Can Catholics Sing?

Written for OLGC Parish Bulletin for Sunday, May 20, 2012. 
Dear Friends, 
About 20 years ago, Thomas Day wrote a book called: “Why Catholics Can't Sing.” A major premise of his book was that especially on the East Coast of the United States during the formative years of Catholicism in America, most of the bishops in major US cities were either Irish were of Irish descent. Earlier, during the years 1660 to 1760, when the British were persecuting Catholics in Ireland - a period known as “The Penal Times,” Catholic priests were wanted men. Hiding their identities, they traveled from village to village and offered Mass often on stones known as “Mass Rocks” located in wooded areas. Huddled together, praying the Mass with their frightened congregations, the last thing they wanted to do was to attract the attention of the British patrols. Singing was absolutely out of the question. The whole liturgy passsed in near perfect silence.

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In July of 1985, I attended an O'Doherty family reunion in Donegal, Ireland, and had the privilege of concelebrating Mass around one of those Mass Rocks where my own ancestors may have worshiped a few centuries before.

Professor Day reasons that the fear and trauma of that era affected subsequent generations of Irish Catholics, and by extension, the Catholics in parishes and dioceses in the United States where Irish priests were sent to minister. Professor Day accurately points out that among Catholics in the Midwest, where most of the bishops in the 19th and early 20th century were from Germany or of German descent, congregational singing at Mass has always been much stronger than on the East Coast.

One of the central aspects of Catholicism that makes it so distinctive is the incarnational aspect of our faith. That is, “The Word (Christ) became flesh and dwelt among us.”  That incarnational aspect extends even to our own flesh, our own bodies. The way we experience our faith and express our faith, the way we worship must include the way we use our bodies. That is one of the reasons that the rubrics of the mass are so important. Standing, sitting, kneeling, praying responding out loud, being in silent meditation, actively listening - all of these things are things that we do with our bodies. One of the reasons I worry so much about children in our parish school and religious education program who study our faith but do not attend Mass regularly, is that they are learning the faith in their heads, but they are not learning the faith with their bodies. The incarnational aspect of Catholicism also means that what we do with our bodies expresses and deepens our love for God.

This is where singing comes in. I am proud of my Irish-American Catholic heritage. But I reject the notion that that heritage should keep any of us from singing our lungs out to express the love and the gratitude that we have for the God who created us, that God who loves us, the God who gives us life.

In the weeks and months ahead let us work together to improve congregational singing in our parish community. To those of you who are already singing, I invite you to put your heart in it even more. To those of you who have not yet found your voice, I invite you to step out and to use your voice as a tool for praising God. There are many who tell me, “God did not give me a good voice.” Well, give it back to him!

In the next few weeks I will be assisting the music ministry in cantoring at some of the Masses. The music ministry is there primarily to support the singing of the whole worshiping community, not to sing on their behalf. In these next weeks and months let us work together to praise our God more fervently through our singing together as a community.

Father Liam