Thursday, April 12, 2012

The Singing Priest

Everyone knows that the Catholic people in the pews have a singing issue. For the most part, they don’t dig it. It doesn’t matter how many lectures they are given, how much a cantor waves his or her arms, how loudly the organist or pianist prays, the singing in a Catholic parish, even when it does take place, is seriously subdued as compared with just about any protestant congregation.

I’m not among those who think that this issue is the central issue of the liturgy that needs to be fixed. For my own part, I do find it annoying that when I visit a new parish and sing out, I get stares and glares from people as if to say: “hey, we don’t do that here!” But in the end, what matters about Mass is not that everyone is belting out songs at the top of their voices but rather the interior work of prayer and contemplation.

As regards singing, a much more serious problem concerns the celebrant. His parts should be sung, as often as possible and as much as possible. On this front, we have a serious problem. When the parts are not sung, the people are not singing the dialogues (“The Lord be with you; and with your spirit”) and those are the parts that are easiest and have traditionally been most commonly sung. When the dialogues are spoken, the liturgical structure is destabilized because the only singing then comes from the choir, and that reinforces the sense that the music is merely for background effect or for entertainment and performance.

In 2007, the USCCB released document called “Sing to the Lord.” It says the following about the need for the priest to sing:

“The importance of the priest’s participation in the Liturgy, especially by singing, cannot be overemphasized. The priest sings the presidential prayers and dialogues of the Liturgy according to his capabilities, and he encourages sung participation in the Liturgy by his own example, joining in the congregational song.... Seminaries and other programs of priestly formation should train priests to sing with confidence and to chant those parts of the Mass assigned to them. Those priests who are capable should be trained in the practice of chanting the Gospel on more solemn occasions when a deacon may not be present. At the very least, all priests should be comfortable singing those parts of the Eucharistic Prayer that are assigned to them for which musical notation is provided in the Roman Missal.”

The language is stilted and unimaginative but the message is correct. And yet, once again, the exhortation has no effect. Why? Here is my theory. Our culture treats the notion of “singing” as something done by specialists, entertainers, recording artists, pop superstars, and all for the sake of delighting the audience. American Idol. That is what singing is. The priests notes the contrast between himself and these people and comes to the inevitable conclusion: I’m not a singer. Believe me, you don’t want to hear my voice. I can’t carry so much as a simple tune. Therefore I will not sing the liturgy. I’m sparing you the pain.

You know what’s awful? This whole mistaken view of what singing is tends to be reinforced by pop music at Mass. Pop music encourages the performance ethos. Music with a beat reminds us of recording stars. Jazzy chords and head-swaying sensibilities pushes this idea that singing is only for those who want to be loved and admired for their great talents. Music groups who do this kind of music -- and this is the mainstay of the music pushed by mainstream publishers -- are only entrenching the non-involvement of the priest in singing.

There is a reason that only a few Bishops in the entire national conference of the United States sing their parts. It’s because they are very much used to pop music and the pop ethos dominating the Mass. In the same way that a very talkative person won’t let you get a word in, this style of music doesn’t like the celebrant get a note in. This music crowds out simple chanting. The celebrant comes to believe that there is no place for him in the production of Mass associated with liturgy.

There ought to be a different word for what the priest is actually be asked to do. He is not being asked to become a star or to entertain anyone. He is not seeking a channel on Pandora or looking to sell downloads on iTunes. He is not trying to win a competition. In the Church’s conception of the singing a priest does, there is not a very great distance in physics between the speaking and singing. His singing really amounts to speaking with a slightly different kind of voice, one with a pitch that takes it off the ground and out of the realm of conversation and puts the words in flight. It is a simple shift that makes a gigantic difference in how the words come across.

I’ve personally never heard of a priest who cannot, in fact, sing all the parts he is being asked to sing. I would go further and say that the priest who is most qualified to do this is precisely the one who thinks that he cannot do it. That implies a certain humility, which is what is required to sing at liturgy.

The first step, which any priest can start this week, is to find any pitch and enunciate the words of the Mass on that one pitch rather than simply speak it. Maintain the rhythm of speaking. There is no need to work on changing pitches at the start. Just pick one random note that feels good and proceed with the text of the Mass. This one step makes him a singing priest. He has already fulfilled the goal of the Church in doing this one thing.

I know a priest who went all the way through seminary and his first years of priesthood without singing a single note. He was convinced that he could not. He was surely that was “not a singer” and thus refused to do so. There was no negotiation on this matter. It was just the way things are.

Then one day he was given the above advise, that singing liturgy isn’t like singing Broadway or trying out at an audition. One note will suffice at the beginning. He finally tried it at liturgy. Guess what? He was perfectly brilliant. He was fantastic. The words were very clearly and the text was ennobled and elevated. He loved it because he could immediately tell what taking this one action did to the liturgy. It changed the whole environment to become more solemn and beautiful. The choir and the people were all inspired. And this was just the beginning. Over the coming weeks, he tried more and more. Pretty soon he had overcome all his fears and he redefined himself and his skills.

The Mass where I heard him do this was otherwise filled with chant from the schola and the people, who chanted the Mass parts without accompaniment. This made his first attempt easy to integrate into the existing aesthetic structure. It might have been different if the choir was singing jazz or rock or had some amazing soloist seeking to delight an audience. Sensing that a simple chant would be out of place, he might never have attempted it.

So the solution: the choir should chant. That’s what gives the priest the confidence to attempt to sing his parts. And he can. He really can. Then we will start to see a change in the people in the pews as they join in the song.