Ignoring the Elephant In the Nave

A few weeks ago, Cardinal Sarah made a few precious ripples with his recommendations to reform the Church’s liturgy by having priests face the altar, discontinue the use of extraordinary ministers (lay people who distribute the Eucharist), and encourage the celebration of the traditional Latin Mass. While these recommendations would help in restoring a theocentric model—versus an anthropocentric one—in the liturgy, one component in serious need of reform is the music.

To be fair, Sarah does propose singing Gregorian chants and older music in Mass, but few people have given this serious discussion thus far. Consequently, one can make all the changes of Cardinal Sarah recommends, but if Catholic churches all over the world keep using the same corny hymns, few of these changes will mean much. Put simply, people will not take Mass seriously if the music is not serious. They will either go to a Latin Mass parish which either has no music (at Low Mass) or has chant and polyphony (at High Mass), or, as studies show again and again, they will stop going to Mass altogether.

Catholic Pop Music And Its Effects On the Church

If they attend a mainstream Catholic Church, they will have to endure to pseudo pop tunes of such famous hymn-writers like David Haas, Dan Schutte, and Michael Joncas. Instead of continuing the tradition of classical composers like Palestrina, Scarlatti, and Bruckner, who all created music to accompany the solemn Mass, these hymn-writers have adopted the secular mindset, creating music to entertain and engage the audience. In this way, they distract from the Sacrifice of the Mass in the hopes of having the congregation forget all their troubles and sway and listen to an uplifting tune.


Don’t be surprised if Cat Stevens’s other hit, “Peace Train,” becomes an addition to new hymnals.

Some might argue that these modern hymns still stay true to the spirit of the Mass since they include verses from scripture and focus on parts of the Roman liturgy. Even if this were so, and it is not, the style of this music completely contradicts the message of the words. A hymn like “Sing of the Lord’s Goodness” may talk of jubilation and glorifying God, but it is a total knockoff of the jazz classic “Take Five” by David Brubeck. A local priest said it best when he thought the refrain of “Celtic Alleluia” sounded like a ditty that drunk Irishmen would sing after a soccer match. Many of the acclaimed hits of David Haas, like “Blest Are They,” “You Are Mine,” or “We Are Called,” besides all sounding alike, could all fit better in a musical by Andrew Lloyd Webber than during Holy Communion. Some hymns like “Morning Has Broken” were not even originally hymns, but folk pop songs—in this case, by the Muslim convert Cat Stevens, now known as Jusef Islam.

Obviously, this change in music appeals to a certain generation of believers. If a person grew up listening to the Carpenters, James Taylor, and ABBA, he or she would likely approve of the music choices of so many Catholic parishes. They might even join the choir so that they could have a chance to “serve” as a cantor and take the microphone, crooning “On Eagle’s Wings” like singer heartthrob Josh Groban. All the while, everyone else in the congregation, especially the men, look uncomfortably at the ground and feel embarrassed about their faith. (Though it could be worse: the choir could insist on having liturgical dancers prancing about in front of the altar.)

This lamentable situation also exists in parish youth groups that subject adolescents preparing for the sacrament Confirmation to Christian Rock, also known by the euphemism “Praise and Worship.” Armed with amplifiers, drums, and screens projecting their lyrics to a hopelessly captive audience of young people, these wholesome rockers will feel their own good vibrations, closing their eyes, raising their free hand (since the other is holding a microphone), and desperately hoping some of the listeners will follow their example. Even the least self-conscious, most socially inept teenager cringes at this experience. Probably more than anything else, “Praise and Worship” has led to the ongoing exodus of young people who fall away immediately after they are confirmed.

Fans, left to right, Tracy Kapela, 26, of Palmyra, Wisconsin, Katie Fletcher, 21, of Norton Shores, Nathan Lozon, 18, of Jenison, and Mary Johnson, 40, of Norton Shores give praise to Jesus from direction of Third Day lead singer Mac Powell during a song at the Unity Christian Music Festival Saturday night. Date shot: 8/9/08

Jammin’ with Jesus

Nevertheless, the biggest problem of this music is not the embarrassment and its repelling tackiness; it is anti-Christian. Music, and the lack thereof, will set the tone and create the atmosphere of the Mass. More than even the homily or the readings, music communicates the ideas of the faith, moving people to adore, to reflect, and show gratitude. It can also communicate ideas contrary to the faith: mindless tolerance, unwarranted self-approval, excessive sentimentality, narcissism, feelings entitlement, and triviality.

Modern church music has transformed the altar into a performance stage, bringing with it the degeneration of the liturgy. It is only natural that many adults want a share of spotlight; it only natural that priests want to face their congregation and address them like a talk show host; it is only natural that elderly men and women run up to fetch their cups and help with the Eucharist; it is only natural a clique of a few laypeople have more influence over a parish than the priest. The music brings this all out.

Save the Music, Save the Mass

Apologists work themselves into a frenzy bringing back fallen Catholics, convincing frustrated Protestants to give up their protest, and moving the growing number of atheists out of their secular stupor. Diligent Catholic parents make heroic efforts to inculcate their faith to their children and bring them up in holiness. Sadly, so much of this effort is frittered away when these people attend Mass. They expected something true, good, and beautiful. Instead, they find what Pope Benedict XVI calls “religious entertainment,” a cheap inferior copy of the entertainment one would find outside the church.

For parishes hoping to bring back the faith, they need to do away with this music altogether and replace it with something reverent and unobtrusive. As Cardinal Sarah recommends, they can sing chant and traditional hymns. The music should complement the liturgy and inspire reverence among the congregation.

Furthermore, parishes should do away with cantors and their backup singers—and if they have a “Youth Mass,” they should kindly tell the band to find a garage in which to rock out. A church choir should not cultivate divas and petty rivalries, but instead build up a body of singers who work together to create something beautiful and pleasing to God.

Finally, if possible, the church should remove microphones that allow choirs to drown out any possible pious thought from a parishioner through sheer volume. If this means that the piano or organ overpowers the singers, a choir should consider singing acapella, which offers a simpler, cleaner, and much more traditional form of sacred music.

They may not have microphones, but they have the Holy Spirit.

They may not have microphones, but they have genuine fervor.

With so many problems afflicting the Catholic Church and Her children, bad music at Mass should not act as another cross for Catholics to bear. Properly done, music can enkindle the spiritual life of a believer; poorly done, it can snuff out what few embers still remain.