The American Robin, when in search of friendship, sings a cheerful song. During courtship, he sings a whisper song and the female responds with a soft chirp. When defending their young against predators, both male and female robins sound an alarming note. So varied are the songs of birds that the Red-eyed Vireo can sing an astonishing 20,000 songs a day. Quite a repertoire!
People like to sing as well. Almost any human experience can make us break into song. We croon about friendship. We serenade about love and joy. We sing laments and chant hymns.
Some people sing in shows; others, in the shower. Some, in support of their sports teams; others, as part of a choir. In movies and commercials, at weddings and funerals, during patriotic events and sports events, on a bright sunny day or “just walking in the rain,” people like to sing. Song belongs to every culture and every society across the centuries. Frank Sinatra is said to have recorded 1,200 songs. Quite a repertoire for the Chairman of the Board!
Over the last thirty years, researchers have pointed out the health benefits of singing. Singing reduces stress. It promotes emotional and physical well-being. Song also unites us with others. It touches our emotions. It draws us out of ourselves and binds us as one with others. Perhaps this is one of the reasons why song is so important to our worship of God.
Yet, for some reason, when Catholics go to Church, not many of them join in the singing. How often at weddings, funerals, Confirmations or even Sunday Mass, few join in the singing. Is there a reason why Catholics find it awkward to sing in Church? We could easily suggest a number of reasons.
Congregational singing has only come into prominence since the 1960s. In promoting “the full, conscious and active participation” of the faithful in the liturgy (Sacrum Concilium, 14), the Second Vatican Council encouraged the faithful to sing (ibid., 118). The Council dedicated an entire chapter to music in the Liturgy (ibid., VI). Yet, forty-five years later, not all Catholics are comfortable singing in Church. Why?
No doubt the selection of hymns and songs makes a difference in the response of the congregation. Some are simply not suited for everyone to sing. People may like a particular hymn. But, if the rhythm, the arrangement, the melody and the register are not suited to the average person, they will not sing it.
Some suggest that the frequent introduction of new and unfamiliar hymns inhibits people from singing in church. People still belt out Tantum Ergo and Holy God. These hymns were part of the repertoire repeated again and again in Catholic worship before the Council and they are still remembered. But, today, people are constantly handed missalettes with new selections each season. This constant change does not promote the necessary familiarity with words and melody that make it easier to sing along. People like to sing what they know.
Others suggest that the increased professionalism and prominence given to the music ministry may work against congregational participation. No longer in the choir loft, the music ministry is now more visible. In some churches, the music ministry awkwardly overtakes the sanctuary, even obscuring the congregation’s view of the tabernacle. So professional, at times, is the music that people are more inclined to take it as a performance to be heard and applauded when finished.
In giving reasons why many people do not sing in church, perhaps we are actually answering the wrong question. Should we not be asking the more fundamental question “Why should we sing in church?” How really important is our singing when we come to worship God? Isn’t it enough that we say our prayers?
To be continued……