The scene plays out in Catholic parishes all over America. The cantor stands up and announces, "Our opening hymn will be number 666 in your hymn book, Please sing." By the time you've found the song they are already half-way through the first verse. You follow along the best you can in a half-hearted mumble. After two verses, the priest has reached the altar. With a sigh of relief you close the hymn book. To your horror, the choir just keeps on singing. Now you open the book again and just mouth verse 3. As you have grudgingly accepted the terrible sentence of "singing all the verses", the choir suddenly drops out without singing verse 4.
Vatican II seems to have converted the old penances, like fish on Fridays, to something far more dreadful: "Congregational Singing." Catholics everywhere wonder how those other churches can pull off much better music. Some say we need to try harder, with drums, a "band", and more contemporary music. Others say our music is too new, too loud, and should be replaced with chant. But none of the these are the problem. The reason Catholics don't sing is both simple and profound:
Catholics don't sing because they think that no one is listening.
Catholic theology teaches that God is always present to us. All creation praises God in it's own way: birds and beasts, trees and wind, bees and cicadas all praise their Maker. The saints in heaven and the angels are constantly praising God. Praising and worshipping God is our highest purpose and our greatest joy. Mass carries us to heaven, where our feeble music becomes part of a great chorus of praise. Our Heavenly Father loves to hear his children's voices, and hearing us sing His praises gives God great joy. Here's what the Second Vatican Council has to say about music at Mass:
The musical tradition of the universal Church is a treasure of inestimable value, greater even than that of any other art..... Accordingly, the sacred Council, keeping to the norms and precepts of ecclesiastical tradition and discipline, and having regard to the purpose of sacred music, which is the glory of God and the sanctification of the faithful, decrees as follows. (Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy, #112, emphasis added by me)
The purpose of Sacred Music then is the glory of God and the sanctification (making-holy) of the faithful. My own simple summary is that the mission of music at Mass is to worship God and lead the people in the worship of God. Would you really sing so badly if you realized that God was listening? How could we have forgotten such a basic idea?
We all grew up immersed in a secular, materialist culture that offers consumerism as the greatest satisfaction. We are taught that happiness comes in small packages that can all be bought for a price. We learn to stop seeking the meaning of life and just immerse ourselves in constant, frivolous entertainment. The entertainment is pre-packaged; it takes no imagination and very little effort to watch TV or play video games. Kids have not discovered the fun of building their own castles, chasing frogs, trying to fly, and dreaming of living in other worlds. Our kids dream of Jolly Ranchers, new apps, and becoming pop stars. We have stunted the power of imagination because we have forgotten that the things we can't see are far more real than the things we can see.
The changes of Vatican II tended to reinforce the idea of the absence of God. In the old days the priest was speaking a language only God understood. We turned the priest around, changed it all to English, and forgot that he isn't talking to us most of the time. Choirs were moved up front where they could lead the people. Turning them around gave the illusion that they were singing to the people, instead of praising God. New songs were written to put our focus on ourselves, songs like Sing a New Church, All are Welcome, and Song of the Body of Christ. Let's take a quick look at the lyrics of two songs found in a standard hymn book:
Gather us In
Here in this place, new light is streaming, Now is the darkness vanished away, See in this place our fears and our dreamings, Brought here to you in the light of this day. Gather us in, the last and forsaken Gather us in, the blind and the lame Call to us now and we shall awaken, We shall arise to the sound of our name.
We are the young, our lives are a myst’ry We are the old, who yearn for your face. We have been sung throughout all of hist’ry Called to be light to the whole human race. Gather us in, the rich and the haughty, Gather us in, the proud and the strong, Give us a heart, so meek and so lowly Give us the courage to enter the song.
Here we will take the wine and the water Here we will take the bread of new birth. Here you shall call your sons and your daughters Call us anew to be salt of the earth. Give us to drink the wine of compassion Give us to eat the bread that is you Nourish us well, and teach us to fashion Lives that are holy and hearts that are new.
Not in the dark of buildings confining Not in some heaven, light years away, But here in this place, the new light is shining Now is the kingdom, now is the day. Gather us in, and hold us forever, Gather us in, and make us your own, Gather us in, all peoples together Fire of love in our flesh and our bone.
Who "has been sung throughout all of history?" Not God, us. Who is the light of the whole human race? We are. Who is the salt of the earth? We are. Are we connected with Heaven and the angels through our worship of God? No, heaven is "light years away." Only with heaven at an imaginary distance do we feel comfortable praising ourselves so highly.
Refrain: We are called, we are chosen, we are Christ for one another. We are promised to tomorrow, while we are for him today. We are sign, we are wonder. We are sower, we are seed. We are harvest, we are hunger. We are question, we are creed.
Then where can we stand justified? In what can we believe? In no one else but he who suffered, nothing more than he who rose. Who was justice for the poor. Who was rage against the night. Who was hope for peaceful people. Who was light.
Then how are we to stand at all, this world of bended knee? In nothing more than barren shadows. No one else but he could save us. Who was justice for the poor. Who was rage against the night. Who was hope for peaceful people. Who was light.
Then shall we not stand empty at the altar of our drams: When he promised us ourselves. Who mark time against tomorrow. Who are justice for the poor. Who are rage against the night. Who are hope for peaceful people. Who are light.
This is an incredibly catchy song, but also the prize winner for narcissism. At first it appears we are praising Jesus. But then at the end, it turns around. You look back and you realize we were praising who Jesus used to be. Now he's gone, and it's our turn. This song worships us, and leads the people in the worship of us.
Catholics don't sing because they think they are singing to each other about a God who isn't listening.
If Catholics only realized that the God who loves them is intently listening at every Sunday Mass. Where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I in the midst of them. The angels and the saints are singing, and we have an opportunity to join in God's praises. Such a great opportunity is missed at most Sunday Masses. If only we had just a little more imagination, and some better songs.
What can you do to start making a difference? Change your own focus. Realize the music is about God, not about us. Here are seven suggestions for entering more fully into Mass:
- Start singing. If God has given you a great voice, praise Him with it. If he has given you a poor voice, plague Him with it.
- When you enter a church and kneel to pray, picture the God who loves you. Use your imagination to see beyond the walls and ceiling. Ask your guardian angel to help you praise God well.
- Speak often of the truth about Mass: Where we are, what we are doing.
- Pray for your musicians and even fast for them.
- Look for better music and encourage better music.
- Learn the songs well enough that you can sing them with your eyes closed. After all, you're not singing to your neighbor.
- Consider joining a choir or starting one.
Speaking of memorizing songs, you may want to start with one like this:
1 God, we praise you! God, we bless you! God, we name you sovereign Lord! Mighty King whom angels worship, Father, by your church adored: all creation shows your glory, heaven and earth draw near your throne singing "Holy, holy, holy, Lord of hosts, and God alone!"
2 True apostles, faithful prophets, saints who set their world ablaze, martyrs, once unknown, unheeded, join one growing song of praise, while your church on earth confesses one majestic Trinity: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, God, our hope eternally.
3 Jesus Christ, the king of glory, everlasting Son of God, humble was your virgin mother, hard the lonely path you trod: by your cross is sin defeated, hell confronted face to face, heaven opened to believers, sinners justified by grace.
4 Christ, at God's right hand victorious, you will judge the world you made; Lord, in mercy help your servants for whose freedom you have paid: raise us up from dust to glory, guard us from all sin today; King enthroned above all praises, save your people, God, we pray.
(by Christopher Idle, paraphrase of the Te Deum, ca. 400 AD).