medieval singers

Have you ever felt that the hymns we sing at Mass* seem out of place?

Catholics love to argue about which hymns are good and which are bad. Even lists have been compiled ranking the worst Catholic hymns. And yes, there are some awful hymns that, for some mysterious reason, continue to be “favorites” at Mass. But, if you sense that the real issue might be something more than merely poor song writing and poor taste, then I think you might be right.

Music is appropriate for Mass, of course, but Mass is fundamentally an act of worship and prayer. Therefore, if a hymn is not specifically an act of worship or prayer then it feels out of place regardless of how good it is. Given the nature of the Mass, it makes sense that if we are going to sing then we are to sing the Mass itself, not merely sing at Mass. The Mass itself is the act of worship. Anything else is just that, something else.

Most hymns are not prayers, and not truly or fully acts of worship either, even though the music team is often called the “worship team” in many Protestant churches.

Consider that hymns are common for Protestants precisely because Protestants lack the Real Presence in their church services. They have hymn singing (most often modern “worship style” songs designed to manipulate the emotions, which is what many Christians actually want to happen) and preaching. Hymns are an attempt by Protestants to make the Real Presence present — to ascend to Heaven or to bring Heaven down. The emotions are often there, but any knowledgeable Catholic knows it’s not the same thing, not by a mile. That’s why there has been such a push by Protestants to make church like a mini concert designed to hype, often at the cost of other qualities, the emotional aspects of music. I like concerts, but that’s not what Mass is, or should be.

The thing about most hymns is this: they are about us, about how we feel and especially how we want to think about ourselves. A really effective modern hymn is like a pat on the back. Of course they can also be about God, the gospel, the Christian life, etc, but usually we Catholics, with the “Catholic” hymn fed typically to us, get rather bland verbiage wrapped within saccharine music (or was that saccharine verbiage within bland music?). None of these things are necessarily bad in themselves (though bland and saccharine are not true forms of beauty). Singing is a good and very human thing. Emotions are good too. Rather, the issue is they don’t fit within a Mass because of what a Mass is.

If Christ is truly present then it does not make sense to sing most of the hymns we do at Mass, rather we should be silent or praying. Prayers can, and often should, be sung. Gregorian chant is singing prayers — and very beautiful. Traditional polyphony is also singing prayers — and very beautiful. The prayers are part of Mass. They are us, or the priest, talking directly to God.

If the Mass on earth is a reflection of the Mass being celebrated at all times in Heaven are they in Heaven too singing Gather Us In? or On Eagles’ Wings? or The King of Glory? or I Am the Bread of Life? etc. etc.

Honestly, I cannot imagine they are. I even think they see us and weep. Perhaps I’m being too dramatic.

Regardless, it seems true that the four hymns at a Novus Ordo Mass, sometimes called the “four-hymn sandwich,” jar us because they are not prayers, they are not actually part of the Mass at all. In fact, they actually break up the flow of the Mass. They pull us out of the forward action of Mass calling us to worship. They keep us distracted, like how sporting events now have rock music and jumbotrons blasting continuously lest anyone should have a moment of reflection or personal thought. With the new Mass there is now very little opportunity for the laity to actually pray at Mass. These hymns are like obstacles on our ascent to the heavenly liturgy, pulling us aside just when our focus on God was beginning to crystalize. We sing hymns mostly to fill in the “gaps” so we stay “engaged.” Why?! The sad truth is that most of the time they do exactly the opposite.

Debating which hymns to sing at Mass becomes pointless if they should not be there in the first place.

This is one of the reasons I believe so many Catholics do not sing at Mass. Not because of a conscious protest, or because they do not like singing, or because the Novus Ordo Mass just needs more time to get more firmly established, or because the hymns are generally so terrible (which they often are), but because at some inarticulate level it doesn’t feel right to sing hymns at Mass the way Protestants sing hymns.

Mass is something fundamentally and radically different than a Protestant church service. Ontologically they are entirely different species. Many have argued that the “spirit of Vatican II” is, in large part, about denying and abandoning much of what the Catholic Church actually is and becoming more modern like the Protestants, and thus they made the Mass to be more like a Protestant church service and less like a Mass. I would hold up as evidence the way hymns have been inserted into the new Mass as one piece of a larger puzzle that strongly suggests this perspective is true. It would seem that far too many Catholics in the 1960’s and 1970’s, especially bishops and priests, became deeply embarrassed about Catholicism and its so-called “trappings” and thus felt impelled to change it.

So much for the spirit of the council, if not the council itself.

Strangely, the switch to singing at Mass from singing the Mass seems to have been anticipated, and in the same year the Novus Ordo Missae was promulgated no less:

Query: Many have inquired whether the rule still applies that appears in the Instruction on sacred music and the liturgy, 3 Sept. 1958, no. 33: “In low Masses religious songs of the people may be sung by the congregation, without prejudice, however, to the principle that they be entirely consistent with the particular parts of the Mass.”

Reply: That rule has been superseded. What must be sung is the Mass, its Ordinary and Proper, not “something,” no matter how consistent, that is imposed on the Mass. Because the liturgical service is one, it has only one countenance, one motif, one voice, the voice of the Church. To continue to replace the texts of the Mass being celebrated with motets that are reverent and devout, yet out of keeping with the Mass of the day (for example, the Lauda Sion on a saint’s feast) amounts to continuing an unacceptable ambiguity: it is to cheat the people. Liturgical song involves not mere melody, but words, text, thought, and the sentiments that the poetry and music contain. Thus texts must be those of the Mass, not others, and singing means singing the Mass not just singing at Mass. [Notitiae 5 (1969) 406. Emphasis added]

Singing means singing the Mass not just singing at Mass.

So… if we find ourselves arguing that the hymns are so bad, are we saying they should be better quality so us Catholics can finally be just like the Protestants? Or are we saying, perhaps without fully grasping what we mean, that we should give up the new Mass for a more appropriate Mass where music exists to serve our praying and our true worship of the Real Presence rather than to fill in gaps? In other words, when we say the hymns are bad, are we actually meaning the Novus Ordo Mass is bad?

At least let’s try to be clear what it is we are arguing for, and against.

*Of course, I’m referring to the Ordinary Form of the Mass.

Several evenings ago I walked into my parish church to do something I’ve never done before. Probably out of ignorance and hubris, and not a little blind hopefulness, I decided to lend my voice to our parish choir. But not for the normal Sunday choir, which supports our regular Novus Ordo Mass. This time I joined in because I had heard at Sunday Mass the announcement that coming up in about four weeks was going to be a special Novus Ordo Mass (feast day at St. Mary, Our Lady of the Presentation) that would be entirely in Latin along with Latin (and Greek) chant, and that if anyone wanted to join in the choir they would be welcome, and that our choir director would be offering a chant schola in preparation for the Mass.

So I reached out via email and was invited to join.

As I walked in to the church I heard beautiful music resounding throughout the nave and sanctuary from the regular choir rehearsal as they were finishing up. After blessing myself and genuflecting before the Blessed Sacrament, I turned, looked up, and saw this.


With not a little panic mixed with excitement I realized I would be going up to the choir loft. What had I decided to do? Reality was setting in. I had never been up there, but have wanted to. I had not sung in a choir since, probably, about 4th grade for some silly event. As I worked my way towards my destination I was asked a couple of times if I was a tenor or bass. I could only shrug. I had no idea. Oh no, I thought to myself. I’m an idiot. I’m a fool. At my answer a look of slight worry crossed the faces of my questioners. Had I made a huge mistake?

On the back bench lay items of sheet music and a binder. I picked up my copies and went to my place. Everything was new to me. I did not know these people. I had never been in the choir loft, I was an imposter. Perhaps I didn’t even know how to sing. However I was welcomed warmly. Okay, at least they’re nice.

Then I looked down at the sheet music. Oh no. This was not the medieval square note sheet music. Not that I know that ancient form well, but because of my curiosity about historical Christianity I know a little. And it’s rather simple to follow if you know the basic format. Rather, this was the Missa Secunda by Hans Leo Hassler, and it looked like this:

If you want to know how it’s supposed to sound, here’s a recording from another choir:


Okay. For those of you who can read music easily, have sung in adult choirs, know that you are a tenor or bass or whatever, then you might be curious at the sudden and profound panic I felt.  (Perhaps you are merely laughing at my foolishness.) I realized I would have to reach deep into my past, to those few piano lessons of many decades ago and remember foggy snipits about breathing at the right time, etc. 4/4 time. 3/4 time. Half notes. Whole notes. God help me, and God save this choir from me.

The choir director, a very kind and super encouraging man (fortunately for me), brought me to a side room and had me sing Mary had a little lamb, just to determine there my voice might fit. He said I could be a tenor or bass, so he put me with the tenors. And there I was.

We began with the traditional chant Salve Regina to warm up. That helped. I know that one, and it’s not too difficult. Then we dove into the Missa Secunda. Another great blessing for me, I was next to a woman who knows the music very well, has a great ear to be able to listen to me while she sings herself, and a kind and generous spirit to guide me through my stumblings. If she had not been there I might have completely failed and not come back. Later others told me, yeah she’s great.

So, rehearsal one is over. Three more to go. Will I be able to do this. I asked several, including the choir director, after that first rehearsal if they think I can contribute. They were all very encouraging. I also found online resources to help me do “homework” between rehearsals.

God help me, but I loved it.

I don’t have any intention of this blog becoming political. I do wonder, however, and especially now that we have recently gone through another deeply problematic presidential race here in the U.S., about the nature of politics. In this country we have a two party system. All other parties (Green, Libertarian, etc.) have been carefully nullified by the forces of power (the two parties themselves, the press, and mostly by business interests). This is my opinion. Regardless, I wonder of the value of political parties.

Our society believes political parties are important, even necessary. Are they? I am inclined to think that parties are created and promoted because someone, or some group, desires power. The ideas behind the Republican and Democratic parties in this country don’t need parties in order to exist. And once those parties are created and grow they become increasingly disconnected from the rest of society, even from their own members. This is the way of political parties. They, by design, and because power always tends to concentrate (like wealth), become centralized, demagogic, and prone to simplistic slogans hiding their real workings behind closed doors. Clearly, and eventually, all “successful” political parties end up thriving largely based upon secretive power and the enthusiastic ignorance of their membership.

They also thrive by controlling the means of communication, especially mass communication. They are, in effect, big business-backed, government supported, marketing agencies designed to benefit a minority of interests by leveraging the support of a majority who, for many reasons, and with various levels of enthusiasm or resignation, go along with the game.

Imagine a political leader in the western world saying something like this:

“If there is to be Better World [a Republican world, a Democratic world, a Libertarian world, etc.] , there must be a Better World party. Without a Better World party, without a party built on the Better World goals and ideals, and in the Better World way of doing things, it is impossible to lead this country and all its people in defeating the forces [those of other political parties] who stand against a Better World.”

Of course no good marketing strategy would use the Better World moniker for the name of a political party, but you get the idea. And I realize this verbiage is rather clunky, but it is taken (hacked rather badly) from another political leader, an idealist and a utopian who envisioned a better world in opposition to the forces of evil, a man who saw concentrated power as a way of helping his country become a land of goodness, wealth, and peace.

“If there is to be revolution, there must be a revolutionary party. Without a revolutionary party, without a party built on the Marxist-Leninist revolutionary theory and in the Marxist-Leninist revolutionary style, it is impossible to lead the working class and the broad masses of the people in defeating imperialism and its running dogs.”

Quote from Mao Tse-tung, found in “Revolutionary Forces of the World Unite, Fight Against Imperialist Aggression!” (November 1948), Selected Works, Vol. IV, p. 284.

We might cringe that these words are from Mao, but the human heart that beat in him is the same as the one you and I have — and prone to the same weaknesses and skewed desires. The politics in the U.S. became years ago (really from the very beginning) the purview of a few seeking wealth and power for the “benefit” of everyone. Political parties became the way for power to concentrate more fully and be wielded more aggressively.

I firmly believe the only real alternative is love, is humility and sacrifice, is the way of the cross. To think otherwise is to live in fear.

In 1990 the Voyager 1 spacecraft turned its camera back towards Earth and found a pale blue dot.

Seen from 3.7 billion miles, Earth appears as a “pale blue dot” (the blueish-white speck approximately halfway down the brown band to the right). Source: Wikipedia


At that time Carl Sagan said:

“Consider again that dot. That’s here. That’s home. That’s us. On it everyone you love, everyone you know, everyone you ever heard of, every human being who ever was, lived out their lives. The aggregate of our joy and suffering, thousands of confident religions, ideologies, and economic doctrines, every hunter and forager, every hero and coward, every creator and destroyer of civilization, every king and peasant, every young couple in love, every mother and father, hopeful child, inventor and explorer, every teacher of morals, every corrupt politician, every ‘superstar,’ every ‘supreme leader,’ every saint and sinner in the history of our species lived there – on a mote of dust suspended in a sunbeam”.

That mote of dust, that pale blue dot, is our home, a gift from God to us.

From Laudato Si:

As Christians, we are also called “to accept the world as a sacrament of communion, as a way of sharing with God and our neighbors on a global scale. It is our humble conviction that the divine and the human meet in the slightest detail in the seamless garment of God’s creation, in the last speck of dust of our planet” (LS 14)

Sagan’s quote is powerful, but Pope Francis pushes that sentimental understanding such that the sentiments are rooted in the powerful, cosmic truth that the world is a sacrament of communion. In other words, as we engage with creation and come to know it we become like priests offering up to God the world which He gave us. If this is our relationship to this pale blue dot, then questions of market forces, or government regulations, or pollution, or poverty, or global supply chains, all fall under this sacramental understanding.

Right at the beginning of the encyclical, Pope Francis says:

This sister now cries out to us because of the harm we have inflicted on her by our irresponsible use and abuse of the goods with which God has endowed her. We have come to see ourselves as her lords and masters, entitled to plunder her at will. The violence present in our hearts, wounded by sin, is also reflected in the symptoms of sickness evident in the soil, in the water, in the air and in all forms of life. This is why the earth herself, burdened and laid waste, is among the most abandoned and maltreated of our poor; she “groans in travail” (Rom 8:22). We have forgotten that we ourselves are dust of the earth (cf. Gen 2:7); our very bodies are made up of her elements, we breathe her air and we receive life and refreshment from her waters. (LS 2)

I see too many Christians here in the rich and powerful “west” chaffing at the Pope’s encyclical, often using common evasive tactics like focusing on whether it is well written or organized, or whether the Pope mentions Jesus enough times, etc. These are all fair assessments, but if our first response to the world was to fall on our knees in supplication and worship, because our first understanding is of the world as sacrament, I wonder if we would be pushing back as much to the Pope. I think he gets it right. His critique seems to be spot on. We have forgotten the garden, the gift of creation. If we understood and lived out the idea of “world as sacrament” there might not be a need for the encyclical, because the world would be less ravaged. Still, and our struggle bears this out, only in Christ do we find salvation, and only through Christ will the creation cease to groan.

Final thought: It’s a strange thing to think that the so-called radical, left-wing environmental movement is showing the Church (especially in the west) a little something that it has lost along the way.