HE POPES HAVE TAUGHT IT FOR 120 YEARS, and Catholics have resisted it for 120 years. “It” is the active participation of the faithful in the liturgy. Some Catholics say that sitting silently in the pew accomplishes it; see, for example, this misguided series of articles, where congregational singing of Gregorian chant is wrongly lumped in with the spoken Dialogue Mass and other innovations. The same people would probably say that sitting silently in the pew at a non-Catholic wedding or funeral is not active participation in that context. Hmm. See what Pope Pius XI had to say about congregational singing:
Let our churches resound with organ-music that gives expression to the majesty of the edifice and breathes the sacredness of the religious rites; in this way will the art both of those who build the organs and of those who play them flourish afresh and render effective service to the sacred liturgy.
In order that the faithful may more actively participate in divine worship, let them be made once more to sing the Gregorian Chant, so far as it belongs to them to take part in it. It is most important that when the faithful assist at the sacred ceremonies, or when pious sodalities take part with the clergy in a procession, they should not be merely detached and silent spectators, but, filled with a deep sense of the beauty of the Liturgy, they should sing alternately with the clergy or the choir, as it is prescribed. If this is done, then it will no longer happen that the people either make no answer at all to the public prayers—whether in the language of the Liturgy or in the vernacular—or at best utter the responses in a low and subdued manner.
Let the clergy, both secular and regular, under the lead of their bishops and ordinaries devote their energies either directly, or through other trained teachers, to instructing the people in the Liturgy and in music, as being matters closely associated with Christian doctrine. (Divini Cultus, 1928)
There is decidedly no “Low Mass mentality” at work here!
Singing with Joy and Enthusiasm • What does it sound like when the faithful, filled with a deep sense of the beauty of the Liturgy, sing alternately with the clergy or the choir, and not in a low and subdued manner? You be the judge! I have compiled a five-minute video comparing the Sanctus from four Masses. For better audio quality, click the links to the original videos in the description box. My selections are not meant to be a critique of the singers or instrumentalists, nor an unconditional endorsement or condemnation of the celebrants or communities shown.
Who could sincerely claim that the Sanctus of Cardinal Cupich’s Mass better represents the Church’s ideal of active participation of the faithful than the Sanctus of Bishop Fellay’s Mass? One could easily argue that I’m comparing apples and oranges; after all, the musical situation of a cathedral isn’t the same as a parish church or seminary chapel, nor that of an outdoor Mass the same as that of an indoor Mass, nor a Mass for a special occasion the same as a typical Sunday Mass. Point taken, but dare I ask the question that is so obvious to me? Why should the typical Sunday Mass at a cathedral not set the example for the rest of the diocese and have the most enthusiastic singing of all? It seems like a perfectly valid question. I’m reminded of the frustration expressed by a colleague upon hearing that the clergy are no likelier to abuse minors than other professions. She asks in reply, “Why shouldn’t the clergy be held to a higher standard?” Again, it seems like an entirely legitimate question. But back to the singing! I wish to note that all four are accompanied, that the three novus ordo examples are in the vernacular, and that the two examples of what can fairly be described as enthusiastic congregational singing have someone visible to the congregation who is actually conducting rather than the amplified voices dominating the singing. [Unfortunately, I didn’t find out until after compiling the video and drafting this article that the Mass from Chicago is prerecorded for weekend broadcast. Now I wonder if there’s a congregation at all, which prompts other questions, for instance: Why is the cantor singing toward an empty nave instead of the altar?]
Culture or Lack Thereof • Generally speaking, Catholics in the United States have grown accustomed to listening to a solo cantor singing into a microphone, usually with piano accompaniment, for the last half century. That has become the norm, not the exception. Somehow, a soloist drowning out the combined efforts of anyone in the congregation willing to make any sound is deemed “active participation,” but a choir of twenty, thirty, or forty unamplified voices singing polyphony is not. I suspect this is because a cappella choral singing, even if it’s in the vernacular, is for whatever reason considered elitist or highbrow, regardless of what the Church documents say. By and large, real active participation, where the vast majority of the congregation sings more or less enthusiastically, like many “traditional” Protestants or like Catholics in some other countries, hardly exists unless you sing nothing but half a dozen or so Marian and Benediction hymns all the time, which isn’t good liturgy. We have a non-participatory Low Mass culture in the Catholic Church in this country, and even the best musicians are impotent to change it without the full, uncompromising support of the clergy, but most priests are content with the status quo. I have been to church after church where I estimate that fewer than 20% of people will even bother to open the hymnal (or pick up the program or worship aid) when it’s time to sing, and there’s absolutely nothing most organists, choirmasters, or cantors can do about that. It results in either an overwhelming amount of strictly choral music (often several times as much as a first-rate Protestant choir is expected to prepare on a weekly basis), a mixture of good music and garbage, or lots of repetition—and here I speak of both the novus ordo and the TLM. We can and should do better.
Cluelessness and Outright Hostility • As an organist, choirmaster, and singer, visiting other parishes can be an interesting experience. Sometimes there are pleasant surprises, musically speaking, but oftener profound disappointments. At one large inner-city church, I was greeted warmly by an usher and given a bulletin as well as a free Fulton Sheen book to take home, while the handout with the music for the Mass was on a table at the side of the vestibule. I was given what I didn’t need to participate in the Mass, and not given what I did need. At a traditional Latin Mass at a grand historic church with an otherwise exemplary music program, the organ accompaniment of the chant was so light throughout that I couldn’t tell if the congregation was expected or even welcome to sing, even though there was some sort of alternation between men’s and women’s voices taking place in the choir loft half a city block away. The people around me seemed quite content and indifferent, with many of them not even making the et cum spiritu tuo and amen responses—which is not to imply that organ accompaniment is necessary or even advisable for the short responses. A colleague, who visited a TLM parish and dared to sing along on the chanted Ordinary of the Mass, was approached by an usher and told, “We don’t do that here.” Another reported the truly disgraceful experience of someone in the next pew turning around and saying to him, “Pipe down, Protestant!” At my own parish, during the two-year period when, in addition to the High Mass, we attempted a Low Mass with hymns (and yes, I mean the much-maligned “four hymn sandwich”), a couple of people with fine voices told me they didn’t sing because of the ugly looks from people around them. Another said she didn’t sing because she was praying (!), and another said that she and her family preferred to listen to that man in the back of the church with the beautiful voice (this was not in reference to the organist!). Well, they’re excuses, and all of them lousy excuses, I say, when the Popes have been teaching something else for 120 years. I’ve heard tales of entire dioceses in this country where there was an “official policy” up through the 1950s that no audible sound should emanate from the pews during Low Mass or High Mass. Despite papal documents saying the contrary, anyone who wanted to sing at Mass at all had to join a choir.
A Convert Looks Back • I’ve been Catholic for 23 years. I was brought up Methodist. Although it’s been many years, I can remember what seemed like everybody in the church singing the hymns. I can remember playing full organ (with supercouplers) when I could have added even more without drowning out the singing, if there had been anything else to add. I can remember that wonderful poetry by Watts and Wesley, among others, some of which appears in our Catholic hymnals as well. I only remember it being mentioned from the pulpit once, but at the front of the United Methodist Hymnal are printed John Wesley’s “Directions for Singing.” I think IV and V are my favorites:
IV. Sing lustily and with good courage. Beware of singing as if you were half dead, or half asleep; but lift up your voice with strength. Be no more afraid of your voice now, nor more ashamed of its being heard, than when you sung the songs of Satan.
V. Sing modestly. Do not bawl, so as to be heard above or distinct from the rest of the congregation, that you may not destroy the harmony; but strive to unite your voices together, so as to make one clear melodious sound.
It’s sage advice for us Catholics too. How surprising to me still, 23 years later, that so many refuse to make any attempt to sing or even to open a hymnal! Are we to program “Immaculate Mary” or “Holy God, We Praise Thy Name” every time we actually want to hear the congregation? Good grief! Turn off the microphone, post the hymn numbers where everyone can see them, and have organ accompaniment that is loud enough to support the whole congregation, not just the choir. Several times abroad I had the pleasure of encountering Catholic congregational singing so robust that Gregorian Glorias and Credos were sung literally in alternation between choir/schola and congregation—every other phrase, the choir dropped out entirely and let the congregation sing for themselves. Goals! In this connection, I should also note that the faithful in Germany as a rule rely heavily on the organ for leadership rather than a visible and amplified cantor with arm extended. For them, singing is part of what you expect to do when you go to church. It would be ridiculous there to speak of “the choir” singing something that’s intended as a congregational hymn (and quite often, the choir doesn’t sing the congregational parts!), yet that remains a common way of describing Catholic church music in the U.S. (the choir sings the Asperges, the choir makes the responses, the choir sings “On Eagle’s Wings,” etc.).
One Last Consideration • In every church, there are people who like to sing, some of whom sing very well, but who, for various reasons, don’t belong in the choir. Not only does a culture of congregational singing support the talents and efforts of these people, it also provides a nurturing environment for willing but timid singers to be unashamed of their own vocal contributions, and it teaches children, especially boys, that singing at Mass is normal and good. In visiting other parishes while traveling, how many Catholic singers have had the experience of someone approaching them after Mass—or turning to them during Mass—to say, “You should join the choir!”? I wonder if the subtext to that compliment is that it’s unusual to hear someone in the congregation singing out. The organ is a wonderful instrument for supporting the singing of a large number of people. It’s also a fine instrument to accompany choral, ensemble, and solo singing, but it’s not a great instrument to accompany a choir plus twenty percent of the rest of the people scattered around the church. Frankly, no instrument is. The organist has to make a decision before the first phrase about the right volume and registration (combination of sounds) to use. Organists, your 8’ Gedackt is not sufficient to accompany several hundred people singing in parallel octaves, regardless of what aesthetic you’re trying to achieve. The organist must support and lead the singing of the congregation, and the congregation should consider returning the favor by singing out! “Rejoice in the Lord, O ye just: praise becometh the upright. Give praise to the Lord on the harp; sing to Him with the psaltery, the instrument of ten strings. Sing to Him a new canticle, sing well unto Him with a loud noise” (Psalm 32:1–3).