Losing my religion: How Church music causes unbelief

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August Wilhelm Roesler, Music in the Monastery

Imagine for a moment you are an enemy of the Catholic Church. You wish everybody could just leave this horrible institution.

Yet you know that a full frontal intellectual attack on the tenets of Catholicism would probably only provoke a defensive reaction. Rather, your method has to be more sophisticated. It has to be something subtle, subliminal. Something which Catholics might listen too and mouth regularly, believing that by doing so, they are fulfilling their sacred obligations. As you scratch your head wondering if such a scheme is even possible, you decide to visit a typical Catholic parish on a Sunday.

And you smile.

“No need for me to do anything,” you say to yourself. “They are doing it to themselves already.”

In case you might be wondering, I am referring to the music at Sunday Mass. My thesis is as follows. That often enough, that there is a real danger that the music we use at Sunday Mass does more to unevangelize Catholics than do the so-called “enemies of the Church.”

Consider what the Mass is. It has been called many names. “The Holy Sacrifice of the Mass.” The “Eucharistic celebration.” The “sacred liturgy.”

At the Mass, a Catholic is supposed to be present at the memorial of the death of Jesus. The Catholic nevertheless considers it a celebration because Christ did not only die but rose from the dead in forgiving love. Hence, His one hour on Sunday is supposed to be the participation in a public and sacred act (the word “liturgy” once referred to public and solemn acts performed by important people in Athens).

Yet very often, our music does not reflect this. In fact, in many subtle and often unnoticed ways, what we sing is often contrary to what we believe Sunday Mass is about.

I will highlight two main problems: that we often have lyrics in songs that that make it seem that we are really not worshiping, and that we often chose melodies that do not convey what the Holy Mass is about. More often than not, these problems overlap in one song.

Consider the following example: “Here we are, all together as we sing our song, joyfully… Altogether as we pray we’ll always be/Join we now as friends/to celebrate/the brotherhood we share, all as one/Keep the fire burning, kindle it with care/And we’ll all join in and sing.

This song with the awe-inspiring title “Here We Are” is problematic not for the sentiments of brotherhood it expresses, (which no Catholic can possibly object to) but in what it does not say.

It does not express the reason why Catholics are summoned to worship every Sunday. That we are saved by Jesus Christ; that by assembling on a Sabbath, we are proclaiming to the world what the destiny of Creation should be.

Instead, what we get are vague sentiments of friendship over a fireplace. The melody too reflects this. It practically invites you to sway your head from side to side and snuggle up with loved ones. This begs the question: do we really have to assemble every Sunday for one hour to celebrate “brotherhood”? Why can’t we do it at home or in a restaurant?

Or consider another popular ditty: “Sons of God, hear His Holy Word/Gather round, the table of the Lord/Eat His body, drink His blood/then we’ll sing a song of love/Allelu, Allelu, Allelu, Allelu-uia!

If this was spoken and not sung, one could actually transform it into a solemn call to listen attentively to the Lord and partake of the Eucharist, even though the last line about “singing a song of love” is a bit tacky.

But all is ruined when it is accompanied by the melody. It is that of a lullaby. If someone wanted to wean Catholics off belief in the Real Presence, they could not have found a better melody tacked to the lyrics.

If I can sum up my concerns in one phrase, it would be this: “Music maketh a man.” A person becomes what he hears and sings.

August Wilhelm Roesler, Music in the Monastery
August Wilhelm Roesler, Music in the Monastery (1837)

If you are exposed to such music Sunday after Sunday from childhood, the subliminal and tacit message, probably not even intended by those who selected the music itself (which makes it doubly tragic) is as follows:

“The great theme of salvation is something unrelatable to you. We understand, so let’s talk about more ordinary things like friendship, a fireplace, cookies and milk.”

“The idea of the Real Presence is something we don’t really believe. It’s something for children. A lullaby would be good enough.”

The Church has launched a New Evangelization, and desires very much to help Catholics re-encounter the Person of Jesus Christ.

I fear that we might be fighting a losing battle if we do not first get our music right.


Image: PD/US

Nick Chui

Nick Chui

Nick Chui is happily married and teaches history and Religious Education in a Catholic secondary school in Singapore. He has a Masters in Theological studies from the John Paul II Institute for Marriage and Family, Melbourne.

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9 thoughts on “Losing my religion: How Church music causes unbelief”

  1. Avatar

    The Liturgy Wars continue….

    I understand the point, and accept it. I also, simultaneously, accept that had there not been Happy Clappy Music at the Folk Mass back in the late 70s, early 80s, at the parish where I was eventually confirmed, I would not be Catholic today, and I would not have had the opportunity to help co-found an Ordinariate community that relishes, cherishes, and promotes sacred music.

    I needed the stepping stone, having come out of an Evangelical-Calvaryesque background. I loved Praise Music then, and I love it now, even when it’s insipid.

    This defense is not a defense of ‘bad liturgy and bad music’; it’s a defense on behalf of those, like me, who need stepping stones, and for the Liturgical Warriors to bear in mind that many of us who came from radically different histories may need something that doesn’t rise to standards that are outside our experience or recognition.

    If I had heard the Anglican Use Ordinariate Mass in 1979, when I was introduced to the Catholic Church as a severe anti-Catholic Evangelical, I would have gone running down the street, back to where I came from.

    Thank God the Folk Mass was there to help me find my way Home.

  2. Avatar

    Oh, the music is bad in almost every parish in my diocese. One mass at my parish has a lounge singer play an instrument that is not a piano and makes sounds that you’d hear in some low-keyed lounge with cigarette smoke and whiskey over ice. My last parish had a choir leader who was able to hit every fifth note.

    Right now, the lounge singer is out of town, and we’re having a music-less mass. Except for the socializing that happens just before mass starts and then breaks loose wildly during the passing of the peace, the mass has a reverence that can’t be matched–except with chant or honest to goodness real sacred music.

  3. Avatar

    Ummm, I don’t think anyone sings “Sons of God” or “Here we are” anymore and haven’t for years. I personally find the music of David Haas, Michael Joncas and others very inspiring and spiritual and they have helped me develop a relationship with our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. Isn’t that our purpose? To dedicate our lives to knowing, following and serving Jesus?

    1. Avatar

      Sorry. They do. I’ve heard them both, and other things as bad.

      I’m a musician, and if my interest in history and Christian apologetics hadn’t prevented it, the bad music at the Rite of Election would have sent me running.

      Bad enough that the music was bad. But what made it worse was that this was in one of the fastest-growing archdioceses in the country (Atlanta). And it took place in a hall with thousands of laity and hundreds of clergy present, and the freakin’ archbishop was there.

      And yet treacly ol’ “Eagles’ Wings” and “Gather Us Into The Wreck Of The Edmund Fitzgerald” were among the tunes. Groan.

  4. Avatar

    I live in Japan. Once a month we have a “wa wa wa” mass – that is what it is called. Replete with “hymns” ending in “oh yeah” even the grandparents are embarrased by this treacly phrase from their youth and as for contemporary youth …. it didn’t work then and it manifestly doesn’t work now.

  5. Avatar

    You could not be more right. I have memorized the words to these awful songs for decades, as I have recalled tens of thousands of pop songs’ lyrics, which are equally ridiculous. Remember this stupid one from the seventies; To be alive, and feeling free, and to have everyone in our family to be alive, in every way, oh how great it is, to be alive!” I heard this at St Bonaventure’s not long after a friend’s mother died, and I thought then, as a teenager, that the Church had been taken over by hippie freaks with guitars and faggot priests. Then a fat deacon from the Pittsburgh Diocese whom had been stationed for a time at St. Bonnies was found in the trunk of his car, alive, on the side of the road. He was a pedophile who had been robbed and dumped there by two young boys from the hood.
    The church has slowly turned into a liberal, progressive hellhole, and now we have a commie pope who supports islam and pedophile priests…..

    I doubt that the Church hierarchy has much to do with the work of Jesus

  6. Avatar

    Everything Nick Chui says is true except …

    Shouldn’t Catholics in possession of a Masters degree in Theological Studies use the the phrase “begs the question” correctly?

    I looked for a link to contact him privately but don’t see one. More weblogs need to have such links so that these criticisms wouldn’t need to be public.

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