Catholic Music: A State of Confusion?

Polyphony, so I'm told

I want to thank Brent for his thoughtful guest post on music in the Catholic Church. I want to offer some ideas to pull together what I’ve discerned to be the important lines of thought in the discussions, as well as anecdotally examining the state of music in parishes today.

I. Public Worship vs. Private Devotion

One critical question, that to me has not been answered, is what counts as public worship vs. a private devotion (which could be done in a group). This is important because it informs us of which Church guidelines we need to follow. No one (here) has been advocating having praise music in Mass, so we are speaking of such music in different setting, where a group of Catholics would get together and sing songs.

As an extreme example, imagine a Catholic retreat was going on, and people went outside, started a campfire, and (perhaps spontaneously) one of them began singing. Then another pulled out his harmonica and joined in the lively tune. A guitar was found and strummed along. The songs could be considered praise songs because they sang about how holy and awesome God is.

It seems hard to condemn such a thing, and on what grounds do we do so? At what point does this cross over from Catholics joyfully singing together, a private devotional time done in a group, to public worship?

II. Praise Service Pitfalls

Having a regular “praise service” in a Catholic setting seems problematic, if for nothing else that it could be construed as offering an “alternative” to the Mass. Bad. Wrong. Nothing compares with the Mass; nothing competes with it. Even if this was not the intention, one could see how easily a service like that could become that.

Likewise, much of the criticisms directed at this kind of thing seem valid: how far do we go to “stay relevant,” to “attract ecclesial consumers,” to compete with Protestant mega-churches, secular rock concerts, and Hollywood movies. This is a slippery slope and a losing proposition, because we’re not going to keep up with them. Just think about this for a moment: how many Protestant contemporary Christian musicians are there? Answer, a million. How many Catholic ones are there? Answer, about a hundred, and only one (Matt Maher) has broken into the Protestant radio stations. We Catholics are usually behind on the crest of the cultural wave, which is not always a bad thing.

III. The State of Parish Music Today


I admit I’m confused here. I believe that the U.S. bishops have approved LifeTeen, even though the Vatican did give directives for certain abuses that were occurring to be stopped. Those abuses don’t seem to include improper and unacceptable music. But LifeTeen Masses in my experience use guitars to sing praise music, which doesn’t seem inline with magisterial teachings on sacred music in the liturgy.

What gives? Is this just an example of the bishops not knowing/liking/following the musical norms?

The Songs I’ve Heard

With the aversion to praise music that many have expressed in these past posts, there’s a feeling of straining a gnat to swallow a camel. Namely, we desire to ban the singing of praise songs (outside of Mass mind you) that actually have orthodox content and are singable, while allowing the most heterodox songs with terrible tunes into Mass.

I’ve probably heard Anthem a hundred times in Mass.
(Jesus was rage against the night? We are question, we are creed?)

I’ve sung Go Tell It On the Mountain more times than I can remember, in Mass.
As well as Soon and Very Soon.

I’ve heard I Myself Am the Break of Life multiple times in Mass.
(“I myself am the bread of life/you and I are the bread of life”–uh, no we’re not)

The past year in our church has been all Spanish folk songs, all the time: guitars, harmonicas, etc.

I’d say it’s a lesser evil to sing a praise song that at least doesn’t lead the congregation into singing pure heresy. But two wrongs don’t make a right, which leads me to…

IV. Doing It Right

The best argument I heard in the past few posts was that we should become more Catholic by embracing the Church’s rich liturgical tradition, including sacred and liturgical music. This otherness in itself is attractive to non-Catholics, because it transcends fads and passing tastes and worships God as He set out for the Church to do so.

How can we do that? What should music for the Mass sound like? It seems that the best is plain chant and/or polyphony, as I’ve been learning about from chantcafe. I can tell you I don’t recall ever attending a Mass that had music like this. Maybe one time at the cathedral in Austin where the schola was, but that would be it.

If plain chant and polyphony are the ideal for Mass, why isn’t it being done all over, or at least in many places? Who can answer this riddle?

Maybe we lost lots of that musical knowledge in the upheaval of the 70s and 80s, and it is taking time to recover? So if we are going to be singing hymns for a while to come, why not sing ones like Jesus the Lord:

I find this song beautiful and it seems appropriate for Mass. In my eleven years as a Catholic, I recall singing it only twice.

It seems like one of the last bastions of liberal heterodoxy in Catholic parishes is with the music. I’m tired of the bad music, but I don’t complain much because, truth be told, I don’t have the time at this stage in my life to join the choir and begin influencing the music for the better. I think many people are like me–we want sacred music but have children and can’t dedicate hours every week to being in the church choir. And in any event, the music directors often have the most say in what gets sung, so we need to get good musical directors in there that understand sacred music.

I would love to hear more about plainchant and polyphony. Who knows about this, and where is it being done?

What about other beautiful hymns, even ones that have a contemporary sound like Jesus the Lord but which are reverent?

Other constructive and informative responses to any part of this post are appreciated as well.

26 thoughts on “Catholic Music: A State of Confusion?”

  1. This is beautiful, a few comments though:

    * To produce music like this would take an awful lot of work
    (That’s not a bad thing though)

    * There is a danger that the choir members become performers and the Mass becomes a classical music concert
    (A very similar criticism leveled against P&W bands)

    * With pieces of music like this it’s not really possible for the congregation to join in the singing.
    (This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but the congregation should want to sing God’s praises, right?)

    What I would like to see is more congregational participation with the singing, rather than simply assuming that “it’s the choir’s job”. I personally think that chant is the best way to make this a reality because chant is fairly easy to pick-up and sing:

    1. That’s a good point. Thinking about it more, the song Jesus the Lord is beautiful, but it may not really be liturgical. My wife and I are able to sing this song, but many people probably would have trouble with it.

    2. I agree very much about an over elaborate music that, though beautiful, modern or classical, is over the top of the average parishioner without any musical instruction or vocal training.

      Chant is used in monasteries for several practical reasons, besides traditional reasons. Chiefly among them is that anyone can chant reasonably and thus encourages participation by all and avoids someone becoming the star of the chanted offices.

      I think that this would be a good model to follow even in parishes, while opening the door for creativity for new hymns while maintaining the traditional ones. Call it the hermeneutics of continuity in liturgical music. ๐Ÿ˜‰

  2. If the bishops could publish some guidelines on what can and cannot happen at mass and enforce them pretty consistently then a lot of this goes away. Right now you can find a lot of contradictory guidelines and people tend to follow the ones they prefer. You comment about Life Teen masses is a good one. I was actually a Life Teen core member for a long time as a protestant. I liked it because it was so protestant. When I became Catholic it bothered me because it was so protestant. But I don’t know if I would have become Catholic if it had not been there. That and the local Charismatic Catholic Retreats were my first introduction to the church. Not a lot of respect for liturgical norms but the bishop was aware of it and did nothing.

    About the “praise services”, I don’t like the name. I would tend to call them outreach services or faith sharing services. Actually my protestant church had something called TNT or Tuesday Nights Together. I like names that won’t make it harder to invite the unchurched. The point is the focus should not be on praise but on evangelism and basic spiritual growth.

    The other comment about people going to this other event and not to mass. How many people are at mass that should not be? Skipping mass might mean they don’t take communion in a state of mortal sin. If you stay away from Sundays and communicate expectations that this is in addition to Sunday mass then I don’t see the issue.

    The biggest objection is that people won’t come out more than just Sundays. I don’t get that. In the protestant world people are at church more than once a week. Why is it impossible for Catholics? It is just the culture. There is the idea that I do my hour a week and that is a lot. It is just a barrier people need to get over.

    If it works you can have many of these outreach ministries. Spanish folks songs, life teen stuff, maybe some Alpha, there is no limit. Once you get the idea that it does not need to be in the mass then you can do the mass right.

    1. “How many people are at mass that should not be? Skipping mass might mean they donโ€™t take communion in a state of mortal sin.”

      I’m not following. Skipping mass on a Sunday is grave matter (i.e., the stuff of mortal sin when done deliberately and with full knowledge). We’re not obliged to receive communion at mass but we are obliged to be there on Sunday.

  3. I see it as still recovering from the upheaval of the 70s. That’s going away soon. It’s more an education problem than anything, since it entails most of those “music leaders” are only trained in modern music (e.g. how to play a guitar/piano).

    I don’t know if you read this article “The Hidden Hand behind Bad Catholic Music,” but you should asap. It talks about how the main reason why bad music is pushed is because there is a profit to be made by the publishing companies.

    The argument is as follows:
    Rich publishing companies like Oregon Catholic Press have a stranglehold on liturgical publishing. Their goal as a business is to make money (especially with recurring revenues from throw-away missalettes). If they can encourage people to play copyright music, they gain profits. Thus, they train and encourage ‘worship leaders’ to play their music. This results in Catholics in the pews having to dance to the tune of Oregon Catholic Press. The Bishops need to cease being dependent on private publishers, or at least monitor them much more closely. If more Catholics spread the word on this, it will get the word out and change things.

    1. Oregon Catholic Press is owned by the Archdiocese of Portland in Oregon. Unless the Archbishop of that See takes action, the stranglehold will continue.

    2. Nick, you found the article! I remembered reading that when it came out but couldn’t remember where to find it when I wrote this article. I think the author (Jeffrey Tucker) is one of the guys behind chantcafe.

  4. Devin and participants,

    Great topic. Preface to my comments: Having grown up in the trend of the “Folk Mass” and done my time (and still grateful for) as a Charismatic Catholic I tend towards the more firmly traditional and by the book (the true spirt and words of VII) position. At the same time I wouldn’t say I’m hardline about that.

    Places where Chant and Polyphony are done well that I know of:
    Parishes: St. Thomas Aquinas, Camas WA does the OF in what I consider the absolute best possible way. 9:00 AM on Sundays is “low Mass” Style with solid traditional and contemporary hymns with Organ or piano 100% in English. 11:15 AM on Sundays is Schola plain chant w/ proppers with Gloria, Credo, Patre Nostre, Agnus Dei etc. all in latin and usually everything else in English.

    Holy Rosary Dominican Parish and Priory, Portland, OR is also very excellent and follows a very similar pattern to the Parish above with slightly less latin at the 11:00 on Sunday service. However, they still use the altar rail at every service and 90+% receive kneeling on the tongue and all servers and lectors are mail and there are no EMHCs.

    Cantores in Ecclesia is the official Choir of the Diocese of Portland and literally World Class at that. They have a 7:00 PM mass on Saturdays at St. Mathew’s Parish in PDX where they generally sing polyphony in very high style although sometimes Gregorian for some parts. This mass is OF but offered 100% in Latin w/ only the homily in English. They also host the annual William Byrd Festival going between Catholic and Episcopal Churches to sing the liturgy with Byrd compositions on 5 successive nights every August. One of these services is usually a Pontifical High Mass with full Polyphony. Unfortunately, although beautiful I find these liturgies lacking a bit in that the “Liturgy geeks” split with the “Chant geeks” about 9 years ago, and the actual Liturgy is no longer given as much attention as the Chant. It feels a bit backwards to me. Of course I was spoiled before when the Mass was served by a dedicated group of adult male servers who were devoted to every detail of reverently serving the Mass.

    These are my standouts (A or A-). I know many other places, including my home parish where things are much better than I’ve often observed. My home parish does very solid traditional organ with some good contemporary at 11:00AM and does classical guitar (not folk) and Flute at 9:00. We do sing a few of the hymns on my “not great” list but mostly it’s solid. Nothing ridiculous.

    Public Worship in the Catholic context seems to me not to be strictly defined but… I have a strong general sense of it. Public in this context to me doesn’t mean exactly anything analogous to the general use of public. Personally, anything in the Nave in the presence of the blessed Sacrament I think for other reasons must remain respectful and of proper decorum for the Church. So I would also suggest there are standards even for private devotion and worship WITHIN the Nave and that “praise and worship” activities that are semi-public (open to all and published in the Bulletin etc) but non-liturgical should not become anything like a party or dance or

    1. Paul,

      Wow this is great to hear and quite informative. Thanks for sharing your experience of Masses with sacred music. I wonder if your area is something of a bastion for that?

  5. Life Teen

    I think that despite previous abuses and issues with their founder, they have produced good fruit and so the bishops are maybe letting things evolve naturally. I attend my parishes “lt” Mass and they have done a very good job implementing the recent changes. The use of praise music is mainly restricted to processions and recessional after the Mass proper. I am still uncertain about how I feel about the use of Matt Maher’s “Agnus Dei” but I will say that as a EHMC (we usually gather at the end of the sign of peace and stand outside of the sanctuary, but in front of the congregation facing the alter) during this. The sound of the choir and the whole congregation (over 700 + packed to overflowing, new church will seat 1600) singing this builds perfectly to the Priest elevating the host and say “Behold the Lamb of God…” is one of the most humbling experiences I can imagine.

  6. Devin – just posted this on Facebook too, but thought I’d post it here to see if anyone has any thoughts…
    There is a parish in Houston that my bf attends, it is run by dominicans (not diocesan priests) – actually I noticed above that someone commented and mentioned a Holy Rosary Dominican parish in Oregon that sounds exactly like it! The priests at this parish (Holy Rosary Parish in Houston) have maintained complete say over the various parts of the Mass. The music is very beautiful, very simple, and you would never find a guitar within miles of that place ๐Ÿ˜‰ They also use a communion rail where the priests are the only ones that give Holy Communion and even the altar servers are all boys. It is like heaven on earth, I’ve never seen any place like it! So places like this do exist, but sad that they are few and far between. What James and I find a problem is that priests seem delegate responsibilities to those who do not understand the Mass as they do. What I wonder is why priests aren’t stepping up and requiring their music directors to only play proper music? Do they not have the time? Do they not want to hurt people’s feelings? Do they think their parishioners will be upset? I guess maybe I don’t understand because I’m not a parish priest and don’t know the behind the scenes happenings of a parish. But it seems to me that the Priest knows and understands the sacredness of the mass, moreso than anyone, so shouldn’t it be their duty to make sure the parish understands the entire Mass as it was intended. And a good start to that would be to overhaul the music programs. The first priest at the catholic high school I teach at made it a point to let our music director know we will never have drums or praise and worship music in our school masses, and it has stuck (even in the 2 years since he hasn’t been at the school). It just took a priest to stand up and say, this is how Mass was intended. What I hope and pray people understand is the Mass isn’t a place where they go to hear good music that makes you “feel good”…we are there to receive the Body and Blood of our Lord. That is the center of it all. Once you realize that, you want more and more to hear the beautiful, traditional hymns and chants! Just a few of my thoughts! I don’t mean to “blame” the priests – totally not my intention, just an observation I had. Hope you and your family are well!! You’re in my prayers!

  7. Please let this be anonymous? I’m still trying to influence my parish and this post would not sit well with some people.

    “To produce music like this would take an awful lot of work”

    I beg to differ. It takes LESS work to produce appropriate, albeit simple, music than bad.
    The correct verse of a psalm chanted to a psalm tone takes far less effort than to learn or teach some Gather-esque cheesy “psalm” where each verse is different from the last and not a one of them respects the lectionary text.

    It is easier to look at and use the prescribed texts than to sit in a three hour “liturgy committee meeting” planning the “theme” of the Mass and picking what ditties WE think would enhance that theme.

    It is less work to learn a challanging piece of music that will be exactly as right next year as it was this, or as it was 900 years ago, than to learn the “newest, latest, bestest” thing OCP is hawking every year.

    (And this is not to even go into the work necessary to earn or find the money every year for some new copy-righted piece of nonsense every time trends change.)

    No, the work is not the problem, will is – I assure you, there is some over-qualified musician in your parish who would probably happily do the work for less than he or she is worth if only TPTB would just LET him.

    1. Ah this is helpful, because I suspected that learning some simple chant was easier than trying to sing many Gather (et. al.) hymns. So it can be simple to learn and sing, yet sacred. That sounds like the ideal starting place for most parishes.

      1. โ€œTo produce music like this would take an awful lot of workโ€

        I had polyphony and those great classical choral pieces in mind when I wrote the above statement. I’ve lead choirs before – to produce the quality of music as heard in the above video takes a lot of work and talent.

        I think we’re actually in complete agreement – simple plainchant is the way to go (see the video link I posted above).

  8. What a pleasant discovery for me to come across your blog, and thus to others as well, Devin. I, for reasons only known to Jeffrey A. Tucker, was one of the founding contributors to the Chant Cafe; I suspect it’s because I ply everyone with great California wines at the annual CMAA colloquium, including our president Prof. Mahrt. But I’m also the one contributor who navigates musical waters in what Jeffrey describes as a prototypical American parish (three years ago, one parish, 6000 families, now a four parish merged cluster, 30K RC’s on record.) I’m the resident pragmatist at the Cafe.
    One thing, only one thing I’m convinced of is that these issues, disputes, skirmishes and wars that confound us on Sundays at worship and in the cauldrons of dogma known as blogs is that none of them have their origins in “lex orandi, lex credendi” really. Their genesis, IMO, lies in the vast labyrinth of ecclesiology. Obviously the twains doth meet, but their agendas often seem quite far apart from each other in real time, despite whatever lip-service each provides the other.
    Just wanted to introduce myself and congratulate you for providing a valuable, provocative forum. I also can occasionally be found at:


    1. Charles,

      Thank you! My hope is to help learn my faith better and help others do the same. I’m really glad that you and chant cafe chimed in with your knowledge, because to be honest, most Catholics–even faithful ones–don’t know what music in the liturgy is supposed to be, since we have not seen it done in our parishes.

      I find it all fascinating and still only understand about half the words and phrases used–it’s a whole other area that I haven’t steeped myself in–but I and other can learn and help bring about positive changes to the music.

      God bless,

  9. Well, Devin, I’m such a litmusic geek that I’m responding here after 1.5 hours of auditioning my friend Jeffrey Ostrowski’s Psalter for cycle B for a review. I suppose I’m banned from ever self-advising “Get a life!” as this is my life!

    For some background, Roc’s meditation on Christ’s Kingship goes back to the late 70’s. If I’m not mistaken, as I never check myself before clicking “submit,” it was debuted on WOOD HATH HOPE, and had its “premiere” at the ’79 NPM convention in Chicago, for which I was privileged to be the bassist. This piece is a perfect illustration of “to what degree should music programmers be extremely discretionary” when programming an Option Four (which this is, as it’s from St. Paul) at Mass. It is not really a difficult piece to master, and it thrives best in the ensemble/choir/soloist format as shown, tho’ a cantor could literally chant it a capella if s/he had their stuff together, not recommended.
    I believe the point is simple: if one chooses such a piece over the GR chants, or the propers of the GM or many English “equivilents,” one had better be darn sure that its performance, to lead or to be heard, is “tight” enough so as to call the faithful to engage in the Word, and not in its mastery of execution. That maxim works across the board for me in general.
    Did I spy Roc himself on the podium in the video? I’ll have to rib him should I ever see him again not to bounce the pulse via his bending knee style of conducting. The “tic-toc” of the 8th notes does just fine to keep the momentum going, and intensity is shared in rehearsal, and doesn’t have to be visually coaxed. ๐Ÿ˜‰

  10. Belonging to choir doesn’t require HOURS. You have one rehearsal on a weeknight and then you sing on Sunday. It’s not like it’s unattainably demanding.

    Trying to introduce plainchant/polyphony is an uphill battle. My choir director has been waging it and she will be leaving for a sabbatical, because it’s been so hard. The pastor is neither opposed nor enthusiastic. Some choir members left when we started sprinkling in Latin hymns here and there. Most choir members do like the contemplative quality of the Communion antiphons. That seems to be the place to start. People at communion are focused on communion and their personal prayer time, so it’s a good time to work in an Antiphon. The Entrance antiphon is weird for people, because they are used to something rousing. Offertory might be next. Way down the road, you might reach an all-antiphon Mass. Keep what’s good from the Gather hymnals. Don’t burn bridges. Some 80’s music sounds decent when played on an organ with harmony parts or subduing it with a piano. Even a well-tempered guitar can be done meditatively and not 70s-ish.

    It takes time. People will be attracted to the beauty of chant, especially as the haste of the world continues to drive us to distraction. Gregorian simplicity has a way of settling one’s nerves, and people viscerally appreciate its quietude.

    1. Thanks for chiming in Seth,

      I have never been trained in music, just a guy who sings with the car radio, so I’d probably need more training time. Even so, it would also mean that on Sunday I have to show up early and be in the choir while my wife tries to keep our small children calm, so there’s other difficulties. And to actually change the (likely mediocre) music being played by the choir would take yet more time.

      Nonetheless I appreciate what you’re saying and am hopeful that changes can be made!

  11. FWIW, at our parish there’s a “Praise & Worship” charismatic group that meets weekly which “serves the parish through prayer… [and] provides an atmosphere in which members can grow in their personal prayer life [where] members are encouraged to experience the baptism of the Holy Spirit and identify and foster their charisms.” They have guitars and other popular instruments.

    However, I have to say that when I was leaving from a meeting in the same room that they were going to use, I, a middle-aged dud, was asked to stay, because they need such “young” blood. That perhaps gives you an idea of the average age of the group and its fate in parish life.

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