The Gift of the African American Catholic Tradition

Most of you who read here regularly know that I’ve spent most of my 22 years of priesthood ministering in the African American Parishes here in Washington DC. (Here’s a picture of our choir on the right). On this holiday in which we honor the legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King, I want to say that I have received rich blessing from the heritage of African Americans whose culture still retains deep roots in the sacred, and in draws richly upon biblical norms of trust, liberation from sin, justice and most importantly, the lively experience of God’s immanent presence.

I would like to share a few of the things I have learned and experienced over the years. I will focus primarily with the liturgical experience. I can only say a little about each point but hope. Even still this is a long post, perhaps the holiday will permit you more time to read it. Despite the inadequacy of my words, I hope that you will grasp the rich wisdom and sacred tradition that I have been privileged to experience. I do not claim that what I share is true of every African American Catholic, for they are not a monolith and there is appreciation of numerous liturgical traditions. But collectively, as a community, these are widely shared values.

1. Expectation – Great expectations are brought to the liturgical moment. Most of my parishioners come to Mass expecting to be moved, changed, and transformed. It is expected that God, the Holy Spirit, will show up and that He will do great and wonderful things. Prior to Mass there is an air of anticipation as the parishioners gather. Some call this “The Hum.” The expectation is palpable, and parishioners both want and expect a deep experience of God. They look forward to the songs of praise that are about to be sung, and are prayerfully expectant of a good sermon where they will “get a word” from the Lord. As we shall see, there is little anxiety about time or the need to rush and hurry. This is God’s time and He is about to go to work.

2. All about God – Gospel music is a central facet of most African American parishes. Yet, to be clear, a wide variety of music is sung in most such parishes to include: spirituals, traditional hymns, classical music, and both traditional and modern Gospel music. One of the glories of musical repertoire of the African American Parishes is that it is almost exclusively focused on God and what He is doing. We have remarked here before how much modern Catholic music is far too focused on us, who we are, and what we are doing. Not so in the gospel music tradition where God is invariably the theme. In an anthropocentric time, this is a refreshing stream from which to draw. You may have whatever feelings you have about the style of Gospel music, but the bottom line is that it is about God. One song says, God is a good God, he is great God, he can do anything but fail. Another says, God and God alone! Another songs says, God never fails! And on and on. Even when we mention ourselves it is only to remember God: We’ve come this far by faith, Leaning on the Lord, trusting in his holy word, He’s never failed me yet!

3. The Primacy of Joy – A serene and joyful spirit is at the heart of African American worship. The Church is a bride, not a widow and God is good! Even in difficult times we ought to praise the Lord. Psalm 34 says, I will bless the Lord at all times, his praise shall continually be in my mouth. An old African American says goes:  Praise the Lord anyhow!

Joy is manifest in many ways in African American Worship: clapping during the singing, stepping and swaying, uplifted hands, spontaneous acclamations, even an occasional stamping of the foot!

It is a strange thing to look at some Catholic Masses see what appears to be more a funeral than a wedding. Sour faced saints and bored believers. Now, to be sure, people manifest piety in different ways. Even in the African American parishes not everyone is on their feet as the choir sings powerfully. But in the end we ought to manifest some glimmer of joy rather than to look like we’ve just sucked a lemon.

Joy is a great gift and it is present in abundance in African American worship. St. Paul says, Rejoice in the Lord always, again I say it, rejoice! Your graciousness should be known to all (Phil 4:4-5). A gospel song says, Joy, Joy, God’s great joy. Joy, joy, down in my soul. Sweet, beautiful, soul saving joy, oh, joy, joy in my soul!

4. Time – This is God’s time. Earthly time is largely suspended in the African American experience of the Mass. Masses often go substantially longer than the average Catholic parish. At the African American parishes where I have served, the “High Mass” usually goes two hours. Even the Low masses run at about an hour and fifteen minutes.

In most typical and suburban Catholic parishes there is a rule that Mass is to go 45 minutes to an hour. If things start to run long there are nervous, even angry glances at watches and the like. Sermons are to be 7 to 10 minutes. Further, many take communion and go right out the door.

Not so in the African American parishes where the notion of time is more relaxed. It may be that the Holy Spirit puts it on a soloist to take up the refrain of a song yet one more time. There’s often an expression that comes from the congregation: “Take your time,” or “sing on!” This is God’s time and He will do what He will do.

Most African American congregations are also famous for lingering after the service. Here too another expression comes to mind: Take your time leaving. In the end, Mass is one of the highlights of the week. Why rush through it? Savor the moment. A song says, We’re standing on holy ground.

5. Creativity and freedom in the Spirit: African American Catholic Worship is careful to follow the norms for Mass but exhibits an appreciation for creativity and docility to the Holy Spirit. This is especially evident in music. It is rare that a soloist sings the notes of a song exactly as written. (The exception to this would be when classical music is Sung). Rather, liberty is taken as the choir, soloists, the organist, and director are all open to what and where the Spirit leads.

There is deep appreciation for this spontaneity and it is seen as a manifestation of the Holy Spirit interacting with the gifts in the community. A gospel song says, Over my head, I hear music in the air, There must be a God somewhere!  This is also a history to this which stretches back to slave times. Those who were enslaved enjoyed very little freedom. But on Sundays they would gather in hush harbors and secluded locations. They would often take up the hymns they had heard from the European tradition but adapt them. In so doing they expressed their freedom in the Lord. The spirituals too are remarkably creative, manifesting a genius of both word and song. They also admit of a wide variety of interpretations and different verses are swapped in and out at the will of the singers.

All of this creativity leads to a great pregnancy and expectation in the liturgy. Who knows what God will do? There are moments of great delight and a sense that this is all in God’s hand.

It also gives a different understanding to the presence of applause in the liturgy. Many rightly lament that, in certain settings, applause creates the notion of performance rather than worship. But in the African American setting applause is an act of praise to God, thanking him for this manifestation of the Spirit. This is made evident by the fact that the congregation most often applauds even after the songs that it sings together. This is not a self-congratulation but is an act of praise to God. The psalms say, Clap your hands, all you nations; shout to God with cries of joy(eg Ps 47)

6. The Preaching moment – Sermons are usually longer in the African American Parishes. At the High Mass the sermon is usually one half an hour. There is great expectation on the part of the congregation in terms of the homily and a great interest in spending time with the Word of God. It is expected that the preacher will not only seek to inform the congregation but celebrate the liberating reality of the Word that is proclaimed. The word of God does not just inform, it performs and it transforms. The preacher is invited, and expected, not just to preach the “what,” but also the “so what,”  and the “now what.”

These expectations have surely challenged me over the years to be powerfully aware of the majesty of God’s word and to look deeper into its meaning and experience its truthand reality in my life. Only then can I really preach with the power and authority that God’s Word deserves. In order to preach with authority, I have to know the author.

There is also, with more time,  the luxury to really dig into a passage and analyze all the lines. Many of you who read this blog have read my Sunday Sermon outlines and note that I usually break open the whole text rather than just draw a thought or idea and preach that. The longer format permits the preacher to examine the stages and steps often set forth by a gospel passage and following the passage line by line. This is a great luxury for me that most of my brother priests don’t have.

And I am not alone in the preaching moment. One of the glories of the African American preaching tradition is that the congregation has a central role in the preaching moment. It begins with their expectation. I know that they are praying and supportive of me as I begin. They really want to hear a word and spend some time with it.  There is very little of the tense, looking at the watch, “let’s get thing over with”  attitude that is sometimes manifest in Catholic parishes. This is a moment to be savored.

Then too, those well schooled in the tradition know how engage the congregation explicitly in the preaching moment. The priest or deacon will do this by taking up the tradition of “call-response” wherein he calls forth a familiar response from the congregation and invites acclamations: Somebody say Amen… Amen! Is there a witness in this house? God is good!….All the time!  The preacher might also build a litany and invite response. Perhaps he will announce: Just say “I’ll rise!” And then begin: Trials and Troubles? (I’ll rise!) Sufferings and Setbacks? (I’ll rise), dangers and difficulties (I’ll rise!).  And so he builds on the theme and includes the congregation.

The congregation too takes its rightful role in crafting the homily moment through spontaneous acclamations: Amen!…Well?!….Go on preacher!….Help him Lord….Make it plain preacher! And so forth. Likewise there can be spontaneous applause and shouts as well as laughter and even some oos and ahhs.

7. Jesus is here right now – There is a profound sense in African American Catholic Worship of the presence of the Lord Jesus Christ in every liturgy. Most traditional Anglo-Saxon Catholics prefer to express their faith in the true presence through silent adoration, bowed heads, and folded hands. But the African American tradition, though not excluding such forms, also expresses this faith through exuberant joy in the Lord’s presence and cultivates a celebratory experience that this is holy ground, that I am in the Lord’s house and that he is here. Songs at communion include texts that acknowledge this in more experiential an immanent than theological and transcendent. Songs like, Jesus is here right now, I received the Living God and my heart is filled with joy, Now behold the Lamb, Taste and see the goodness of the Lord!, Come now and feed our weary souls.

8. Permission – it is a stereotype to think that every African American likes only gospel music, wants to shout out at homilies and get excited at Mass. There is a whole range of personalities expressed and experienced at Mass. Some are happy and expressive, others quiet and reserved. A wide variety of preferences and liturgical expressions exist. At my parish we even have a monthly Traditional Latin Mass that is well attended followed by Eucharistic Adoration.

What makes African American worship diverse and expressive is the concept of permission. Not everyone is required to clap rhythmically at songs, but there is permission to do so. Not everyone is responsive during homilies but there is permission. Not everyone gets to their feet as the choir sings powerfully, but there is permission to do so. Hence there is a wonderful balance between permission but no pressure.

In some parishes I know, if someone started to get happy in the pew, the ushers would arrive before long and give the bum’s rush. Not so in the African American Parishes where permission exists for a wide variety of expression. This also allows God the Holy Spirit to be sovereign. Surely there are some limits, but the boundaries are broader and more gracious. A song says, There’s plenty good room in my Father’s Kingdom!

9. Trust – a key theme of the African American Culture is trust in God. This has come from a long history of oppression but also the experience that God can make a way out of no way and do anything but fail. Gospel music and the spirituals are replete with calls to a trusting and confident faith. One song says, God never fails. Another song says, Blessed Assurance!  Another says, Victory is mine.  Another says, Whatever my lot thou hast taught me to say It is well with my soul, it is well.  Another says, Joy comes in the morning, troubles don’t last always. Another says,  He may not come when you want him, but he’s always on time. And on and on…..

These songs of trust and assurance were very important for me in my 35th year of life when I suffered a nervous breakdown and slipped into a major depression with anxiety attacks. This parish literally help sing me back to health.

10. Sober about sin, Confident of Grace to overcome – Some of my brother priests are surprised when they hear my homilies, and say to me that they could not get away with saying some of the things I do in their parishes. This is especially with frank discussion about sin. But good, solid, biblical preaching is appreciated in the African American Tradition and it is understood that the Lord has a lot to say about sin that is plain and unambiguous.

There is also a legacy of gospel music and the Spirituals which speaks frankly but creatively about sin and its relation to redemption. One song says,  I once was lost in sin but Jesus took me in. Another says, I was sinking deep in sin far from the peaceful shore. Very deeply stained within, sinking to rise no more. But the Master of the sea heard my despairing cry and from the water lifted me. Love lifted me. When nothing else could help, love lifted me. A spiritual says, I would not be a sinner, I’ll tell you the reason why. I’m afraid my Lord might call my name and I wouldn’t be ready to die. Another says, Satan wears a hypocrite’s shoe, If you don’t watch he’ll slip it on you. Another says,  Some go to church for to sing and shout, before six months they’s all tuned out., Another song says,  Where Shall I be when the last trumpet sounds? Another says, Sign me up for the Christian jubilee, write my name on the roll. I want to be ready when Jesus comes. Another song says, I’ve got to fast and pray, stay in his narrow way, keep my life clean each and every day. I want to go with him when he comes back, I come too far and I’ll never turn back !  So sin is real but so is grace to liberate us. A song says, I’m not what I want to be but I’m not what I used to be, a wonderful change has come over me.

These are just a few lessons I have learned from my parishioners over the years. African American Catholics have important gifts to share with the wider Church as you can see. On this Birthday Observance of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. I want to be sure to express my gratitude for the this gift of culture and tradition and for the gift that every parishioner has been to me. I have learned far more than I have ever preached and come to know by experience that encountering Christ does not just happen from the Priest to the faithful, but also from the faithful to the priest. Birthdays celebrate the gift of  human life and the gift of the human person. I have much to celebrate.

 Here are some videos from the tradition:

Here is a dramatic re-enactment of a sermon by Vernon Johns, a prophetic preacher in the black tradition from the early 1950s. Here he is trying to rouse a fearful congregation to stand up to lynching and police brutality that was taking place in Birmingham at that time. He paved the way for Dr. Martin Luther King who succeeded him as Pastor. Note in this clip how the spoken word gives way to the sung word. Preaching in the Black Church is always a shared effort.

Here’s a gospel song about trust:

45 Replies to “The Gift of the African American Catholic Tradition”

  1. Msgr. Pope,

    I wonder what the Black Catholic experience was like pre-1970? I can’t imagine it was so much like the protestant evangelical style that is so evident now. I wonder, respectfully, if the falling into these non-Roman expressions is a healthy thing, even a pandering of sorts to parochialism and a divergence from catholicity? In my traditionalist mind, these concerns are limited to the Holy Mass – at other times/places I think a broader spectrum of worship should be encouraged (short of rap or punk ditties to the BVM).


    1. Prior to 1970 the gospel music was non-existent in the black parishes. This limited the outreach. The first Gospel music began to be heard ad experimentum by 1978. Since that time over 50 % of Black congregations are converts. Hence the outreach through culture has been helpful. It is unlikely that the usual Catholic fare of glory and praise or Gather would be of any appeal to the Black community. As for the Latin Mass, which I celebrate regularly, it is appealing only to a limited number of Catholics in general. If your traditionalist sentiments, for which I have respect, were to be imposed on all I suspect the Church would suffer greatly. Only a few are ready for such an expression of the Mass. The problem isn’t the black community per se. Diversity in liturgy is a fact of the modern Church. Pope Benedict has increased rather than reversed this trend with the wider reintroduction of the TLM. I support this but then I cannot, at the same time sniff at other forms of diversity such as a possible wider indult for the the anglo-catholic usage, the neo-catechumenal etc. et al. Your point is thus better directed to the Pope on this matter.

      But I will say for myself it is inconsistent to celebrate the reintroduction to the TLM on a wider basis (which I do) and then sniff at other forms of diversity even less radical. For example, the African American tradition does follow the ordinary form, and the current calendar. It is far less a departure from the current ordinary form that the TLM I celebrate and love. Hence, it would be good to be careful before we start questioning that diversity is unhealthy since it might lead to a draconian solution wherein the TLM would also be swept away in favor of widspread conformity as was done at Trent. “Non-Roman” is also a problematic phrase on your part. We celebrate carefully the Mass of the Roman Rite but the musical expression and preaching style are not specified and need not be european (Roman) per se. I would be very careful before we start being too restrictive for the TLM may also suffer from the atttiude you espouse.

      The Pope himself seems far more sanguine than you on this point. While expressing a direction, which in fact we are taking in the Black parishes toward a more careful observance of liturgical norms, yet still he permits musical and cultural diversity in the liturgies he celebrates throughout the world. This is much to the chagrin of liturgical purists. Healthy or not, the diversity is here and tolerated widely. Even the Japanese bishops were told to rescind their expulsion of the neocatechumenal way. NCW diversions from the liturgy are far more significant than anything we do here, we do not divert at all, in fact from required norms whereas they do. Hence I cannot ultimately answer your concern except to refer you to Rome which is the ultimate arbiter of what is “healthy.”

      1. Thanks Msgr. for your response. So much of this liturgical argument is political and in my mind compromising which in the long run I don’t believe will be healthy. I understand your pastoral position and the bishop’s and to some degree the pope’s (Rome is curious eg the recent Neo-Cat decision). Ultimately, in my dream world, I’d like 1 1/2 hr of unadulterated Trent every week and many other hours of pre and post liturgical Praise & Worship, rosaries, Gospel singing, Kumbayas etc. Trent-ish worship at its most excellent is not beyond anyone’s grasp and it is the most developed and refined of rites, the MOST Catholic I would argue. Culturally it is a challenge for my X-boxed/mall enthralled/Sponge-Bob’d children but we’re making progress. Rhetorically, you are the most excellent preacher I’ve heard and have always kind of wondered why there are not Te Deums emanating from S.E. I want to understand. MIKE

    2. I am a Nigerian and can understand, perhaps partially, why the African American Catholic worship is so. First, I think there is unity in the essentials during the mass but the not so essentials such as songs to be used during Mass are treated differently. It would not be right to hole every one into one box on account of unity. The European and American ways of singing are quite different and so also the African way of singing. The most important thing to me in such an issue is that the songs are in conformity with the liturgy and express their reverence for God. Further, the way an African takes God is quite different from an average European or Amerian, at least in the present times. The African still loves God from the heart and in total surrender but it appears to be different with the European and American. Theirs appear to be from the head and this is clearly visible in the posting by Msgr. Pope. I might be wrong, but to me the European/American reverence for God and their faith has been affected by science and technology and the liberalism as is being promoted by the world and forced on the church. Finally, an average African would be disenchanted and soon bow out of the church if, for example, the European way of expressing themselve through songs is forced on him, reason being that with time he would find it to be very very boring. So my brother Mike, when it comes to those things that are not very essential, let the Spirit lead and direct the expressions. Unity in diversity, I think.

      Thanks Msgr. Pope for this wonderful piece.

  2. “Non-Roman” is also a problematic phrase on your part.

    I think that there is also an Americentric problem here as well, a tendency to view the whole of the Church/faith/liturgy in terms of the American experience when, in actuality, the United States is only a miniscule portion of the Church. From what I understand, the peculiarities in the celebration of the liturgy in Africa or South America or Asia vary widely from how things are done in your typical Mass here in the United States.

    Even the Masses I’ve been to in Rome — where, by definition, they have “Roman expressions” — are different in various respects than what we celebrate here, so that even the most “perfect” Extraordinary Form Mass here is not necessarily a true “Roman” expression. So we really should not fall into the error of thinking that the American way is the “Roman” way, much less the only proper way.

    1. Agreed, here Bender. We all tend to self define things based on our cultural experience and even to project what “Roman” means based on that. I often hear people state rather Categorically what the Pope thinks about some matter. But the real Benedict is often more nuanced and careful than some would prefer him to be on any number of issues.

      1. It is unlikely that the usual Catholic fare of glory and praise or Gather would be of any appeal to the Black community

        We all tend to self define things based on our cultural experience and even to project what “Roman” means based on that

        I think that there is also an Americentric problem here as well, a tendency to view the whole of the Church/faith/liturgy in terms of the American experience

        So, boys – we aren’t really “Catholic” at all, are we? We’re diverse

      2. So, boys – we aren’t really “Catholic” at all, are we? We’re diverse.

        One of the things about being “universal” (katholikos) is that there will be some diversity even in the unity.

  3. I think one thing that scares some folks is when they see things like the widely distributed video of Chicago’s own Father Pfleger and his Holy Thursday liturgy (

    I, for one, would love to see my typical ADW Anglo-Saxon parish take on some of the African-American parish characteristics you list above: Better homilies. Ditching the OPC pablum for some real music (whether that be plainchant, a classical Mass composed by Mozart or some genuine spirituals). Patience and anticipation by the people (as evidenced by the lack of tardy entry // early departure). Participating in actual worship like that might keep me from ditching my parish for the TLM down at Old St Mary’s almost every other week.

    Do you all welcome visitors at St Cyprian’s?

    1. Yes of course Fr. Pfleger ought to frighten us, he is way off in his own little world and I remain puzzled as to Cardinal George’s approach to the whole matter. It is hard to know how that parish will ever be brought back to the mainstream. It has clearly gotten way out of hand.

      Glad to note you find some the principles helpful and also that you make the point that they can be applied to other manifestations of our tradition as well.

      Please come and visit us at St. Cyprian we love to have visitors!

    2. You will certainly be made welcome at Holy Comforter – St. Cyprian’s Parish! Please come and join us.

  4. 1. thanks Monsignor for the piece about African interpretation of the Liturgy. Please come to the Dark Continent for something really African and very Roman Catholic.
    2. it appears some persons want a uniform liturgy all over the world. I thought the Holy Spirit has given various gifts to persons in various places. some find dancing difficult yet others find singing and without dancing impossible. yes there are bounds. remember the virtue of temperance.
    i once saw a priest properly vested for Mass. the ambient temperature was quite high. he was sweating profusely. this surely distracted both the congregation and the priest. someone wants a uniform dress code for Mass everytime Mass is celebrated?

    1. Yes, I have seen some very vibrant African liturgies via youtube etc! I know they are often quite lengthy and are a high point of the week for many!

      I agree that the absolute uniformity would be problematic and to impose it would likely be pastorally harmful. As for the vestment issue, I suppose the local conference of bishops would have to rule on that. Priests ought to have proper vestments but there are lighter weight materials etc that can be used. I know too that priests would are in warzones and serving the troops often have exceptions made them given the conditions. Hence exceptions are surely possible in various settings, with proper oversight from the Bishops

  5. Great post. I liked what you had to say and learned even more from your response to Michael#1. I would be Michael #2. Interestingly, my sister-in-law lives in DC and while not African American assists at an African American parish on special days such as Easter when family visits. We went to Mass at the mainly Black parish and I chatted after service with a very nice middle aged women, a long time congregant. I expressed how joyful I felt, etc. She responded that Mass was okay but that she couldn’t wait for the return of the TLM! Love diversity!!

  6. I’m new to your blog and really enjoyed this post. Thank you for describing the uplifting experience of celebrating the Mass in this vibrant parish. I could feel the touch of The Holy Spirit just imagining what worship must be like in such a lively community. I converted from a protestant denomination to Catholicism, so I’m used to singing in church. I love being a Catholic, but it seemed strange at first that many members of the congregation leave the singing to the cantor and the choir. But our parish’s musical director has made getting everyone to sing as her goal for 2011. I love when we occasionally clap along to the music. But it is obvious that a few members find this awkward. We will probably never be as enthusiastic as your parish, but we are slowly improving. There are several black parishioners amongst us, as well as, Asians and Latinos. The cultural diversity of the Catholic Church is one of the many things I love about our faith.

    If I am ever fortunate enough to be in the area, I’d love to attend!

    Thanks and peace be with you!

    1. Thanks. It is a common practice here for our Music director to have the choir be silent for a verse and have the congregation sing unaided. It’s wonderful to hear how many do in fact sing in the congregation. Please come and visit when you’re in DC We’re not far from the US Capitol

  7. You certainly have a good looking Choir. It is hard for our parish to get more than a handful of people. It is a downtown parish with people coming form far away (30 to 60 minute trips to Mass).
    I think you said you also offer a–what I call the Tridentine mass– does the choir sing the Latin?

    1. Yes, the choir here is a large group, close knit and good looking 🙂

      As for the Latin Mass, My own choir here does sing Latin. However for the complicated Chant propers I bring in a group. FInd skilled musicians to sing the rather complicated propers is one of the challenges of celeration the Old Latin Mass in its sung form.

  8. Msgr. Pope,

    First, thanks for your wonderful blog! It is edifying to say the least. I am a transitional deacon and will, God willing, be ordained to the Holy Priesthood this summer.

    I have a couple thoughts which I wanted to share with you concerning your comment in response to a comment about The Gift of the African American Catholic Tradition. Obviously you have much experience pastorally and I don’t intend to come off as giving simplistic answers.

    First, the line: “If your traditionalist sentiments, for which I have respect, were to be imposed on all I suspect the Church would suffer greatly.”

    This seems to be quite difficult to decipher. Those things which we normally think of as “traditionalist sentiments” (Latin, Gregorian Chant, Ad Orientem, etc…) are all, according to the Council, normative for both the Ordinary form and Extraordinary form of the Roman Rite. Certainly the practical application of the Ordinary Form hasn’t reflected this but, nevertheless, the Council retains and promotes that which we would consider “traditionalist” now days. It seems to me that the greatest crisis afflicting the liturgical life of the Roman Church today, apart from disobedience to the norms, is the particularism and the non-Cosmic understanding of the Holy Mysteries. The end result of which is the flattening of the notion of transcendence and an amnesia of the diachronic reality of Catholicism. The Liturgical Rites of the Church are historical realities rooted in the very events of Christ and the will of the Holy Spirit through the actions of the Apostles. Cardinal Ratzinger describes this so beautifully on page 278 (I could be wrong as I don’t have the book before me, but, nevertheless it should be close to that page) in The Spirit of the Liturgy. Anchoring our faith, morals and worship in history is an important consequence of the Incarnation. I am not calling for absolute uniformity, but for substantial unity among the various local expressions which grow organically over time and are always purified by the universal. Also, the Neo-Catechumenal Way was told in 2005 by the Congregation for Divine Worship to come into complete conformity with the Roman Liturgical Books; the only exception being the moving of the Sign of Peace. This is also in their statutes now and if they don’t do this, whatever their liturgical practices may be contrarywise, it is an abuse and not an authentic expression of liturgical variety within substantial unity.

    Second, I would say that the Holy Father is a proponent of liturgical authenticity not diversity. The term diversity is so loaded with political and cultural connotations that it is really difficult to use in any meaningful way when speaking about the faith. Ironically, pre-1970 Roman Rite liturgical practice was infintesimally more varied than it is today. There were the various local ritual usuages (Milan, et alia), the ritual usuages of the Religious Orders (Benedictine, Dominican, et alia) as well as the Roman usuage. All these belonged to the Roman Rite and while there was an authenticity in these local expressions which allowed them to be differentiated from the liturgy as celebrated in Rome, there was substantial unity in the Roman Rite. A roman, for example, could have easily attended Mass in the Mozarabic rite and followed along with no difficulty despite various differences. This is why Trent allowed all ritual usages more than 200 years old to be retained; in this way the Protestant heresy would not have contaminated the expression of the Church’s faith in the liturgy. (Lex orandi, lex credendi)

    Finally, with respect to the musical question, it seems obvious to me that the Church desires Catholics to sing the texts of the Mass, not merely to sing at Mass. As John Paul II said on the 100th anniversary of the Motu Proprio Tra le sollecitudine, the more music resembles Gregorian Chant, the more fitting it is to the Holy Temple of God. Obedience to the wishes and desires of the Second Vatican Council demand the same, as Gregorian Chant is called the music proper to the Roman Rite; scripturally based (the psalms) and intrinsically connected to the texts of the Mass.

    Perhaps the biggest problem is that we still have not made sufficient use pastorally of the different ways afforded us to worship God. The Holy Mass, while the principle, most important and obligatory way to worship God, is not the only way for people to worship God. Perhaps making more use of Liturgies of the Word or just gathering to sing and praise God outside of the Mass would be a wonderful way to help people express themselves more creatively as a community with their particular gifts. This would allow the Mass to act as the grounding of the universal experience of the faith while giving ample space to all that which is beautiful and noble but not ultimately proper to the Holy Eucharist.

    Just some thoughts. Thanks again for your blog Father and please keep me in your prayers.

    1. Well the point I make is merely a pastoral observation. It is easy to talk about liturgy in the abstract but in pastoral ministry real peple are involved. I feel greatly privileged to walk to be able to celebrate the Traditional Latin Mass (TLM) but the fact is that the vast majority of Catholics I meet in my parish and throughout the diocese do not prefer that form and would be very alarmed to go back to it exclusively. I think the best we can do at this point is allow some cross pollination from that form to the ordinary form and to reacquaint people with the older forms. It is simply a pastoral fact that there is great diversity in the liturgy today from parish to parish and across the many rites of the Church to include an increasing usage now of the Anglican usage. You are free to parse the words diversity and authenticity but average Catholics to whom I speak do not speak in this manner, they use plain words with plain meanings and diversity is the common usage. It is a fact that the pastor must make sure that authenticity underlies any diversity but in the end the fact remains that there is great diveristy even under the umbrella of diversity. As for my parish we do use chant and also classical form but the general preference is toward Gospel.

      Your comments make clear that finding the balance between the unifying elements and diversity is the “great discussion” of the Church these days. This sort of discussion has gone on the Church before as local versions of the roamn rite have tended to proliferate and at a certain point there was a felt need for greater unity. Hence at Trent, for example a 200 year rule was imposed to clear out some of the undergrowth at that time. We may well come to that at some point in the future but it does not seem now. Pope Benedict has tended to be more permissive in diveristy althought he surely is re-proposing many elements of the tradition. I am happy to see this and am able to incorporate such things in my parish. We have done some experiments with ad orientem in the novus ordo, and I have introduced a TLM on a monthly basis, even done a solemn high for our feast day with chant and polyphony. It is also true that in ROme the use of Chant and Polyphony predominate at the Papal liturgies, as it should, but as he goes around the world the Pope also celebrates Masses with a great deal of diversity in music and other local flavor. When the Pope came here to DC in was a very diverse liturgical expereince, four Choirs and a unified Choir supplied the music. Many more traditioanlly minded Catholics were upset and predicted the Pope must be privately upset too. But there never were any quotes from him to that regard and Cardinal Wuerl has said on many ocassions that the Pope has personally indicated to him how pleased he was with the liturgy. THere were also predictions that he would clamp down on World Youth Day Masses – but it does not seem he has. etc. I do see the Pope as pointing us back to tradition but in the end he has a pastor’s heart and chooses to do this more by re-proposing than simply issuing directives.

      This leads to my final point as well. Namely that parish liturgies are a little more complicated that just implementing a vision. A priest may come to a parish with a certain vision, let’s say a proper and authentic vision. But Ms Murphy the Choir director has used a steady diet of Gather Comprehensive for 25 years now and has built quite a little following in the choirs and among a core of the parishioners. Simply coming in an boxing up the Gather hymnals and distributing the Adoremus hymnal may not be advisable or helpful. A typical and experienced pastor will re-propose the tradition and seek to intigrate it into the existing pastoral field, lest, in pulling up the weeds he harm the wheat. I think the Pope is doing this masterfully. I have tried to do the same. In the parishes where I have pastored there were things that definitely needed changing. For example one of my congregation was not kneeling during the Canon. I thus taught them norm, explained it, asked for the history of the standing practice and, after dicussions was able to build to consensus that we should kneel. It wasn’t hard really, when people know you love and respect them they are more willing to make necessary changes. More recently in this parish we have had to give the congregation further instruction on the nature of the sign of peace which was getting out of hand as people left the pews and rite often extended too long and loud. Again, catechesis and a gentle push along with proper follow-up will be sufficient. As for music however, I am more inclined to cautious in imposing my own preferences. I love Chant and especially polyphony, I have come to love Gospel. I do NOT like the folk music. However, when it comes to music the documents surely express a preference for Chant, polyphony and pipe organ. But they do not mandate it. Here therefore a pastor must be careful not to rob the faithful of the liberties they rightly have. Surely the pastor must be sure the guard rails are in place, that some of the required Chant be known, and that the texts in use in the songs be orthodox. But a good degree of inculturation in permitted today by the Church. The “great discussion” as to the limits of this will always continue, but the pastor, it seems to me, must have a pastor’s heart and apply norms where necessary and permit freedom where allowed.

      1. I attend a suburban parish where people are looking at their watches once the homily hits the 8 minute mark. As a convert from a Southern Baptist background, there are days when I miss 30 minute sermons.

        After reading some comments here, it looks like there is a strong danger of wandering into legalism when it comes to music at Mass. The scripture tells us to “Sing joyfully to the LORD, you righteous; it is fitting for the upright to praise him. Praise the LORD with the harp; make music to him on the ten-stringed lyre. Sing to him a new song; play skillfully, and shout for joy.” (Psalm 33). I agree that the proper form MUST be followed, but when the Spirit moves, we had better follow.

        I idly wonder had the Church grown more in Africa instead of Europe if there would have a preference for drums and call and response during Mass instead of chant and pipe organ. Just wondering.

        Msgr. Pope, do you know of a parish like yours in the Baltimore area?

  9. QUESTION: After reading Light of the World one of the questions posed to Pope benedict was “is the folk Church on its way out? Msgr I could not clearly understand the term FOLK church. Secondly, would you consider the AA Catholic Church a ‘Folk’ Church. Whatever that means. Please explain. I’m fuzzy on this term

    1. I think he has in mind something wider than liturgy here. The German notion of the volken (folks) is the widespred appeal of the Church to the average person. THis is clearly no longer the case in Europe where the average person is an athiest – Over 60% of europeans describe themselves as Atheist.

      I would not therefore use the term “folk church” to describe the African American Church. Here in America we just don’t use the term “Folk Church” I like to insist that we are simply catholic (an integral part of the universal Church).

  10. I heard you speak about some of these things when you visited my church (St. Mary of the Mills) on Saturday, and I am glad to read about them in more detail on this Martin Luther King Jr. Day. I think you are right that the whole Catholic Church can learn from the African American tradition of making the Mass a joyful celebration of God.

    1. Thanks, for reading and I am glad that this post gives more detail to what we discussed. It is my hope that the wider Church can benefit from the principles discussed here.

  11. Just another version of a catholic mass. If you don’t like the way mass is done in one parish, just find a parish where the mass is done to your liking. Not a big deal. I like the way they do the mass at the european american parish nearby. But then again, I have been to a mass at the asian american parish and find that one nice from time to time. And then again there is mass at my north america american parish which I really like. We have lots of people from many continents at our parish, some not even american. I am not sure what one would call them? That is the beauty of the mass today.

  12. I really wonder what people used to do before 1970. I go to masses in Spanish and they look and sound like a Pentecostal gathering. I imagine an African American parish would probably be similar to a AME church in worship. What did all these people do before 1970? What did a mass in New Orleans look like? They have a large percentage of African American Catholics there, did they resent not being able to worship like their local Baptist congregations? I just really wonder about this a lot. People call Hispanics the future of the American church and that really worries me. Half of them are turning Protestants and the ones that remain tend to be very liberal Catholics, polls attest to this. African Americans are historically very community and church oriented yet we all know the issues going on in those communities with the high rate of illegitimacy and abortion. I just wonder if minority groups (and I’m Hispanic btw) are more susceptible to emotionalism and less worried about orthodoxy and faithfulness than they are about feelings and entertainment. I wonder what would’ve happened if the liturgical reform of the 70’s had never taken place.

    1. I can assure you that mass at Holy Comforter – St Cyprian (of which Msgr writes) is not anything like an AME service. We are very Catholic, completely orthodox, and have the Eucharist as the source and summit of our lives. Come & see!

  13. Msgr.,
    Part of my early graduate work centered around “Catholic Spirituals”, those that arose from Maryland, Florida, and the states that were originally part of the Louisiana Purchase. They are among some of the most beautiful of all the spirituals and have a distinctly Catholic take on “spirituality” (pun intended). Some have found their way into the mainstream; “Go tell it on the mountain”, “Here’s One”, and the root spititual behind “Jerusalem, my happy home” and its tune, Land of Rest.

    It has always irritated me that musicologists group spirituals as “Work Songs”. They are anthems of highest praise and deep faith. If the legend is correct, without songs of praise from the fields there would be no Te Deum.

    Thank you for a wonderful article.

  14. Thank you very much Msgr Pope. I’m not black (although I did grow up in the deep south) but I think I would really enjoy attending Mass in your parish. Especially this sentence hit home:

    “Most of my parishioners come to Mass expecting to be moved, changed, and transformed. It is expected that God, the Holy Spirit, will show up and that He will do great and wonderful things. Prior to Mass there is an air of anticipation as the parishioners gather. Some call this “The Hum.” The expectation is palpable, and parishioners both want and expect a deep experience of God.”

    That was exactly my expectation in my early days as a Catholic – of both the sacraments and the Mass. So much so that within months, I was asking priests “what am I doing wrong? I must be doing something wrong. This is supposed to change me.” After years of getting nothing but blank and extremely puzzled looks from priests, I learned to stop asking. And after working in hundreds of parishes in 100 dioceses, I learned that most Anglo Catholics typically expect only the most glacially paced and hardly-to-be-noticed impact, if any, from attending Mass or going to confession or practically anything we do at the parish level.

    That may be a historic part of American Anglo Catholic culture in the US but as you have pointed out, it is anything but the norm for the new majority of Catholics, 68% of whom live in the global south.

    In both Africa and Latin America, the majority of Catholics are “charismatic” in their spirituality and they approach the faith as you described in your article – with great expectancy and their heart and soul as well as their mind.

  15. At this Sunday’s mass, many of the parishoners beat Father out of Church. Father was just leaving the altar and people were already rushing out of their pews, probably to get home and watch the Seahawks lose their playoff game.

  16. Hello Father – I came upon your Blog today and found it really refreshing. As a new convert ( 4 years ago from Baptist) one of the key differences was of course in the music ministry. I came into the Diocease Cathedral and of course there is quite a difference. What surprised me was the fact that you are White not Black. As a young boy I attend many AA churches with my Dad who is a Baptist Minister and boy was it exciting. I now attend a much smaller parish church and notice even there a more “relaxed” atmosphere when it comes to “preaching the gospel” Our Padre is a little less formal and takes up to 30 minutes to share his thought and insights – refreshing from the more “traditional” 10-12 minute spot at the Cathedral.

    As a new Catholic I think I would enjoy hearing your choir and searching my memory for those old gospel songs – “What a friend we have in Jesus!”

    Bless you and your ministry!
    Charlie – Skiatook, OK

  17. As, Msgr pointed out, the lyrics gospel music can be praiseworthy to the extent that they are more “God-centered” in their focus. We should all aspire to be more directed to God. But we must distinguish between the lyrics and also between the upbeat musical style itself. I agree with Deacon Martin’s sentiments above regarding Vatican II’s openly stated preference and primacy of place that is to be given to Gregorian Chant as most suited for the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass. To the extent a type of music comes close to chant is the extent it is most fitting for the Holy Sacrifice. The pope has stated that he desires that the Traditional Latin Mass (TLM) be made available at every parish. In stating so, he obviously desires the ordinary form to look more like the extraordinary and has openly lamented the incredible break the Novus Orde made from the liturgical tradition of the Church and from the organic development of the liturgy throughout the centuries.

    I also believe that despite whatever perceived benefits may come from incorporating protestant-style worship, ultimately the dangers to the faith should take precedent. When people come to a Catholic Mass, they should sense something incredibly different. Unlike, protestant sects, we believe that Jesus Christ, almighty God, becomes present, body, blood, soul, and divinity in the Eucharistic sacrifice and that we actually are present, kneeling, at the foot of calvary while Christ is being offered. Today someone could attend a Catholic Mass and have no concept of this reality in the all too often banal and irreverent way that it is most often performed. Furthermore, some try to criticize the liturgy of the Church, that was firmly rooted throughout the Church for over 1500 years, for being to much like a “funeral.” What these people often fail to realize is that at Mass we are present at an execution! Would you sing and dance for joy at the execution of your mother or father? I would certainly hope not. The reality that takes place at the Mass transcends time and space, and we kneel there in prayer trying to contemplate God. We do take joy in celebrating at Mass the resurrection of Christ as well, but as St. Paul said, “Let all things be done decently and in order.” The joy, which is properly defined as the satisfaction that accompanies the attainment of a desire, manifests itself through our reverential and prayerful attitude before the Just Judge as we continue to beg and implore his graces we need to attain eternal life. The TLM has produced countless saints throughout history, willing to die for the Lord, and properly speaking it lacks nothing. We need not incorporate practices invented by those outside the Church (formally known as heretics) in order to “spice up” the Mass. These innovations were created by those who did not believe in the Real Presence and who rejected the authority of the Church and its ancient rituals.

    Granted, the Mass at times can and should be adapted somewhat to the people initially in order for them to be receptive, but there also is a much greater extent to which the people need to adapt to the Mass and the way of celebrating it that is most fitting and reverent. We must conform to God and worship him how he desires to be worshipped rather than following him however we see fit and doing whatever pleases us rather than focusing on how we can please God.

    That said, I understand Msgr’s position and the difficulty for him and all priests today and the problems they run into on a pastoral level. The abuses and discontinuity that resulted after Vatican II from those in the “new church” party have caused tremendous damage and have warped the minds of so many that any priest wishing to be loyal to Rome and to the unbroken tradition of the Church will find himself in a constant struggle and will certainly need to be prudent and pastoral in his outlook by loving people and trying to bring them back to worshipping God in the most reverent and fitting way possible. God only deserves our best at all times.

    1. You know, if one really wants “one faith,” then he and his compatriots should probably STOP with their incessant complaining about the Church.

      We must conform to God and worship him how he desires to be worshipped rather than following him however we see fit and doing whatever pleases us rather than focusing on how we can please God

      Well said. It applies equally to those protesters who protest against the Mass that has been approved by the Church (the Ordinary Form) and who erroneously assert that the Extraordinary Form of the Mass is the only right way to worship. While it is clear that such liturgy pleases such protesting traditionalists, merely doing what they see fit, rather than what pleases God, is inappropriate.

      (And by the way, if we are going to insist on doing things only one way, anyone who wishes to be “loyal to Rome” will be obedient and use the terminology that Rome has decreed, e.g. the Extraordinary Form of the Mass, and not use the teminology that they prefer, e.g. the Traditional Latin Mass.)

      And how does God desire to be worshiped? What pleases God the most?

      Well, we can know how He desires to be worshiped and what pleases Him most because He has told us — He desires to be loved. He desires a loving worship. He is pleased by a loving heart.

      Such love can most certainly and fittingly be expressed with JOY and CELEBRATION in the Mass, if that is how one truly and authentically expresses love.

      God being Love, and loving us, and being a loving Father who gives what is good when we ask it of Him, if one were to say to Him, “Lord, I wish to worship you with song and joy,” do you really believe that His response would be “No”? What a sad conception of God one must have to believe that. Rather, as He has described the heavenly liturgy as a wedding feast, and as He Himself celebrated at Cana, and as there would have been singing at the Last Supper (the Psalms would have been prayed at the Passover meal, and they are meant to be sung), God would respond with “I love you, too.”

      God certainy deserves our best in the liturgy. A stern demeanor and joylessness might be “the best” for some, but not for the rest of us. So long as there is unity in the essentials of the liturgy, so that we celebrate the Mass as one people and one Church, there is room for a wide range of differences in our expressions of love for and gratitude to God.

  18. I recognized many of the songs you mentioned from my childhood church (not Catholic, not black, and unfortunately even somewhat racist). I would much rather sing many of these than some of the self-congratulatory songs we sing now. I think I would enjoy your parish.

  19. This was a long but very informative blog Msgr. Pope. I truly enjoyed reading and learning about how things are done at your parish. I’m from the old school but I adapt. This kneeling, standing thing makes no sense, i.e.,
    the standing part. Sometimes most people kneel and so do I, other times they all stand and I feel out of place kneeling.
    You are definitely doing things right that’s why the parishioners love you and you love them.
    May God continue to bless your work.

  20. Msgr. Pope,

    a very interesting article.
    I’m a practicing Roman Catholic from Buenos Aires, Argentina. There a question that I’d like to ask: is it the norm for RC parishes in the US to organize themselves along ethnical/racial lines?.

    1. Not just RC, but as immigrants came over in waves each group had their own faith community so that they could worship in their own language/culture. In the Lutheran church, for example, there were German parishes, and Norweigian parishes, and Swedish parishes. In my own Lutheran parish, many of the family names reflect this German/Scandanavain heritage.

      Decades ago, someone said that 11am on Sunday was the most segregated hour in the United States. Although most parishes across all denominations strive to be welcoming to all, and are more diverse than they were during MLK’s lifetime, I believe that there always will be some truth to this assertion.

      1. It is interesting, at least for me as an RC, how one thinks of Catholicism as a more or less monolithic block -at least from an organizational point of view- and yet one keeps finding how it adapts itself to different societies, sometimes in unexpected ways.
        In that regard the internet is a fascinating tool, because it helps one widen his -hmm- parochial outlook.

  21. As St. Augustine once said, “Singing is Praying twice.” The Almighty is ever present in us and among us and never more so than when we pray twice by singing. What a joyful parish you have. Our parish is diverse as well but a bit more subdued. Occasionally I’ve had the pleasure of listening to some ot the same comments – Amen!….Help him Lord….Right on Father! It always brings a smile to my face when I hear them because it is spontaneous, it is straight from the heart. God Bless you and your parishioners, Msgr. One day, God willing, may we all have an opportunity to visit DC and your parish – Holy Comforter-St Cyprian.

  22. As I read this entry, Monsignor, I was reminded of an experience I had covering the 1997 gubernatorial election in New Jersey (in my previous career as a reporter).

    I went out very early on a Sunday morning to catch one of the candidates making an appearance in a Baptist church where the congregation was African-American. The service was at 7:30 a.m. – which is the key to the whole story. I came in before the candidate arrived, was greeted warmly by the ushers/greeters, and directed to the area I’d be taping, which happened to be in the choir loft. For this service, the church was about 1/3 full. But once it started, the singing was so loud and so joyful, I was beyond impressed. Not only that, when I picked up their hymnal in an attempt to follow the service, a gentleman next to me not only helpfully pointed out the correct page, but helped me follow along for the remainder of the service (before and after the sermon, where the gubernatorial candidate spoke). I left that church feeling that – even though I was working, and it wasn’t the Mass – I had experienced the presence of the Lord.

    As I was driving to the next event I was covering, it hit me: the small congregation in this Church was more exuberant, more involved, more enthused than almost any other congregation I’ve seen in a full Catholic church at a mid-morning Sunday Mass (the principal or solemn Mass). Some years later, I read the book “Why Catholics Can’t Sing” (don’t remember the author right now), and it hit me. Then I read your column, and it hit me even more: the biggest problem in most (white-dominated) Catholic churches is that people want only to fulfill the obligation. African-Americans – and other minorities as well – go to Mass (or a Protestant liturgical service) to experience the presence of the Lord. It’s the height of their week, and you can tell by their dress and by their approach to the day. They arrive early, pray earnestly, sing joyfully and with exuberance (singing is praying twice, as Anita reminds us), and never leave before the priest/minister. In fact, many linger to pray and/or socialize afterwards.

    To put it another way, not only do African-Americans (and other minorities) keep holy the Lord’s day, they MAKE Sunday the Lord’s day by their approach and by their actions. It’s an example we can – and should – all follow.

  23. Mike K – I take exception to your argument from a rational basis: I am overweight and can say definitively that fat people are not jolly all the time.

    One can go to many an evangelical service and find folk (NO MATTER THEIR RACE) emotionally worked-up. Or maybe a 1500 yr old North African/Mediterranean/European tradition (and her innumerable saints) are just wrong?


    1. Huh? I don’t get what you’re saying.

      If you reread my post, I was commenting on how African-Americans – and many other minorities – live their faith in a very exuberant way. Exuberant is much different than emotionally worked up. And that’s coming from someone who is white, has numerous edge of the city and suburban parishes nearby, but almost always travels downtown to the cathedral so he can be uplifted by beautiful music and fine liturgies – things he can rarely find by driving 10-15 minutes to the nearest parish.

      Rather than being upset by my argument, perhaps you could view it as a challenge – a challenge to encourage yourself and others to participate fully in the Mass. You may already do so, but how about your friends, your neighbors, your family? Too many people complain they get nothing out of Mass. Well, you can’t get anything out of it if you don’t put anything into it. Don’t just sit there like a bump on a log. If you choose to pray quietly along with the priest, that’s fine, but do it! If you’re going to sing or respond, don’t just mumble or be half-hearted. Be enthusiastic about what you’re saying or doing, and what it means to you. Our African-American brothers and sisters do this, and theirs is the example we all need to emulate.

      For too many people in the suburbs, it’s almost as if Mass is an afterthought – behind athletic practices, shopping, the morning golf round, Sunday brunch, sleeping in, etc. Things are very different at Msgr. Pope’s parish. If I was living in DC, I’d definitely make it a point to visit that parish on occasion.

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