National Catholic Register

Arts & Entertainment

Why Catholics Can Sing - But Too Often Don’t

BY Gord Wilson

September 19-25, 2004 Issue | Posted 9/19/04 at 1:00 PM

 

It is the right of the Christian community that there be “true and suitable sacred music” during Mass, especially on Sundays.

So says Redemptionis Sacramentum (The Sacrament of Redemption), written by the Vatican's Congregation for Divine Worship and the Sacraments which was released last spring to address liturgical abuses and to stress that Mass norms must be followed exactly to ensure reverence. Register correspondent Gord Wilson asked a pair of accomplished music ministers why — despite the Church's emphasis on music — it's so often said that “Catholics can't sing.” Angela Kim is director of the young adult chorus and music ministry at Blessed Sacrament Church in Seattle. Jamie Twinings is music minister at Sacred Heart Church in Bellingham, Wash.

It's been more than a decade since the book Why Catholics Can't Sing came out, yet its message (that bad taste has triumphed over classic Catholic culture) still seems to resonate with many. Why do you think that is?

Twinings: Many of the old traditional hymns are from Luther and the Protestant tradition. There's been a long history of sharing, but it's mostly Catholics using Protestant songs, not the other way around. It seems to me that Protestant congregations do sing more, and that's a concern. But when people talk about “great hymns,” they're only referring to a few dozen of the best. There are a lot of bad hymns that sound like Dr. Seuss gone bad. It's obviously important that the words don't run counter to Church doctrine. But, having said that, I tend to look more at the musical content, because if it's good musically, it's going to really allow people to connect to worship. One of the things that turns me off at some Protestant churches is that, instead of the altar, what you see is a stage with a band. I think the Catholic spirituality is different than that. The group is more part of the assembly, and the center of focus is the altar. Protestants have preaching at the center of the service, but, in the Catholic Church, the Eucharist is at the center of the Mass.

One reason men (in particular) don't sing is that many songs are written outside of the male vocal range. Although I'm a musician, I have a very narrow range. So I'll transpose these songs down a bit so they're more in the male range. That helps quite a bit. One thing I like in the Mass is the responsorial psalm, the song between the first and second readings. I have the leeway to write music for those psalms, and it's a lot of fun for me. I hope to make these arrangements available for other parishes in the coming year.

Kim: Sometimes we need to transpose music or do it in a different key. A song may be keyed too high for congregational singing. You can't key the music for someone who's an opera singer; you really want to key it for just the average voice, so the average person coming to Mass will want to participate. We'll key it higher or lower, depending on the piece, to make it more friendly.

About 50 people in our parish were interested in being part of a choir that would focus on music education and be a ministry in and of itself. You don't have to have any musical experience whatsoever, but you come to learn to sing, recognizing that this is a gift from the Lord. We rehearse in the church every week. What I was hoping for was that it would be an ecumenical community. We do special Masses and liturgies at Blessed Sacrament, and we've done concerts at nursing homes. We want to bring music centered on the Lord out to the public, as when Pope John Paul II has talked about the idea of being light to the world and, as part of the New Evangelization, bringing the Church into the world.

How do the Masses at your respective parishes differ from one another musically?

Kim: We have four Masses, very different from one another. The 7:30 Mass is a silent or quiet Mass, with no chanting or singing. There's a 9 o'clock Mass with a volunteer choir-ensemble. It's very folk-driven, with guitar, violin and piano, and they'll do things out of Oregon Catholic Press. The 11:30 Mass is much more traditional. There's a schola, which is the Latin word for choir. The person who leads that is a professional singer; she's one of two people who are paid. One week is women's schola, the next, men's schola, the next may be children's schola. The Creed and the Agnus Dei are in Latin. The songs are early English polyphony and classical pieces, but they're for schola and not necessarily for congregational participation. Then there's the 5:45 Mass, which is like the young adult Mass. There are only two guitars, with voices, and most of the music is from Oregon Catholic Press.

Twinings: People refer to our early Mass as “the adult choir” Mass, which left us wondering what we were — the children's choir? The early Mass is very traditional, with an organ, and with the emphasis on a lot of classic anthems. In 1982, when I moved to Bellingham, I joined a folk group at the parish that was started by Paul Orlowski, a singer and composer at Sacred Heart. They had guitars, flutes and voices. I joined and began to play piano for the group. A few years later, I took over as music director for that Mass. It's volunteer now, but at the time, it was a paid position.

What makes a song appropriate for liturgical use?

Kim: Its prayerfulness and its basis in Scripture. For me, it's not about, “I like this style of music better.” It's about theological content and good music written to that. Good liturgy is so important. Latin is so much richer and more concise than English. After the Second Vatican Council, when they were translating all these things from the Vulgate to English, they sometimes came out watered down. Hopefully, that will be tempered in the future. There's a lot of good stuff in the Oregon Catholic Press, but there's newer stuff it doesn't incorporate. To my ear — and I think I speak for a chunk of people in my generation — the OCP seems dated in the sense of what they might consider to be folk or contemporary. It harks back to a generation ago. It's a ’70s and ’80s style of composition and melodic lines, and also from a time of looser theology that's not as tight and rich.

Twinings: Since the Catholic Church is the universal Church, it really must encompass the various cultures on the planet. Obviously there is no one culture, so we've got all these diverse cultures. One way some people connect is through rock music, and I think that's perfectly understandable. That's the music that we grew up with, that is our culture.

When it comes to lyrics, that's a different story. Here we can get into issues where we are saying things in our lyrics that are counter to Church doctrine, and I think it's appropriate for the Church to say, “You cannot say that in a song at Mass.”

Gord Wilson is stationed in Iraq with the Washington National Guard.