The ultimate measure of a choir, cantor or music program is the fervor with which the congregation sings. The Congregation for Divine Worship (1970) instructs: “All means must be used to promote singing by the people” (Third Instruction on the Proper Implementation of the Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy, 3.c).
I travel a lot and have heard some fine choirs, such as the Vienna Boys Choir and the Kings College Choir in Cambridge, England. But the finest choir that I have encountered was one that I did not even hear. On the way back from a Niagara Falls vacation, I stopped for Sunday Mass at a church in Rochester, N.Y. The choir was absent on retreat, so the singing was started by the lector, who was obviously not a cantor. There was no accompaniment, and the songs were not easy technically. To my surprise, the congregation’s singing filled the large church.
In a small town near Savannah, Ga., I heard a choir with an unusual singer. The young lady was in a wheelchair because of a disability, perhaps multiple sclerosis. She sang with her whole heart. No one minded that her singing was not exactly on pitch nor her timing perfect. In my pew a bass blasted out his monotone note. No one minded. Indeed, I was caught up in his enthusiasm. Does the singing enhance spirituality or does spirituality enhance the singing? The obvious answer is both.
Before my mother died, she had a stroke. If you said something to her, she could not answer. You could tell by her eyes that she understood; she just couldn’t get a word out, not even yes or no. But she could sing! She would sing out songs she knew in her strong, steady alto voice.
Psychologists talk of a left side and a right side of the brain, a logical side and an intuitive side. This dichotomy is a little simplistic. Nevertheless, singing comes from a different part of the brain than speech. If you are going to worship God with your whole mind, you have to sing too. Singing is primarily intuitive, not logical, and here lies the root of a problem—logic does not always apply to singing.
A Maryknoll priest who served as a missionary in Africa once visited our church. When I asked about the type of liturgical music that was used in his missionary parishes, he was very reluctant to answer me. Finally he admitted that the primary instruments used were drums. Of course. Why not? Drums would be a part of their culture. But why was the missionary so hesitant in telling me about the drums? Did he feel that I would be scandalized at such earthy music at a sacred liturgy?
The Congregation for Divine Worship further advises, “New forms should be used that are adapted to the different mentalities and to modern tastes.” What are the different mentalities and modern tastes of your community? How can you know the tastes of those who do not attend but whom you want to attract? Actually, it is quite easy to find out. Turn on the radio; sort through the stations. Listen to the songs on television, especially the music used in the commercials. The writers of commercials are paid to know what people like. What will you find? First there is tremendous variety: fast songs, slow songs, loud songs and mellow songs. Just about every type of musical genre is represented. The one type that is noticeably lacking is four-part block harmony singing with organ accompaniment—the type you hear at many Masses.
Recently I sat behind two teenage girls at Mass. They slouched in their seats and did not pay attention to what was going on. They were bored. I have to admit, I was a little bored myself. I talked to them later. They were not bored with Christ. They were not bored with the church. In fact, they were active in the youth organization. But they were bored at that Mass.
At the Big Spring Jam in the park in Huntsville, Ala., five stages were put up this year with some big-name singers and groups like the Doobie Brothers and Smokey Robinson. Although there was plenty of good music, the stage that drew the most teenagers was, not surprisingly, the one with the loudest music and the strongest beat. What may surprise you is that it was sponsored by the First Baptist Church. They sang Christian rock. No bored teenagers there.
Music at most Masses is not representative of the people’s different mentalities and modern tastes. Despite the advice of the Congregation for Divine Worship, should it be? After all, the traditional songs are traditional. But at what point does zeal for tradition turn to snobbishness? Does a new generation need new songs they can call their own? I would distinguish between lyrics and music. Some lyrics are weak or even in error, and songs containing “thee” and “thou” are outdated. Certainly new, inspired word poems are welcome. But the main issue is not the words but the style of music.
What to Do
If you have a large Hispanic population in your parish, you would have a Mass in Spanish. If you have young families and teens, you should have music that appeals to them. There is considerable inertia to any kind of change in the church. New hymnals are not guaranteed to bring results. It is the style of the music that counts. New accompaniments make the difference. Drums are an important part of most contemporary music. They are often too loud, but electronic drums, which cost less, provide a great variety of sounds, and their volume can be adjusted to meet the size of the church.
Technical skill is important, but vivacity can cover a host of technical faults. Variety is the key. An old-style hymn interposed among newer styles has great force. Among other older hymns, it is just another old hymn. Also, an ancient hymn can be given new life; try singing “Where Charity and Love Prevail” as a cool waltz.
In the end, one measures spiritual activities by their fruit. Once I played with a group that did a pure rock-and-roll style song for the memorial acclamation. I questioned the director about it, but he said the contrast made it stand out—an acclamation that was memorial. After Mass, I heard a young teenage girl skipping in the annex singing, “Lord by your cross and resurrection.” Later she joined the choir and went on to a prison music ministry. Music has such a tremendous impact. A lively song generates energy, fervor and puts spirit into life.