I can’t sing. I actually took voice lessons as a graduate student and the professor, a priest, said to me as politely as possible: “Why don’t we concentrate on your public speaking voice instead of singing.” He was really on to something.
Elsewhere I have written about the Tridentine Low Mass providing Catholics with the “Rite To Remain Silent.” This is, of course, one of the most salient and unmistakable features of Low Mass: the unbroken contemplative silence.
But what of High Mass? Or Solemn High Mass?
These are, of course, occasions not for silence but for singing, or more specifically, chanting—usually Gregorian, though there are wonderful variations such as Praemonstratensian chant as well—where, along with a pipe organ and with any luck a full-blown Latin choir, nearly every major part of the Mass is sung.
It may seem strange, then, that many Catholics who attend these High Masses still remain silent instead of joining in the beautiful celebratory singing. They may have good reason for their silence: like me, perhaps they simply can’t sing (well) and joining in would only mar the beauty of the trained choir’s hours of practice. Then there’s the crazy plainchant notation that looks easy enough, but unless you actually know how to read and sing along with it, it’s a lot like chess notation: it seems simple, but try to play along and you’re sure to get lost, quickly.
Thomas Day in his delightfully-titled and informative book Why Catholics Can’t Sing has some excellent insights (as well as plenty with which I cheerfully disagree), but one of his main points is that the American Catholic tradition is grounded in silence not out of hatred of singing, but out of fear of being killed. According to Professor Day, the Irish Catholics who came to the United States did so not only because they were being starved to death by their unjust British occupiers, but because the Catholic Irish were forbidden to practice their religion under the very real penalty of death. Mass in Ireland under British rule was not only silent, but surreptitious. Silence meant survival.
So when the Irish came to America and quickly cornered the markets on most of the archbishoprics and the couple of cardinal’s hats here, it was from a tradition of silence-for-the-sake-of-survival that had a sort of “trickle-down” effect on their congregations. True, with the influx of Italian immigrants, loud and colorful street processions, statues clad in dollar bills, and songs in the local patois to saints (who in many cases were never officially canonized, like San Cono, the patron of Williamsburg, Brooklyn) in the streets lived uneasily along the official Irish-American stolid silence. Very uneasily.
So while it may be “natural” for American Catholics not to sing, even at High Mass, is that a good thing? I’m not sure this is a question of “good” and “bad” but rather one of common sense. If you’ve got a good voice, can follow plainchant, and know the settings, you probably should sing. If you are like me and couldn’t sing even with professional assistance, you might have a better time of it just enjoying the contemplative music and harmony of the professionals and fully and actively participating in a contented contemplative silence.
And there’s nothing to say that you couldn’t join that august group of singers in the choir on a full-time basis: most of the Latin Masses I’ve attended are eager for more voices to join their choirs for High Mass.
My father, whose “singing” resembles a truck downshifting on a freeway without a clutch, has always maintained that “if you can’t sing well, sing loud”. And, not content with repeating that bon mot, he actually lives it: he sings loud, but never, alas, well. He also always follows up this chestnut with Saint Augustine’s famous, “When you sing, you pray twice.” While I love my father, I can’t stand his singing—and if this is how his firstborn feels about it, I can only imagine what the souls around us at Mass growing up thought of the cacophony issuing from our pew.
Mercifully, my father can’t read much Latin, doesn’t understand plainchant notation, and doesn’t know the settings of High Mass, so I doubt that he’d be in a hurry to belt out tunes he neither knows nor understands just for the sheer sake of singing at Latin High Mass.
Still, as early as 1978—decades before it became a phenomenal and surprise success—my father shared with me a vinyl record entitled simply GREGORIAN CHANT from France. He played it over and over—but he never once sang along with it (unlike his Mario Lanza albums). My dad grew up with the Latin Mass, knew just enough Latin (and German, Russian and Italian) to get by, but I never heard him sing Gregorian Chant. It was a treat just to watch him listen, and enjoy the beauty of these French monks.
And now I think I know why he kept quiet. It’s not because such singing is best left always and only to the professionals, even at one’s local parish, but out of humility. “Humility,” T.S. Eliot tells us, “is endless.” Of what service would it be to sing in Latin without knowing what you are singing, but rather how to sing it correctly. Sure, there are exceptions: I don’t know anyone who, at Midnight Mass on Christmas, doesn’t love to let out a full-throated “Adeste Fidelis”, or at Eucharistic Adoration and Benediction “O Salutaris Hostia” and “Tantum Ergo”. Or during the Stabat Mater at the Stations of the Cross. And it’s always a pleasure (for me, at least) when the priest intones the Greek “Kyrie Eleison” at the Ordinary Form of the Mass, not merely for the change of pace (and language), but because there is something atavistic about it: a you-are-there feeling to those sacred words.
I once attended a Ukrainian Divine Liturgy at Christmas. It was a stunning display of liturgy, and the music was (literally) divine. I had about a dozen words of Ukrainian memorized, but it would have made no sense to try to “be ecumenical” or “join in” by singing along with the trained (and talented) Ukrainian choir. I kept quiet and was swept up by their power of prayer. I like to think humility—along with my inability to sing—added in some small way to the prayer of that pious group of prayers.
Still, I’ve been to at least one Latin Mass where the priest has actually encouraged the congregation to sing along “to the best of your ability, because God appreciates your effort.” This was at an especially large church which had the dialogue Mass, and the priest (and deacon and sub-deacon) were left to do all the singing themselves. In short: they needed us to sing to assist their service. It wasn’t particularly beautiful, musically speaking, but it was a prayerful experience I hope never to forget.