be suitable for a procession. It should be singable with a dependable rhythm and accessible tune. It should be positive, reverent and stately for we are entering into the court of the King. The organ should lead with a strong and firm tone as the procession enters. As it does our hearts are lifted and prepared for worship.

The offertory should be a quieter hymn of reverent offering of ourselves and our gifts to God. It too is a hymn of praise to God, and not a hymn of personal devotion or subjective emotion. This hymn voices a corporate action of worship and should not be about ‘me and Jesus’. A great offertory hymn is Now Thank We All Our God.

Communion music (in my opinion) should not be sung by the congregation, but by the choir. This is the opportunity for a eucharistic hymn or anthem. Here the more devotional, personal and intimate hymns are appropriate. How Sweet the Name of Jesus Sounds or I Heard the Voice of Jesus Say. If contemporary chant and reverent, personal gospel songs are used, this is the place for them. However, it should be noted that an awful lot of contemporary communion hymns used in Catholic worship do not express Catholic theology. Go through your contemporary Catholic hymnbook and see how many Eucharistic hymns talk about our ‘eating the bread and drinking the wine.’ Uhhh. We’re Catholics. It’s not bread and wine. Remember? Heretical Eucharistic theology is expressed in these hymns which are often written by Protestants. Considering that the only theology most Catholics receive is through their hymns, not wonder belief in the Real Presence is fading.

I’m of the opinion that the final hymn (if there must be one at all) should be sung after communion while the ablutions are going on. Here is where some of the upbeat, strong and inspiring Eucharistic hymns like Alleluia Sing to Jesus can be used. It’s also a good place for solid hymns of thanksgiving, praise and worship like Love Divine All Loves Excelling or O God Beyond All Praising.

This leave the organist to play a postlude for the recessional which leaves people in the mood to get up and go. No more fiddling about with hymnsheets and hymnbooks. Just listen to the music, watch them leave and then go out to love and serve the Lord.

Joseph Campbell photo: Creative Commons

Joseph Campbell is the author of the seminal work The Hero With a Thousand Faces. His work on myth and the universal appeal of myth has been instrumental not only in the understanding of the importance and function of myth, but it has also influenced a whole generation of filmic storytellers, writers and directors. Christopher Vogler springboarded from Campbell with his book The Writer’s Journey applying Campbell’s work to the art of story structure.

Campbell was brought up as a Catholic, but after the second Vatican Council he left the Catholic Church in disgust. He had come to appreciate the power of myth with its ability to reach into the subconscious and connect with the deepest parts of the human personality. He also realized that the Catholic Church was the one religious body in the West that still maintained a ritual sacrificial system, a hierophantic priesthood and the ceremonies and rites of mystery. He understood how these rites were connected with and made applicable the truths and the symbols of myth.

Then he said the Catholic Church went and threw it all out the window Furthermore, they threw it out the window at exactly the time that it was needed most. He saw that America had been Protestantized and with Protestantism the religion of mystery, myth and ceremony that drew on the deepest recesses of the human imagination was emasculated. The ceremony was replaced with dull, literal Biblicism and the sacraments were replaced with a utilitarian, bland therapeutic Deism. The mysterious temples to the Divine Son of God were replaced with bare preaching halls devoid of symbol, devoid of art, devoid of beauty, devoid of the ancient faith.

Feeling abandoned by his own religion he abandoned the religion.

This story unlocks one of the most maddening and frustrating things about the Catholic Church in the twentieth century. At just the time when our culture needed the depth of Catholic worship, ritual, beauty, art and liturgy the Catholic Church went in the other direction. In an attempt to be up to date they were actually half a century too late. This is constantly the way with the American Catholics. Here are a few other crazy examples in the world today.

Let’s take the issue of women’s ordination. This is an issue of the 1970s folks. That’s when the topic was hot. That’s when the really up to date churches like the Lutherans and Episcopalians jumped in feet first. Now the only Catholic women who want to be ordained are sweet old well intentioned grandmas who really should have been Episcopalian wimminpriests long ago. So Catholics like Phyllis Zagorno are still pushing this tired agenda and hoping to make progress. They should realize that the train has left the station. Most Catholics don’t give two hoots about that issue anymore. Certainly the majority of Catholics in the developing world don’t think its important.

Or take another issue: the LGBTQ thing. Don’t Catholics like that cuddly old Jesuit James Martin realize that this issue is passe? The Episcopalians and Lutherans dealt with it long ago. They have gay priests. Heavens, they have Bishop Gene who is a gay clergy icon if ever there was one. The liberal Protestants have already pioneered that one. Once again it is a case of the Catholic Church trying to be the church of what’s happening now when in fact it is being the church of what was happening twenty or thirty years ago.

The list of these relevant issues could go on and on. This is why the activists in Washington were dozens of old nuns and old hippie campaigners. This is why so many parishes think they are being up to date by singing tired old folk music from the sixties and seventies. This is why aging architects still think it is trendy and cool to build big pancake circus tent suburban churches out of concrete. This is why trendy Catholic bishops still go around trying to be cool and relevant and why old priests still celebrate the liturgy like they are a game show host or a stand up comedian.

Joseph Campbell voted with his feet, and I wonder how many Catholic clergy and bishops–looking at the statistics of the huge numbers of Catholics who have done the same thing have asked themselves why. Why have so many Catholics walked out to join the Evangelicals? Why have so many Catholics walked out not to another church but to the mall, the golf course or their lake house? Maybe it is not because the church was not relevant enough, but maybe it was because it was trying too hard to be relevant and up to date. Maybe they left for the same reason Joseph Campbell left.

“Oh! hang on! “, the objector will say, “If they wanted beautiful, in depth liturgy and traditional worship, why did they then scoot off to the local mega church?”

The answer is, “They went there because they were not given the true version of Catholicism which would have touched their hearts and transformed their lives. So they went searching for something–anything that might open their lives and make their religion real for them. In other words, anything was better than the dumbed down, shallow, good works is all you need suburban Catholicism they were getting–even the mega church was better than that.”

Anyhow, enough of a rant.

You’ll be interested to know that I was leading a retreat once in New England and doing some stuff on story structure and preaching when a deacon said, “Father, I just want you to know that I studied under Mircea Eliade at the University of Chicago and all those folks were very networked with Joseph Campbell, and the story was that on his deathbed Campbell asked for a Catholic priest.”

I hope the story is true. Its always heartening to welcome home the prodigal son–especially if he ran away for some very understandable reasons.

splitHeadlines last week were proclaiming that a group of cardinals believe Pope Francis should step down to avoid a catastrophic schism in the Catholic Church.

Schism? What schism?

In fact, the modern Catholic Church is already in schism, but it is an internal schism, hidden to most people.

The divide is very clear and yet virtually unspoken. Nobody dares to really speak of it. The divide runs between cardinals. It runs between bishops and archbishops. It runs between theologians. It runs between parish priests. It runs between liturgists and catechists, church workers, musicians, teachers, journalists and writers.

It is not really a divide between conservative and liberal, between traditionalist and progressive.

It is the divide between those who believe that Jesus Christ is the Virgin born Son of God and that as the second person of the Holy and undivided Trinity established his church on earth supernaturally filled with the Holy Spirit which  would stand firm until the end of time, and those who believe otherwise.

Those who believe otherwise are the modernists. They are the ones who think the church is a human construct. It is a historic accident that occurred two thousand years ago and succeeded by a few twists of fate and a few happy circumstances. Because the believe the church is a human construct from a particular time and place, the church can and MUST adapt and change for every age and culture in which she finds herself.

This is the great divide. This is the schism which already exists.

Is the church a divinely appointed institution established for the eternal salvation of souls or is it a social construct which sincere people have put together to make the world a better place?

This is the divide within the church today and every conflict about everything –from music, to architecture, to art, to Catholic education, from liturgy, to literature, from devotions to disciplines and doctrines–everything comes back to this basic divide.

Of course I believe the first: the church was established by God’s Son Jesus Christ our Lord for the defeat of Satan, the salvation of souls and the redemption of the world through the supernatural graces empowered by the sacrificial death  of Jesus Christ on the cross.

All the rest–from saving the environment to feeding the hungry, from equal rights for workers to opening a soup kitchen, from educating the young to achieving peace and justice–are secondary and reliant on this first and eternal priority.

The schism already exists.

All that is required is for individual Catholics to decide which side of the chasm they reside.

Image Steve Skojec


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