How do you get Catholics to sing at Mass?

Ah, the age old question.  I wish I had a punchier answer.

But the reality is that this is an extremely difficult question to consider.  In my Campus Ministry department, we are working on some evaluations and strategic planning for next year.  We are grappling with difficult questions like, “How does our programming contribute to the faith development of our students?” and “What leadership skills do we develop in our retreat leaders?” and even more pressing, “How much of our budget can go towards pizza parties next year?”  But in all seriousness, one of the questions that always comes up is how to get students to really connect with the Mass.

Discussion of school Masses always gets strangely tense in a Catholic school.  The reality is that most Catholic schools have significant non-Catholic populations among the students and the staff, so not only do school Masses have to engage disengaged Catholics, but another section of the population would rather not be there all together.   No matter how many arguments a campus minister might make on behalf of school Masses (“You get an hour to sit and reflect by yourself!”  “At least you’re not in class!” “If you were at a Jewish school you’d have to go to Jewish services!”), there are always loud voices that argue we shouldn’t have Masses at all or that non-Catholics should be exempt from going.  Beyond that, the engagement and participation varies so much from person to person and Mass to Mass that campus ministers seize on anything that might maximize liturgical participation and joy.  Music is usually the first target.

As I participate in these discussions, I am reminded of a liturgy class I took in grad school.  One of the professor’s favorite lines was “the liturgy is not a plaything.”  He belittled the idea that the externalities of liturgy (ie: quality of the music, banners, programs, lighting, homilies, etc) were what mattered and disparaged the attitudes of liturgists who “played around” with these things.

But these discussions invariably lead to a kind of chicken-egg reasoning–“Do Catholics sing because they’re engaged in the Mass, or do Catholics become engaged by singing?”  Should campus ministers focus on making music and lighting better, or should they argue that what brings people to Mass is out of the control of the liturgist?

I am comforted, somewhat, by the fact that this is not a problem our school alone faces.  Liturgists at schools and parishes throughout the Church deal with this problem.  Whenever I hear someone evaluate a parish or a Mass, s/he always begins by describing the music.  Fussy music directors and stagnant music abound in the Catholic Church and everyone has an opinion about it.  So it is hard to be the person on the front line, making the decisions about what 650 people are going to be doing for an hour, knowing many will simply disengage.

And it is this train of thought that leads me right to the siren song of self importance.  I have to consciously remind myself that sacraments do not depend on me, that the Mass is not subject to what I think is important that year, or what I think students would enjoy singing.  And this is where I get stuck–believing I can’t do everything, but wanting to do something.  Knowing that music matters, but failing at fixing the entire problem.  I love to tinker and try to make what is good even better, and I have to remind myself that the Kingdom is beyond our efforts AND our vision, and that I am a worker, not a master builder. 

But I have to disagree with my former professor.  Externalities do matter, a lot.  Anyone who has ever planned a Mass and had the barrage of comments/opinions/nitpicking afterwards knows that.  And if the Mass is the front lines–the place where the most people encounter Catholicism in motion, I have to do everything in my power to plan a smooth and meaningful liturgy.  But that doesn’t mean I should start tinkering with everything.  Just maybe–solid songs that everyone can sing, a homily that is brief and to the point, and a Sign of Peace and Communion procedure that is smooth and effective.  Maybe liturgists can just focus on those things.

I really wish I had the answer to getting Catholics to sing.  Until someone figures it out, I’ll be poring over music books and planning for next week.