Liturgical Music

Liturgical Music September 23, 2012

I go to the Saturday vigil Mass on Saturdays with my Mom, because she is quite frail and needs help just getting to, and into, the church.

The choir is a fairly typical one as choirs go in the contemporary church in America – a guitarist, bassist, a drummer and about six male and female voices. Their music choices are also typical – some Marty Haugen, St Louis Jesuits, maybe a little Gregory Norbet sometimes.

Among the singers is a young woman in her late teens or early twenties, who has a strong voice, but whose singing tends toward a certain kind of R&B styling – one that owes a lot to Mariah Carey, Whitney Houston, and other contemporary ballad-belters – that I find distracting and even offensive.

Liturgical music is supposed to focus us on the Glory of God, and not on the Mad Skills of the Singer. There is also a sexualized character to contemporary R&B singing – that sort of orgasmic whimper at the beginning of a phrase – that is like fingers on a chalkboard to me in a liturgical setting.

Here’s the thing, though: while I think I’m on solid ground with respect to the suitability of some of this singing, the thing I first need to wrestle with is my own reaction to this music. I have come to recognize that when I react too strongly to this music, it comes too often from a poisonous arrogance and selfishness in myself, and not enough from a place of truly humble concern. I have actually walked out of the Church after communion when I found a singer’s performance becoming unbearable.

I think liturgical music is an important part of worship – “He who sings well prays twice” and all that – but whatever the contemporary problems with it, our discussion of it needs to proceed with a healthy dose of humility and awareness of our own brokenness if we are to be helpful at all.

There is a certain kind of Catholic blog post where the comboxes quickly fill with snotty caricature and uncharity, and are mere excuses to deepen the divisions between us. Let’s try to see the good in one another, and then sit down and reason together.

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  • This is a thoughtful post – thank you.

    You remind me of my own need to be more charitable. It was probably two years ago, but a conversation on my facebook page began to devolve around some matter regarding liturgical music. One of the commenters said that whenever she heard a song by a particular composer, she would simply “shut my(her) ears and pray.”

    This elicited a tremendous amount of anger on my part, but frankly, was I any better? No I had – continue to have issues of arrogance to address. Recently she and I were commenting back and forth, kindly, on someone’s page and I thought of that day and my heart hardened. Who knows what she thinks? That is out of my domain, and I have only my own hard heart to deal with.

    So yes, let’s not deepen any differences. It is a big table in a big church. Where will charity lead us if we let it lead?

    • Where will charity lead us if we let it lead?

      Boy, are you asking the right questions, Fran.

  • Rat-biter

    “There is a certain kind of Catholic blog post where the comboxes quickly fill with snotty caricature and uncharity, and are mere excuses to deepen the divisions between us.”

    ## That’s pretty much universal.

    “I have come to recognize that when I react too strongly to this music, it comes too often from a poisonous arrogance and selfishness in myself, and not enough from a place of truly humble concern. I have actually walked out of the Church after communion when I found a singer’s performance becoming unbearable.”

    ## If singing of a certain kind is inappropriate. then it’s inappropriate – as much so as other abuses, like liturgical dancing, or clown “Masses”, or “Masses” where “cookies” are offered in place of valid Eucharistic matter. It’s a better to leave, than to fume at the abuses going on around one, when one has no power to change them. The people who should be beating themselves up are those clergy, of whatever rank, who allow, require or tolerate such atrocities. Catholic worship is gradually becoming a torment for anyone who is not willing to go along with the butchering of the Liturgy. No one can be obliged to attend a liturgy that is an insult to the Catholic Faith.

    I hope that doesn’t count as uncharity – but it is not wrong to call trashy liturgical practice by its name.

    OTOH there is the question of whether any of this really matters. Did Jesus have any intentions for His Church’s/church’s/assembly’s liturgy ? If so, was that liturgy to be standard Jewish worship – or was He either simply not concerned either way, or, anti-liturgical ? If the liturgy is a cause of division, & not of unity, that amounts to Defcon 1. There’s too much concern with externals, & not enough with what Jesus concentrated on: internal attitudes.

    • …liturgical dancing, or clown “Masses”, or “Masses” where “cookies” are offered in place of valid Eucharistic matter.

      Perhaps I’m lucky enough to have access only to good liturgy, but I go to Mass in various places in the San Francisco Bay Area (I live in Berkeley) and I’ve not had any experience of any of the liturgical abuses you describe. Masses I’ve gone to have been reverent and well within any meaningful measure of acceptability.

      There’s too much concern with externals, & not enough with what Jesus concentrated on: internal attitudes.

      My point.

  • Jordan

    Matt, I am glad that you hear Mass with your mother. I am glad that there is a Mass that is convenient and available for the both of you every week. That is what is important in the end.

    Modern persons need silence. Catholics today need more said Masses without any musical accompainment (“silent low Mass”).

    When I was a weekly Mass-goer (I communed very infrequently, solemnities only; chalk it up to one part Jansenism and another part OCD), I very often preferred extraordinary form low “silent” Mass. Otherwise, I would try to find a said ordinary form Mass and sit in the farthest pew from the altar. Why must God be encountered in participatory singing and response-recitation? Isn’t God content for his children to simply be in his presence?

    I will confess that I am textbook INTP. Reason is law; cognition is paramount. Aesthetes of medieval liturgy note that low Mass was designed for the multiplication of private and stipend Masses. Liturgical reformers have long desired to have the laity involved in every aspect of liturgical worship. Often congregational singing encourages active participation. And yet, are not people today immersed in media, sound, noise, music? Perhaps it is often better to simply observe the ritual in a soundless vacuum and partake of the grace offered through contemplation. I do not wish to imply that chant, hymnody, and polyphony do not bring about contemplation. Certainly, often this is the case. And yet, as humans require a varied diet of food, so they also require silence and musical performance but not often at the same time.

    The tailoring of liturgical music to fit pop music metrics merely brings the noise of postmodern existence into what should be a highly contemplative arena. Better, then, to be silent and learn how to know God’s presence. Perhaps many do not want to be silent unless they discover that they no longer believe, or are apathetic to belief, faith, and religion.

    • Julia Smucker

      The Mennonite in me bristles at the commendation of “silent low Mass”. Coming from a tradition where strong congregational singing is central to the community’s worship, I personally find it necessary for liturgical participation. I confess I once even walked out of a very low Mass when I realized, by the time we got to the gospel acclamation, that we weren’t going to sing a note in the whole liturgy. Maybe I should have stayed with it for the sake of the Body, but it just didn’t feel like being in church to me. But maybe that’s too subjective and self-focused, I don’t know. You do have a good point about the need for silence at times, and I definitely share your distaste for “pop” influences in liturgy (though for the most part I don’t think Marty Haugen et al cross that line). I suppose this discussion illustrates the tension between the varied spiritual and pastoral needs of individuals and the communal participation that is so intrinsic to liturgy.

      • Jordan

        Thanks Julia for your counter-opinion. Certainly, for many people a strict diet of low Mass is not desirable or recommended. I also agree that it is a pastoral challenge to provide for the diverse temperaments of parishioners.

        I don’t know if you’ve noticed this as a convert, but as a cradle Catholic I’ve observed that certain fellow cradle Catholics, and especially older cradle Catholics such my parents who grew up before the Council, are perhaps attracted to the low Mass out of familiarity more than preference. I am glad for converts to the faith because often converts understand the way in which music is liturgy. Liturgical reform has removed some of the pietism which has impeded congregational worship. Yet, there is still a strong stream of individualism and personal compartmentalization in Catholic worship. In my family, the phrases “have you gone to Mass?” and “did you receive communion today?” are sometimes synonymous. My preference for low Mass might well arise from the way in which my cultural background focuses on the confection and reception of the eucharist over the assembly’s important role in the Mass.

        Perhaps an insistence that silence allows for greater contemplation is self-deceptive. I suspect that my deep struggle with the tenets of the faith stems from the over-analysis that is often the result of an introspection which can turn towards egotism. Singing the liturgy with the assembly impels a person beyond stewing in his or her doubts and even hostilities about belief and faith.

  • David Nickol

    In certain kinds of situations, I think performers have to realize that the performance is about the music and not about them. It seems to me that in opera and classical music, performers can give powerful performances that leave us in awe of their talent but still serve the composer. On the other hand, there are popular artists (and would-be popular artists) who take, say, the National Anthem and interpret it or “make it their own” in such a way that they might just as well sing something else.

    • Thanks for the comment, David.

      I’m a jazz fan, and the best jazz solos are saying something other than “look at how nimble I am on the keys.” There’s a difference between, say, Winton Marsalis imitating Louis Armstrong, and Von Freeman blowing pure grief through his sax. The thing too many contemporary singers (whether liturgical or secular) forget is: Serve the Song.

      • David Nickol


        I started to write a second paragraph, which I realized I wasn’t musically knowledgeable enough to pull off, but it was dealing with jazz and with musical embellishment that was expected (as in da capo aria by, say, Handel). I confess I don’t “get” jazz, but I suspect that your phrase “serve the song” is what a good jazz musician is doing that an annoying contemporary singer (or an annoying jazz musician, or a bad opera singer) is not. Probably a performer can be self-indulgent and neglect the music in any genre.

  • Pinky

    I think you’re doing the right thing, attending that Mass as part of an act of charity to your mom. If singing is praying twice, attending Mass while honoring your father and mother has got to count for three times the prayer.

    From your description, the music sounds just awful. You’re not in a position to change the music. The real question then is how to offer it up more fully. If you’re like me, you’d do this: “God, I’m offering up this bad music. And it’s terrible. It gets worse every week. I can’t believe how awful this is. Amen. Seriously, this is terrible. I don’t believe people aren’t running, screaming from this.”

    My particular musical cross has been a hymn that Holst wrote to the pagan deity Jupiter. I have three options. I can sing along and think, “Glory be to Jupiter!” I can keep silent and get angry at how stupid everyone around me is for not knowing how messed up this hymn is. Or I can keep silent and take the time to prepare for the Mass. Let’s say that I waffle between options two and three.

    • Julia Smucker

      This, like many things, appears to be a matter of interpretation; one person’s cross is another person’s inspiration. Musically, I love The Planets and don’t see a melody taken from that suite as necessarily pagan, so I find the Jupiter theme entirely liturgically redeemable. On the other hand, I’ve heard Christians in Africa sing a hymn to the tune of “Battle Hymn of the Republic”. Fine for them if they don’t have the historical baggage, but I sure couldn’t stomach it.

      • Pinky

        Yeah, like I said, it’s my cross. Even hearing it as a pagan song, I intellectually recognize that the Church can appropriate such things. But still, my ears hear what they hear.

        We are so outrageously blessed to know where our religious impulses should be focused, on the real and true God. We’re not like the generations before us who made up or passed along fictions to fulfill the human need to worship. That song makes me want to jump up and yell at the parishioners. how good we have it that we’re here to worship the real thing. Not that anyone else is thinking differently. Ugh.

    • Thales

      Heh. Pink, that’s funny about your reaction to Holst’s Jupiter. I love the tune myself.

      I don’t know that I would call it a hymn to a pagan deity; I mean, Holst was writing a classical music piece. And looking it up on Wikipedia, there’s some interesting trivia: a couple of years after Holst wrote Jupiter, Holst himself adapted the Jupiter theme to fit a patriotic poem, creating a hymnal-like choral song in 1921. Then in 1926, this hymnal tune was used by Holst’s friend in a religious hymn — and it’s been used as a religious hymn ever since in many settings (first in Protestant churches, and I suppose we Catholics got the tune off of them).

      Pinky, are you similarly bothered by the Catholic hymns set to Beethoven’s Ode to Joy? Or the hymns set to tunes from Mozart? (The Bach tunes get a pass, since they were all meant to be religious in the first place.) Or by “My Country Tis of Thee” set to “God Save the Queen”?

      • Pinky

        I’m pretty sure that Wikipedia’s wrong. Holst would never have written a patriotic hymn. He loathed nationalism. He also had a mystical bent that leads me to think of the Planets as pieces about the gods rather than the planets.

        I do get a weird vibe off of Ode to Joy. It was a hymn to man, not to God. But it doesn’t raise my hackles the way Jupiter does, which was a hymn to a different deity. I’m not sure about Mozart. Bach is so permeated with prayer that I can’t even think of his secular pieces as secular. But Holst to me, along with Stravinsky, represents the end of the Romantic era, the beginning of the rebellion against beauty in music. Powerful, sometimes, but malicious.

        • Thales

          [shrug] Maybe you’re right and Wikipedia is inaccurate on that specific point. But it’s the other point that I found more interesting: namely, the fact that the Jupiter-tune has been consistently used in Christian hymn settings for 85+ years, and it wasn’t as if someone just yesterday thought it would be cool to use Holst’s Jupiter for a hymn.

          At some point, and after some length of time, can’t tunes lose the meaning of their origin? What I mean is that I suspect 9 out of 10 of the people in the pews don’t know the origin of the Jupiter tune, including me when I first heard the hymn — all they know is that it’s a nice hymnal tune (and objectively as a piece of music for a hymn, it is a good tune).

          Consider that “O Sacred Head Surrounded” has a great tune for its hymn. I suspect that almost every person in the pews identifies the tune solely with the hymn, and doesn’t identify the tune with Bach, or with the secular song that Bach stole the tune from. Maybe back in Bach’s day, it would have been a little weird to hear the tune in a religious setting, if you were aware of its secular origin. But after some period of time, it seems to me that a tune’s origin becomes less and less relevant.

        • Pinky

          Valid points, Thales. As I said, I don’t suspect that anyone but me hears that hymn and finds it revolting. I do, for a very specific reason.

          I’m not one of those people who hates Christmas trees because they have pagan origins. I’m sure that there are many hymns set to tunes whose origins I can’t properly identify. To me, that tune is first and foremost Holst’s Jupiter, a piece I enjoy in a secular context. I also enjoy AC/DC’s You Shook Me All Night Long in a secular context, but would be unnerved if it were made into a hymn. It would be foolish for me to lobby against the Holst song, but it would be just as foolish to deny my subjective response to it.

        • Thales

          Good points yourself, Pinky. I don’t have any answer to my question about when a tune and its origin gets old enough to be okay. I think you’re right that this is a highly subjective issue, with different people responding to different stimuli differently — and that this doesn’t necessarily mean song X is “good” or song Y is “bad.” It kind of reminds me of Lewis’s insight in the Screwtape Letters, about being distracted in church by the person sitting in the pew beside you. It’s similar with being distracted by the cantor, music, etc.

  • Julia Smucker

    I had to chuckle to myself just now: right after I wrote the above, I went to Mass, and the organist was playing that very melody from Jupiter as a prelude. And then my own liturgical patience was tried slightly when the priest seemed to go into a bit of a mini-homily in the introductory rites, and I had to just remind myself, “it’s OK, we’ll get to the penitential rite soon enough.” There was good and effective singing after which we took communion in silence, and yes, Jordan, there was something beautiful about that.

    This is what I love about studying liturgical and sacramental theology: going to Mass following this kind of discussion, parts of it keep coming alive in new ways.

  • It probably wouldn’t be as much as a problem if they were actually singing LITURGICAL music and not “songs” ala “option 4” in the GIRM.

    If you sing the Propers, this becomes much less of a problem…

    • dominic1955

      That’s much of it. We have such a wonderful tradition of proper liturgical music, why muck it up with ditties set to faddish popular tunes/styles?

      I love the diversity of the Church’s liturgical music. Gregorian chant is wonderful, but so is Ambrosian, Neo-Gallican, the various Eastern styles, polyphony etc. I like to sing the proper Ordinaries for our TLM High Mass on Sundays. Its time after Pentecost, so its mostly green Sundays-Orbis Factor unless they decide to pull out a polyphonic setting. I like to sing as much of the Ukranian peoples parts as I can pronounce out of the transliterated book. I also like to sing traditional English Mass settings if appropriate, and I don’t mean the 19th Century sweetsongs that some people think of as “traditional”. Basically, if its traditional and part of the Catholic patrimony, I’m happy to sing (or try). I’m also happy for the Low Mass for most daily Masses. If we are going to sing, we need to do it well. If we don’t have the people to pull that off, we certainly do not need to plough through some crappy hymns just for the sake of singing. Low Mass during the week is a treat and really teaches you how to hear Mass and not just go to Mass.

      Amateurs plinking out sing-song ditties on the piano or the same types strumming some nonsense on a guitar-no, that’s quite alright. Some little starlet warbling her little heart out-no thanks. Litnik enforced singing of whatever banal garbage they are doing out of the gawdawful “hymnal” they decided to throw their money away on-you can keep that to yourself.

      Outside of a few little pockets here and there, its like the Church decided that if we are kind of lacklustre right now, let’s not do it half-assed anymore. Let’s go full bore awful, let no one hold a candle to the liturgical enormities of Catholicism! We had a strong showing in the market for tacky and kitschy, but we went for cornering the market in irreverent, campy, ugly, and banal. We would have succeeded, except the Mainliners took up Rome’s challenge and are doing a bang-up job giving us a run for our money. Will Mother Rome’s errant daughters win out? The recent uptick in more traditional liturgical styles doesn’t bode well in our quest for dominance of the liturgically farcical.

      • Dominic – that’s the kind of commentary I was referring to when I wrote:

        …the comboxes quickly fill with snotty caricature and uncharity, and are mere excuses to deepen the divisions between us.

        Contemporary Catholic music is like music in any other period in Church history; there’s good music, bad music, music that reflects the prejudices and virtues of the moment and so on.

        Consider Palestrina. He wrote surpassingly beautiful Masses (my personal favorite is the Missa de Beata Virgine I – the Sanctus especially is shimmeringly lovely and has an unusual tenderness in it that I find very moving) – but Palestrina was adapting the popular musical forms of his day. The popular songs in the musical styles on which he based his Masses and motets could be pretty bawdy and ribald, and a fair number of people (including ecclesial authorities) were scandalized by his music. Time has redeemed him, I think it’s fair to say.

        I think a similar situation obtains with contemporary music. Lots of it will be seen in retrospect as uninspired, but plenty will be seen as just fine, and even great.

        One thing about guitars: there is nothing especially irreverent about them, in principle. One of these days I plan to do a video post about that very topic, where I play a selection of excerpts from current church music and comment on it, but for now just a thought: one thing communicated by lots of the folk-music-inspired guitar music of the period after the Second Vatican Council was intimacy. I kind of like the ethic of folk music: You take the music of poor people, and consecrate it to give glory to God.

        • dominic1955

          There is plenty of good contemporary Catholic music written today. What it has in common with all good sacred music is that its at least in the same ballpark, from the same roots, etc. as chant and polyphony. Some of what is produced today will be held in high esteem, but it isn’t the kind of stuff that one hears in your average Catholic parish.

          Palestrina did take popular songs, but not all that can be labeled as “popular” can be taken to be of equal quality. He didn’t merely drag some peasants into St. Peter’s and have them bray the Ordinary to their drinking songs or festival tunes, which would be the apt comparison for the level of quality of what passes for “church music” today. It undeniable that Palestrina (and his contemporaries and heirs) were very much beholden to the musical tradition of the Roman Church and chant. He lived and breathed the traditional liturgy, something which even the impious of that day did while many of the pious of today seem to have lost the practice of. He was recognized as a great talent and approved by the Roman Authorities in his very lifetime, being appointed to numerous distinguished posts at the major churches and schools including St. Peter’s. It is the same kind of black legend that St. Thomas Aquinas was some sort of crazy liberal revolutionary for his time because of the Sorbonne’s rulings on some aspects of Aristotle. Both men saw how to truly make legitimate and valid progress in their respective fields. They were solidly grounded in the tradition, but they also knew that real tradition is not merely repeating a currently fashionable theme that has currency amongst certain people of influence.

          Palestrina did not merely adapt secularist (of which there wasn’t as strong of a distinction) styles and throw liturgical texts into them. The musical patrimony he was working with and in also did not just take whatever silly style and put it to religious text. Its the kind of distinction we see between a Titian and what passes for art today or between Notre Dame or St. Peter’s and what passes for church architecture today. There is an objective truth that what we tended to produce in the past is remarkably superior to what we tend to produce today. That styles change and adapt is not problematic, but that mere change and adaptation is not therefore a positive development. Sometimes the “progress” is dead end.

          No, there is nothing inheritantly irreverent about guitars. I could see traditional sacred music making use of classical guitar in some cases. That said, the real tradition is unaccompanied (as the East still largely keeps it) or with rather moderate additions (organ, serpent, etc.). More than that is tolerated, but is far from ideal. Amateurs awkwardly strumming garbage is the problem with guitar music in church, not the instrument itself.

          True adaptations of the styles of the peoples that the Church encounters always reminds me of the Corsican chants put out by Ensemble Organum or even the Missa Luba. To me, that is a much truer and authentic adaptation of a local singing style to properly liturgical use making something that is really consecrated to God. Its of high quality, even if not Palestrina nose-bleed high quality. It maintains or even adds to the proper sense of mystery and transcendence that the chants have. What did we get with all the “folk music” falsely-so-called after Vatican II? We ushered in the era of the Almighty $ and pulp paper publishing for liturgical texts and so-called church music. Folks in the avante garde church music scene saw the explosion of the folky music scene and wanted to get in on some of that action. It wasn’t some sort of authentic adaptation of “The Music of the Poor”, it was a 3rd rate atempt to ride the coat tails of a beatnik/hippy fad. Same with the much smaller “Polka Mass” movement. Somewhat more authentic, still just as erroneous.

          Yeah, we got “intimacy” from this nonsense? What is that supposed to mean? All those great artisan loaf bread and cheap wine “Masses” said in parks, or on coffee tables? Priests and religious leaving in droves or living scandalous lives? All so very intimate, all so very pastoral and “with it”. We traded our birthright for a mess of pottage, and obvously not just with music.

          • Yeesh, Dominic.

            Virtually your entire comment is a mix of assuming bad faith and evil motives in your opponents, combined with rank caricatures.

            Just for fun, here’s a counter-narrative:

            In the wake of the Second Vatican Council, the liturgical life of the Church was vastly re-energized. It finally emerged from the increasingly desolate cultural and political fortress into which it had retreated in reaction to the protestant reformation, and began accepting innovative new music, architecture and art, leading to a renaissance in the Church’s outward expressions of piety. As the excessively clericalist culture of the pre-Vatican-II period receded, the daily life of the church be. [edit – whoops, should read “…gan to change for the better.”]

            In Europe and America, the priests and religious who were fans of the earlier, stuffier church culture left in droves, as structures that supported that culture were transformed in the wake of that event, but there was, contemporary with that, an explosion of lay involvement, retreats, Marriage Encounter, Cursillo, and so on. There was also, in places in the world that are not the United States and Europe, an explosion in religious vocations.

            PS – The beatniks are dead and the hippies are in rest homes, and can’t hurt you any more. In fact, they never could. The idea that a bunch of peace-loving hedonists destroyed civilization in the sixties is one of the more ridiculous tropes of the right.

        • dominic1955

          Assume whatever you want, you didn’t counter any of my points. Unfortunately, this is a combox which is akin to conversation and thus not really an appropriate place and extensive citing because its all out there to see, the tailspin the Church went into after Vatican II.

          I really do hope your “counter-narrative” is really just for funsies because its demonstrably false on all fronts. No sane person could possibly call the aftermath of Vatican II a “re-energization”. We’re on life support, most of the measurable marks of ecclesiastical life have taken a nose dive. Some of the supposed marks of new life in the Church are problematic, to say the least.

          BTW, did you read what I wrote about beatniks and hippies? It wasn’t even a commentary about them. That said, while college kids smoking pot and having sex might not have the same power as the Soviet bloc did to destroy the West, I don’t know how hedonism, idolization of “youth”, “peace movements” which were basically shills for radicalism, etc. were not detrimental to society. The people themselves might not have posed much of a problem, but the various philosophical underpinnings of the “counter-culture” at large definitely has.

          • I’ll post a reply at the end of this thread, because these are getting to be an inch wide and hard to read…

  • Agellius


    You write, “Among the singers is a young woman in her late teens or early twenties, who has a strong voice, but whose singing tends toward a certain kind of R&B styling – one that owes a lot to Mariah Carey, Whitney Houston, and other contemporary ballad-belters – that I find distracting and even offensive.”

    I think you are objectively correct to feel this way.

    ‘The great Christian theologian Augustine (344-430) reinterpreted in a Christian vein this sense of music and its effects. He did so theoretically (and mainly in terms of metrical theory), in book 6 of De Musica, and with more practical awareness in the Confessions. Thus, in book 10 of his Confessions, Augustine reports how in his first years as a committed Christian he was moved to tears by the singing of psalms in church. But he worries that sometimes he may be moved more by the music itself than by the truth of the words being chanted. He acknowledges that when the words of a psalm are chanted well, piety is kindled with warmer devotion than when the words are merely spoken. But physical delight, he adds, must be checked from enervating the mind. Consequently, Augustine concludes that he can welcome singing in church only when it is restrained and moderate–conceding, though, that music of some sort may be needed so that “weaker minds” may be stimulated to devotion through the “delights of the ear.”‘

    From The Oxford Handbook of Religion and Emotion, John Corrigan, Ed., 206-207, Oxford University Press US, 2008.

    In case you’re interested, more of this article is quoted here:

    • wj

      Dante dramatizes this distinction in Canto II of Purgatorio in a pretty interesting way, btw. As for me, I have found, like Matt, that if I have a problem with the music, I really have a problem with myself. Perhaps some people are in the position to experience righteous indignation at liturgical foibles, but for me it’s always pride. I

      • Agellius


        Unlike you and Matt, I don’t so easily chalk my indignation up to pride. I think there are reasonable, objective guidelines for appropriate liturgical music, based on centuries of liturgical tradition, that are not hard to discern and follow. Also I do not think it is based on my personal musical preferences, since Gregorian chant, for example, is far from my favorite music to listen to, yet is easily seen to be objectively appropriate for Mass.

        • Agellius – as I said in the post:

          …while I think I’m on solid ground with respect to the suitability of some of this singing, the thing I first need to wrestle with is my own reaction to this music.

          I have pretty catholic (small “c”) tastes in liturgical music – Gregorian chant, Palestrina, “I Am the Bread of Life” and American-gospel-inflected music are all just fine with me.

          My point here is that too often whatever problems I have with whatever music is being performed have to do way more with me than with the music.

          I play a pretty good guitar and have a decent voice myself. So, rather than wincing at the musicianship of the choir, why don’t I volunteer my services to help them?

  • Is there anything more condescending than some random layman raising his or her arms up as they sing, commanding the rest of us to follow along with their vacuous ‘hymn’? I found myself there two days ago, and that is not glorifying God, it is narcissism for a select few.

    But if suffering through that is the penance I have to offer up to glorify God, then so be it.

  • I attend the oldest predominately black Catholic parish in Atlanta, created during the worst days of segregation. Our oldest parishioners remember the day when their musical traditions were taboo in a liturgical setting. Today we regularly sing spirituals and gospel music, largely drawn from the hymnal Lead Me, Guide Me. But our very talented music minister has also set the mass itself to very sing-able gospel-inspired settings that fully engage the congregation, even more than the most beloved hymns do. He has written some observations on the music we use that may be of interest in this discussion:

    As a vehicle of evangelization, it certainly works. Our masses are almost all crowded, and many visitors who come for the music–both whites and blacks–end up as eager participants in the life of the parish.

    • Ron – just to be clear, I’m not saying black-inflected singing is not suitable for Mass. My point is that abuse of R&B tropes is inappropriate in a liturgical setting.

      Put another way: Ray Charles would be probably fine, Mariah Carey we’d have to see about.

      • LM

        “I’m not saying black-inflected singing is not suitable for Mass. My point is that abuse of R&B tropes is inappropriate in a liturgical setting.”

        The problem is that many of those R&B tropes that you mention come from gospel music. I don’t know about Mariah Carey, but Whitney Houston was a product of the black (Protestant) church and her singing style reflected this. R&B artists like Sam Cooke and Dinah Washington started out as gospel singers who sang secular music on the side. Many R&B songs from the 1950s and 60s have interjections of “Testify” and “Hallelujah” even though the lyrics are otherwise completely secular. I don’t know why Ray Charles would be more acceptable in a church setting than Mariah Carey, other than the fact that the former recorded gospel music, when he wasn’t singing country, blues, or R&B.

        • LM – I guess I could have been clearer. I don’t object to their use – what I’m objecting to is their over-use along the lines of the singer showing off (and lord, but Mariah Carey is the poster-girl for this sort of thing) rather than in putting across the hymn being sung.

  • My thing is hymns to the tune of Beethoven’s “Ode to Joy” from the last movement of his 9th Symphony. I don’t object to repurposing well-known classical tunes in the abstract. However, Beethoven is one of my favorite composers and the 9th is his pinnacle. The Ode to Joy should be the magnificent culmination of the symphony, a paean to the human spirit being lifted above the strife of life by joy. To set to it insipid lyrics that would make Schiller barf (“hearts unfold like flowers before Thee”; puh-leeze!) and make a so-so hymn out of it drives me crazy. If one set secular, rock or pop lyrics to the tune, say, of “O Salutaris Hostia”, it would rightly be recognized as sacrilege. By the same token, taking what to me is the magnificent coda to a monument of Western music and a deeply spiritual work itself and using it for a bourgeois, happy-clappy church song is itself sacrilegious.

    Having said that, I’m well aware of the arrogance and Phariseeism in my soul, as others have remarked, so I try to look at it as a cross to be endured whenever they sing such a hymn (there are a couple set to the tune of the Ode, one marginally better than the other). I just zone my attention out, and don’t actually sing it (in my parish the adult men don’t sing that much, anyway, so I don’t draw undue attention to myself by not singing it). One does what one can.

    • Julia Smucker

      Suddenly I’m wondering if particular sensitivities about what specifically is being sung, beyond just a general reticence, contribute to my still-frequent Catholic culture shock of feeling like I’m singing a solo from the pew. I just hope you’re reserving your silent protest for a very few cases of true necessity. That said, I too must be wary of my own judgment, as I’ve felt the need to do the same a time or two.

      • Julia, I’m actually one of the relatively few adult men in my parish who sings regularly and with enough vigor that you can actually tell I’m singing. Most, especially among the older men, if they do sing, do so in such a low tone that unless you see their mouths move or are sitting adjacent to them, it’s hard to tell. I don’t usually sing the Communion hymn when I get back to the pew, because I’m praying. Aside from that, I pretty much always sing. The hymns I’m thinking about that use the music from the Ode to Joy (thankfully) don’t get played often, so the issue doesn’t arise that much; and as I said, I manage to keep silent in an unobtrusive way. I’d never do so in a way to draw attention to myself or make an issue of it; but if it came down to that or singing it, I guess I’d have to sing it. That hasn’t occurred, though.

        I think we all have to monitor our own judgement–I’m hearing a lot of that from the comments here.

    • Thales

      Heh. I made my earlier comment to Pinky before I saw Tumarion’s. Ode to Joy might be put in the same category with Holst.

      Personally, I really like the Ode to Joy-tune and Holst-tune hymns. I’ll sing aloud with you, Julia, on those hymns. (But “On Eagles Wings” is another matter — that’s my personal cross. 🙂 )

  • Trellis Smith

    We are fortunate to have efficacious musical talent both vocal and instrumental that gives us the most incredible integral liturgical music that surpasses what one might expect from a small congregation of only 100 souls. We even provide a quarterly Evensong that is attended beyond the confines of the community. I remember one where the music of Arvo Parte figured quite prominently. That said the low mass is recited with a care and cadence that approaches an incantational poetry that suits me just fine.

  • JimN

    What a great post. I used to focus on proper forms of worship and I found I became very upset with perceived deviations from what I thought was proper. There seems to be a lot of effort devoted to correcting “liturgical abuses.” There needs to be more emphasis on charitable responses. If you feel upset or offended or you want to leave Mass before it’s over, (as I used to feel, and sometimes still do) the larger problem may be with you.

  • Agellius

    It’s always possible, and even likely, that people are experiencing failures of charity when they get mad about bad liturgy and inappropriate music at mass. Nevertheless, given that this is such a common phenomenon, I think it’s fair to assume that there is also an objective problem that needs fixing. There’s no reason we can’t focus on fixing the objective problem that is upsetting so many people, while at the same time trying to remain charitable.

    Remember that charity is directed at persons, not actions. If I get upset because there is bad music at mass, it doesn’t follow that I am wishing anyone ill. If I get angry at the priest or at the singer, and feel like yelling at them or punching them in the nose (and which of us hasn’t? ; ), then obviously it’s an issue of charity. But if all I’m doing is rolling my eyes at the corniness of a song, or resenting the fact that the drums and bass guitar are on the verge of splitting my ear drums, I’m not necessarily failing in charity.

    But back to the first point: When so many people are finding modern mass music objectionable and unsuitable for liturgy, I think that points up an objective problem with much modern mass music: If nothing else, it is failing in its purpose of facilitating rather than hindering authentic worship, because of being such a distraction to so many people.

  • Dominic:

    I really do hope your “counter-narrative” is really just for funsies because its demonstrably false on all fronts.

    Is it? I named several developments in the wake of the council (“… innovative new music, architecture and art…an explosion of lay involvement, retreats, Marriage Encounter, Cursillo…also, in places in the world that are not the United States and Europe, an explosion in religious vocations…”) which you seemed to ignore in your reply.

    …while college kids smoking pot and having sex might not have the same power as the Soviet bloc did to destroy the West, I don’t know how hedonism, idolization of “youth”, “peace movements” which were basically shills for radicalism, etc. were not detrimental to society. The people themselves might not have posed much of a problem, but the various philosophical underpinnings of the “counter-culture” at large definitely has.

    I don’t see how you can look at the United States and not conclude that our problems are far more rooted in materialism, mindless conformity, militarism and hubris (with which, by the way, the counter culture also, rightly, took issue.) The sixties generation’s heart was mostly in the right place, but the remedies they proposed fell short in terms of their wisdom and practical effectiveness.

    • dominic1955

      It is in the sense that the things you mention were mostly unfortunate developments (innovative new music, architecture and art). The “explosion” (of the few that are left) of lay involvement and the various groups or activities is problematic, again, depending upon what you mean by it. The “explosion” (you like to blow things up, don’t you?) of vocations is questionable (i.e. is it an increase in Catholicity bringing about vocations or an upwards mobility/status issue), but hopefully is good. All these things (good and bad) have one thing in common-you cannot simply attribute them to the Council. The Modernists were wreaking havoc in the Church before the Council, obviously. We’ve had a disintegration in Church art for quite a while now even though there had been upticks here and there. The laity was plenty involved in the Church before the Council, but not in the activist way that it often comes across today. The Rhine flowed into the Tiber, what recovery we are making universally is to the degree we are removing the Modernist pollution from the Church.

      It goes beyond the U.S., false philosophies ruin our thinking. When we abandon the right thinking of the ages for the various Enlightenment and beyond errors in thinking, we have the pervasive problems in thought we have today. It is not that the other things you mention (tentatively) are not problematic, they are, especially materialism. However, to focus on the U.S., a healthy reaction to a certain false and dead conservatism embodied by aspects of the ’50s is not to full bore react against it like a spoiled child. As to the ’60s generation, that was a big part of the problem. Their heart was in the right place? That’s debatable, and I’d say its only possible to concede some truth to that in a most general and vague way. More importantly, however, where was their head? Of course their remedies fell short in terms of their wisdom and practical effectiveness!

      • Trellis Smith

        I would venture to say the young think with the heart rather than the head, so what else would one expect? Those that responded with the “head” were particularly heartless and unable to move us in a true Christian direction and have little to commend themselves. Any wholesale rejection of “modernism” or the “Enlightenment” is equally as useless.

        • dominic1955

          Yes, insert Churchill quote here about heart/head. I have no idea how old you are, but I’m getting to that age where I’m looking back and seeing all the wisdom and knowledge I impetuously discarded and now know how right it was! In a similar vein, mere “heart thinking” misses so much, namely that the elders who seem heartless and supposedly only think with the head have so much more genuine and fire-proven heart than the often misguided zeal held by youth. In previous ages, this was not a problem. Young folks learned this, if nothing else, by that venerable school of hard knocks. In the ’60s (just for example), folks started acting as if the youth somehow had some sort of inate wisdom or true relevance. “All we are saying, is give peace a chance…” Sorry Johnny, that’s not “all” you guys are saying… It was a marketing ploy, and its still going strong.

          Well, it would be nice to parse all of the modernist/Enlightenment errors, but a combox is hardly the place for a multivolume tome.

          • Dominic –

            Hippie punching seems like almost a ritual activity amongst righties, but I must say a couple things here:

            1. It’s been almost 50 years since that term applied to anyone in the contemporary political conversation. Like I said upthread, they’re in rest homes gumming spinach and telling Nixon war stories these days.

            2. I think that when they were a part of the conversation, they did contribute something useful to the conversation. They took great joy in lampooning the narrow, stuffy priggishness of American culture that obtained in the 1950s and after, and lord was that culture rife with hypocrisy and numbing conformity. Like the the cynics in ancient Greece, they defied conventions (in everything from hair length to imperialism) in order to invite people to re-examine them.

  • Anne

    Catholics, it seems, will find a reason to feel guilty about almost anything. If liturgical music is as bad as it sometimes gets these days, it’s going to distract any halfway sensitive person, and I see no reason to feel guilty about finding a distraction distracting and saying so. You’d be wrong to think your sensitivity makes you a better person than the less sensitive, and you obviously shouldn’t act insensitively toward the offending parties, but other than that, why not have the courage of your distractions? Rest assured the rest of us cowards will be pulling for you.;-)

    • David E

      Indeed, no reason to feel guilty. Guitar, bass, drums, and Whitney Houston? Are you kidding me? You had every reason to walk out, and my advice is, Don’t look back. The “music ministry’ at that church is trying to destroy the liturgy, not enhance it.

      • David – I guess I could have been clearer.

        Running screaming from the church because of the music points more to a problem with me than the music. If Christ Himself were personally at the altar (well, he is, but you know what I mean…) I doubt I’d leave, no matter how bad the music was, you know?

  • dominic1955


    Even though I didn’t use the term this time, you know very well when we use the term “hippy” we do not mean the original Hippies(TM) that are now gumming spinnach. That applies to any wild-eyed but otherwise relatively harmless leftist.

    Revolutionaries or innovators are never the friends of the people. Good things might be hidden in unfortunate times and movements, but such doesn’t justify their excesses. Were the ’50s perfect? No, but such outbursts never really give a positive result.

    • my next reply will be at the bottom, for the sake of readability.

  • Dominic –

    Revolutionaries or innovators are never the friends of the people.

    Would you include Thomas Jefferson and Martin Luther King in that descriptor?

  • Trellis Smith

    There is something suspect about an old liberal or a young conservative and I agree in so far as Mark Twain observed with astonishment how wiser his father became as Mark Twain himself grew older. But it is not how well or badly the dog walks on his hind legs but that he does it at all that convinces me how much you miss the point. You can well catalogue the excess of the 60’s ad nauseum but from the spirit of rebellion, as Matt has observed, came the civil rights movement which gave rise to the woman and gay liberation movements. Also we could use a bit more of the anti war movement, Spend a little time with the fractured vets as I have and you might become wistful for the 60’s. As for the Enlightenment, no less a critic than Benedict had a more nuanced and subtle take rather than a categorical rejection in his speech in Portugal: “The church, on the basis of a renewed awareness of the Catholic tradition, took seriously and discerned, transformed and overcame the fundamental critiques that gave rise to the modern world, the Reformation and the Enlightenment. In this way the church herself accepted and refashioned the best of the requirements of modernity ….” As to how the faithful should respond and engage with modernity and the society they find themselves he added: “Given the reality of cultural diversity, people need not only to accept the existence of the culture of others, but also to aspire to be enriched by it and to offer to it whatever they possess that is good, true and beautiful” Despite his outreach to the sedevacantists. from this I gather that Benedict does not want any more than Good Pope John ” to guard a museum but to cultivate a flourishing garden of life.” He’s just a bit too preoccupied with the weeds