Abandoning Latin changed liturgical music for the worse

"Singing 'If I Had a Hammer,' 'Get Together,' and 'Day by Day' at Mass never me feel holier"

(image from Crisis Magazine)

A century ago, Pope St. Pius X took on the reform of liturgical music in a big way. Late nineteenth-century liturgical music had largely pushed Gregorian chant aside, and the patrimony of the Roman Rite’s most distinctive musical form was in danger of fading away. His 1903 motu proprio on sacred music “Tra Le Sollecitudini” sought to reclaim chant and minimize the damage that had been done by the “theatrical” or “concert” music that had made its way into liturgy via composers of secular classical music who also wrote beautiful performance works with religious content—Masses, oratorios, and the like—that were never appropriate for liturgy but had infiltrated it nonetheless.

The long-term project was to rediscover and reclaim the authentic root of chant, which had become covered in the overgrowth of centuries of adaptation and neglect. Thankfully, this pursuit was undertaken wholeheartedly by several key groups, and real progress was being made in allowing the Roman Rite to, once again, rely on its distinctive musical form in twentieth-century liturgy.

However, this all-important step was really only tenuously connected to another all-important question related to liturgical music: how might the recovery of chant impact the existing state of congregational singing at Mass?

Some Assembly Required
To my surprise, I’ve only recently come to learn that the Roman Rite has had a bit of an on-again/off-again relationship with the whole notion of liturgical singing done by anyone other than the clergy (remember, pre-Vatican II “clergy” included those in minor orders) or established choirs of the day. The people in the pews were not at all central to the notion of “liturgical” music, any more than they were at all central to providing the liturgical responses at Low Mass or High Mass (“Sung” or “Solemn”).

Yet the twentieth-century Magisterium did come down in favor of giving formation to the faithful such that they could at least minimally learn and participate in the chant that was being rediscovered. Granted, congregational singing of vernacular hymns was happening, but this was seen as distinct from the ceremonial-liturgical music that existed exclusively in Latin, not the vernacular.

Mass Movement—From “Hearing” to “Praying”
Fast-forward to the era immediately preceding the Second Vatican Council, with the “Liturgical Movement” of that time focusing on getting people to move past the realm of “hearing” Mass amid favored private devotions prayed during it toward “praying the Mass” by at least following along with personal missals in the vernacular that could help a Catholic understand the spoken Latin. However, the reform of the liturgy took a turn headlong in the direction of accessibility—despite the Council’s insistence, in its Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy, that “The use of Latin is to be preserved in the Latin rites” (36), and that Gregorian Chant “should be given pride of place in liturgical services” (116).

If any single thing could essentially derail the century-long project of reclaiming the Roman Rite’s chant and finally getting it into the pews, the unrestrained plunge into the vernacular could, and did, in my view. It’s pretty simple. If priest and assembly are no longer bound by a requirement to learn and use Latin in liturgy, and if liberation from Latin takes the shape of a tsunami throughout the Church, from priest to pewsitter, access to the patrimony of Latin-text music—both chant and polyphony—becomes utterly short-circuited.

Furthermore, that huge, whooshing, sucking sound we all heard by the mid-1960s was the immense vacuum created by the absence of any music in the vernacular that could really fill the void created by severing the connection to both the Church’s universal language and its universal music. It was also, in my view, the death rattle for the ambitious decades-long effort to restore and reconnect not only clergy and choirs but congregations to Gregorian chant.

“Attention, All Personnel….!!”
Thus, the Church in the US was treated to the musical “M*A*S*H” unit that was first to arrive on the scene, offering not “meatball surgery” but offering “meatball liturgy.” And it wasn’t very life-saving—at all. As the Mass hemorrhaged its Latin, the wound, scarcely cleaned, received the Bandaid of the banal texts and melodies that at least initially came largely from the pop-folk era previously inaugurated by the 1957-1958 Kingston Trio smash hit “Tom Dooley.” By the mid-1960s, the exuberant and carefree folk revival had given way to protest music and politics, and that volatile mix of elements gave us that visceral novelty of “now” liturgical music (so called) in the vernacular—guitars and even banjos mercilessly subjecting the faithful to everything from “Sounds of Silence” to “Let It Be” to Catholic “youth” music like “Wake Up, My People,” “Till All My People Are One,” “Allelu,” “To Be Alive,” and “Joy Is Like the Rain.”

Now, fifty years later, the discontinuity does indeed seem staggering. It leaves liturgical music in a sort of limbo. The legitimacy of the pre-conciliar effort to restore chant must be reconnected with the legitimacy of the post-conciliar openness to organically growing new liturgical music from that root.

How much different would things have been if there had been real continuity? Well, I’m pretty sure a young believer like me, destined to be a liturgical musician for more than 30 years, would have benefitted greatly from hearing way more Latin, more chant, more Latin polyphony—anything that would have made it clear to me that these are truly the hallmarks of our Roman-Rite tradition. In my view, it’s not merely a missed opportunity for the Mass itself, but it’s a missed opportunity for me as a Catholic.

Mass is not supposed to make me musically comfortable—it’s supposed to make me more holy.

Some may say that whatever doesn’t kill you makes you stronger, but I’m here to tell you: singing “If I Had a Hammer,” “Get Together,” and “Day by Day” at Mass never, not once, made me feel stronger—or holier. Let’s reclaim our rightful patrimony and try to rediscover—yet again—the liturgical music roots of the Roman Rite.

Full story at Crisis Magazine.

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  1. Somebody from the Crisis Magazine needs to attend a Mass in English and stop publishing fake news. None of the aforementioned songs (If I had a hammer, etc) are sung at Mass any more. I grew up in the pre- Vatican II Church and can tell you there was lots of poorly sung chants and music back in the good ol days! One priest at our parish was often hung over on Sunday morning; his recitation of the prayers and singing was unintelligible. So much for holiness!

  2. Your Fellow Catholic says:

    Why does it have to be one or the other? And why do pieces like these never take into account chant as it is practiced in places like Taize and the thousands of Churches who use it both during Mass and during Prayer around the Cross? What would the author have us do with great hymns like Shubert’s “Ave Maria”, powerful hymns of community like “For All the Saints”, even the dozens of deeply theological Christmas hymns like “O Come Emmanuel”? Toss them out along with “The Sounds of Silence”?

  3. When I was growing up in Los Angeles, if I wanted lounge music, I could go to any number of restaurants, and for more radical music, I could go to a club on Sunset Strip. If I wanted mood music, I could listen to Mitch Miller, Lawrence Welk, Ray Conniff, or Percy Faith. Today, if I want this music, I only have to go to a Novus Ordo Mass at a Catholic Church. Yes, the modern liturgical music is terrible, horrible and an abomination. The ones in charge of the music must be burned out hippies who are still stuck in the 1960’s. The modern hymns are not a form of prayer, as they are only for entertainment purpose. Being homocentric,, these tunes do not belong at Mass as they do not worship God, only man.

    • Dr. Michelle Rios says:

      The Holy Sacrifice of the Mass is an act of adoration of Almighty God, the Most Holy Trinity, not a theatrical performance or a contemporary music concert. Unbecoming music has no place during Holy Mass. If Amazon tribes could sing Gregorian chant and other beautifully reverent Latin hymns, why can’t we? Let’s get rid of the horrible theatrical music that, along with the Bogus Ordo, is helping to empty our churches. I’m 35 and sick of the decay and rot that has seeped into the Church after Vatican II.

      • Your Fellow Catholic says:

        You are 35. You have no idea what the Church was like before Vatican II, and if you did, you would understand why the Church took to Vatican II like fish to water. It wasn’t all adoration and the Trinity in 1961 before the council. And, theatrical liturgical music didn’t begin with Vatican II. It didn’t take Vatican II to discover the glorious genious of Mozart. but it just might be the Vatican II haters who throw him to the curb. And Gregorian Chant and Latin, beautiful though they might be, wasn’t introduced until well after the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass was instituted by Christ himself who likely chanted Hebrew or Aramaic during the Last Supper, when not himself speaking quietly among friends.

        • Anne T. says:

          Yes, the Lord chanted in Hebrew and Aramaic mostly the Psalms, along with other prayers. The Greek church chanted them in Greek. Most of Gregorian chant is Psalms also. Most of it came over directly from the Hebrew, Aramaic and Greek into Latin, and back and forth. The Kyrie is the only Greek part of the Traditional Latin Mass that is still sung in Greek. There were no “drinking” and secular melodies used. It was all sacred music. I think that is the point that many are trying to make here.

        • Ann Malley says:

          If you lived through the ’60’s and ’70’s – the secular revolution – you’d understand why innovators may have thought Catholics would take to novelty ushered in via Vatican II like fish to water. The fish, however, wriggled right on down, right on down the ro-oad. And, day by day, more and more just up and took their hammer elsewhere.

          It may not have been “all adoration and the Trinity before ’61’ but it was better than it is today. Catholics actually knew the Catholic Faith and weren’t expecting to get a pass on adultery and other performances formerly known as sin.

          This is just an article that’s taking a realistic look at the baby and not cooing that everything is so adorable when it really isn’t.

        • Anne T. says:

          The Greek Catholics and Greek Orthodox do not use modern Greek in their liturgy, but the older, liturgical Greek. I am not aware of any of the other Catholic rites using the modern vernacular of their languages. Most of them want to keep it that way because they have seen how the Latin Rite has been desecrated and vulgarized in some churches using the modern vernacular. Sacred English, such as used in the Douay-Rheims Bible and the Anglican Use Rite, helps keep the liturgy reverent, instead of misused and desecrated.

          • Anne T. says:

            The Anglican Use Catholic Rite does use both the sacred English and an approved contemporary English, but so far it has all been done reverently and without bringing in unapproved innovations as far as I know.

          • Your Fellow Catholic says:

            Anne T., I’m generally in agreement on most of your points in this thread. You’ve made some great points, but the idea that there is even such a thing as “Sacred English” is just so ridiculously bogus, I just have to tell you I’m literally laughing reading your comment. By “Sacred English”, do you mean vernacular English as spoken by Henry VIII as he separated himself from Rome? Or do you mean the Sacred English that Christ spoke as he gave the Book of Mormon to other followers? Or what, exactly, do you mean by “Sacred English”?

          • Anne T. says:

            YFC, go to the “Catholic Ozarks” or “Catholics in the Ozarks” website then click at the top on “Sacred English”. It is a term for the English used in the Douay-Rheims and King James versions of the Bible. That type of English was never really spoken by everyday Englishmen, or even royalty, but was developed specifically for liturgical use. Among other things the “thee’s”, “thou’s”, “thine’s” and so forth are far more precise when translating the Greek and other texts into English. Read the whole article, and you will understand. That particular website is an Anglican Use website.

          • Anne T. says:

            Sacred English is just a name used by some for liturgical English; English that was developed strictly for liturgical use.

          • Anne T. says:

            I should have been clearer in one of my last posts. One of the differences between Common English and Sacred or Liturgical English is that “thou, thee, thy and thine'” are always second person, singular; whereas “ye, you, your and yours” are always third person, plural in Sacred or Liturgical English. In Common English “You and your” can be either singular or plural. Anyway read the whole article because the blogger explains it far better than I can.

          • Your Fellow Catholic says:

            There is no theological argument for what you call “Sacred English”. It is just a way of either 1) Distancing us from our Lord, or 2) Making us feel better about ourselves by making us think we are somehow closer to God because we use language nobody else uses.

            On my point One: God desired to be so close, so intimate with us, that God took on the form of a man and became incarnate. Why do we use language to add distance to a God who seeks to be so close to us?

        • Bohemond says:

          YFC hate for the Traditional Latin Mass comes shining through…

      • Ann Malley says:

        Dr. Rios – great post. Don’t let those who pretend you can’t know anything because you’re 35. (Not that you would ;^) Especially not when those who are older promote the lie that the Church took to Vatican II like fish to water.

    • Brava, Liane. What you said is so true.

      I remember being at the novus ordo in Iowa during the mid-70’s. While standing next to my Dad, the bovine choir (as we used to call them) started wailing away in the choir loft.

      My Dad cringed and let out an audible sigh. He then turned to me and said “That was a drinking song in Pennsylvania pubs when I was a little boy!” He was absolutely fuming.

      We hear secular music six days a week, and from every source imaginable. Can’t we hear Sacred music at a Sacred event at least for one day?

      Is that too much to ask?

    • Steve Seitz says:

      There is very good, contemporary non-Greg music out there, but it requires three things acting in series to find it at a parish:

      A) A pastor or music director who recognizes it as good, and
      B) People who have the talent and instruments to sing and play it, and
      C) People who are willing to devote time to the music ministry.

      If a parish is missing any of these, good music will be difficult.

  4. Linda Maria says:

    The concept of our Catholic liturgy for our Holy Mass, is not the same, as a Protestant worship service, at all!, In our Mass, Christ truly is present on our altars, it is VERY HOLY!! In a Protestant worship service, we only see a liturgy in which there are Bible readings, hymns, prayers, and a sermon, basically! Gregorian Chant is the original, ancient sacred music, to which all Catholic religious texts are set, for the Mass and Divine Office, prior to Vatican II. Our ancient Mass was traditionally very solemn, holy, serene, and prayerful, reflecting Heaven, and the holiness of Transubstantiation, with Christ truly present, on our altars! It used to give many people great peace!

    • Your Fellow Catholic says:

      Linda Maria, it might surprise you to learn that I love Gregorian Chant, and chant of several other varieties as well. But it is a serious mistake to equate Gregorian Chant with the institution of the Eucharist. Christ didn’t institute Gregorian Chant. Let’s keep the 2separate. And no, not all catholics – at least not in the small c catholic – not all catholics have used Gregorian Chant as a basis for liturgy.

      BTW, just my opinion, I can’t stand it when Gregorian chant is insinuated into a liturgy that is not based in chant. It having filet with lobster. One or the other, not both.

      • Linda Maria says:

        YFC– You mis-read my post! I only stated some historical facts. Christianity was influenced, from its earliest days, by three main cultures– Hebrew, Roman, and Greek. And the standard liturgy for our Mass and Divine Office, before the Council– was all-Latin texts– which were set completely to Gregorian Chant — get a copy of the 1962 “Liber Usualis.” Pre-conciliar churches varied, in use of Gregorian Chant– it was a standard form, for sacred use. In ancient times, use of everyday speech for worship of God, was not desired — Gregorian Chant was developed by the Catholic Church, as a standard, for sacred liturgical use.

        • Linda Maria says:

          YFC– of course, you are free to worship God, and enjoy the church music of your choice!

          • Linda Maria says:

            P.S. As you know, YFC — of course, there were only Jews celebrating their Passover, at the Last Supper! The Catholic Church came along, historically, later, and it was a new Christian (not a Jewish sect!) church! Yes, we have the Institution of the Eucharist– and the initiation of the holy Priesthood, too– by Christ, at the Last Supper– (during their Jewish Passover!) Of course! (And Pentecost is when it is considered that Christianity was born!) YFC– regardless, you are free to enjoy the church music of your choice! Maybe you would even want to join a church choir! Your choice!

          • Your Fellow Catholic says:

            LM, you actually made me smile, finally! When you invited me to join your church choir. That was a very sweet comment. But trust me, unless you want to empty the pews, you won’t invite me to sing publicly ever again!

        • Your Fellow Catholic says:

          Keep making up history LM. It’s just not the actual history of the way it actually happenned, you just continue to believe fake news.

  5. The condemnation of the Ordinary Form of the Mass is contrary to the magisterium of the Church and, quite frankly, anti- Catholic. Some of the comments are indicative of a superb ignorance of the history of the Church and of the Mass in particular.

  6. “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” sung at Most Holy Redeemer in San Francisco. (You can’t make this stuff up!)

  7. Catholic Church music is deplorable in North America. In Europe, especially in Germany, it is much better. I attend Mass to adore God, and not to be a lounge lizard in a cocktail lounge. There was a priest in my former parish who tried desperately to have the people sing decent God-centered hymns. The bishop said he supported the priest, but when push came to shove the gestapo parish council had the priest removed. The problem is the V2 idea concerning INCULTRATION. This has produced hula, polka, yodel, hillbilly and rock and roll music during the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass. To paraphrase a song by Elton John “It’s no sacrifice at all” when these tunes are played or sung during Mass.

  8. Jesusita says:

    Most all of the musicians who perform during Novus Ordo Masses today seem to be rejects from THE GONG SHOW. Ave Maria Purrissima !

    • Anne T. says:

      Yes, it is sometimes better when the parishioners sing, too, to drown them out. (Laughter.) That is not to knock those who are really good and should be heard. In one church, there was a very good cantor, but the musicians would always drowned him out with their loud playing. Then there was a lovely nun who had an alto voice who tried to sing high soprano. No one had the courage to tell her “to lower her voice” (excuse the pun please).

    • Anne T. says:

      To be fair, though, there are mistakes made even at the Traditional Latin Masses during Gregorian Chant. If there are not enough experienced singers, it can be disastrous. I am sure that the Lord takes into account, at both types of Masses, whether or not the singers try their best according to the situation. A quick prayer for the intercession of the patron saints of music is often in order.

  9. newguy40 says:

    In a local parish a few years back, we were treated to Disney’s “Color of the Wind” as part of the liturgy one Sunday. This was after the pastor had returned from a Disneyland vacation. If not for the Color of the Wind we would have been subjected to another “Bread of Life” for the umpteenth time as that was the Pastor’s favorite… hymn.

    OTH, this (along with a few others) experience led me to the TLM.

  10. The new hymns are banal, and campy. A friend of mine changed the words of ‘Gifts of Finest Wheat’, which is an improvement over the original: ‘You satisfy the hungry dogs with cuts of finest beef; O give to us Mr. Butcher man, fresh meat, not from a can’. By being imprecise, and indefinite, the real words to this song, can mean anything the listener wishes them to be. The Church never before spoke in riddles or veiled language, as She was always very logical in the explanation of things. No small matter that most Catholics do not believe in the True Presence in today’s world.

  11. Father Karl says:

    I think the key word here is SACRED. Profane music must never be allowed at Mass, let alone in churches because it is God’s house, not a theatre. The hymns must be directed to God, and not to the congregation. The use of Latin is very important, but there are outstanding hymns which are not in Latin. The Eastern churches which use the Byzantine liturgy do not chant or sing in Latin, and yet this form of worship is extraordinarily beautiful. When one hears this chant, as well as Gregorian chant, one knows to Whom the singing is directed to. Bach, Beethoven and Mozart composed outstanding sacred music, which unfortunately today is absent from most Novus Ordo parishes.

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