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Dust on the Hymnal: Pondering the Decline of Hymn Singing in American Denominations

June 1, 2014 73 Comments

060114One of the more prominent features of Protestant denominations over the decades was hymn singing. Get in your time machine, go back 50 years to a service for any Protestant denomination, and you would find every member of the congregation on his feet, hymnal in hand, singing quite loudly, even harmonizing the old familiar hymns: Onward Christian Soldiers … Amazing Grace … When the Roll is called up Yonder … More About Jesus … Praise God from Whom All Blessings Flow!

Catholics congregations were rather different. Low Masses in Latin were common in which there was little or no singing. High Mass featured complex music that a trained choir largely handled. And the few hymns the Catholics did know quite well were generally not sung with the gusto anywhere near that of the Protestants.

I’ll admit it; I’m a big fan of the metrical hymns of the Protestant tradition. One of the regrets I have is that in the years just after the Second Vatican Council when vernacular songs were permitted, we did not borrow more heavily from the English and German traditions of hymns.

Hymns are stately, easy to learn, and have memorable melodies. They were also metrical, which means that they were sung to a steady beat and almost never had the complicated rhythms of many modern church songs. Congregations have a hard time singing syncopated rhythms (rhythms that are in some way unexpected, making part or all of a tune or piece of music off-beat).

Many of the old Protestant hymns, especially those from the English tradition, are actually magnificent translations of the Latin hymns of the ancient Catholic Church. Many of them also beautifully paraphrase the Psalms. As such, their themes were biblical, and richly theological.

A beautiful example of this is the English translation of a verse from the beautiful hymn by St. Ambrose (Veni Redemptor Gentium):

Thy cradle here shall glitter bright,
and darkness breathe a newer light;
An endless light that shines serene,
Where twilight never intervenes.

And there is this line from the well-known English hymn “For all the Saints”:

And when the strife is fierce, the warfare long;
Steels on the ear a distant triumph song
and hearts are brave again and arms are strong

One final example is from the grand hymn “O Worship the King”:

Thy bountiful care, what tongue can recite?
It breathes in the air, it shines in the light;
Thy mercies how tender, how firm to the end,
our Maker, Defender, Redeemer, and Friend.

I love to sing and listen to these old hymns, and I love to play them at the organ.

But lo and behold, it seems the old hymns are dying out even in many of the Protestant denominations, and especially in those of the Evangelical sort. Paradoxically, in many of the old mainline Protestant denominations, which are theologically and morally quite liberal, the old hymns are still sung. Many of the Evangelical denominations, which adhere more closely to biblical teachings and morality, are now using Christian contemporary music, largely replacing the old hymns.

But most Christian contemporary music is really meant more to be listened to than to be sung, and it certainly is not designed to be sung by a large group of people.

Here are some excerpts from a recent article by Thom Schulz at the Holy Soup Blog: (I have added a few remarks of my own in plain red text.)

Looking around the church last Sunday I noticed that the majority weren’t singing … That’s been the case for years now–in churches large and small. What used to be congregational singing has become congregational staring … (Looks and sounds like a typical Catholic Congregation.)

What happened to the bygone sounds of sanctuaries overflowing with fervent, harmonizing voices from the pews, singing out with a passion that could be heard down the street? I suspect it’s a number of unfortunate factors.

Increasingly, the church has constructed the worship service as a spectator event … It seems it’s paramount for church music to be more professional than participatory. The people in the pews know they pale in comparison to the loud voices at the microphones. (Yes, this is certainly the case in most megachurches, which are even built like theaters. Many of the services there look more like productions than worship services.)

[Further] The musicians’ volume is cranked up so high that congregants can’t hear their own voices, or the voices of those around them, even if they would sing. So they don’t sing. What would it add? The overwhelming, amplified sound blares from big speakers, obliterating any chance for the sound of robust congregational singing. (Yes, I learned this as an organist: if I played too loud, people stopped singing. The singing of the faithful needs to be supported and accompanied, not drowned out and overwhelmed. In some Catholic parishes, volume from musicians and even lectors and preachers is a problem. Now even some smaller church structures have massive PA systems that overload the listeners rather than enhance their listening.) 

Sometimes people refrain from singing because the songs are unfamiliar, hard to sing, or just cheesy … I long for an environment that evokes my real, heartfelt, vocal participation. (As stated above it is really rather difficult to get a larger congregation to sing syncopated music. Clear, metrical music is better if congregational participation is desired. Just because some song by a soloist sounds nice doesn’t mean it’s easy to sing. I get the impression that a lot of Catholic contemporary music is really written for soloists and then forced upon the congregation, who then vote with their mouths—which stay shut during the song. All the frantic waving of the cantor’s arms doesn’t really change the situation either. If something is singable for the congregation, the wild gesticulation of the cantor is not needed.)

At any rate, I’ll just conclude by saying again that I favor metrical hymns for congregational singing, and there is a noble history of some five hundred years on which to draw. There are some nice Gregorian hymns too. I know the comments section below is bound to attract more than a few comments about ditching hymns as well and singing the Introit, the Gradual, etc. But honestly, the number of parishes capable of accomplishing that reasonably are few. Further, even if a trained schola exists in your parish, the topic here is congregational singing. Sadly, that reality seems to be disappearing—even in the denominations that once resounded with hymns and enthusiastic singing by most of the congregation. It’s too bad, really.

I’m interested in your experience of congregational singing. I find that in most parishes less than 20% even make a pretense of singing. My own congregation is a bit of an exception since we use a lot of Gospel hymns and music that are very easy for the congregation to sing: lots of refrains and memorable melodies. What of your parish?

Here are two grand Hymns from the English Church:

And here I am playing the organ—an older melody for the Tantum Ergo that was popular in older German parishes.

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Comments (73)

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  1. Nick says:

    I think it was Archbishop Sample (in the archdiocese of Portland) who said something along the lines of ‘Catholics aren’t supposed to sing songs at Mass, they’re supposed to sing the Mass’. The meaning wasn’t that songs were forbidden, but rather that they didn’t really belong. Instead, the Mass has both fixed and day-specific prayers that are meant to be *chanted*. So the decline in singing hymns, if significant at all, is not a bad thing because that’s not reallywwhat you’re supposed to be doing.

    • I Like The Church Fathers says:

      Good point. That’s why most of the songs that are sung in Novus Ordo churches today are of Lutheran or Calvinist origin.

      • Steven says:

        Many of the songs sung have a strong Arian influence as well. These songs frequently redirect attention from the Mass (or service) to ourselves. This can be seen in anything that makes prolific use of the terms “we, our, us, I, me, mine, etc.” At the same time, mixing use of pronouns referring to the congregation/people and God first person creates confusion as to the role of the Christian community in salvation history. Worshipful music is sparse in the OCP hymnal if you disregard the self-worship. Eventually the emptiness of this focus on self becomes evident and the congregation opts out – of singing as well as attendance.

  2. John says:

    St. Augustine supposedly said, “He who sings well prays twice.” Well, clearly he wasn’t tortured with the “Glory and Praise” hymnal a child! My rule, if you aren’t interested in listening to it at home, then it certainly isn’t worthy of worship in Church. And, overall, Mass would be much more solemn without all the bad music.

  3. annaincalifornia says:

    Hello Monsignor,
    In our parish I notice a difference between the Spanish and English masses. I frequent both, and I can easily say that the Spanish hymns and songs are much more participatory. Plus the Spanish songs are well known by all of the congregants. I recall from my childhood singing the same songs with my grandmother….but I can feel a difference in the fervor. I recall the piety and devotion with which my grandmother sang and participated in mass, its a lot different now then back then. mass.
    I’m not surprised that the Protestants are going through the same thing…I imagine that once their “faith” gets to be 2000 years old (as the Catholic Church) they too will be less ENTHUSIASTIC and more lukewarm; or perhaps their denomination will no longer exist.

    Yours in Christ, anna

  4. Tom says:

    Thank you for this though provoking item. Maybe part of the problem is Catholic Music publishers. They constantly change the words for no good reason, other than copy-rights. They publish the catchy, hard to sing stuff. Music has an important role in worship. I’m not sure that most musicians understand that.

    • John says:

      Abetted by the USCCB who e.g. were lobbied by the publishers to let them turn the Gloria into a refrained call and response. This, after Rome took years to get the Mass translation corrected, was a flagrant snub of the reform of the reform which was also fought tooth and nail by many Bishops.

  5. Christopher says:

    Grew up in a parish was blessed with musicians ….during the 1970’s we were learning new hymns all the time…Gift of Finest Wheat during the Eucharistic Congress in Philly 1976…..the music teacher divided us into alto, soprano, tenor…First Friday benediction we sang Tantum Ergo, 1980’s…..

    Our basement masses were SRO, sans organ and we lectors served as cantors, and here is how I did it: Fr. selected the songs, I announced them, sang the first several words and stepped back from the mic. It worked so beautifully that one Christmas during Communion one gentleman stood up and announced and led Silent Night because, it was Christmas. Very moving.

    Went to retreat at St. Joseph’s-In-The-Hills, Malvern, 1984 and to hear 300 sing, I mean SING, was so impressive and moving…over the years our group sometimes didn’t have an organist of guitar player, so did the same thing….selected familiar songs, Marian hymns on Saturday, and viola! loud, in tune, three verses every time, to this day.

    Men will sing if led, not drowned out, or expected to follow a girl singing in a dolphin’s range. St. Augustine taught us singing is praying twice, and exercise? Nothing better.

  6. Tucker says:

    Thank you for bringing this up. I am a recent convert to the Catholic Church. I know, from experience, both the Protestant trends and some of the current Catholic situation – having grown up in a hymn-singing Baptist church, then experienced various Evangelical churches, and now am part of a local, neighborhood Catholic parish. It is a very good thing to ask why Catholic congregations don’t sing, or why a particular one doesn’t at a given time. Humans are made to sing. It is deep within us. Even the person who says she can’t carry a tune in a bucket will still hum a tune while she’s doing some work. Of course, some sing better than others, but it’s rather easy to “sing along” if the song is good and meaningful and singable, and if everyone is singing. If people aren’t singing when it would seem they should be, then it’s a very good question to ask why. This is something I find myself asking nearly every Sunday.

  7. edraCRUZ says:

    We have a cantress who sings beautifully with or without accompaniment. Now she is complimented, after a while looking for one, by a young man, a pianist who sings also. I hope we will have an all men’s choir who can sing Gregorian Chants. This is powerful and moving. I have attended a Mass where there was an all men’s choir and the Church seems to be shaking or vibrating with these men’s voice filling the whole Church. What a profoundly wonderful Church we have with all the singing, classical and contemporary as long as the songs edify our faith and of course, glorify Our GOD, they really don’t matter with me. In Africa, the vibrant singing and dancing, in Japan, solemn reflective songs, in Latin America, participative carousing, in Europe, baroque melodic organs, GOD be praised by HIS Creation.

  8. MTMajor says:

    In too many parishes it comes down to entertainment and performance; when even the deacon and priest don’t participate, there’s a clear problem in need of a solution. Too many of the music leaders have a “the show must go on” approach, warming up just prior to Mass, playing the disc jockey during communion with their incessant non-reverent page announcements, it’s hard not too notice that the music is all about them. Two thousand years of fantastic musical history, and these knuckleheads sound like they’re auditioning for American Idol.

    • Cynthia BC says:

      I despise sitting through warm-ups/last minute rehearsals when I’m trying to pray before Mass! Unfortunately in my husband’s parish there is no other space for the cantor/choir to do so.

      • JuliA says:

        Why do you object to warming up before singing Mass? Why can’t you pray while we warm up – or pray after Mass? I’m in a choir and there is no other place to warm up than the choir loft. At one parish where I sang the rehearsal room is now the adoration chapel. And do you really want the choir to be clomping down stairs and up stairs? Isn’t that more distracting?

        Before the Pope Paul VI Mass, the choir sang the Introit, etc. Nobody objected to them warming up their throats.

        There’s a misunderstanding in this article. I’m 70 and very familiar with the old low Mass. That was the one with lots of hymns b/c the choir wasn’t singing the Introit, etc. Lots of room to sing hymns. There were more hymns sung in low Masses than High Mass. Ask your grandparents.

        • Cynthia BC says:

          I have been a church musician for over 30 years. Out of respect for those coming to pray, the cantor/choir should arrive early enough to take care of warm-ups/touch-ups/guitar-tuning before most parishioners arrive. The suggestion that I should pray after Mass for the choir’s convenience rather underlines MTMajor’s point.

          I appreciate that often there IS no other place for the choir, which is a serious lack in the design of most Catholic churches I’ve visited, and speaks to how music ministry truly is valued.

          • Julia says:

            Cynthia BC: at our parish there is a very slow rosary said before the designated choir Mass all year long. At a previous parish it was only during Lent. We arrive 15 – 20 minutes early and the rosary has already been going on for awhile. At my previous parish we arrived 20 minutes early, warmed up and shut up. At this parish, there is no ability to warm up and we are hurting our throats and the music suffers.

  9. R in Indiana says:

    I often forget how blessed we are in my parish. We have a wonderful music director that works with our priest to choose great hymns to sing that correspond with the liturgy. I have been to some unfortunate masses where the music was painful, and to Protestant services that were a pale imitation of what they must have been historically. I truly enjoy contemporary christian music in the car and at home, but when I go to mass, I want to sing, and I am thankful that our church retains the hymns. It also seems to me that my fellow parishioners are singing more lately. In the past, there have been times that I thought I was the only one singing besides the choir, but now, I can hear the voices around me–not sure why there is a difference, but I hope it continues.

  10. Sandra Lipari says:

    My (both maternal and paternal) were Protestant, and we were Methodist. Hymns were family threads, holding us all together in “glory” as my grandfather would pick up the violin, or join into his favorite quartet… we all would join in! It was prayer “like” and majestic, goosebumps and warm heart all line up with memories of our singing these majestically hymns in church, with beautiful choir, around a piano, a serious connector! Thank you Msgr. Pope for attempting to connect dots! The Doxology we “sang” comforted my process into the Church also. Lectionary was also the same.
    God bless our music!

  11. Sandra Lipari says:

    Wishing for an “edit” button on comment section “ly” on majestic… life in the internet! God speed!

  12. Patrick says:

    In your last paragraph you said something about people commenting on “ditching hymns and singing the [Propers]. But honestly, the number of parishes capable of accomplishing that reasonably are few.”

    Perhaps in singing the Gregorian Propers the number of parishes capable (week in and week out) is few (at the moment, this could realistically change given time and effort), but any parish could sing the Propers of the Mass as given in any of several wonderful resources published by the CMAA these past several years (e.g. Simple English Propers, etc.), as printed in the Graduale Simplex, or set to a psalm tone, or even recto tono. This would at least be “singing the Mass” as Holy Mother Church has given us rather than singing at Mass whatever hymns (or songs) the music director, pastor, or GIA/OCP has determined most appropriate for this or that week.

    This was recently addressed by Fr. Eric Andersen @ Holy Rosary (Portland, OR) and reprinted by NLM (here:

  13. Crowhill says:

    After a particularly dreadful series of songs at mass one Sunday, a musically talented friend of mine came up to me and said, “You know, sometimes I look around and wonder if everybody in this church is insane.”

    Stephen Colbert has captured the spirit of “modern” worship very well in this video.

  14. Joy says:

    The Propers have recently been made easily accessible to the congregation in the new book called Simple English Propers. Check it out here:

  15. Romulus says:

    Since even good metrical hymns are a distraction from the Mass, why not give the people the chance to sing the ordinary of the Mass: Kyrie, Gloria, Credo, Sanctus, Pater Noster, Agnus Dei. You would be encouraging appropriate participation, giving the people something they can acquire and make their own simply through regular exposure, without specific training or virtuoso ability. You would be fulfilling Sacrosanctum Concilium’s call for the preservation of Latin and the ability of the people to know in Latin the parts of the Mass assigned to them. It’s unifying, dignified, and congregationally satisfying.

    • Cissy says:

      I agree with you Romulus. From the “warblers” as my pastor calls them or the young girls who think they are trying out for ” American Idol”…….I am all for singing the ordinary of the mass. I chant the propers for my pastor during daily mass. I do not know why many want the ” hymn sandwich” during mass.

    • Alexander S. Anderson says:

      Yes! You aren’t supposed to sing AT mass, you are supposed to sing THE mass. The ancient Latin hymns were not written for mass, but for the Divine Office. We should bring them back in that context. How many Catholic even know about Vespers anymore?

  16. Alexander says:

    Step 1 in the Catholic Church should be to get rid of the Cantor position. Except for the responsorial psalm, it’s just not necessary. And it makes people think that (a) they *don’t need to sing* because a professional is doing it for them, and (b) they *can’t sing* because it leads to all of the syncopated jazzy music that the cantor may be able to sing but others can’t.

    Perhaps the reason that the Protestant churches developed such singable hymns is that they have never used a cantor and have had to rely on the ability of people to sing songs together spontaneously and with minimal direction. To us an analogy, drinking songs in bars are simple catchy tunes; otherwise they never catch on.

  17. Dan says:

    How I miss the Latin liturgy!

  18. Cynthia BC says:

    As a near-lifelong church musician, a subject near and dear to my heart…probably I should take the afternoon off instead of trying to type my response within my lunch hour!

    The premise of this book about the Reformation is that the Lutherans out-sang the Catholics: history

    The advent of the printing press greatly increased the availability of books to the average citizen, however even so they still were a luxury, and of course literacy was an issue as well. Luther saw hymn-singing as an important tool of catechesis; and in addition to writing his own music, he used Latin hymns and popular tunes with which his parishioners would be familiar.

    I can’t speak to how closely Lutheran churches in general hold to the tradition of catechesis-by-hymn, but certainly in the parish to which I belong now, as well as the parish in which I was reared. there is close attention paid to selecting hymns and choir anthems whose texts or themes match those of the day’s lessons. Sometimes the match is a little bit of a stretch, but I seldom walk out wondering “what did THAT hymn have to do with ANYTHING?”

    When I attend Mass with my husband, I find the connection between the selection hymn/anthems to be much more tenuous, enough so that I’ve wondered whether the selection was random. [To be fair to whomever selects the hymns at my husband’s parish, though, I don’t think the missalette used by the diocese is a particularly good resource for hymns that support the readings of the day.] I concede that part of the function of hymns is to kill time, but they could be so much MORE than that.

    Certainly there is no one style of music that suits everyone’s taste, but certainly care should be taken that the content is relevant to Church teachings. Even when hymn with appropriate text is used, its value often is undermined because (at least in my husband’s parish) usually only the first two verses are sung. THAT irks the heck out of me, particularly on the rare occasion that the hymn is one that I like, or when the Holy Spirit gets the shaft. If it isn’t heretical to give the Holy Spirit the shaft on HOLY TRINITY SUNDAY it SHOULD be.

    I suggest that, as the text of the English liturgy was reviewed and revised to truer to the original text and focus, so should be done with the hymns used in the American Catholic Church.

  19. Buckeye Pastor says:

    In our hymnal/missalette combo, the editors have removed so many verses that speak of conflict or suffering. We don’t have: “Our fathers chained in prisons dark” or “Thou wast their rock, their fortress and their might, Thou Lord their captain in the well-fought fight” or “Alleluia, not as orphans are we left in sorrow now.”
    It’s a pity, especially for the people who come to church feeling like an orphan, or like they’ve spent their week chained in a prison dark.

  20. NinaBG says:

    If a pastor cares at all about the Mass, then he will know to give good direction as well as written guidelines to the music director, as far as what music is acceptable and what isn’t, what hymns enhance the particular readings, and what – EVEN if it appears in the hymnal or missalette – is NOT APPROPRIATE for Mass. Any practicing Catholic (especially any pastor) will tell you that the most important person at church IS the music director! If the music is handled correctly (even by a volunteer who knows the limits of his/her ability or who must – and should – be told this by the pastor), then the Mass will be reverent, whether or not a good musician is affordable. Singing a cappella in unison as a congregation beats bad music any time of the liturgical year! I agree with Romulus – perfectly good suggestion!!!!!!!!

    • Cynthia BC says:

      Msgr Pope could of course speak better to this than I, but I suspect that for most seminarians sacred repetoire (sp?) is not part of the curriculum, or maybe no more than a one-credit overview course. Those who grew up with the contemporary music of today’s Church may simply have no idea what’s out there. Certainly the pastor may set expectations about style and substance but for most hymn selection is rather outside their skill set.

      I suspect also that many parishes are unwilling/unable to invest in the resources and continuing education to develop and maintain an effective, meaningful music ministry program. Just like other professionals, music ministry staff should attend workshops to develop their skills, network with peers, and learn about new resources.

  21. Paul says:

    Hymns themselves, of any kind, are the real culprit. There’s nothing wrong with an occasional hymn (at the recession for example), but there are only two hymns in the liturgy of the Mass and they’re sung at Pentecost and at Funerals (Veni Sancte Spiritus and Dies Irae). Otherwise, hymnody is an alien imposition on the Mass.

    What the people are singing ought to be intimately united to the Mass itself. They ought to sing the Mass. They should be singing the Ordinary of the Mass (including the Creed) heartily in a traditional Gregorian chant setting which is works beautifully for congregational singing. They should be singing the proper according to a simple English setting (Introit, Gradual, Alleluia, Offertory, Communion).

    Instead, we took away much congregational singing (e.g. recited creed), and gave them a bunch of hymns which are often banal and not based on the liturgical text. We decoupled singing from the Mass so that we sing AT Mass instead of singing the Mass itself. We need to reintroduce the sung Mass, so that people understand that they’re sing the highest prayer, not just a song to fill the time.

  22. Nathan says:

    Greetings, Monsignor Pope!

    While I’m of the opinion that metered hymn singing is not the ideal for Holy Mass, I would submit that there could be, in a vibrant Catholic Parish, many opportunities for doing so with gusto–Parish Missions, May Crowning, before and after Holy Mass, and lots of processions, just to name a few. After growing up backwoods Methodist, two additional things come to mind in the decline of hymn singing:

    –As I recall, we never had anyone ever stand in front and lead songs. The organist or pianist would play the introduction and everyone would be on the hook to sing. IMO, if you have someone in front, especially with a microphone, there is much less incentive (on a purely human level, of course) to sing.

    –More and more hymnbooks, especially in Catholic parishes, don’t print the harmonies for folks in the pews. A rite of passage for many of us growing up singing metered hymns was when you turned ten or so and started to learn the harmony lines. The fun part for me, especially since my voice hadn’t fully changed, was to switch from the tenor to bass lines between verses.

    Even a few fully scored motets from the old St Gregory’s Hymnal could serve as a start, if we’re not into metered hymns…

    In Christ,

  23. Mary Ruth says:

    Many churches have a “formal” choir that sings SATB, and the congregation will sing along using the “soprano” melody. The problem is that many of us cannot reach the stratospheric notes in the hymns, so we will find ourselves dropping an octave and then going back up and down as the hymn progresses. Eventually some of us find it gets tedious, so we prefer to just listen. The question is this: Do we want congregational singing or not? If we do, then it has to be in a key that most people can sing. Save the SATB for some good meditative Communion hymns. It is as simple as that. I expect some choirs prefer SATB for the whole Mass because it is a chance to showcase vocal talents. This is fine, but just don’t be surprised when the congregation gives up singing the often high soprano melody.

  24. Susan says:

    I’m a former church organist/pianist. The organ and piano are two different instruments. You play them differently. You don’t even press the keys down in the same way. Some pieces that work well on the organ will come off terrible on the piano and vice versa. Some churches have only an organ, and some only a piano. But we get these hymn books that either try to include piano- and organ-type pieces, or they think that you can play every piece on either instrument. They have contemporary Christian music that no one can sing. And they also include old faves, but with the texts all mucked up. The ranges in the contemporary works are an octave and a half and there are things like double-dotted quarter notes, thirty-second notes, notes held for 8 counts, etc. that no one knows how to deal with. The old faves have been re-worked so they’re inoffensive, gender-neutral, self-centered, sappy, mundane songs. (We are God’s people, chosen by God–a typical example of pronoun-o-phobia.) Some of the newer “hymns” have tortured metaphors (Will you kiss the leper clean?), terrible meter (Home to Me and living), and absolutely no uplifting poetry. There are word lists online of the 500 and 1,000 most commonly used words in the English language and no one who writes hymn texts today seems to go beyond these 500 or 1,000 words. No one these days could possibly write a Let All Mortal Flesh Keep Silence, for example.

  25. Isobel says:

    I’ve been a professional choral singer for most of my life, and sung in some of the finest Anglican choirs in the country. (Longtime hymn junkie here!) After I converted to Catholicism two years ago, I chose to quit my Episcopal church job and since then I’ve done a lot of Catholic cantoring, which is pretty purgatorial in a lot of ways. It has been fascinating watching what the congregation does and does not want to sing. My experience in the parish where I sang the most is that the congregation basically would not sing at all except for the Sanctus and Agnus Dei, which were English versions of Mass XVIII, the simplest Gregorian Mass. These were sung unaccompanied and without any gesturing from me–yet got the most participation by far. They sounded good, too. The thing that always got zero participation was any antiphon that I tried to make them sing as they were processing to Communion (a priority for the music director). I can’t say that I blame them for that–it always seemed wrong to try to distract them from their internal preparation for Communion.

  26. Maria says:

    I am a 30-something cradle Catholic and I’ve never understood this presumption that Catholics don’t sing at Mass. Every parish I’ve ever attended had the majority of the congregation singing, whether from the Music Issue (which I detest), or the blue hymnal (St Michaels?) or Gather or Latin Chant. All kinds of Catholics are out there singing all kinds of music! The two exceptions I would note are, 1) difficult church music from the 90s-now that changes key signature in the middle with lots of 8 th notes, and 2) random new mass parts (the ordinary?) that parishes have developed for the new translation. Perhaps this is a Midwest phenomenon??

  27. James S says:

    I’m just a simple man from rural Western PA,
    and all that I know is that the congregational singing in our
    Greek Catholic Churches is pretty great- even
    with just a cantor and the people singing the
    liturgy together. It seems as though the Roman
    Rite needs to find a way of getting everyone
    involved in singing the propers as well as hymns.

    As an aside, it always seemed like the Greek
    Catholics and Methodists were the ones getting the
    best roles in the high school musicals!

  28. Nate says:

    With about three exceptions, I hate hymns. I suspect most Catholic men do. I can listen to chant and polyphony for hours but struggle against the temptation to leave church early so as to avoid the departing hymn. However, if you DO like hymn singing, you really need to check out one of the converted Anglican parishes.

  29. Rex says:

    We are still singing hymns at mass here in Illinois. My Southern Baptist friends still sing hymns also. I’m 53 and have not noticed much of a decline. Maybe I’m just lucky. I have also noticed some great new hymns being written. For instance “In Christ Alone” and “How Deep The Father’s Love For Us” by Stuart Townend.

  30. Kurt says:

    We have hymns and also sing much of the mass. Our pastor has been adding sung bits a bit at a time over the years. The organist and choir never practice before mass. That time is reserved for the rosary and personal prayer. Hymns seem to be choosen to go with the particular mass.

  31. Greg V says:

    Monsignor, I am surprised you don’t mention a major problem in the Catholic Church here in the US that severely affects the musical offerings in our parishes – the virtual monopoly that the USCCB has given “Oregon Catholic Press” over missals and song books.

    Yes, some parishes buy the wonderful Magnificat hymnals, but most simply fall into line and get the monstrous OCP offerings rife with St. Louis Jesuit drivel and Haugen-Haas show tunes.

    It is high time for someone to call out the music directors who propogate this sorry situation and improve the state of liturgical music here in the US.

  32. Jo Anna says:

    Wow, some excellent points:

    “Hymns are stately, easy to learn, and have memorable melodies. They were also metrical, which means that they were sung to a steady beat and almost never had the complicated rhythms of many modern church songs. Congregations have a hard time singing syncopated rhythms (rhythms that are in some way unexpected, making part or all of a tune or piece of music off-beat).”

    “But most Christian contemporary music is really meant more to be listened to than to be sung, and it certainly is not designed to be sung by a large group of people.”

    “The musicians’ volume is cranked up so high that congregants can’t hear their own voices, or the voices of those around them, even if they would sing. So they don’t sing. What would it add? The overwhelming, amplified sound blares from big speakers, obliterating any chance for the sound of robust congregational singing.”

    In our parish there are the handful that sing albeit half-heartedly, and then there are the majority who just stand/sit there and don’t even try to look interested. It is profoundly sad for me. I am an organist and a convert from the Lutheran church, and honestly, swallowing the abysmal state of Catholic music was the last big hurdle for me (you know, after Mary, Purgatory, etc.). It is such a widespread problem in the US that it’s hard to imagine a viable solution. So many priests don’t know much about music and/or they are not that interested.

    I think of our deep, rich collection of Eucharistic hymns in the Lutheran hymnals, for example, and marvel: we in the Catholic Church have the REAL presence and yet the Lutheran hymns reflect that reality much more than most songs in our missals.

    Becoming Catholic is absolutely the best thing that has ever happened to me, but the music situation in our Church gives plenty of lessons in suffering and offering it up.

    On a lighter note: When one of my daughters was 7 or 8, we went (for the first time) to a parish where the musicians were up front. She saw the cantor and leaned over to me and asked, “Why is that lady doing that??” (raising her hand during the psalm response). I said (yikes, how to be diplomatic!), “She thinks we will sing better if she does that.” My daughter asked, “So if we sing louder she’ll stop? It’s kind of distracting me.”

    • Cynthia BC says:

      LOL at “suffering and offering it up.” There has been many a Mass when I’ve prayed for the ushers and parishioners to HURRY IT UP with the offering and/or Communion so that a particularly dreadful hymn could be ended! I remain a Lutheran so that I can soothe my musically-ruffled spirit.

      When my daughter was in 1st or 2nd grade, we attended an Adoration at which a contemporary group provided music. As we left, my little Lutheran observed “that was NOT church music!”

  33. David says:

    I came from a protestant (S. Baptist) background and have been Catholic for 10 years. I have been praying for those ten years for Michael Card to become Catholic and write music for the Mass. Everything he writes is already catholic and Christ centered. Michael W. Smith too.

  34. Michael B Rooke says:

    Many may know of Fr James Quinn S.J. (1919-2010) the Scottish hymnologist whose hymns are of great beauty. For example ‘Christ be beside me’ and ‘The bread that we break’.
    His hymn to Our Blessed Lady ‘A sign is seen in heaven,’ is a favourite.

    A sign is seen in heaven,
    a maiden-mother fair;
    her mantle is the sunlight,
    and stars adorn her hair.
    The maiden’s name is Mary;
    in love she brings to birth
    the Lord of all the ages,
    the King of all the earth.

    Like moonlight on the hilltops
    she shines on all below,
    like sunlight on the mountains
    her Child outshines the snow,
    O Mary, Queen of mothers,
    still smile on young and old;
    bless hearth and home and harvest,
    bless farm and field and fold.

    Pray, Mother, Queen in glory,
    before the Father’s throne;
    praise God’s eternal Wisdom,
    the Child who is your own;
    rejoice in God the Spirit,
    whose power let you conceive
    the Child of Eden’s promise,
    O new and sinless Eve.

    Fr James Quinn SJ

  35. Tim says:

    I think part of the problem for parishes that don’t sing is that they don’t get a chance, especially with newer hymns, to pick up on the melody from an introduction. I’m an organist and pianist, and one of the things I try to do is play a large chunk, if not all, of the refrain (or a full verse, if it’s a traditional four-line hymn). Fortunately, I play at multiple parishes where a large chunk of the congregation sings, and they seem to appreciate the help I try to give them.

    I’m a little baffled by the enthusiasm for singing the propers. I can’t think of a more effective way to let the air out of the room. Chant-style psalms don’t get much participation, which is why the Haugen/Haas/etc.-style psalms get so much play — complain about them all you want, but people sing them, and that’s why we do them. Now imagine doing chant-style psalms multiple times a Mass. I suppose there’s a niche group that would love it, but it would be miserable to me.

    • Cynthia BC says:

      There’s no pleasing all of the people all of the time, but including a variety of genres over the course of a weekend or season would give most an opportunity to sing or listen to music they enjoy.

      For the record, “Roll Away the Stone” is the dullest Easter hymn ever in the history of Church music.

  36. Marietta says:

    We are a small (less than 50) “Summorum Pontificum” Traditional Latin Mass part of a parish. After our one-friar schola cantorum left and no other man dared to take his place, three of us women started chanting the Propers. No accompaniment, but with much practice, we’re told to be “improving.”

    We use the Liber Brevior with the abbreviated Graduals and Alleluias for the Propers and the Ordinary (Mass text and chants) and Latin hymns from CMAA Parish Book of Chant.

    Each week I produce a leaflet containing the English translation of the Propers, the Readings, and text of the scant English traditional hymns we use for Communion (after the Latin antiphon has been chanted.) Over the years, people have memorized four of the Ordinaries we use, which the entire congregation sings with enthusiasm, accapella: Lux et Origo, Cum Jubilo, De Angelis, and Orbis Factor; Credo III and Credo IV.

    Occasionally we sing an English “entrance” hymn (after the Asperges, while our priest is vesting, and just before the Introit chant) and Communion hymn (after the Latin antiphon would have been chanted.) We do this because we feel people want to sing something familiar before Mass actually starts and after Communion. And surprise! – We do find good, solid traditional hymns that match the occasion. Recent Examples on Ascension Thursday – Entrance: “Hail the Day that Sees Him Rise,” Communion: “Alleluia Sing to Jesus.”

    We also sing a Marian antiphon/hymn at Closing, depending on the season: Alma Redemptoris Mater, Ave Regina Caelorum, Regina Caeli, Ave Maria, Salve Regina, Salve Regina Caelitum, Totus Tuum, Corcordi Laetitia.

    Yes, it can be properly done. Perhaps starting on a small scale like ours, but who knows? – You may become the catalyst toward the restoration of correct sacred music at Mass.

  37. C.Lévesque says:

    Thank you for this article and for your interest in knowing what we think about this issue. Since a few years our masses contain more signing than before, I begin to see more interest and participation in it. As most people, I am no music expert but I appreceate it so much. A big portion of our Sunday mass prayers are sung by the choir and the response is done by the priest along with the public. Our priest sings the offering and consecration, plus other portions of the mass, we become very attentive because we know that we are expected to sing the response “amen” or “and with your spirit” or “alleluia” etc., Most of it is sung in the gregorian kind of harmony which is quite simple and sober but quite easy to follow. The organist has also an important role to play by introducing the melody to the faithful. My feeling is that it is important to keep everything quite simple for people to participate in the signing. The words of the song or prayer should be quite familiar and the melody easy to follow. Sometimes at our masses we have a few gregorian (latin) songs by our choir. To my amazement one Sunday, they sang the “Kyrie Eleison de Angelis” and the “Gloria de Angelis” and a lot of people remembered them enough to sing along. I didn’t remember all the words but I just joined in by humming the melody. To me, the singing should “make one” with the liturgy of the mass and the melody should be kept very simple. I think should take inspiration from the traditionnal gregorian chant which is timeless and accessable in it’s own way. I must add however, that one of our priest does not sing because he says he doesn’t have a musical talent, evidently the public sings less at his mass. Thank God when we have a priest that can sing and brings us along with him in his singing. Thank you Monsignor for sharing your musical gift!

  38. Martha says:

    When the music group is presented as performers instead of supporters of the liturgy, the congregation chooses not to interfere with their “performance”. Clapping for them after Mass shows where the focus is. It is NOT on the Sacrifice of the Mass but on the musical performers.
    It seems that many cantors sing way too high for the average person to follow.
    Is it more acceptable to have a “singing duo with guitar” perform songs very few have heard of and are unable to sing, than skip the music altogether?
    Mass gives us the opportunity to worship our God in public and to sing His praises. People are not the focus.

  39. Kyle says:

    As a Catholic music educator, music minister/cantor, choir director, sacred and secular chorister, and classically trained vocalist, I have noticed this alarming drop in participation throughout my lifetime. I, too, attribute it to the rise in Evangelical “praise and worship teams,” but also the the decrease in music education in used to be a two-pronged support structure. Psalm 100 in band and guitar books would be known as the Doxology on Sunday in many Protestant faiths, and Faith of Our Fathers never had to be explained.

    I try to attend hymnsings whenever possible. Many Methodist churches still hold them, digging out the Cookesbury hymnals to please the older crowd, and the unrehearsed 4-part hymns come to the fore. It is quite the treat.

    • Cynthia BC says:

      Some of the Catholic hymns are a stretch even for those with strong music-reading skills. My husband and I generally are not ones to shut the missal the instant the priest passes by on the way out, but one time the recessional hymn included rhythms that even the cantor couldn’t hang with, and we couldn’t wait to escape!

      In terms of music education, I see that as not only a school responsibility but a parish responsibility as well. My Lutheran parish has the philosophy that having robust music program for adults means having a robust program for children…in other words, grow your own. My 13yo is already an experienced church musician; she learned to read music starting as a 1st-grader ringing in handbell choir; now in her 7th year of ringing she occasionally subs with the adult handbell choir. She started singing with the children’s choir as a 2nd-grader, and now as a member of the middle-school choir she sings an anthem every other week (the high school choir sings on alternate weeks). Her middle-school choir sings three- and even four-part harmony. She is learning far more music than she would at school.

  40. Valerie says:

    Thanks for the candid remarks. I agree with Paul and many others who said that the Mass is supposed to be sung, versus the cantor who sings at Mass. I as a cantor will arrange to get to Mass 45 min early so that I can practice with the organist (versus 30 min early). If I am disturbing congregants from praying before Mass, then I can do something about that. Someone else mentioned the difficulty for the congregation to sing the soprano melody. You are right. It’s sometimes hard for cantors like me to sing it. I do notice that many congregants try to sing. Once I hear that singing is taking place, I step back from the microphone. And they sing the Haas-Haugan and the third guy (whose first name is Michael) songs the most because they are familiar and easy to pick up. Keep up the dialogue about this very important topic.

  41. Mark says:

    The bottom line for our success is teaching [Catechesis] 5 min before Mass. Letting everyone understand that full, active, participation is what God deserves from us. Am very glad, happy to have a Priest that understands the power of prayer through singing and a Priest that sings from the altar as well. Amen! It takes time and pray and a lot of re-teaching the people every weekend. Nothing wrong with our people singing! Let the raffters ring!
    We have always done a mix-bag of music, hymns, praise choruses, chant, …doesn’t matter just teach them and love upon them and they will sing with BIG HEARTS for Christ!

  42. Robertlifelongcatholic says:

    Did you pull out all the stops? That was extremely loud and fulfilling.

  43. Mack Hall, HSG says:

    I refuse to sing the self-indulgent, whiney, me, me, me hymns from the 1960s and 1970s. When the pastor slips up and allows a solid, Catholic hymn, I am enthusiastic. Off-key, but enthusiastic.

  44. Gary says:

    I am a Catholic convert from the Anglican tradition. Our parish has a robust music program that includes several youth choirs from our school as well as the adult choir. The hymns are always traditional, reverant and Catholic. They add a reverence to the Mass that is not found in many US parish’s. An example is on this Youtube spot ( where our Parish Academy’s Honors Choir sings Mozart’s Ave Verum Corpus. I agree that the Mass is the important part but music adds to the Mass and is worshipful. “Make a joyful noise unto the Lord, all ye lands. Serve the Lord with gladness: come before his presence with singing.” Ps 100 vs 1-2.

  45. Ken says:

    There are several approaches to using the Propers texts while still enabling assembly participation. Here’s a start:

  46. Magdalen says:

    We have too many songs about ‘us’ and ‘we’ and ‘I’ and not enough that praise and worship God. And we have the pop songs. We need true hymns that are singable as many of the old ones are and that actually give glory to God. We do not come to the Holy Sacrifice ‘to tell our story’ for example. I will not sing such banalities. Some songs are heretical.

    It would be good to have stability in the common areas at Sunday Mass such as the Kyrie, Gloria, Sanctus and in their original languages.

  47. Gary says:

    Just re-listented to the video of Crown Him With Many Crowns at Westminster. This is beautiful. It lauds and honors our Lord, Jesus Christ. Such hymns are not only classics but allow the congregation to espress worship to God with their whole being.

  48. Diane Isabelle says:

    One reason that people don’t always sing is that the hymns are written in a key that is too high. Composers seem to think that everyone is a soprano or should be. As an alto choir member for 41 years and cantor for over 15 years, I have struggled with high notes. When I cantor, I ask the organist to lower the key so that I can get through the Mass parts and hymns without my voice cracking. When I am a member of the congregation, I sometimes stop singing because I can’t hit the high notes or sing several high notes in succession. I am not knocking sopranos. Their voices are beautiful. But God created both high and low voices. He wants to be praised at all ends of the scale. Composers–Listen up!

    • Gwyn Williams - Abergavenny, South Wales, UK says:

      It may be that traditional hymns (I love them, they taught me the faith) need to die, only then can they be redisovered at a future date to live again anew.

      Just a thought.


  49. Martha says:

    Another Anglican convert here. Choir school from the age of 6, university choir and Episcopal parish choir singer and cantor for 28 years – despite being an alto 🙂 .
    I am quite serious when I say that the horrific state of Catholic music was a real stumbling block to our conversion.
    Our parish is a mixed bag – the music director is a serious Catholic musician and doing his best, but there is a strong and noisy contingent in the parish that LIKES the “me me me” and “voice of God” pop/schlock hymns. I can’t really blame them although they are annoying — In the absence of decent music education in the schools or in the parish, they honestly do not know any better.

    Sometimes I think that the quickest solution would be to buy a bunch of copies of the Episcopal Hymnal 1982 and just put red electrical tape over the title on the cover. They may be heretics but their musical taste is impeccable – moreover, they stole a bunch of good Catholic hymns plus the hymnal was prepared under the supervision of Richard Proulx.
    It would also solve the problem of the soprano line being pitched too high, because parts are printed on almost every hymn.

    • Cynthia BC says:

      I think the lack of hymns written within the past 30 years would make people suspicious…

      • Martha says:

        Let ’em be suspicious. Unless they check all the copyright dates, they are not going to notice.
        An alternative is going to the open-source music at Musica Sacra. Some of it’s not bad (our choirmaster composed some of it).

        I finally figured out the hymn in the photo at the head of the article. “Love divine, all loves excelling” – Charles Wesley, 1747. The tune is John Zundel’s – which is the standard in the Methodist Hymnal. “Hyfrydol” is the standard tune in the Episcopal hymnal.

  50. James says:

    I can’t figure out what the complaint is about. I just celebrated two masses at our university chapel where the music combined both traditional hymnody and one very syncopated song. The congregation sang lustily on all occasions. The reason: the accompanist and the music director know how to lead a congregation in song/prayer.

    To say that the gathering hymn and the communion hymn are not part of the liturgy is to contradict what the rubrics themselves say, when it indicates that the “introit” may “replaced” with an appropriate hymn. The issue to my mind is the pace of the music (generally dreadfully slow) and the lack of ability on the part of the organist to really lead the congregation in song/prayer. The problem is organists and music directors who have not experienced good congregational singing. They need to go to places where it’s done well and then take it back home to their parishes.

    I definitely agree that many times the accompanist and/or music leader drowns out the congregation and/or rarely allows the congregation to hear itself. Also part of the problem in many churches is that church designers put rugs down in churches – that tend to muffle the sound.

  51. Robert says:

    To add a lighter side to this. Take karaoke, everybody loves to sing or else karaoke would have died out long ago. But every song sung is sung in it’s original format, image singing any song you knew in a format you did not know? Everybody at karaoke sings the song they know and like, not a song they know but in a different format…I.e. contemporary Christian music.

  52. J. Horne says:

    This comment is late, but I was wondering, Monsignor, what the place of English hymns was at all in the Catholic Church prior to the reforms of the 1960s. You made mention of “the the few hymns the Catholics did know quite well.” When and where would these be sung?

  53. D. Halsten says:

    I just found this article, while searching the net to find out if there are more people like me, who miss hymns so much. I completely agree with the entire article, and especially the part about worship becoming more spectator driven and performance based. The first time we were asked to applaud after the worship team supposedly led us in worship, I nearly walked out. Completely different from the reverential attitude in churches I experienced growing up. I know it’s symptomatic of our culture, but I believe we have lost so much of our rich heritage of praise directly from the scriptures and traded it in for watered down theology performed for us. Thank you for writing this.

  54. Fr. Stuart Crevcoure says:

    I’ve observed this same phenomenon. In my parish, we sometimes do not have an accompanist for holy days of obligation and the occasional Saturday evening Vigil Mass, so we handle the Ordinary and hymns a capella. The congregation can raise the roof in song so long as I choose familiar hymns with a steady meter. Many (but not all, thankfully) contemporary songs are not very singable even with perfect accompaniment. Inspirational and pretty to listen to in the car, but simply not designed for congregational singing.

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