The sounds of silence at our liturgies

By Fr. John Girotti | For the Compass | January 2, 2020

I have been a priest for several years now and I have been privileged to say Mass in different parishes throughout our diocese and around the country. It is always a joy to see the lived faith present in our communities and to have my faith bolstered by this witness.

Music has always been an important part of my life. I started playing violin when I was 4, later switched to cello, and I eventually went to college to study music, eventually earning a degree. In becoming a priest, I knew that music would continue to be part of my life. But I did not realize how it would eventually become a cause of great reflection for me — each and every Sunday.

One of the realities of parish life that I have observed over the years is that some of the people in the pews do not sing. Processing out after most Masses there is a dead zone in many churches where the people hardly open their mouths. I have found this to be the case in most parishes — those with a robust music ministry and those where the music is rather, well, shall we say, plain. It really doesn’t matter, some people just do not sing.

What to make of all of this? For decades, we have been catechized and cajoled in the importance of liturgical music. We have developed hymnals and missalettes; entire cartels of music publishers have grown up to promote this. Music ministers have worked and sacrificed for countless hours honing their important craft and urging congregational singing. We have microphones and even better microphones, we have organs and pianos and keyboards that sound like fake organs and keyboards that sound like fake pianos. We have general purpose choirs, youth choirs, men’s choirs, women’s choirs, folk choirs, latin scholas and, and, and … some of the people still don’t sing. We have spent time and money and blood, sweat and tears to get them all to sing at Mass. And some of them don’t. Why?

Perhaps a few reasons. The first is to state the obvious. People have varying musical gifts. Some people have an innate sense of pitch and can carry a tune quite well. Others simply do not have this gift and to open their mouths is to risk personal embarrassment and/or distraction for others. The old adage of “sing even if you do not know how” is rather specious — I would not want my dentist to adopt this same philosophy in his work. The plain fact is that, although training is possible, singing or musical talent simply escapes some people. This is perfectly acceptable and should not be a cause for judgment. There are many gifts but the same Spirit.

Perhaps another reason is the sad fact that many modern hymns are quite simply unsingable for the average person. The time signatures are complex, the rhythms difficult, the key set too high and the melodies difficult to hum, let alone to remember. Older hymns typically had simpler melodies and musical construction and thus were easier to sing. Music written in recent times has attempted to be more sophisticated, mirroring the often sketchy and effete theology contained within them. Only professionals can sing them. And so the average person in the pew simply gives up. Why even try?

Perhaps a final reason could be this. Maybe some people don’t sing at Mass because they just don’t want to. Does this make them a lesser Christian — an incomplete Catholic? Certainly not! Maybe, just maybe, the spirituality of a particular person at Mass desires a sacred silence, desires an inward active participation and finds the constant singing and musical noise to be — well, a distraction.

Certainly liturgical music is usually beautiful and its purpose as an art form is to lift our minds and hearts to God while assisting all present in their active participation in the liturgy. Congregational singing is a beautiful and powerful way to worship God and to demonstrate the unity of the community at prayer. It is one way to do this, but not the only way.

People approach God differently, and even though Jesus Christ remains the only Savior of the world, the particular way by which we worship him often can vary. Many great saints have worshipped God silently at Mass. Many holy, faithful people do not sing. Their active participation is internal. The testimony of their lives of faith is a kind of silent singing. Do you and I have the ears to hear their beautiful silent song — the song of their lives? And this song, although different from others, is beautiful and true.


Fr. Girotti, vicar for canonical services and associate moderator of the Curia for the Diocese of Green Bay, has just released a new DVD series, “Live Your Faith.” It is available through the Families & Schools of Discipleship Office, [email protected].

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