QUAERITUR: Music just not right for Mass. What to do?

From a reader:

The director of music (and Liturgy, sigh)  at our parish, a woman with an incredible voice, learned a contemporary song several years ago which she and a male member of the choir sing together whenever possible.  If there is any mention in the gospel about the poor, or the outcast, I brace myself, because I know this song will be performed.  Yes, performed.  The choir sings oooh ooooh parts throughout.

There’s a hungry one, living on the street.
There’s a lonely one, with no food to eat

All of these are My people (whoo whoo hoo) All of these are My beloved All of these, are Me.

Evicted, illegal, unwanted, diseased, dif-fer-ent….

The hungry
The Lonely
The forgotten
The neglected
The abandoned
The invisible
The battered
The Frightened
The hopeless
The dying…

All of these are Me.

Sorry I can’t remember it exactly, but you get the picture.

It’s a beautiful song in its own way, but it totally rubs me the wrong way at Mass.  Am I being unreasonable about this song?  It seems very protestant, almost secular, more like a hymn of social work for a Habitat for Humanity work crew.

What do you suggest to get her to stop singing this song?

In the days of Vaudeville, they used to use a looooong hook.

Seriously, the first point one must consider is how the song, any song, is appropriate for the liturgy.

The Church says that music is an "integrating part… pars integrans" in the liturgy.  It is not an add on.  It is liturgy.

Thus, are the texts sacred and liturgically appropriate?  To the day… to the occasion? To the season?

The Church gives us the texts for those times when there is liturgical music to be sung: Introit, Gradule/Alleluia/Tract Offertory Communion.   They are sacred texts chosen by the Church for that moment on that day. 

They must be urged to think about the importance of the liturgical season and the day, consider the actual texts and whether their music choices have ANYTHING to do with the Church’s liturgy.

Beyond that, you can talk to the pastor and be willing to get involved with the music at church.

You can’t just lob comments.  You must be willing to get involved somehow.

Perhaps others will have had experience in their own parishes and will have tips about how to change music around… diplomatically.

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  1. Patrick says:

    First and foremost, does your pastor think it appropriate?
    Second, have you discussed it with the choir director?

    I once had a similar problem, I approached the pastor who referred me to the choir director. She was understanding, but in the end it boiled down to “We have some conservative music for the conservatives, and more contemporary for those that like that. I can’t please everyone, and I don’t want to alienate anyone.”

    All reasonable, and none of us walked about satisfied, but we did not walk away mad or angry.

    Later, at another parish, I joined the choir. I convinced others to join the choir. Now we have a good deal of input into the music each week, all with the approval of Father, of course.

    Bottom line, unless you want to get in the trenches and work from within the choir, you face the following sentiment:

    “If they think they can do better, let them get up here and join us”

    Believe me, that sentiment is within choirs both liberal and conservative. Contribution counts.

    Saint Nicholas Owen, pray for us
    Saint Margaret Clitherow, pray for us
    Our Lady of Sorrows, pray for us

  2. Fr. Charles says:

    Indeed, it’s a sensitive issue and must be approached delicately. Appointments are better than springing things on a pastor after Mass. Appeasing various constituencies is a bad model, but parishes are political entities and no parish priest can avoid doing some of it if he hopes to get anything done.

    To me, there is a conversion of our culture as praying people that needs to happen. Too often we ask, ‘what do I want this liturgy to be about?’ or ‘What emphases are we choosing today?’ instead of first asking where the Holy Spirit is trying to lead us through the Sacred Scriptures and the prayer texts for a certain day. ‘Matching songs to readings’ through a hasty use of prepared indexes isn’t enough, but I think that’s what passes for due diligence a lot of times.

    I had a shock lately when I suggested that for funerals of our own friars we sing the actual entrance and communion antiphons for the Mass instead of replacing them with contemporary songs, and the reaction was really hostile! I didn’t get it, but it least it shows how committed many can be to what has become a rather inattentive status quo.

  3. “If they think they can do better, let them get up here and join us”

    While I sympathize with the reader (there are advantages to having no extra-liturgical hymnology, friends), as somebody who sings in our choir, I agree absolutely with the above statement. We’re a Heinz 57 American parish, but it’s OCA, so we have Russian roots, we follow Russian liturgical custom, etc. We get “I wish you’d do more Greek music” (fill in your favorite ethnic group there, and you get the idea). Join and teach us, please. Don’t just complain.

  4. Simon Platt says:

    Dear Patrick, dear rightwingprof,

    I take your point, but in cases like this there’s a problem for many people who don’t have the skills – musical skills in this case – to do as you suggest. Are they to be ignored? Are they less important?

  5. Martin T. says:

    Apropros to the last question our choir has an outstanding request for people to help bind choirbooks, librarian, gofur, phone tree, … ie things that help but don’t need music skills.

    I was more curious though as to whether this song or any like it are ever appropiate in the Mass. if not why? i’ve seen the “Prayer n’ Praise” books roundly insulted for their poor music, but where is the line between poor but appropriate music and (maybe) good but inappropriate music?

  6. “I take your point, but in cases like this there’s a problem for many people who don’t have the skills – musical skills in this case – to do as you suggest. Are they to be ignored? Are they less important?”

    Absolutely not, and absolutely not. You don’t have to be a classically trained musician to sing in a choir, and let me gently point out that you have organs (we don’t), so those whose ears are not the best have additional help. I don’t know how “musical” you are, of course, but I’m just saying one needn’t be Caruso to sing in the choir and make a contribution.

    Having said that, I really can’t say what I would do if I were in the position the reader is in. Every word of every service in my church is prescribed except for the homily. The choir director does not have the power to change, add, or subtract from what is sung. I suspect if one of the chanters broke out into Kumbayah, you’d have to dial 911 to take care of the stroke victims.

  7. Kradcliffe says:

    Well, my suggestion is something I’ve learned from being the mother of young children: positive reinforcement and redirection.

    First, you encourage the good behaviour by praising it. You say she has an incredible voice? Let her know how much you appreciate it. A little flattery will get you somewhere.

    Second, you discourage bad behaviour by redirecting. Instead of giving more attention to the bad behaviour, you point her towards something more positive. Specifically: request a song you’d particularly love to hear her sing. This may take a bit of finesse. It may help to get to know her and let her talk about her love of music and that sort of thing. If you can then work around to saying “I’ve always loved the way my grandmother sang Faith of our Fathers. So few people really sing with passion any more. It’s a lost art, I think. But, I think you could really do it justice. Do you think you could sing that, sometime? It would be so wonderful to hear you sing it.”

    I think people generally want to please and share something they enjoy with others they think will appreciate them.

    I think that’s the way to approach it: from a positive POV. Otherwise, I think you’ll just offend and alienate her.

  8. Martin T. says:

    ?I?ve always loved the way my grandmother sang Faith of our Fathers. So few people really sing with passion any more. It?s a lost art, I think. But, I think you could really do it justice.

    Very nice.

  9. terri says:

    i’ve been involved in music ministry for going on thirty years now and this problem among others have made me just as uneasy. Getting involved is something i do, have done and been asked to do by pastors to help “guide” a choir in the “liturgically correct direction”. when it hasn’t worked out it was ussually because of EGO on the part of those who have “always done the music”. As a singer and musician, i know how tempting it is to want to praise God with a favorite song. I’ve had to learn that as a church we have guidelines to keep us focused on the liturgy of the day/season.
    My main issue with your story is this: how often is the congregation left out of the singing in your church? If often then you have another problem to work on.
    We are given guides from the church documents about the use of music as father has said. Music and singing in one voice as a faith community is part of the expression of unity among our members. Harmonizing enriches that experience but not when congregations can’t follow the melody because of it. WHen the only people who know the song are in the choir or “leader of song” then the people in the pews are taken out of the liturgy.

    all this being said if your pastor doesn’t object, you really can’t change things. I do think it would be worthwhile to sit down at an appointed time and present him with all of the reasons why there may need to be a change.
    diplomacy is the key. start with a compliment about the music. without saying “but” move on to your concerns.
    God bless :)

  10. mfg says:

    I’m a gregorian chant, Bach. Mozart, Onward Christian Soldiers (yes, we sang that in the RC church), Resurrexit sicut dixit, Faith of Our Fathers kind of Catholic who for the past forty years has had to endure Here I am Lord and On Eagles Wings on piano. I need an adult beverage before Mass.

  11. C. says:

    There does seem to be something of the spirit of Judas Iscariot in replacing Sacred Music appropriate for Divine Worship with profane music about helping the poor.

  12. ckdexterhaven says:

    I think the postive reinforcement, positive redirection is worth trying. Why not research some appropriate liturgical music for that occasion beforehand. Then approach the choir director with a sincere compliment about the choir. Ask if the choir director would consider the more appropriate liturgical music instead of “We Are the World” (or whatever the offending song is). Don’t forget to pray before, during and after the meeting! Pray especially for charity.

  13. shana sfo says:

    I wonder what you would think of our parish ‘tune’ of preference during Confirmations. It has become an expected ‘standard’.

    It starts out nice – the women singing the Ave Maria. But somewhere during that gorgeous Italian melody comes the men singing (brace yourself)

    “I believe for every drop of rain that falls a flower grows
    I believe that somewhere in the darkest night a candle glows
    I believe for everyone who goes astray someone will come to show the
    Way! I believe, I believe” etc etc

    And of course, there must be a Really Big Finish, meaning that the sopranos go much too high, off key & shrill and the men go loud, loud, loud as if to competet and the bishop always looks as if he’s trying very hard not to cringe.

    And everyone claps. Except my family and a few others.

    The bishop says nothing and the pastor says nothing. When I say anything (as kindly as I can) to the choir about it being inappropriate for Mass, I’m told that my problem is that I’m rigid, judgemental and unChristian.

    I think that things like this, and the music mentioned above is a form of spiritual torture and should be banned.

    But I’m rigid, so what do I know?

  14. William says:

    Look, the stuff we’re made to sing at Holy Mass these days is written by Protestants, disaffected Catholics, or just plain miscreants. 99.9% of it is inappropriate to Catholic worship. If all this social justice, sharing and caring crap produced solid, faithful and enlightened Catholics, I’d shut my mouth and say no more. “The proof of the pie,” they say “is in the pudding.” Well, friends, the pudding here is incontestably rancid.

  15. Laura Lowder says:

    And then you have the inverse problem – where a music director does understand the role of music in the liturgy, tries to be faithful to that vision – and gets hammered from the congregation and even the pastor who don’t know the difference and don’t care, because “We used to sing _____ in the parish I came from, so what is wrong with it!”

  16. chloesmom says:

    In our parish, the pastor has a total “hands off” policy with regard to music. The choir is directed by two women who have minimal training, and who consider Mass as performance. One of them told me, “We believe in the congregation”… I was organist for many years, and eventually left. They weren’t aware of proper liturgy, proper music, but as far as they were concerned, everything was perfect. I too was accused of being rigid, judgemental, and even mentally ill. When I retired, there was nothing, not even a card — just an unwrapped gift, which I eventually gave away. I now attend a different Mass, but still have to suffer through the Youth Choir, which was applauded after an excruciating folk-rock “performance” after the Palm Sunday Vigil Mass this evening.

  17. Teresa Paal says:

    I have had a certain sadness since my childhood when Latin was stripped from the mass and our beautiful music was replaced by cheesy guitar music. I am a professionally trained musician, and it has always saddened me that the only place I could experience our great Catholic music was in a secular concert venue, not in its proper context of Catholic worship. For decades I have felt bullied and coerced to use music which was shoddy, if not downright illicit. But I came to a crisis point. I finally realized that I was completely exhausted from stifling my conscience. I knew that if I continued participating in liturgies that resembled a bad night club act, I would surely lose my faith. If that happened, what would happen to the faith of my family?

    Thank be to God, the Fraternity of St. Peter was given a parish nearby. My family agreed to the change. As a musician, I was ready to be silent for the rest of my life in order to keep my faith. And then a really wonderful thing happened. I was invited to join the choir where all those musical treasures are presented in their proper place – sacred worship! Proper worship makes it so much easier to advance in the spiritual life.

    It seems to me that this is a matter of justice. In the EF, we may regularly experience heaven on earth. But shouldn’t all Catholics be able to do this? Don’t all Catholics have a right to proper worship?

  18. Jayna says:

    chloesmom: In our parish, the pastor has a total “hands off” policy with regard to music. The choir is directed by two women who have minimal training, and who consider Mass as performance.

    That’s kind of the way it is in my parish. Except the liturgist (who also directs the choir) has an MA in Liturgical Studies from Catholic University. I think it almost makes it worse because she knows how it’s supposed to be done, but doesn’t agree and so does whatever she wants. It makes it particularly difficult to get anywhere with her.

  19. Make me a Spark says:

    What about if you tactfully discuss with the liturgy director or choir director what Fr. Z is saying here and suggest that the beautiful song that this lady has learned should be presented in a concert in the parish hall with some other of her lovely offerings and perhaps there are others with gifts of music that could even share those gifts at a regular event in the parish hall–bi-monthly or whatever is appropriate for this size parish.

  20. Xavier says:

    I cannot sing a note, and I have never studied music…But I can still hear! Even I can tell that the music played at the Catholic churches in the town in which I live is inappropriate. When a bunch of people are standing next to the altar bellowing out something that sounds like a cross between pop music and a children’s song — Well, one almost forgets the miracle that happens at the altar.

  21. Jeremy says:

    What’s the local Bishop doing allowing this sort of rubbish in his diocese? Has anyone approached him? The quality of singing trash is irrelevant to liturgical norms. The problem is exacerbated, one supposes, by years of neglect and allowing untenable situations to fester. Clearly one would not wish to offend the (innocent) performer, but there are limits.

    Given the neglect of the last 30 years, it is absolutely no use relying automatically on the parish priest for automatic expertise in this area. Some of course are skilled but many have neither knowledge nor ability in this area through no fault of their own.

    Fortunately the EF does not lend itself to this sort of problem. Today, thank God, Palm Sunday, it will be plainsong proper as in the liber, Gloria Laus for the people to join in in the procession, Kyrie XVII, sung latin Passion (by priest + 2 lay) and a good time will be had by all (including Heaven, hopefully!). Much of this has been brought about by dogged, even stubborn insistence over the years. Now it is back in fashion, I’m glad we are trendy again…

  22. I wish we had people not in the choir who wanted to help the choir. It’s a lot of work to find the appropriate chants in the appropriate tones (modes), get them xeroxed, and in peoples’ books, for one thing. Even if one cannot sing, one can possibly still contribute. Just a suggestion.

    I suspect that “Dorothy Day Orthodoxy” is so rare because unlike most Roman Catholic nations, most Orthodox nations lived under the cruel oppression of communism, and deeply distrust anything that smacks of socialism. When you do run into something vaguely Dorothy Day, it is usually from a convert priest or the Greeks, who did not. I doubt that you would find many Roman Catholic priests in Poland calling for more socialism in the name of “compassion.” We do mission work, and help the poor, but liturgy is solely for worshiping God. There are several chants we sing every Sunday in the sidebar on my blog, here.

  23. Patrick says:

    “I take your point, but in cases like this there’s a problem for many people who don’t have the skills – musical skills in this case – to do as you suggest. Are they to be ignored? Are they less important?”

    Simon, I could not read music, carry a tune, let alone sing when I joined the choir, I just upped and joined. Unless the choir thinks they are a bunch of recording artists, I think anyone and everyone can join, and should.

    And if, like some, you are self concious about singing in such a public manner, still, go and talk to the choir director and comment.

    No one should be ignored, and no one should feel that they cannot make their feelings known because they don’t have training. One of our brothers or sisters made mention that although they could not sing, they could certainly tell when something was not right.

    But always, comment with dignity and discretion, nonconfrontational seems to work a good deal better than an ambush.

  24. Maureen says:

    Tsk, tsk. Apparently a lot of people believe that you don’t have “actuosa” participation in church music unless you do ministry for the choir…. ;)

    It’s not bad advice, and certainly I’m all for people joining the choir. But heck, I’m in a good choir with a music director who’s good and likes traditional music, and we still get stuck doing some stinkers. (Nothing to match that Ave Maria/I Believe medley, though.)

    In general, participating in the various parish ministries has always made me feel more powerless, not less. But I’m not a people person, and parishes aren’t amenable to letting you just get on with a project yourself, unless you somehow manage to get in charge; so it’s not surprising that I’d feel that way.

  25. michigancatholic says:

    I just tune it out. Honestly, Mass is about worship and anything that isn’t rightly oriented to that in a reasonable fashion is just more traffic noise. It’s sad, but that’s how it is.

    As a layperson, you do what you can to avoid blatant liturgical abuses and frankly & unfortunately, many of us realize that at some point, we don’t have much say about these things. It’s just something that has to be endured like traffic jams and bad weather. Call it penance if you wish.

    I’ve learned that it’s important not to stay so angry about this stupid stuff that it messes up your walk with God–it’s not worth it. Just tune it out.

  26. Michael J says:

    It is a sad commentary that the general consensus seems to be that it is too much to expect that the choir at a Catholic Mass will sing Catholic hymns.

    Where does it end? When can we expect to see Catholicism in a Catholic church without having to do it ourselves?

  27. MAJ Tony says:


    I had an older cousin tell me as much, and on a certain level, he’s right (don’t let it mess with your walk with God) but I don’t think that means we have to stop “fighting” for better. Sometimes, the only way of fighting is thru prayer. I started attending the FSSP mass at a slightly more distant parish on account of what I called “The Diversity Song” and a “Christian Pop” band at a local parish that I could almost walk to. Best thing that ever happened to me at the time, though I have become almost “chemically dependent” on the EF High Mass so much so that it was hard to go to the “cheesy music” Mass in Iraq for 8 months where that was all I had. We did have a good priest.

    I had a REALLY good priest chaplain, Fr. Christopher Opara (Nigerian) on my first tour, whom I consider a friend, who was very orthodox, very “Marian” and even chanted (best he could) the “Ecce Lignum Crucis” on Good Friday. I had no problem tuning out the bad music where Fr. Opara was concerned. Capt. Fr. Opara is a chaplain at Walter Reed in D.C. Please pray for him.

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