How to get more people to sing at Mass: Stop adding new hymns

Number tiles await placement on the hymnal board. (iStock/linephoto)Number tiles await placement on the hymnal board. (iStock/linephoto)

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.

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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.

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Christopher McNally
1 month 1 week ago

Thank you Father Zupez! If I may add to your argument, I suggest that three principles of learning - primacy, recency and repetition - are consistent with your position. People are most likely to remember what they see, hear or repeat first, last and repeatedly.

Michael Sheridan
1 month 1 week ago

I live in Spain. My experience here is that at every Mass the people sing, usually without the help of Hymnals. Where there are Hymnals the number of Hymns will be limited. On occasions, I visit the UK and Ireland and I am appalled that people do not sing and indeed are unsure what to do at Mass. One of my favorite comments is "He who sings praises God twice." I agree that it is important to have hymns that everyone knows and are the old favourites that everyone can sing with gusto. I want to join in with hymns even if I do not know them. I have a good ear but if I am not sure of a hymn I am inclined to sing flat. By the third or fourth verse, I am able to follow quite well. Not everyone can do that. Sometimes the old and tried hymns are best for community singing. My only problem is that I believe that hymns should add to the Readings of the Day. Excellent article Father Zupez!

Rockhurst Jesuits
1 month 1 week ago

What you say of the UK resonates with my experience in Harare, Zimbabwe, where the British hymnal proposed four new hymns for each Sunday, to match some supposed theme of the day (as if they knew what the priest would focus on in his preaching). Congregational singing was a disaster!

Mark Ruzon
1 month 1 week ago

I'd like to put some of the blame on Catholic music publishers. In their zeal to keep their profit margins up, they typically suggest a completely different line-up every week and don't repeat any songs for quite a while. That way they can justify selling large books for large numbers of dollars. A wise choir director knows that this is a bad way to operate, but for someone who is busy or not thinking things through, it's quite a relief to have a guide to start with, and it's tempting to let the "experts" decide for you, to the detriment of the congregation.

It's especially important for the opening hymn to be something everyone knows. If Mass gets off to a good start, it's a better experience for everyone.

Franklyn BUSBY
1 month 1 week ago

Amen to Mark Ruzon's comments. And, ironically, the worst offender is a company owned in full by a Roman Catholic archdiocese. Which, with the last iteration of their triennial music list, jettisoned more than 100 songs--many qualifying as the old favorites referenced in Fr. Zupez's article. Even more appalling is that some of the music included in the new music list is not encouraged for use in the Archdiocese that owns the publisher.

Franklyn BUSBY
1 month 1 week ago

While I agree with the general principles articulated in this article, a bit of qualification would have been desirable. The article assumes music ministry situations typically found only in cathedrals and larger churches in or near major cities. Additionally, overly-broad pronouncements like “Nowhere do I get the sense that the primary goal of the choir director is to foster congregational singing” are not constructive (or empirically defensible).

One hopes that Fr Zupez was referring only to the 20 churches he has “covered” (one-tenth of one percent of the Roman Catholic churches in the United States). However, I can state categorically that there are thousands of musicians serving the Church whose every effort is for the “full, conscious, and active participation” of the assembly(ies) they serve.

Allow me to share another (and possibly more common) music ministry situation: I recently began service in a large rural parish that hadn't had a full-time music director in almost 30 years. Many of the part-timers who served in the interregnum were neither Roman Catholic or formally trained. The only money available for music and resources had to be "earned" by the choir when they sang for funerals (at $25.00 each).

Each of the weekend liturgies was guided by a different musician. There was no communication or coordination (and more than a little competition and bickering) between the various musical and liturgical leaders and scant guidance (or apparent interest) from a succession of Pastors. The music for each Mass reflected the tastes of the musician at hand, so each weekend Mass employed (sometimes vastly) different music. Sadly, there are probably far more parishes in similar situations than those who enjoy the music ministry environment the article envisions.

While not a factor in my situation, the diversity (racial, ethnic, aesthetic, liturgical) of the Roman Catholic Church presents another challenge: "Holy God We Praise Thy Name" is utterly foreign to most Roman Catholics of non-European non-English speaking heritage--and if they do know the song, it may be in Urdu, etc. The same goes for the vast majority of parishioners under the age of 30. Who, even if they know the song, would prefer a root canal to singing "old people's music". The good news is that any church full of old English speaking white people should be able to implement the vision of the article in just a couple of years… just in time to bury the last parishioner and force the diocese to close or pair the parish and restart the process.

The article fails to make allowance for the thousands of parishes (each with their own distinct musical traditions) which have recently been combined. There is also the reality that attendance at Mass for many lay-people is now “one option” for their weekend. Too many churches feel themselves fortunate if parishioners make it to Mass two or three times a month (Without consistent weekend attendance, the period of time required to develop a common repertoire and “imprint” songs is greatly extended).

There is also the reality of “Life Teen”-style Masses which hold virtually everything not written in the past 5 years with contempt (this in spite of the fact that much of what is presented is textually and musically inferior).

An important statistic missing from the article is that in survey after survey, music ranks in sixth or seventh place as a matter of concern for lay-people. While laudable, the ideal expressed in the article amounts to rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic. There are currently more than 1,000 church music positions open in the United States. Bless the poor (and fallible) musicians who continue to serve in spite of the current situation. And cut them some slack.

Mary Putman
1 month 1 week ago

Well said and important to add to the conversation. In addition, as a former choral music educator and music minister for many years in a Catholic middle school (yes, you heard that right😉) I can say that many faithful liturgical musicians are not educators, so they may not understand the pedagogy of group singing. If the clergy values music so much, pastors should see to it that their ministers are paid a just, living wage and support their professional development. Many music ministers I’ve known over the years - in fact most of them - have two and three jobs and are providing for a family. Also, many music ministers serve as volunteers. I have a dear friend who has been leading song, planning music, leading an ensemble and accompanying the assembly in one parish for 35 years.
The Church is immensely blessed by these under appreciated servants of the Gospel.

John Zupez
1 month 1 week ago

There are many reasons, some of which you mention, why pastors find it difficult to give guidance to music directors, who are often volunteers. And so there are cases where the pastor may judge it better to have someone just lead congregational singing, with a lot of encouragement and explanation from the pastor to move people to join in and sing. I've seen this work. Every situation is different, but I believe the points stated in the article need to be recognized, and shown greater respect than is true in many places right now.

John Walton
1 month 1 week ago

GIA has perpetrated some awful music on the congregations, and some of it makes your ears bleed. I am left to believe that the folks who create this stuff haven't taken a serious listen to Bach, Brahms or K.L. Scott.

David Mollon
1 month 1 week ago

Thank you Fr. Zupez. I am a terrible singer. When we sing a familiar hymn I’m encouraged to join in. If a hymn is unfamiliar I don’t even try. Even when we change the Gloria as we do in my Parish I’m lost. Familiarity and repetition would be a welcome experience.

William Murphy
1 month 1 week ago

As a long time choir member at my parish in England, I can sympathise with some of Father John's comments. We have a standard "Laudate" hymn book, widely used in England, with over 900 hymns, plus assorted Mass settings. We only use a fraction of them. The choir take it in turns to pick hymns, one month at a time. This ensures that there is some variety of taste. The criteria generally are:

1) Scripture theme for the day

2) Season of the year

3) Familiarity and ease of singing - both for the choir and congregation.

There are liturgy guides to help us pick from the 900+ available.

We also try to introduce a few relatively unfamiliar hymns, maybe one every two months. Otherwise ancient treasures will gradually slide out of living use and new ones will never get a fair hearing. Every traditional favourite was once brand new. Present day hymn writers need to be given an opportunity also.

That said, the 1954 edition of the "Westminster Hymnal" gathering dust in the choir cupboard has alternative words to "Silent Night", which seem to have vanished down the musical memory hole as far as present day singers are concerned. 90% of even competent and appealing hymns will be lost to history. That dusty 1954 gem has a section on Children's Hymns, which does not seem to feature in modern hymnals, for all the current emphasis on Youth.

John Chuchman
1 month 1 week ago

Ridiculous. A reason many do not cannot sing the hymns is that they are ancient, irrelevant, and lousy musically. Dump the old ones, get some new ones.

Mark Oshinskie
1 month 1 week ago

Yes! Yes! Yes!

Also, put the songs in a key that people can reach the high notes.

Mark Oshinskie
1 month 1 week ago

I mean, Yes, the author of the article is right. Play familiar, traditional stuff. Not That Seventies Show.

chrisnaki@hotmail.com
1 month 1 week ago

I agree wholeheartedly with Father Zupez. We may be of the same age because I, too, remember the permanent "Holy God, We Praise Thy Name" recessional. I think that a lot of novel repertoire has been introduced because of closing parishes and changing pastors. New pastors often bring their musicians with them and the musical tradition of the parish is lost. More people would sing if the new was slowly integrated into what was locally traditional. The phenomenon of excessive novelty also affects choristers. For parish choirs composed of amateurs that do not have a midweek rehearsal, sight-reading newly presented hymns causes struggling with eyes down on the book, fumfering and tentative singing: altogether not prayerful for the singer and not an inspiration to the congregation, either. A large volume of new hymns is proferred by publishers. I think that choosing hymns that scan well would contribute to heartier singing by all. Lyrics that are too irregular can stymie the best of us.

Tom Poelker
1 month 1 week ago

This is the first article here in ten years or more which takes seriously as basic guidance the instructions of Sacrosanctum Concilium. THANK YOU. It's basic goal was "the full, conscious, and active participation of all present" in all the elements of the Liturgy. Too many of the commentators ignored this essential point. Nobody dared to dispute the limited repertoire capacity of the average American Catholic. Many presumed the continued need for parish choirs which originated in the days of Latin chant. While true, the issue of inadequate musician compensation is less relevant than the issue of music ministry orientation. The fundamental role of music in liturgy is to unite the congregation in prayer. Musical and thematic consideration are lower priorities and variety is a red herring drawing one's attention away from improving the communal participation experience.
"Holy God," by the way, is the American English version of the "Te Deum" the classic Catholic song of joy and celebration. If sung up-tempo instead of dragged-out it can be a powerful link to tradition, in appropriate services, even in parishes with assertively contemporary musical programs.
I entirely agree with the argument that music publishers and profit seeking are greatly responsible for the present sad situation. On the other hand, for a half century, American bishops have refused to take overall liturgical catechesis seriously. They have legislated and approved but failed to understand and to teach. This left the matter open to people with all kinds of commercial and personal interests other than understanding and implementing Sacrosanctum Consilium.

MILDRED WILSON
1 month 1 week ago

Millie Wilson
A new hymn was introduced this morning at the 7:30 A.M. LIturgy and, except for the cantor, was barely audible. Variety has its advantages as does repetition. Variety gives breadth but repetition gives depth of thought, feeling and participation.

Nora Bolcon
1 month ago

I actually have to say that for the most part I agree with Fr. Zupez.

I am pretty good at catching on quickly, even to new songs, but others don't and it does halt others from singing when they think they are going make a mistake and look stupid so they all sing softly and without confidence or not at all. My own teenage children I keep encouraging to sing but they use the excuse, I don't know the song or the song is too hard to to sing and this is often too true.

In Charismatic Prayer Groups (I lead one) we always make it a priority to keep songs simple and limited in amount so everyone sings because in this type of prayer everyone singing makes a huge difference in how powerfully people experience the worship.

We also need to make certain the songs are presented before they are sung on the song board correctly or announced with enough notice to look them up so the congregation doesn't miss the whole first verse by the time they find the song in the book.

One of the parishes I attend, has the songs on the wall by projector which is helpful but because they do this, they take the books away from the pews so if your vision isn't great or you forgot your glasses, you will be hampered.

I think the song book should be separate from the missal and should indeed be limited to maybe 200 total songs and maybe only be revised every 5 years and a limit of 20 songs allowed to be changed out from that total each time it is revised.

I don't think you need to sing the same exact songs every Sunday but I could see that a rotation of say the same 25 communion songs be played each week, and the same 25 entrance, and same 25 exit songs be worked from, during ordinary time, so there is familiarity, and variety both, and limits should be put on very difficult songs with super high notes or super low noted songs, outside of the complex songs sung at higher holidays like Easter and Christmas.

I do hate when we change the Holy Holy Holy and The Gloria because by the time you learn the new one, they change it again, and it takes weeks to get used to the new version, and this is something that keeps people from trying and supports just zoning out in mass from that point on.

So I agree we have a problem with this area. Lay people of a parish also should have the right to decide, by vote or survey or committee, what they want to sing during liturgy too. I don't think music directors should have the most say or even pastors but both should work with members of the laity of the parish to meet, as a group, who are interested in liturgy. This way the parish community's desires (which can vary drastically from one parish to the next) are reflected. When I was younger, we used to have a parish liturgy committees. We need to bring this kind of thing back to deal with a number of liturgy issues which can negatively effect the mass and parish activeness overall.

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