ASK FATHER: Do I have to sing at Mass?

From a reader…


My question is, what am I required to participate in vocally when attending the Novus Ordo Mass. Where I attend, we are prompted to participate in singing four songs, sometimes five, and they are only songs, not many worship worthy. Then at the Responsorial Psalm we are to participate in either singing or praying a phrase. I remember in the Extraordinary Mass, the only requirements were to adore, pray, and follow the Latin if we desired. Of course I now do pray and sing enthusiastically the Credo, Gloria, Sanctus, Agnus Dei, and Pater Noster. It just seems now I am being ushered continuously through the whole Mass, with private devotion and thanksgiving left for after.

Right now I’m on an airplane typing on my phone. Forgive me if I am slightly telegraphic.

I am glad that you want to fulfill your role as a layman at Mass. As a baptized member of Christ’s mystical Body, when you speak and sing and move liturgically Christ the High Priest speaks, sings and moves in you. Christ the Head acts in the priest, Christ the Body in the congregation.

There is a strong impulse for the praying, liturgical Catholic, to make the responses, to rise, to kneel, when appropriate.

It seems to me that when it comes to hymns, which aren’t really liturgical texts, you can make your choices according to your desire. When it comes to the true texts of the Mass, however, official and assigned by the Church, I think there is more weight applied to the baptized congregant.

Are we obliged to speak and sing? No. But we are obliged to be open to speaking, singing, moving according to the texts and flow of the sacred liturgical action.

I think this applies to both Forms, newer and traditional. Popes of the 20th century thought so too, and tried to forward greater participation by responding, especially in singing. Singing, after all, is what one does when he loves (cf Augustine – “cantare amantis est“). The lover loves silently and still. The lover loves singing and gesturing.

A deficiency in the Novus Ordo, magnified by how it is usually celebrated, is the constant sound, the incessant urging to do something, sing, blah blah. There are more controlling rubrics in the Novus Ordo whereas custom guided people in the traditional form.

The traditional form, in its sung forms, Missa Cantata, Solemn, the whole Church, Head and Body together, should sing. After all, they love their roles and being there and doing what they do in fulfilling religion.

Balance must be sought. This is why, by the way, reclaiming the older, traditional form can help calm down the Novus Ordo. It’ll be around for a while yet.

Have I answered?

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  1. The thing about singing in the Novus Ordo Missae is that so often the music is not appropriate for Mass. There are Mass settings in use that sound like they belong in a night club. Where this situation prevails, I will pray the prayers interiorly, but I do not want to participate in the degradation of the liturgy.

  2. Fr. Reader says:

    What about a priest. If the whole Mass is the Dan Schutte thing, can I priest just pray in very low voice while the choir performs its Disneyesque show?

  3. KAS says:

    Music at Mass should be an opportunity for worshiping GOD. May I suggest a movement to get the “The St. Jean de Brébeuf Hymnal (2018) published 24 December 2018 by Corpus Christi Watershed” into your parish?

    I bought a copy because, well, at one point as a teen I was in five choirs, three constantly, two when they needed the young soprano. I LOVE to sing. I had friends who graduated with degrees in sacred music/church music. I have sung a LOT of amazing church music, and the Catholic Church may be the one church but the hymnals…sigh!

    And I sound like a commercial, but this hymnal is the most amazing one I have EVER had my hands on, and I have a fair few on my bookshelves. It is designed to be a CATHOLIC hymnal, the texts are theologically FABULOUS! I have a Masters in Theological Studies and am a Bible loving geek, and this is awesome–like having a catechism in the music!

    I also have a teaching certification, and this music would help teach the faith to children in a way they will not ever forget! Sung learning is internalized deeply as it is heard, read, and physically sung so it sticks.

    This hymnal is full of SINGABLE tunes, many of then very old. The lyrics are translations of traditional songs that go WAAAAAY back! Like 4th century, and they are BEAUTIFUL!

    The latin is there, side by side with a more literal translation for UNDERSTANDING and it tells you what tunes the latin will go with.

    Then there are carefully selected English translations all footnoted so you can do research if you want, but there, and clear and orthodox and beautiful!

    They limited the total number of tunes used to help a congregation to master the singing so they can come to where they no longer have to struggle–the tunes will become familiar!

    This is better than any of the protestant hymnals.

    If you just take the quoted name of the hymnal, you can do a search, or search Corpus Christi Watershed.

    I keep spreading the word, THIS should be the hymnal in ever Catholic parish and just do all the singing from it! Everyone who can sing will WANT to sing these songs.

  4. APX says:

    Since every church sings a different Mass setting (none of which I know), I can’t sing the Mass ordinaries unless they’re in a chant setting from one of the Masses. In the rare occasion a church sings the chant settings, I sing with gusto.

    All that being said, when the choir is singing a polyphonic Mass setting, it’s very distracting to sit in the congregation and hear someone singing what they they think is what’s being sung.

  5. Imrahil says:

    Well, I guess he’s technically not obliged to sing. But think about how hard it is for shy people when the only thing you hear is the organ and perhaps some faint whispers here or there, if they would actually like to sing along.

    If I’m there and the song is at least tolerable in its textual content (I frankly don’t consider it my duty – and it is certainly not my pleasure – to judge musical quality in its appropriateness for Holy Mass, that’s what celebrants are there for), I therefore shout at full voice because after all, somebody whoever it is does need to give others the opportunity to hide themselves behind him. But it took me years and perhaps even decades to brace myself up to do so.

  6. We use the Adoremus Hymnal at our parish. But, if I have to attend a different parish and they sing Amazing Grace then I don’t sing along.

  7. RichR says:

    Our parish hymnals at St. Thomas Aquinas College Station were getting pretty ratty, and when the new translations came out, many were eager to get rid of the aged 70’s-inspired saccharine hymns we had been subjected to for years. But before any input could be given, someone made an anonymous donation covering the cost of a bulk order of “same-said hymnal Second Edition.” These are worse, and it has made singing at Mass a joke. I would never bring a prospective convert to Mass On Sundays at our parish. I totally understand the OP not singing at Mass. I bring my Divine Office and pray that instead. My boys are learning piano and pipe organ, and they are servers at the monthly Latin Mass. Even they see the impoverishment of contemporary Catholic hymnody, and they refuse to go along with the silliness.

    Just waiting for the hippies to get to the nursing homes so we young families can make another anonymous donation. CC Watershed’s hymnal will be our choice.

  8. SAHMmy says:

    I personally love to sing, but got my husband to switch on Sundays from the 5pm Teen Mass to the 6:45am silent Mass. When we occasionally can’t get there at 6:45 we end up at the Teen Mass and I don’t sing, I try to pray. Missing that first Mass on Sunday tends to put me in a foul mood all day (mea culpa, I know) but the music is so dismal and wretched. I’m glad I am not sinning by not singing along with the schmaltz.

  9. Josephus Corvus says:

    I agree with what Father is saying about the difference in approved text vs. everything else. If there is a bad rendition of one of the Mass parts, at least I know it’s sound doctrine. I gave up on the rest of it for two reasons. 1) I don’t like having to read ahead to make sure I’m not singing heresy. 2) If I can go into a secular department store during the Christmas season and hear in their background music some secular pop musician singing a standard Christmas carol and getting the words right, but the politically correct in church have to change them, I’m done. (If you can’t get Hark the Herald Angels Sing or Good Christian Men Rejoice right, I’m done singing.)

  10. gdweber says:

    I grew up in one of the Protestant churches, singing good Protestant hymns. I thought that I should sing, and I enjoyed doing so. As a teenager, I was sometimes upset with my father, who did not sing the hymns. When I asked him about it, he said that the language was too old-fashioned.

    When I became a Catholic, I continued to sing hymns, even though many of them disturbed me by their lack of musicality and their lame texts, and sometimes worse than lame. But I continued to sing anything short of plain heresy, because I thought that I ought to sing.

    Then I read Thomas Day’s book “Why Catholics Can’t Sing.” There are two reasons, says Day, why Catholics can’t sing. One is the anti-musical low mass tradition in the United States which began in Ireland as a result of English oppression of Catholics there. The other is that the faithful silently protest against songs that are unsingable by not singing them. He goes into some detail about the characteristics of songs and their performance that make them unsingable, and what to do about it. From that, I began to feel empowered *not* to sing if the song was not good.

    I became more empowered after reading “Whether God Should Be Praised with Song?” in Summa Theologiae, II-II, Question 91, Article 2. St. Thomas Aquinas answers that “the praise of the voice is necessary in order to arouse man’s devotion towards God. Wherefore whatever is useful in conducing to this result is becomingly adopted in the divine praises. Now it is evident that the human soul is moved in various ways according to the various melodies of sound, as the Philosopher state[s] (Polit. viii, 5), and also Boethius (De Musica, prologue). Hence the use of music in the divine praises is a salutary institution, that the souls of the faint-hearted may be the more incited to devotion. Wherefore Augustine says (Confess. x, 33): ‘I am inclined to approve of the usage of singing in the church, that so by the delight of the ears the faint-hearted may rise to the feeling of devotion’: and he says of himself (Confess. ix, 6): ‘I wept in Thy hymns and canticles, touched to the quick by the voices of Thy sweet-attuned Church.”

    But if the songs do not arouse man’s devotion towards God, if the songs are so bad objectively, or even just so distasteful to me subjectively, that I cannot put my heart into the singing of them, then what’s the point? Especially if the rest of the congregation are singing so lustily that the addition of my unenthusiastic voice would not add anything to their benefit? But if nobody’s singing but the song leaders, that ought to send a message to somebody.

    Because there is so much that I cannot sing with my heart, I am no longer in my parish choir, and I have become very selective about singing the parts that the faithful are supposed to join in. I don’t feel too bad about this for the “four-hymn sandwich,” which is altogether unnecessary and should be replaced with the proper chants. But it breaks my heart that sometimes, actually for all of Ordinary Time, even the Gloria and the Agnus Dei are so bad, so offensive, that I can’t join in the singing. My conscience forbids it. It hurts if I sing, and it hurts if I don’t.

    @$&*#!, my eyes are starting to get wet now. But I remember another time, when I was able to go to the Latin High Mass, and by the time we got to the Kyrie, my eyes were filling with joyful tears!

    There are other good thoughts in II, 91, 2. For example, in Objection 4, we read that, contrary to the directions in the Psalms, “the Church does not make use of musical instruments such as harps and psalteries, in the divine praises, for fear of seeming to imitate the Jews.” There is little reason to fear that now. But when we, instead, use guitars and bongo drums, whom then do we seem to imitate? And should we not fear even more to be imitating *the world*?

    I know that it is not enough for me to passively-aggressively resist by not singing. I’ve had some talks with our Music Director, and they have been cordial and respectful, and maybe even produced a little improvement, but not much. I need to do more, but not more of the same. I have been thinking about organizing a Schola Cantorum, or a chant camp for the kids. I am not well qualified to do either of these, and my only hope is that, according to G. K. Chesterton, if a thing is worth doing, it is worth doing badly. Please pray that I may have the prudence, fortitude, and enterprise needed to do what is right and to do it well.

  11. gdweber says:

    Thank you, KAS, for recommending *The St. Jean de Brébeuf Hymnal*. I’ve been meaning to have a look at it. I’m hesitating, because I’ve been disappointed a couple of times, buying Catholic hymnals.

  12. majuscule says:

    My church is one of three in the parish. The parish supplies the OCP missalettes and music book so we don’t have much choice. (Oregon Catholic Press for those who are blessed to not know what it is.) Fortunately our musicians are not for innovation and we use mostly the same “good” songs. We have never sung Gather us In (I had to search for it on YouTube to hear it!). They usually lead us in the Kyrie and Agnus Dei.

    I won’t say that they don’t ever choose Schutte, Haas and Haugan…but I Don’t have to sing those songs. Often they will choose hymns with Latin and English verses and we will sing both. Just last Sunday we were supposed to sing Panis Angelicus…first two verses in Latin, next two in English. The Latin went well. But the last two in English…singing petered out. The English words in our OCP book were different from the earlier OCP version that they were using. So there is a good example of why the unchanging “dead” language of Latin is less confusing!

  13. MrsMacD says:

    Dear KAS I once sent a good friend who sang Lord of the Dance at Mass the website of St. John Cantius/ CC Watershed. He must not have looked or listened closely because he wrote it off as stuff from ‘my’ traditional parish. Sometimes folks think it has to be bad in order to be considered Catholic. How can we change that attitude?!

  14. Dan says:

    “ Singing, after all, is what one does when he loves (cf Augustine – “cantare amantis est””
    This quote along with the more famous “when you sing you pray twice” are a favorite of many happy clappy music leaders in many of our NO parishes, who can’t get through Mass without an egg shaker and drum set with the whole parish clapping along. I doubt the singing Augustine was talking about was anything close to the crap that people are to willing to through into our liturgyies today. The Masses he attended would surely have been filled with chant and sacred music.
    I can at times be very distracted by modern music in Mass. it breaks my prayer and leads me away from the reason I am there. I try to participate and sing along when I can but, sometimes I can’t, when the music becomes so outrageous, out of the need to focus on participating in praying the Mass.

  15. Joe in Canada says:

    “being ushered’. i used to live in a city where at the cathedral, ushers were instructed to tap people on the shoulder if they knelt during the Consecration, and say “we don’t do that here”. If any usher ever interferes at all with a worshipper, or speaks to them about posture during Mass, the worshipper should complain to the pastor. This is not a ministry of the Church, and it is not in the spirit of the Liturgy.

  16. Kerry says:

    To Joe in Canada from Kerry in America. In the prescribed responses ‘tapping’, a menacing scowl is, curiously, optional. However, the menacing “Get off my lawn!” is the required Say the Black.

  17. Henry Edwards says:

    gdweber: “I’m hesitating, because I’ve been disappointed a couple of times, buying Catholic hymnals.”

    You can go ahead and order your copy of the Saint Jean de Brébeuf Hymnal. Confident that it’s quite unlike any other (allegedly) Catholic hymnal you’ve ever seen. Because it actually is a Catholic hymnal—(so far as I know) no other so-called “Catholic hymnal” that’s currently published consists solely and exclusively of music that’s actually fully and completely Catholic in both origin and expression. Hymns selected from the Church’s wonderful tradition and glorious treasury of sacred music, dating back through the centuries to the time of Ambrose and Augustine. Including, with music suitable for Mass in either form of the Roman rite, the classical Latin hymns that are the sparkling jewels of the Divine Office, which (rather than the Mass) is the true locus of traditional Catholic hymnology. Ones like the great Corpus Christi hymns of St. Thomas Aquinas that express authentic Catholic belief at its deepest and most sublime level. And alongside these beautiful Latin hymns from the breviary are printed—and designated as “Assistance for comprehension”—the best literal English translations of these hymns I’ve ever seen, ones that I believe meet the standards of both (Fr. Z’s) WDTPRS and Liturgiam authenticam. By these criteria, no other Catholic hymnal of which I’m aware comes close to the new standard set by the Saint Jean de Brébeuf Hymnal.

  18. adriennep says:

    Thank you for mentioning CCWatershed’s Brébeuf Hymnal. You gotta love them for naming it after the first French martyr to America to get a Mohawk machete to the back of his head. Metaphor for music directors everywhere…
    And by the way, please support their efforts. My New Year resolution is to buy several copies to distribute to our NO parish with the awful “Dan Schutte Choir.” The pastor just built a decent new church but dragged in the old keyboard playing in piano mode only to the right front choir space. As if they had any voices there worth spotlighting. Only one good voice with four different choir “teams” but no musical director. Pastor is musically deaf and thinks they are just fine. Until Epiphany they sang the Gloria to tune of Angels We Have Heard On High, and it went down hill from there (special OCP arrangement, don’t you know).

    In addition to that evangelization effort fail, I will use my Brébeuf copies in teaching Catechism class. Thanks for that suggestion! Music certainly formed me as a youth, so why not lead with the best Catholic ones? Learning a song or poem to memory imprints the soul. Music has the power! Catholics just have to reclaim their heritage.

  19. APX says:

    FWIW: Just because a hymn was written by a Protestant, doesn’t make it a Protestant hymn. If it’s content is Catholic, it’s a Catholic hymn.

  20. youngcatholicgirl says:

    I heard a Mass setting this summer whose “Lamb of God” had the same first bars as “My Heart Will Go On” from “Titanic”.
    Most of what we sing at my parish is pretty good, but no one cares if I don’t sing when I don’t want to since I play the organ on Sundays anyway (“Cantare amantis est”, but I don’t find “Behold, The Lamb” expressing my love very well; I save it for “At the Name of Jesus”).
    Also, some my find it interesting that St. Augustine’s quote is properly, according to a traditional priest I know, “To sing well is to pray twice.”

  21. MrsMacD says:

    I had to look up Dan Shutte. He’s a sodomite ex priest. And we wonder why this music fails to inspire. Planned. They planned this. Grrrr.

  22. IngridAiram says:

    When things are okay-ish, I tend to sing it along. It does help tot worship in some way. When we happen to arrive in the monthly family Mass (which is usually a set Sunday, except when it isn’t) I don’t sing along and switch my hearing aids off so as to be able to focus on the Mass and pray. But we usually try to avoid these Masses. Then there is a monthly Mass with contemporary songs. Last time I was in tears from the emotional pain of how this was ruining Mass (even though the words of the songs weren’t even that bad), that I couldn’t sing a word along. The other choirs are usually doing a decent job, but sometimes they do such stupid things that singing along is impossible because no-one can hear what exactly they are singing on which melody.
    So yes, when it isn’t proper music, I wouldn’t sing along, couldn’t actually.

  23. RichR says:

    Dan wrote: This quote along with the more famous “when you sing you pray twice” are a favorite of many happy clappy music leaders

    You can tell them that they are misquoting Augustine. The Latin cited for this is “Qui bene cantat bis orat” or “He who sings WELL prays twice”.

  24. adriennep says:

    Dan Schutte was part of the “St. Louis Jesuits” who back in the 1970s were singlehandedly responsible for the corruption of our Church music with their contemporary folksy tunes. It didn’t just happen on its own. Look up the article on Church Militant from March 2018. There are others. We are long overdue for the counter revolution. I only wish I could turn off my hearing aid during Mass. Viva Brébeuf!

  25. kurtmasur says:

    I knew I was done with attending a certain parish as soon as I heard the choir sing during the Alleluia the “Alleluia” song as featured in the movie Shrek. They had played other pop songs during mass, but listening to this during the Alleluia was the last straw for me.

  26. TonyO says:

    2) If I can go into a secular department store during the Christmas season and hear in their background music some secular pop musician singing a standard Christmas carol and getting the words right, but the politically correct in church have to change them, I’m done. (If you can’t get Hark the Herald Angels Sing or Good Christian Men Rejoice right, I’m done singing.)

    Josephus, you are so right! This has been a major beef of mine (along with the cabaret music in church, and the unsingable “songs”, etc.) I have 3 suggestions:

    Lay people: REFUSE POINT BLANK to sing hymns where the words were changed out for politically correct nonsense. Better yet, don’t sing the hymn, but when the phrasing gets to where the real word are “men” and has been changed to “people” (or “them”, or whatever), shout out (un-musically) “him” and then go back to being silent. I.E. be as irritating as you can be without being sinful.

    Parochial vicars: if you have terrible hymnals with politically “correct” (sic) words, and you can’t simply order new ones, take a few nights, go into the church, cross off the wrong words and insert the right ones. Be “surprised” when the insertions are discovered.

    Pastors: change out the hymnals for ones that do not destroy our linguistic heritage for a mess of pottage. We the people have a right to our customs, and our language and songs are big in that.

    Bonus round, for anyone who has an “in” with the USCCB: This is an issue that should have been dealt with at the conference level: as I understand it, one of the reasons hymnal companies change the words of traditional hymns is to CREATE so-called “new” material that becomes copyright-worthy. With copyrighted songs, parishes cannot copy the material and hand out copies (without paying). The USCCB should issue formal rulings that in the US, hymnals are not allowed to change the traditional words of songs, and copyright is morally impermissible on anything that is even close to the same as a traditional hymn – it is simply unjust as a means of profit (as well as unjust to inflict upon people). Any hymnal company trying to get copyright coverage for such material should be therefore banned from selling to parishes (i.e. the parishes should be instructed not to purchase from them). In any case, even apart from the copyright issue: again, people have a RIGHT to their customs, and in particular to their language and their traditional songs. The politically (in)correct changes are per se a violation of that right, and no parish or diocese should be prepared to put up with such abuse, much less collude with it.

    Imrahil, I get your point: I am one of those weak singers, I need either an organ backup or strong singing near me to have even a chance at staying close to on pitch. Or (choir directors please note!!!:) a song that I have down cold because I have sung it that way from my youth. I.E. one of the traditional songs. I generally will remain silent for a song that I know I cannot sing without throwing 2 or 3 pews off. I can generally manage to sing the Latin for the common parts of the mass: the gloria, the credo, the sanctus and the agnus dei (and the Greek, for the kyrie) because, again, they have not changed in ages. But the English versions (especially on account of the change in the translation in 2011) are new, and like for the gloria they are totally unsingable. Has anyone noticed how utterly unmusical the typical English gloria is?

  27. gdweber says:

    In response to MrsMacD’s comment that Dan Schutte is “a sodomite ex priest.”

    1. That he’s an ex-priest I do not doubt. There may be some uncertainty about the other part of that statement. The Church Militant article (a) refers to a source (b) which refers to an “original source” (c) which is 404 not found, a vanished web page. So we don’t know for sure what it said. A second Church Militant article (e) refers to another source (f) which again refers to a third source (g) which cannot be found. In response to (f)’s request for their “peanut gallery” to check their source, which they didn’t seem to trust very much, one reader responded: “After contacting a friend in a high place at GIA, (not OCP), I found out that there is not any truth to Dan Schutte being publicly partnered to a man.”

    Other sources say that “Schutte doesn’t comment on his personal life” (d) and “Schutte said he never publicly discusses his own personal life in relation to his music” (h). So it is quite possible that even if he is gay, he does not “lead an openly gay lifestyle,” does not push the extreme gay agenda, does not deny the Church’s teaching on the subject.

    2. The same Church Militant article notes that Schutte’s “Here I Am, Lord” has been described as a “gay anthem.” I don’t have the song available here for reference, but I’ve sung it many times. While I’ve never been thrilled with it, neither did I find anything overtly or covertly “gay” or otherwise objectionable in the text. If some gay people like it and claim it as their anthem, that doesn’t make it their property, any more than the fact that many gay people love “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” makes that a gay song. Speaking of rainbows, the fact that they’re depicted on the LGBT banners does not mean that real rainbows, those beautiful signs of peace and “no more flood” up in the sky, are gay.

    3. In any case, let’s avoid ad hominem arguments, especially when the person chooses not to discuss his private life in public. Attacking someone’s character in musical and liturgical criticism is no better than in politics and philosophy.

    Let Schutte’s songs stand or fall on their own merits or lack thereof. If the text is good and the music is good and they fit well together, then the song is good. And if not — then it is not!

    If tomorrow we learned that Handel had been a homosexual, would we stop singing “Joy to the World”?


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