Why do we have to sing so much at Mass?


Father Matthew Kraemer

A lot of ink gets spilled on the question “how should we sing at Mass?”, but this question is actually more fundamental. Why should we sing at Mass at all? Some people love singing, and are very happy to sing at Mass. But others find it tedious for various reasons: inability to sing, dislike of the kind of music that is selected, annoyance with the manner of singing or playing (too fast, too slow, out of tune). For some, singing at Mass seems like an arbitrary imposition.

So should there, in principle, be singing at Mass? The simple answer is “yes.” The Church tells us that sacred music is a “… necessary or integral part of the solemn liturgy” (Sacrosanctum Concilium 112). There has always been singing in Christian worship; certain parts of the Mass simply are meant to be sung.

Since Apostolic times Christians have sung the Psalms during the celebration of the Eucharist. Jesus himself knew the Psalms and would have sung them. The early Christians saw them as liturgical hymns that had attained their full meaning in Christ. Two other ancient hymns of the church are the Gloria and the Sanctus. Biblical and liturgical scholars understand the Gloria as a hymn of praise to God for the great work he had done through the death and resurrection of his Son. The Sanctus is a biblical hymn, sung by the angels and saints before the throne of God (See Is. 6:3 and Rev. 4:8). Any serious study of the structure of the Mass will reveal that there are certain parts of it that are proper to sing.

Having said this, the Church does not take a rigorist view of singing at Mass. Not everything that is meant to be sung must be sung at every Mass.

From the late 1500s until Vatican II there were two different levels of singing at Mass. At a Low Mass there would be no singing at all. At a Solemn High Mass (or sung Mass), all the parts of the Mass would be sung. As the name implies (Solemn High Mass), singing allowed for a greater solemnity.

However, this all-or-nothing sort of approach had some downfalls. Many parishes did not have singers with sufficient training to sing all of the chants. This meant that a Low Mass was often the only option, and consequently many people were accustomed to a Mass without singing. We ought not criticize a longstanding and venerable liturgical tradition, but we can be thankful that the reforms of Vatican II replaced the all-or-nothing approach to singing with a more gradual one called the “principle of progressive solemnity.”

According to this principle, the sung parts of the Mass have a certain hierarchy, and according to the solemnity of the particular day, more or fewer parts of the Mass may be sung. For instance, on Sundays and Solemnities, more parts of the Mass should be sung. But at daily Masses, which are less solemn, there can be less singing, or no singing at all. It also makes it more feasible for musicians with limited skill sets to sing and play for Mass, even on Sundays and Solemnities.

How much singing there should be at any given Mass is ultimately up to the judgment of the pastor. Priests learn the principles of sacred music in their liturgical training in seminary, and it is up to them to apply them, with a pastor’s heart, according to the circumstances and needs of their parishioners.

The task of each parishioner, however, is to participate in the Eucharistic celebration as best as they can. Those who can sing, ought to sing and sing well. Those who cannot sing may still appreciate the beauty of the music and participate by listening.

Singing at Mass gives it greater solemnity; it helps express the solemnity that belongs to the Mass. We sometimes think of solemnity as pomp and circumstance – something ostentatious and fussy. The Mass is solemn, but it is none of these things.

The solemnity of the Mass is better described as something serious and dignified. The Mass is the sacramental memorial of our Lord’s victory over sin and death. Jesus took our salvation so seriously that he laid down his life to attain it. We know deep down that the passion, death and resurrection of Jesus, made present in the Eucharist, is something that we must take seriously and treat with great dignity.

The songs of the Mass are solemn. It cannot be denied that some unworthy compositions have crept into our parish repertoire, ones that do not properly convey the depth and beauty of the mysteries of the Lord. Renewal in this regard is certainly something to pray for. Likewise, we all have our own personal limitations and experience the limitations of others, such as out of tune singing. Nevertheless, singing at Mass is still very important. We sing because we value the Mass; we sing because we love the Mass.

Father Kraemer serves as the Secretary to the Bishop, Master of Ceremonies, Vice Chancellor, and Director of Liturgy for the Diocese of Fargo. He can be reached at matthew.kraemer@fargodiocese.org.

Editor’s Note: If you have a question about the Catholic faith and would like to submit a question for consideration in a future column, please send to news@fargodiocese.org with “Ask a Priest” in the subject line or mail to New Earth, 5201 Bishops Blvd. S, Suite. A, Fargo, ND 58104, Attn: Ask a Priest.