August 14, 2020

No singing at Mass? We’ve been here before.

No singing at Mass? We’ve been here before.

As a student in Rome it is hard not to be aware of the Venerable English College, the place where seminarians from England still come to study. It is called “venerable” because it was the training ground for future martyrs. In 1558, the Act of Uniformity made it illegal to celebrate Catholic liturgy in England, and in 1562 made a second offense punishable by death as treason. In 1697, the Banishment Act was passed in Ireland, which achieved a similar goal. The Banishment Act prohibited the presence of bishops, and so, the ordination of new priests. Liturgy, it seemed, became a life and death proposition. Thus, students at institutions like the English College in Rome knew that once they were ordained and smuggled back into England, it was likely they would die in some of the most horrific manners. Some of these laws would be on the books into the late 1800s.

So, Catholics in England and Ireland adapted. Some converted, as people who held public office were required to receive Anglican communion, but the Church, for the most part, went underground, hiding from ‘priest hunters’ who roamed the countryside. And a celebration of the Eucharist in hiding doesn’t want to draw attention to itself. In many cases, there was no singing whatsoever. And yet, the Church endured.

Still, there is an American angle to this. As the Irish immigrated by the thousands to the United States, Canada and elsewhere as a result of the potato famine (1845–1849), they brought with them this tradition. This was very different from the Bavarian immigrants, who had during the same time been encouraging not only singing, but hymn singing at Mass as a counterreformation tactic. In each of these cases, a liturgical theology sprang up to support this practice. This is why the sung Mass and the dialogue Mass often received very different receptions depending on the clerics in charge.

And so, maybe it isn’t as strange as it sounded to my ears when some senior clerics made the banning of liturgy and of singing into an anti-Catholic issue (See the AP article from May 8). The Church has a long memory, as does OCP, where our predecessors in the company fought the Klan and their efforts to make Catholic schools illegal here in Oregon.

While it may be encouraging to rehearse the victories of Catholics in surviving the silent Mass (See Ken Canedo’s wonderful article “Our Parish Prays and Sings: Catholic Singing Before the Council” from Modern Liturgy Vol. 40, No. 5 Jun-Jul 2013), we should still meditate upon the question: what will it do to our parishes today?

  1. Some Catholics will prefer the short quick silent Mass. But that is not new, and many parishes have had an early morning Mass on Sunday to meet those needs. This will continue.
  2. Some preachers will prefer the no-music Mass, taking it as the opportunity to expound at greater length on the readings and the tenets of the faith.
    • There are issues with this. Catholics have never seen the Mass primarily as a preaching service with the Lord’s Supper attached. The balance between words spoken by the presider and those spoken/sung by the faithful, the balance between word and sacramental actions, all of this has an effect on how we understand the sacraments and the place of the laity in the celebration.
    • Recent decades have seen the decline of non-eucharistic celebrations at which preaching figured prominently. Perhaps this needs to be revisited. The livestreaming of the Eucharist has not been a raging success, in part, because presence matters. Now that we have gotten the broadcast bug, let’s do something creative with it, in terms of music and of preaching.
  3. Some — hopefully many, or most — Catholics will continue to long for the community celebration with the song of the assembly. The science is still unsettled, and creative solutions continue to develop. In the meantime, bans on pew resources do not exclude the practice of bringing a missal or hymnal from home, and even in times where singing is not permitted in some places, songs can be recited. There is still a place for the poetic texts that have formed our faith.

The secret ‘Mass at the rock’ that the persecuted Irish endured for those centuries did not extinguish their love for music and even music at Mass. Before the pandemic many of our churches were known for their large number of descendants from these persecuted Catholics. With them, we have more than survived. I believe the same will be said of these days.

Dr. Glenn CJ Byer
Dr. Glenn CJ Byer

Dr. Glenn CJ Byer has written widely on the liturgy, including articles on the meaning of the Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy, marriage preparation, the renovation of churches and the Anointing of the Sick. He also speaks widely on the role of lay ministers in the Mass.