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What the Heck!? Why aren’t They Singing and Where are They Going?

I exist to lead congregational singing from the organ. It is in my blood. It is what God created me to do, my vocation. Over the course of my career, naively, I assumed that in all churches everywhere, Sunday morning congregations were singing the roof off the church. Not so.

I’ll never forget my first Catholic Mass at St. Mary Help of Christians, Aiken. New church, new 100-stop organ, 750 people at the Saturday Vigil Mass. I revved up the organ and began the first verse of the procession hymn. Panic ensued. I could hear the cantor singing loudly over the PA system, but few were singing below. After the hymn, I asked the cantor, “Were we singing the right hymn?” “Yes,” she replied. I asked, “Why weren’t they singing?” She shrugged her shoulders and said, “That’s the way Catholics are.” I thought, “What have I gotten myself into?”

But wait! That’s not all! At that same Mass, when I began playing the recessional hymn, my peripheral vision caught glimpses of people exiting their pews before we had begun singing the first verse of the hymn. Naively, I thought, “There must be a medical emergency in the back of the church.” Well, by now, if you are Catholic, you are probably chuckling. I came to learn this is quite common, that we at St. Joseph are a rarity. We stay in place, in community with one another, until the final hymn is finished. Kudos to our parishioners who get it! I can usually tell when we have visitors because they step out into the aisles before the priests and altar services have begun to recess.

Thomas Day, Catholic writer, Professor Emeritus, Salve Regina College, Newport, Rhode Island, authored Why Catholics Can’t Sing in 1991. Fr. Gregory Wilson of St. Mary Aiken recommended this book to me along with other resources to start us on our way to, “What can we do about this?” After a few months of prayer and deliberation, a new course was charted, and within nine months the Vigil Mass was vying for first place against the singing of the Sunday 10:30 Mass. Even the 8:15 Mass perked up!

Thank you for staying together while we finish our sung prayer and praise to God at the end of Mass.


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