Church Musician as Priest

Liam sent me this link to a “defense of non-singing congregations.” I have to say it’s been a long time since I’ve seen a piece like this that veers into unintentional parody. If this is what’s being pondered in reform2 circles, the movement has really run off the rails. There’s so much wrong with not only the premise, but the details, I can’t decide whether to start from the rubrics, or from music history, or from basic human psychology and sociology. So I think I’ll just start and let the rest of you take the commentary from there.

Why aren’t people obeying? It’s like listening to people denounce children for failing to behave properly. They demand and demand.

It’s not a matter of obedience and demand. Singing at liturgy is an expression of the spiritual life. It happens when people are motivated by good acoustics, good repertoire, competent accompaniment, and a spirituality that goes deeper than “What’s the minimum I can invest in the Mass and still be Catholic?”

It’s like that statement in RCIA 441: real Christians aren’t focused on a minimum performance standard, like the one we need to get a GED, or a driver license, or a grade of C. (Or is it D-minus?) But I suppose it’s part of our ethic. Why else would there be Church regulations about celebrating Mass on Sundays and holy days of obligation, but also ones about once a year on Easter?

I don’t make demands on the congregation to sing. But I make darn sure that I and my music leaders attend to the invitation and make it easy to join in the music. Funny, but I’ve had no problem getting people to go deeper into the music in every parish I’ve served. I don’t know that they sing as lustily as Mr Tucker’s Baptists. I suspect they sing better than his Catholics–at least that’s how I would take his concession.

This kind of singing is not organic to the Catholic liturgy, which music is not an end unto itself. It is meant to accompanying some primary action taking place: processing, mediating on the Psalm between readings, engaging in dialogues with the celebrant, or some other activity.

This is more provocation than Catholic liturgical theology. There are numerous instances when music is the liturgy. I thought the reform2 movement was cribbing from Marty Haugen when they started echoing: we sing the liturgy; we don’t sing at the liturgy.

Singing the Kyrie isn’t accompanying an expression of contrition. It is a penitential act.

The Gloria is a final expression of the praise of God as the people have gathered to worship; it’s not an interstitial to get us from general confession to the readings.

The Psalm is not a meditation; it is the proclamation of the Word of God.

Do I need to go on? I’ve barely gotten ten minutes into the average Sunday Mass.

The job of singing belongs primarily to the schola and the cantor, not the people. The people know this. It has been this way from the earliest records.

The earliest records? Somebody forgot to inform Mark the Evangelist and Paul’s Colossians or even the assemblies of John’s Revelation.

I’m going to leave off the specifics here, because I respect Jeffrey Tucker as a fellow believer and a musician. This is just too ugly to go on like this–and I speak of my own writing here. Like this other commentary, this essay betrays an unprofessional and non-theological approach to liturgy. A Church musician must (must!) read the documents, starting with the GIRM and the Order of Mass, and attend to the details.

Certainly we musicians can attend to our disciplines in performance and leadership. We can read what our heroes do to blend choirs, expand repertoire, and craft musical artistry. But if our only standard is performance that doesn’t raise its volume or sonority above the thin substrate of silent (or bored) human prayer, we are spiritually impoverished. We’d be better off concertizing instead. Without our captive audiences.

Worship, as Sacrosanctum Concilium teaches us, is not only about the participation in Christ’s perfect worship of the Father, but also an expression of the sanctification of believers. When we go to church, Christ does not demand a response from us. He invites us. It is the nature of God to call, not to force. Of course, there are temporal and spiritual consequences to our choices. But these are our responsibility, not God’s.

It may be easy enough for me to advocate singing. After all, I am a musician as well as a pastoral minister. I have no question that singing the liturgy is an expression of a maturing faith community. I also know that we are human beings, and as such, we have a need for the incarnational aspects of faith. Singing gives voice (literally and more profoundly) to the effort we make to cooperate with God’s grace. Christians shouldn’t be content to let God work through others. Certainly there are times when we need priests. The classic definition of the priest is the person who goes before God on behalf of the people.

The biggest fault in what Mr Tucker is suggesting in this essay is to elevate the cantor or schola to the role of priest. The skilled musicians properly sing on behalf of the congregation. The pewfolk might be invited to assist, or be given permission to join in once or twice. But ultimately, this is about the group that can make the more perfect noise.

I e-mailed Liam last night about this. I had such a superior day of grace yesterday in the experiences of worship (receptions into Full Communion in the morning and the Confirmation of eighty-one young people in the afternoon) and an authentic concert experience (playing in the back-up band for Sarah Hart) I didn’t want to tackle this link. But I have to laugh at the charge that it’s the progressives who are all about blurring the boundaries between clergy and laity. This essay makes a classic case for clericalizing a subset of lay people. I’m sure they would sing excellently in some places. But the people don’t need it.

About catholicsensibility

Todd lives in Minnesota, serving a Catholic parish as a lay minister.
This entry was posted in Liturgical Music, Liturgy. Bookmark the permalink.

15 Responses to Church Musician as Priest

  1. Pingback: Church Musician as Priest « Catholic Sensibility - Christian IBD

  2. jeffrey says:

    Todd, thanks for the link. If you read the entire piece, you know that I’m not for cracking down on singing. I’ve spent ten years teaching and encouraging it as much as possible. If I had my way, people would be singing the way they do down the street – but then maybe I shouldn’t have my way. What I’m trying to do here is come to terms with the huge cultural/liturgical divide between typical Catholic parishes and the churches down the street. I’m not advocating any pressure either way. I’m suggesting simply that we come to terms with realities and resist browbeating people to do something they really don’t feel right doing and sometimes for good reasons.

    In any case, as a long-time champion of the role of the people in singing chants of the Mass, I really don’t feel the need to spell it all out again. Even when people do sing – and they do in my parish – is is nowhere near as loud and aggressive as any other congregation in town. I don’t feel depressed about that; there might be reasons internal to the rite that makes this so.

  3. Todd says:

    I think you over-argued your case.

    I don’t think there’s that much of a divide between Baptists and Catholics as there is between a secular culture that emphasizes music for watching or listening as opposed to music one participates in.

    If you read my piece, you’d know that my communities are singing not because they are ordered to do it, but because they are invited.

    And again, I’d invite a more careful study of the liturgy and less of reform2 musicians who have their priorities seriously misaligned.

  4. Liam says:

    Personally, I don’t Jeffrey’s essay involved theorizing more than study. And theorizing of the What Is* is What Ought To Be kind, which is very seductive but typically an exercise in confirmation bias. I think it does serious damage to the credibility of Reform of the Reform protestations that they are not trying undo the last century of development in liturgical music, and I also think it will eventually prove to be fuel in the self-marginalization of some of the RotR movement (seeing the amen corner in the comboxes is when I see the power of group rationalization). And progressives would not be alone in reading his essay this way: here’s a traditionalist who take exception no less strenuously.

    Frankly, I think the essay was one of those things that should not have been published, but kept in the Musings file on the desktop. We all have those kinds of files, but not everything in them merits publishing.

    * Of course, even the description of “what is” is open to critique. But that’s not a necessary discussion here.

  5. Liam says:

    Sorry, the “don’t” should have been “suspect”. Two sentences got mangled in an unholy union.

  6. And from the other side of the argument… Just got this link (PDF) for an article by Gabe Huck. See page 7 in the link.

    And if you’re on Facebook, check out my caution to music ministers based on Gabe’s article.

  7. Copernicus says:

    Have to say I agree with you – Jeffrey Tucker’s article goes seriously off the rails. I rarely react to one of Jeffrey’s articles by concluding it’s too ‘wrong’ to be worth arguing with, but this one, I think, probably qualifies.

    There are two ways of discerning the Church’s vision for liturgy and liturgical music: (i) read what the Church says; and (ii) observe what the Church does and deduce the underlying rationale. The risk with the second approach is defective data, stemming either from observing things being done incorrectly, or from allowing pious fantasy to supplant actual observation. The latter, it seems to me, is Jeffrey’s constant weakness.

  8. Gavin says:

    Reading the article itself, with no knowledge of Jeff, I would be offended and react vehemently. However, I will confirm what Jeff attested to, namely that he is an ardent advocate of congregational song. I suppose we should avoid critiquing each other’s entire liturgical/musical point of view until we have been performed our roles at worship together. Having done that with Jeff, elitist, clericalist, or anti-congregational are words which simply don’t fit for him.

    Personally, I’m fed up with excuses. Sure, maybe some people are sick. Some may be battling depression or a spiritual struggle. Some may be participating silently (although I wonder if you could find 3 people who don’t respond to “participatio actuosa” by saying “no I don’t want a mimosa”) There may be those who have psychological or physiological issues with public singing. But I can’t imagine that possibly covers the 4 out of 5 Catholics who don’t touch the hymnal except to figure out what the words to the creed are.

    I’ll come out and say it: something is SERIOUSLY wrong with the Catholic faith of someone who yells vulgar songs at a concert on Saturday night then on Sunday can’t be bothered to mumble the great chant “Christus Vincit”.

  9. Jimmy Mac says:

    I sent this email in response to Tucker’s silliness:

    “It’s all about training, preparation and practice.

    My 400 person parish ( has an excellent music program that is happily supported with a music budget of $100,000 per year (including salary & benefits of a FULL-TIME music director).

    People sing and sing well when supported with an atmosphere that encourages good participative music. Catholics can and will rise to a level of expectation that is given to them. It has to be encouraged by well-trained musicians and choir members, an MD who knows how to integrate the music with the focus and readings of the mass, and who knows how to engage the people in the pews.

    Expect much and be prepared for the long haul to achieve much, and you’ll get much.”

  10. Liam says:


    As my comment over at NLM noted, the thing that slays me about this essay is that it is unnecessary. What you say about Jeffrey makes me wonder why on earth he thought these musing would be in any way helpful to his cause. As Todd says, it reads almost like a parody. It is a fundamentally unserious piece of writing about this subject.

  11. Rob says:

    “It is a fundamentally unserious piece of writing about this subject.”

    Amen, Liam.



  12. I concur with Gavin. (For inexplicable reasons, we seem to concur often, me geezer-he young buck!) In fact, Gavin and I have shared (without commiseration) the notion over at CMAA a few times that “congregational participation” should never be a requisite portion of a DM’s job description. Excellence will further more excellence on the part of adherents, aka the Faithful who get the fact they’re obliged to be predisposed to the act of liturgy. We’re not drum majors and a pep squad. Get over it, LitCom’s and insecure DM’s.
    Just as Fr. Ruff feels it necessary to pull the brake’s chain on the switch to the M3, I believe that Jeffrey should be allowed to give voice to his perceptions of how the Faithful he encounters (in just as real time as Fr. Ruff’s crowd) deal with the maelstrom that is “Catholic Music from parish to parish.” They are both saying the experience cannot ever be monolithic, yet somehow maintain its universality.

  13. “A community raising its voice in this manner suggests a community in non-sacramental celebration.”

    I find it hard to believe that a human being wrote this sentence.

  14. Sam Schmitt says:

    Jimmy Mac –

    What if you don’t have an $100,000 music budget? Or the kind of mD you are describing?

    This is what Jeffrey is addressing.

  15. Jimmy Mac says:

    If a parish of 400 can fund a $100K program, any parish of equal or larger size should be able to do so without a problem. It’s about committment and priorities.

    Good MDs need to be recruited and hired. I’ll admit that this is easier in an urban rather than a rural environment. But the budget and staff can be found if the leadership is committed to the task.

    Small Protestant churches (our parish of 400 would be a very substantial sized Protestant church in most locations) are able to foster and provide music programs that inspire congregational participation.

    Am I being told that Catholics aren’t up to the challenge?

    As I said before, people will rise to a level of expectation if they are motivated to do so.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s