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.

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5 thoughts on “How do you get Catholics to sing at Mass?

  1. Are you thinking of the same class I’m thinking of? Was the subtext “What the heck is Confirmation, anyway?” Because if so, WOW, memories.

    Both of my maternal grandparents were involved in church music–my grandfather was a composer, professor of music at a seminary, and choir director, and my grandmother is a professional organist and singer. They sort of embody for me all that is good and terrible about Episcopal church music: the divas and the dramas, the persnicketiness and the snobbery, but also the outstanding skill, the utter devotion to the beauty and power of music, and the conviction that, rightly used, it’s both an invitation to worship and worship in itself. Here’s what I’ve learned from them: A) You are never ever ever going to make everyone happy. B) Most people are better musicians than they give themselves credit for (except for the people who think they are good, who are almost never as good as they think they are). C) Keep the tempo up. Most people have pretty crappy breath control, but also have the impulse to slow down/lag behind the beat. If the accompanyist slows down with them, everyone runs out of breath and the hymn takes foreeeeever. (This drives my grandmother INSANE, and me also.)

    The best thing I ever learned about church music: When I was a very little girl, I went to church with a family friend who sang really loudly and really, really terribly. Like, completely tonedeaf. I’m ashamed to say I asked him why he was singing when he sang so badly. He replied, not skipping a beat, “The Bible says, ‘Make a joyful noise.’ It doesn’t say “Make a beautiful noise.'”

    I have other thoughts about the relation between the “externals” and the liturgy, but those are my music thoughts.

  2. My experience as a liturgical musician goes back nearly half a century, and this is what I have observed: The people who go to Mass to praise God always sing. Those who go to be entertained or emotionally moved, and those who go to fulfill their obligation in hopes of escaping hell, hardly ever sing. So, perhaps tinkering with the liturgy (simpler music like hymns and chant, concise homilies, etc.) may be helpful, but a major overhaul of hearts is essential. God bless!

    • I have to respectfully disagree here. I know a number of people who go to church to praise God, but who don’t feel comfortable singing–either because they don’t know the tune or the words, or because they feel as though they’re not “good enough” singers.

  3. Thanks for an interesting post, Carmen! On the theological: The Romero Prayer is lovely. I do wonder whether–if we accept that God works in the world now–the feeling of “I can make this better” is not a way by which God works in the world. I think Mary’s youthful question didn’t do the family friend any harm, and the story has definitely done me a lot of good over the years. I also think the answer to your chicken-and-egg question is “both”–one of the reasons I think you are absolutely right that the “externals” of the liturgy are important. The externals should pull the supplicant into liturgy, rather than forming a barrier around it.

    On the practical: I think the experts in eliciting engagement work at summer camps. Your suggestion of selecting solid and singable songs sounds exactly right. In a generalized sense, in your position, I see about four options to induce greater buy-in to singing: command (you will all sing; this requires enforcement like detention), reason, bribe (the loudest-singing quadrant gets a prize), and recruit. All of them (except maybe reasoning) can be effective if you commit to them, but I’m not sure they’re all theologically acceptable–recruiting seems most acceptable in that light. The first point is that you are trying to change expectation and practice; the second is that there is probably someone who agrees with you already. Are there people who sing anyway? Is there a choir? If so, consider dispersing them throughout the congregation so that there isn’t someone singing at the congregants, but rather among them. Disperse the faculty and ask them to sing. Every person makes a choice every time whether to sing or not, and it’s not very likely that most of them reconsider each time–but you want them to reconsider. And you want them to have some sort of nearby pressure to adopt singing, because if the only voices around them are silent, it takes rare courage to play American Idol in church.

  4. I have seen with so many campus ministries with this problem. I do feel like it gets people engaging inside the mass and other parts of the ministry but it sounds like your group is apart of the solution. I have sadly seen campus minsters/ ministries refuse to address the problem and say that it is their prerogative to sing or not. I hope you all have success with this.

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