ASK FATHER: Why don’t Catholics sing?

Spirit of Vatican II music personified?

From a reader…


When I go to Mass in the Ordinary Form, I notice that the congregation sings, even if it’s a more traditional parish that sings the ordinaries and the Pater Noster in Gregorian chant in Latin.

Meanwhile, when I go to the Extraordinary Form, the congregation is silent and stoic when it comes to the responses, the Ordinaries and the traditional hymns at the start and end of Mass. Why are Latin Mass Catholics so stubborn when it comes to singing those parts which are proper to the congregation to sing? It seems like the Ordinaries, being of much simpler chant notation than those of the propers, is designed for congregational singing. I know popes in the pre-Vatican II days have even written on this issue. What gives?

I know.  It is like pulling teeth.  As a kid, I remember Lutherans being able to sing in 4 part harmony from the pew hymnals.  Then again, when pretty much all you have is the Word and preaching, that’s what you get.

Catholics have that and a lot more.  That “more” involves mystery, the tremendum et fascinans that drives us to our knees in silent awe and longing.

That’s one reason.

Moreover, it was a clerical thing for centuries to sing texts.  Non clerics were not encouraged to sing Mass texts.  That, of course, went by the wayside a long time ago.  Some priests still bash it into people that they should never make a peep at Mass.

Lately, however, it seems to me that most people – who have some dignity – don’t really want to sing the infantalized slop that passes for church music over the last few decades.  Honestly, most of the dopey ditties have about as much appeal as the theme song to Gilligan’s Island and as must depth as the commercial jingle for My Little Pony.  Remember that?  HERE  Lord have mercy.

Each time you order this great coffee, come first to this blog and click HERE.  That way you’ll get great coffee and, each time, also help me.

And then there are the aging hippy pop combos who are there because “that’s what young people want”. How embarrassing!

I recommend the classic book, which tackles the issue, by Thomas Day, now revised and updated since it was first released.  He hits the nail on the head many times.

Why Catholics Can’t Sing: Revised and Updated With New Grand Conclusions and Good Advice  


About Fr. John Zuhlsdorf

Fr. Z is the guy who runs this blog. o{]:¬)
This entry was posted in "How To..." - Practical Notes, Liturgy Science Theatre 3000 and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.


  1. Suburbanbanshee says:

    1. Hasbro hired a better animation studio, and the studio hired Daniel Ingram, who is a darned good composer. Thus, MLP has gotten beyond its bad roots and has become a leader in animation music. This has in turn inspired a lot of young composers to try their hand at everything from songs to symphonic soundtracks.

    2. Rainbow Dash is fast, efficient, and observant. She is very good at controlling the weather with her pegasus magic. She can’t always explain what she knows, but she is highly intuitive.

    3. Rainbow Dash can break the sound barrier, and is always trying to become 30% more awesome.

    4. Rainbow Dash hates “mushy stuff,” over-intellectualization, and anything “lame.” She likes adventure, archeology, and ancient stuff.

    Therefore, Rainbow Dash can feel justifiably insulted by a comparison to the Spirit of Vatican II. Fortunately, she’s fictional and thus will never hear about it. (But if she does, you can totally win her over by serving her good food.)

  2. frjim4321 says:

    I’ve often thought the title should be “Why don’t AMERICAN Catholics Sing,” since they clearly do in other places, and sometimes in four-part harmony.

  3. Gail says:

    The question, though, was about LATIN Mass. Modern songs have nothing to do with that. And as someone who attends a NO Mass with very traditional music, I can tell you that most people don’t sing unless it’s the Sanctus or some other chanted Latin prayer or response. They just don’t sing. My husband and I usually do because we’re so glad to have something good to sing after years of things we could not stand.

  4. aquinasadmirer says:


    I was thinking along similar lines (as the father of 3 young daughters).

    My choice would have been Fluttershy over Rainbow Dash the pony character to embody the Spirit of VII. ;)

  5. truthfinder says:

    I think this varies incredibly by parish. I’ve been a member in a few trad parishes, or others long enough during work travel to figure out their way of doing things (some shared with OF churches, others not). The one I was at before (my first EF parish), I’d say about half sang in some capacity: some only the chants, some only the hymns, and others both. When I moved to my current parish, I expected to sing as before and got quite the surprise when no else was really singing. So now I seem to be part of a small group who quietly sings sometimes under our breath. This parish, for whatever reason, does not use hymns at all in the EF.
    I’m sure it’s all linked to the local history and development of a given community. I know that the FSSP generally have a mandate to get their parishes singing, whereas other places seem to think absolute silence is preferable from the congregation (also going along with some who seem to think low Mass is the way to go all the time). In FSSP parishes, occasionally there was mention of singing/chanting from the pulpit. I wonder what my current parish would be like if such encouragement came here.

  6. yatzer says:

    My experience is the direct opposite. I usually go to the EF on Sunday morning. That wasn’t in the cards last weekend, so I went to the OF on Saturday evening. At the EF people even sing the parts where the organist doesn’t play, such as the Pater Noster, at our parish. At the OF nobody (I looked around) sang any of the 4 songs listed even thought they were actual hymns, no “Gather us in” stuff. I wonder what makes the difference; there certainly is one between my parish and the original poster’s.

  7. christopherschaefer says:

    My experience has been that some “Latin Mass communities” want to re-create the Catholic milieu of the 1950s–which means that the congregation is silent. That’s definitely NOT the case at my parish, where the congregation sings the Latin responses during the Sunday Solemn High TLM with gusto. We like to think of ourselves as a “spirit of Vatican II” parish

  8. Xopher says:

    I attend a Latin Mass parish where the congregation sings every response at the sung Mass along with the choir. Possible sampling bias?

  9. youngcatholicgirl says:

    “As much appeal as the theme song from ‘Gilligan’s Island’ “. Any music at Mass that sounded like the said theme song would have me immediately detesting it’s use at Mass… and laughing because I can sing the theme song from memory (although born several decades after it aired).

  10. Amerikaner says:

    In most of the parishes in my diocese it seems that sacred music is an afterthought. There are two common scenarios that occur:

    1) Only verses 1 & 2 are sung (particularly frustrating when a song focuses on one Person of the Trinity!). The understanding of what the lyrics is sacrificed for time. Mostly occurs at the beginning and end of Mass.

    2) At the Offertory or Communion a song is sung through twice. Obvious that it’s just being used to fill time.

  11. Mary Jane says:

    Amerikaner, with respect, if those are the only complaints you have, then your music program at your parish is doing pretty well I’d say!

    Often only 1-2 verses of a longer hymn are sung because of timing—to match the length of the processional, to allow for benediction to start immediately after the recessional, etc. The choir and the priest/servers have timing down pretty tight. Perhaps it’s the priest who requested that not every verse of the processional be sung, because he wants to get the Asperges going.

    As far as hymns being sung twice and being used as time fillers, if that happens regularly I’d say yeah…the choir should expend it’s repertoire… but still…that’s not such a big deal. If it happens infrequently, perhaps the choir is caught off guard by suddenly realizing it needs an additional hymn, but the director realizes it would take longer to get to a new hymn out than it would to just repeat what was last sung once more.

    I sing in a FSSP parish choir that has done everything from the simple chanted Ave Maria to 4-part hymns to Victoria’s Tenebrae responsories to Allegri’s Miserere Mei Deus to Lotti’s Crucifixus. There are a lot of demands put on a choir, especially one trying to sing good music and all the Gregorian propers. If the music selection is good and the effort is there and they can sing what they sing well, give ‘em a bit ‘o slack. :)

    At our FSSP parish, the congregation sings all the ordinaries (if they’re chanted) and responses and the opening and closing hymns. Lots of times people sing even when they probably shouldn’t. ;-)

    What I would like to know is a slightly different question: why is it that many Catholics *cant* sing?

  12. tradition4all says:

    “Lately, however, it seems to me that most people – who have some dignity – don’t really want to sing the infantalized slop that passes for church music over the last few decades. Honestly, most of the dopey ditties have about as much appeal as the theme song to Gilligan’s Island and as must depth as the commercial jingle for My Little Pony. Remember that? HERE Lord have mercy.

    And then there are the aging hippy pop combos who are there because “that’s what young people want”. How embarrassing!”

    To follow up on what Gail wrote above, the question was specifically about the failure of TLM-goers to sing, in contrast to Novus Ordo congregations. I grew up in a Novus Ordo parish, and I recall much more congregational singing, even if most here would deride the lyrics.

    I wonder if this is because, when you have a schola, you often get Gregorian Chant. I don’t think a lot of regular Mass-goers feel comfortable singing that. They don’t know Latin, and they don’t know chant. I do know Latin, but when I hear a cantor sing Gregorian Chant, I often don’t know which word on the printed page he’s intoning at any given moment, that’s how drawn out the syllables are. Also, even for English-language hymns, the music directors at the TLM sometimes pick obscure hymns (such as those to the Sacred Heart) that probably never were popular, no matter how many old hymnals they appear in.

    In contrast, the repertoire of English-language hymns at the Novus Ordo were (and are) generally easy to sing, easy to understand, and easy to remember. That’s my two cents.

  13. tradition4all says:

    Also, a typical Novus Ordo has at least four hymns:
    1.) Entrance hymn
    2.) Offertory hymn
    3.) Communion hymn (sometimes more than one)
    4.) Recessional hymn

    Multiply that by 52 Sundays in a year, plus holy days, and the congregation is likely to sing certain hymns three to four times per year, possibly more often. That helps them remember how the hymn goes. Do you typically get that many hymns in a TLM?

  14. DavidR says:

    Obviously can’t speak for anyone else, but I most resolutely refuse to participate in the “bad Broadway show tune” garbage that our “music director” picks week after week.

    Which brings up another point: why do these piano players think it’s about them? Our current one’s been told more than once that he’s way too loud; hasn’t made a difference.

    And yes, our parish is NO.

  15. Suburbanbanshee says:

    Columcille’s Boat Song
    Ttto: “Inish na Ghiollagain” (George Wyle)

    Its logs cut in the forests, then
    Swept down the two-horned Rhine,
    Our tight-caulked keel floats on the sea.
    (Heia, men, sing heia)
    The wild gusts swell the driving wave,
    The slashing torrents fall.
    But men have strength to tame the storm.
    Heia, men! Sing heia!
    And echo, heia!

    To earnest effort, work and zeal,
    The clouds and storm must yield.
    Endure, go on to better things!
    (Heia, men, sing heia!)
    This too shall end! And when the foe
    Of souls assaults our hearts,
    They shake and twist on passion’s wave,
    But boldly cry heia!
    Remember Christ! Heia!

    Firm faith your shield!
    Virtues your arms!
    Not a single luxury!
    The ancient fiend, defeated,
    Breaks all his darts in three!

    Scorn Satan’s wiles and join us here
    To serve the Highest Power,
    The Source of All Existence.
    (Remember Christ, Heia!)
    He waits here for the warrior,
    Rewards who overcomes.
    For holy ardor conquers all…
    So let your souls cry heia!

  16. Mojoron says:

    Guitars, banjo’s, and a keyboard that sounds like angel’s singing played in a key so high that even my wife can’t sing. Need I say more? Not to mention the c, ahem, bad music.

  17. veritas vincit says:

    I thank God that He called me into the Catholic Church. But the one thing I miss most from my Methodist upbringing are the lovely hymns, sung still today by many of our Protestant brothers and sisters.

    Beside Gregorian chant (which I agree with tradition4all can be a bit intimidating for untrained singers), there are many fine Catholic hymns, which can be found in places like the back of “Christian Prayer,” a popular edition of the Liturgy of the Hours (which you can . We should not have to settle for “Gather Us In”.

  18. In the case of the United States, it depends on the part of the country, and the ethnicity of those who brought the Faith there. Many parts of the Midwest were settled by Germans, who never had a problem singing at Mass. Indeed, in the Archdiocese of Cincinnati in the 1950s and early 1960s, Archbishop Karl Alter spearheaded a program with the “Archdiocesan Young People’s Hymnal,” and the Ward Method was vigorously taught in the schools. Then there are some parts of the country where the Irish dominated, and aside from some very sentimental vernacular hymns, silence was, and still is, golden, and even singing the Ordinary at the TLM (which Pius X proclaimed belonged to the people) is sometimes viewed with suspicion, if not derision.

  19. James in Perth says:

    I feel like I’ve been much more fortunate in that the parishes I belonged to had capable to excellent music ministers who had a good sense of how to select music appropriate for that Sunday. How hard can it be when NPM provides a list of suggestions for each Sunday?

    Having moved over to an Eastern Catholic parish, I can honestly say that just about every member of the parish from young to old sings the simple chants that make the liturgy divine. In the Latin rite, the music for the new test unfortunately is arhythmic and unsingable. Tragic. So tragic that they should sing the Latin Mass.

  20. In many TLMs, the lack of participation of the congregation is a widespread knee-jerk reaction to the abuses in the Novus Ordo. They throw out the baby with the bathwater. Because ‘participation’ has become a bad word, some stiff-necked ossified traddies consider any vocal participation as baaaaaad.

    Custom vary wildly from parish to parish, area to area. Sometimes it is the fault of the priest who doesn’t educate the faithful and insist on proper participation in the Church’s public prayer.

    While the above is true, I do have well-done Tridentine Masses in our area where singing is encouraged, the music chosen is appropriate, the songs are easily found in books or on hand-outs, the priests insist on proper participation – so no one who loves to sing feels like a stand-out since everyone sings. Sometimes it is necessary for just one or two in the congregation to sing, and this encourages and leads others. Many don’t sing or make responses because so many are very confused and insecure about WHAT to do. Simply: unfamiliarity and lack of or bad instruction from the priest.

  21. hwriggles4 says:

    Why aren’t people singing at Mass?

    Well, I will say it’s because at quite a few parishes, a third of the congregation is there out of obligation, and wants to get the hour over with (been there, done that, brought the t shirt, walked in those shoes at one time, etc.) without making 65 minutes. I do get disappointed when 1 out of 5 leave after communion. It’s about attitude.

    At other parishes, particularly those who celebrate the Extraordinary Form, Catholics want to be there, so they participate and pay attention. While several Novus Ordo parishes have reverent Masses and Catholics who have a heart and mind in the right place, there are always people there who aren’t paying attention, and are watching the clock.

  22. The Masked Chicken says:

    This is a more complicated question than it first seems, speaking with regards to the EF Mass. Congregational singing of Gregorian Chant is relatively new. While Vatican II, in Sacrosanctum Concilium, Chapter V, does envision the congregation singing Chant, it would, obviously, only be the chants of the Ordinary part of the Mass, since the Propers require music and the Liber Usualis is of recent (late nineteenth, early twentieth centuries) origin. Pope Pius X, in Tra Le Sollecitudini (1903) alludes to this in a letter attached to the motu propio:

    “It is true that in other times Gregorian Chant was known to most people only through books which were incorrect, vitiated and curtailed. But the accurate and prolonged study that has been given to it by illustrious men who have done a great service to sacred art has changed the face of things.”

    In section V of the motu proprio mentioned above, Pope Pius X discusses the singers and does not mention congregational singing, but only choir singing. The idea of congregational singing is, it seems, a twentieth-century invention, developed along side of the idea of active participation.

    Dr. Day’s book only applies to the OF. Congregational singing, until recently, was more of a function of Protestant services than Catholic Masses, which employed either a Scola or a Choir.

    Oh, and, another little note: in Tra Le Sollecitudini, Pope St. Pius X says:

    “13. On the same principle it follows that singers in church have a real liturgical office, and that therefore women, being incapable of exercising such office, cannot be admitted to form part of the choir. Whenever, then, it is desired to employ the acute voices of sopranos and contraltos, these parts must be taken by boys, according to the most ancient usage of the Church.”

    Go make of that what you will.

    The Chicken

  23. Imrahil says:

    Go make of that what you will.

    I will:

    In this Pope St. Pius X, may he intercede for me poor sinner, was wrong.

    (There, I said it.)

    It is also and undoubtedly true that this has been superseded by contrary use. And that was a good thing.

    Reason: While it is true that the choir has a liturgical office, the liturgical office is specifically congregational in nature. That is why “Psalmist” has ever been treated as not belonging to the minor orders properly speaking; that is why St. Thomas teaches that Gradual, Tract and Alleluia, for instance, are expressive of spiritual progress, sighing and joy (Sth. III 83 IV and so forth), which are obviously congregational elements. This is true of all the parts actually sung, which is sometimes very obvious (take Kyrie, Gloria, Agnus Dei, Deo gratias) and in the other cases at least defensible.

    There is a difference between the proclamation of the Word of God, which the lesson is, and the answer of the faithful, which the singing is – even if the lesson also is praise of God and the singing also can, on occasion, be of instructional value.

    Now the reason a woman cannot be a lector is that a priest cannot, and a lector does have this office-holder-ish “proclaim it to the people” moment. On the other hand, the congregation consists of women also; it is, shall I say, even specially symbolized by the feminine (“the Church” is a female noun). Hence, the parts of the liturgy that the choir sings are for the women.

    The course that executes in the most consequent manner Catholic principles on liturgy while not shying from changing a small-t tradition for something truly better – not a mere compromise and slippery slope – is to have no altar girls but very much schola singeresses.

  24. APX says:

    “13. On the same principle it follows that singers in church have a real liturgical office, and that therefore women, being incapable of exercising such office, cannot be admitted to form part of the choir. Whenever, then, it is desired to employ the acute voices of sopranos and contraltos, these parts must be taken by boys, according to the most ancient usage of the Church.”

    Go make of that what you will.

    This has been discussed ad nauseum over on the Musica Sacra Forums. No sooner than that document was released , the Vatican was issuing indults for women to sing due to the lack of men. It never really was followed.

    I’m the only woman who sings in the schola for our Latin Mass and I have only ever received encouragement from the priests and of the FSSP, including Fr. Berg. While women can’t sing “in choir”, women are free to sing in the choir and sing the Mass propers. Sometimes if the women don’t sing the Mass propers there is no Sung Mass because there aren’t sufficient men to sing the propers.

  25. capchoirgirl says:

    A very interesting thing happened in my parish recently. The pastor did a survey bout our parish–what people liked, didn’t like, etc.

    Half of the congregation likes that we do older, Latin Mass parts.
    Half the congregation does not.

    I will tell you that, in my experience, if we move beyond the Mass parts that people know and try something complicated, people stop singing. It drives me up a wall when people say chant is easier than “modern” notation. Not really. (I’ve been a musician for 35 years. I was introduced to reading Gregorian notation when I was about 31. I can do it, but it’s slow.) When you throw in the Latin, people just stop. I’ve never been trained in liturgical Latin. I base on my pronunciation on what I learned in high school and college choirs. Most people just won’t sing a hymn they can’t read/follow, either in language or notation. And this is assuming people can read “modern” notation!

    The other problem is–you need good cantors. You need people who can lead the singing. This does not happen by letting singers who cannot project be the cantor. I’m sorry. But either get singers with lung power, or use microphones. Full stop.

    There are few things more painful than chant badly sung. I really put it in the same category as “Gather Us In” and the rest of that dreck.

  26. Semper Gumby says:

    Thanks for the book recommendation Fr. Z.

    suburbanbanshee is on to something with that Boat Song. For those of us blessed with mediocre vocal chords, we can still make a joyful sound unto the Lord by singing the Boat Song while bashing our axe or spear against our shields. No doubt that will also give the Fishwrap crowd the vapors, and require more fainting couches to be built. Thus, an uptick in employment, the economy gets a boost, and Acton Institute and Thomas Sowell are proven right once again. Certain bishops and priests and journalists will then learn something about how the free market works. Everybody wins.

    So, everyone please bring your axe and shield to Mass and let’s enjoy the Spirit of the 6th Century. Bonus: this would also limit the buffoonery during the Sign of Peace.

  27. e.e. says:

    “As much appeal as the theme song from ‘Gilligan’s Island’.”

    Strange but true fact learned at a Protestant church camp… Many hymns can actually be set to the tun from Gilligan’s Island. Try it with “Amazing Grace” or “O For a Thousand Tongues to Sing.”
    This is what we Protestant kids amused ourselves with around the campfire sometimes.

    Another factor is the range of some hymns. As mentioned above, I grew up Protestant. Our hymnals printed four-part harmonies for congregational use, and some people did indeed sing harmony. The congregational hymnals in every Catholic parish I’ve been to include only the melody. If it’s out of your range or it has difficult intervals, you’re out of luck unless you can ad-lib harmonies, which most average laypeople can’t.

Comments are closed.