Music at Mass: Fewer Guitars, More Chant

I’ve been away from blogging for a few weeks to travel, recharge, and catch up with other life obligations but now I am BACK and I have a few things to say about… liturgical music.

This is a post that’s been brewing for months but I didn’t quite have the right words to say until recently. In the past year, I’ve gone to several masses at several different parishes (which are wonderful parishes, by the way) and the music was altogether disappointing. Loud. Overdone. Reminiscent of a Protestant revival (seriously).

For example, at one, the “worship band” extended out IN FRONT of part of the sanctuary. There were no fewer than four singers, 2 guitarists, a pianist, and a guy on a full drum set. When I walked up to receive communion at this Mass, the music was so loud, I could not even hear the Eucharistic Minister say “The Body of Christ” before I received Jesus. I left that Mass exhausted because of the constant noise, noise, noise that the Church had been subject to for the past hour.

At another Mass at a different parish, there was yet again an example of the recurring trend of having at least four singers, two guitarists (one acoustic and one electric!), a pianist, a drummer; and this one included a tambourine, too. The only way to describe every time this group started playing and singing is that it was oppressive. Call me an old lady who hates noise but the volume was so incredibly loud I couldn’t hear my husband speaking to me in a normal-level voice as he was sitting right next to me.

Even the Lamb of God was made to sound like part of a Matt Maher concert.

In both cases, the sheer number of participants in the “worship band” and most especially the high volume of the music made it so that the Eucharist was not the focus; the music became the focus. How could it not have been when it was so loud and marked by constant concert-esque flourishes? In true concert fashion, this Mass was marked by people swaying to the Alleluia with their hands in the air, and the congregation cheering–yes, cheering–the band when the recessional hymn ended.

Again, I left exhausted. And frustrated as it had been nearly impossible to pray or focus on Jesus.

Contrast this with my experience last weekend attending the priesthood ordination Mass at the Cathedral Basilica in St. Louis. This city is blessed with a beautiful and very large cathedral–a church in which the size of both those worship bands may have be appropriate, only in terms of size.

But instead of a Catholic jam session, we were blessed (THANK GOD) with the Cathedral choir and organist, who provided absolutely STUNNING hymns and chants in both Latin and English. Just by the music, one could tell that this ordination Mass was a special occasion–and it was, of course. Two amazing men gave their lives to Christ and His Church. It was solemn. It was quiet in some parts. The voices of the choir sounded angelic as they sang the parts of the Mass. And the focus was the Eucharist.

I left that Mass having been able to focus on the prayers, the parts of the Mass, the beauty of the rite of ordination, and my own silent prayer and reflection because the music was COMPLEMENTARY to the Mass itself. It didn’t try to insert itself as the main focus, but provided a backdrop conducive to worship, prayer, and a spirit of reverence.

Of course, this was a special occasion. A special Mass. But shouldn’t every Mass be like this?

Shouldn’t we come to every Mass prepared to create the most reverent possible atmosphere for the moment when the bread and wine is consecrated on the altar and becomes the BODY and BLOOD of Jesus Christ?

But how can we do that when the music is so loud that we can’t hear ourselves think? How can we focus on the mystery and the miracle when the music demands all our energy and attention, robbing us of the silence we need to truly appreciate the depth and beauty of the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass?

The short answer is that we can’t. You can’t hear the Holy Spirit speaking to you in the recesses of your soul when the excessive sound of drums and guitars and tambourines are drowning out His voice.

Robert Cardinal Sarah, a great and holy man of the Church, wrote recently in his book on the topic of silence, “Sounds and emotion detach us from ourselves, whereas silence always forces man to reflect upon his own life… wonder, admiration, and silence function in tandem.”

There was absolutely a sense of wonder at Mass at the Basilica. It felt like I was experiencing a very small piece of Heaven on Earth–because that’s precisely what the Mass is.

And it’s sad when we aren’t able to have that very same wonderous atmosphere every Sunday at Mass in our parishes because the music is just too loud or too excessive.

I’m not saying we should not use any contemporary music at Mass. My wedding liturgy had several Matt Maher and Audrey Assad songs! But I’m saying the music at Mass should not try to thrust itself into the forefront of our minds; it should not distract from the real reason we are there–to receive Our Lord in the Eucharist and to let His grace work within us.

It should pave the way for our hearts to seek and find Jesus at the altar, at the foot of the Cross. And it shouldn’t distract us from hearing what He is trying to say to us.

In the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass, Jesus becomes really and truly present on the altar. Let me reiterate: Jesus Christ, God incarnate, the Creator of the Universe, becomes present on the altar and we receive Him.

The music at Mass should serve as a backdrop for receiving Our Lord and creating an atmosphere conducive to worship; but it can never make that reality–the reality of the True Presence of Christ–more “cool” or “hip,” or more entertaining. And it doesn’t need to.

 

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10 thoughts on “Music at Mass: Fewer Guitars, More Chant

    • Langenfeld Ted says:

      I invite you to attend the 9:30 AM Sunday Mass at St. Peter in Omaha, NE. You will not be disappointed!
      Ted Langenfeld

      Like

  1. loveinthefield says:

    Silence and contemplation of the mystery and miracle that IS the Eucharist augmented by holy and beautiful and angelic music is such a wonderful thing when it happens. I can still so clearly remember the second time I ever received Our Lord in the Eucharist. The choir was singing a hymn about Our Lady and it truly was like being in Heaven.

    Thanks for your words!

    Like

  2. John Gorby says:

    Hi Sarah, Silence is the key word here, with silence we are able to fully connect to our Lord in the Eucharist. The music at some parishes are as I like to say a little overboard and need to tone down a bit. Thank you for writing this I really enjoyed your words. Peace be with you!

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Kris Elliott says:

    Outstanding article. One of the masses at out local parish is “contemporary,” with all the accoutrement that you describe in your editorial. If we miss our usual mass time for some reason, we have to go to another church for the Sunday evening mass. The concert-like music, always loud and always well-beyond charismatic, diminishes mass terribly.
    Thank you for speaking out.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Alba Mettlach says:

    How I wish my computer had a printer. I’d happily print the article on loud music at Mass & forward it to my friends who don’t use the Internet. They, like me, are appalled by the seemingly “look at me” exhibitions of blasting tunes.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Edwin Taraba says:

    I agree with your point. I drive 25 minutes every Sunday to a parish in a neighboring diocese that celebrates the Traditional Latin Mass with a Solemn High Mass at 12:30 every week. The organist and choir provide Gregorian chants and traditional polyphonic choral music that turns your heart towards God and supports the kind of meditative atmosphere by which one can pray and meditate. No microphones or amplifiers are used, or needed. I have also found the Douay-Rheims bible read at these masses) to contain a more solidly Catholic theology, in contrast with the New American Bible (read at the new mass), which actually had Protestants participate in developing the translation, with the result that many word usages throughout have been Protestantized. For example, “repent” versus “do penance”.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Maureen says:

    I agree. And, I must say that I went to mass last week at a place where the organ drowned out the chanting of the psalm during mass. What is the obsession with Big Volume? I wonder if instrumentalists have any idea what it sounds like on the other side of the speakers? Maybe not, because I think they would agree the words of the mass are more important than any musical accompaniment. And the whole Big Band concept? I kid you not, I wear earplugs when I visit my husband’s Protestant church.

    Like

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