One of Pope Francis’ more memorable aphorisms, from a homily in 2014, is: “You’re able to shout when your team makes a goal, but you cannot sing the Lord’s praises?” I have heard parish song directors insist that nothing they do can improve congregational singing. But everywhere I go, I notice that singing is noticeably more enthusiastic when the people in the pews know a song really well.
This observation is borne out by a 2007 survey conducted by the National Association of Pastoral Musicians, which found that Catholics in the pews most frequently cited a familiar melody and ease of singing as important characteristics of liturgical music. But those factors ranked seventh and eighth among pastoral musicians themselves, who placed much more importance on the theme of the day or season.
The singing that is expected of the congregation is unrealistic, as if people could learn hundreds of hymns or still sing from the heart with their noses buried in a songbook.
I have covered Sunday Mass for priests at some 20 parishes in my diocese in the past five years. Nowhere do I get the sense that the primary goal of the choir director is to foster congregational singing. Most choirs add beauty to the Mass, and they make up for the subdued participation of other parishioners. But the singing that is expected of the congregation is unrealistic, as if people could learn hundreds of hymns or still sing from the heart with their noses buried in a songbook. How can they be conscious of others’ faith-filled participation, a goal to be desired at every Mass, when they are so busy trying to learn new songs?
Things are not improving as more and more songs are written. The bishops of Zimbabwe even had to limit the number of new songs introduced into the church in that country to 18 per year.
Two principles seem to govern the imposition of more and more hymns on the people: a supposed need for variety and an effort to honor a special theme for each Mass. These assumptions reflect a skewed reading of the liturgical guidelines that recommend congregational singing as the music director’s primary concern. The document “Sacrosanctum Concilium” from the Second Vatican Council strongly recommends that “whenever the sacred action is to be celebrated with song, the whole body of the faithful may be able to contribute that active participation which is rightly theirs” (No. 114). I still remember the full-voiced singing of “Holy God We Praise Thy Name” that ended each Sunday Mass throughout my childhood. Even now it elicits heartier singing than do lesser-known songs.
I do not identify as a traditionalist, but I see no need for a constantly expanding repertoire of hymns. The current hymnals have nearly 900 of them, and the song leaders in the parishes seem to believe that more is better.
The current hymnals have nearly 900 of them, and the song leaders in the parishes seem to believe that more is better.
Then there is the responsorial psalm, especially the people’s part. The General Instruction of the Roman Missal allows for seasonal psalms and responses (No. 61), but often the cantor lays a complex new response on us each week! And how many new settings must we learn for the Commons, the “Gloria” and the “Holy, Holy”?
When I served as a pastor I invited the song director to choose most of the 74 hymns that would constitute our parish repertoire—Advent and Lent, Christmas and Easter included. Then she was free to choose the hymns for the Mass in Ordinary Time, as long as they were the same hymns for six weeks. After that, she could introduce one new hymn from the list of 74 but had to repeat it for six weeks and not change another hymn during that time. It was always one hymn at a time for the parishioners to learn (or relearn), and six weeks to get used to it.
The effect of the limited repertoire was to achieve the full, conscious, active participation that was called for by Vatican II over 50 years ago. Similarly, if we stick to one Communion hymn, we can better fulfill the mandate in the General Instruction of the Roman Missal that the song “express the communicants’ union in spirit by means of the unity of their voices, to show joy of heart, and to highlight more clearly the ‘communitarian’ nature of the procession to receive Communion” (No. 86).
We are at Mass to embolden one another; by singing with full and robust voices, we are encouraged to show this same boldness in our Christian lives outside of church. If spirited participation—including sitting close together, up front, and singing—characterizes our community celebration, others will be drawn to join us. If our youth see how our celebration together makes us more generous to others in living the Christian life, they may want to join us and be filled with this same Spirit. This is so much easier when we can sing with confidence and familiarity. We want new community members, and to strengthen our own participation during the Mass, more than we want new songs.