What do people experience in churches?

Pray Tell reader Jeff Reed calls our attention to this report from The Barna Group, which surveyed churchgoers from across the USA and from a variety of traditions.

The report provides breakdowns by generation, by tradition, and by size of congregation. Among the results suggested by their survey:

  • “One-third of those who have attended a church in the past have never felt God’s presence while in a congregational setting.”
  • “One-quarter (23%) of those with church experience selected the description that church feels ‘like a group sharing the same space in a public event but who were not connected in a real way.'”
  • This survey suggested that “church experiences do not differ all that much based on the size of the church.”

Do these results seem reasonable?  –ca


  1. In this statistical snapshot, Catholics in particular seem less engaged/affected than either main line Protestants or other Protestant churches. Less than a third of Catholics were willing to say that going to church affected their life greatly.

    Is it that Catholics lives are so integrated that they don’t notice the connection, or so fragmented that there as little as they report?

    1. Or maybe Protestants aren more dishonest when surveyed?


      More seriously: I suspect that Catholics don’t yet have a culture of active engagement in worship, even though 45 years of liturgical renewal have, as a whole, gone well. I note that when a Protestant group visits the abbey, they tend to sing and recite the responses more loudly, and the seem (judging by externals) more attentive during the readings and homily. Sometimes when a Protestant group comes to office, they recite the psalms so loudly, almost shouting, that they stand out at first. Their several centuries of vernacular worship have developed a culture, and our half century or so isn’t yet enough.

      And to make a huge generalization: I think Protetants have done a better job of bringing people to personal conversion, and they’re better at talking about it. Catholics have been more ‘tribal’ – you’re born into the whole culture and you go along with the rituals with everyone else. There is much to be said for that, and it becomes very important to many people. But the Catholic approach probably works better within ‘Christendom’ – a whole culture or society to carry the individual along. Which is to say, as Christendom dies, and as individuals choose to make use of religion to the extent it gives them a positive spiritual experience… we Catholics have some rough years ahead.


      1. I wonder if it really is a case of needing to “catch up” with Protestants, or if it’s more a problem of the Church deciding to emphasize vocal participation right when western culture became less musical. When the Protestant culture of singing developed, people were much more prone to singing at home and for other functions. Now people listen to music and have few opportunities to sing communally outside church. I suspect the strong singing in Protestant circles lives on because it has become a part of their religious culture even though it is no longer part of secular culture.

        Perhaps had the Mass been allowed in the vernacular in the 1860s instead of the 1960s we would have developed a strong singing culture a lot faster – especially because I’m told Catholic singing was rather robust at vernacular devotions as late as the 1950s.

  2. In his 2004 book Priests: A Calling in Crises, Andrew Greeley points out that as early as forty years ago in the NORC parochial school studies, 40% of Protestant gave a rating of excellent to their clergy, while only 20% of Catholics gave a rating of excellent to their priests.

    In 2000 ratings of excellence of clergy : Protestant vs Catholics

    Preaching: 36% vs 18%
    Respect for women: 37% vs.27%
    Sympathetic counseling: 34% vs.25%
    Work with youth: 40% vs. 28%
    Worship services: 38% vs. 28%
    Personal warmth: 45% vs. 30%
    Personal joy: 47% vs. 31%

    A quarter of the Catholic people think their priests do a miserable job on almost all of their pastoral activities

    Three out of five priests attribute the problems of the laity either to laypeople’s own personal feelings or to general cultural forces over which the clergy cannot be expected to have any control. .

    Since Protestant clergy do a much better job in the eyes of their people than do Catholic priests, then we should not be surprised that Protestants have better experiences in their churches.

    Priests don’t think they can do much about the laity; and I suspect laity don’ t think they can do much about their priests.

  3. There are lies, damned lies, and statistics. These are interesting findings only if we believe generalizations are useful in determining what is true. There are no generic Catholics or Protestants. There are only members of particular parishes or congregations who experience the ministry of particular priests or ministers. Where priests have zealously attempted to form a liturgical culture in which people may expect to experience the presence of God, more people will report that experience. If the priest understands worship as an obligation that is discharged more by being in attendance rather than some direct experience of God’s presence, that will affect what people report. If the priest connects consistently with people in his homilies at St. Jude’s but a different priest is not connecting at St. Joe’s, expect a big difference in people’s responses to pollsters.

    1. There are no generic Catholics or Protestants. There are only members of particular parishes or congregations who experience the ministry of particular priests or ministers

      True, but there are average Catholics and average Protestants, and the average Protestant reports excellence in their clergy about twice as often as the average Catholic.

      Catholic priests simply don’t have the accountability and feedback mechanisms that Protestant clergy have. In the Vibrant Parish Life Study “Parish leadership that listens to the concerns of parishioners” had the highest discrepancy between importance (ranked 7th) and being well done (ranked 29th) of all the items.

      The reality is the most priests attract staff and volunteers who are like minded, and hence surround themselves by a false sense of the parish. In effect they form an intentional congregation within a parish and under serve the rest of the parish. Protestants who don’t like a particular intentional congregation have many more to chose from, whereas Catholics have only a few.

  4. If someone called me on the phone and asked me these survey questions, I would politely decline to participate.

    What would I say to them about “participation”? I go to the 8am Sunday EF Low Mass. I say not a word, but listen very intently to the readings and Mass propers. Externally, another person might see a younger man looking in the direction of the altar. His facial expression changes little. He might have a rosary in his hands.

    Inside I am bursting with intellectual interest and prayer. My mind is racing to connect the themes of the propers. I often stop to reflect on the meaning of a word or phrase, and think of related texts. My mind is moving back and forth in active contemplation, with mental gears constantly shifting and meshing. By the time Father turns from the altar, shows the Host, and says ecce agnus Dei, my mind is already swimming through a universe of contemplative threads.

    What touchtone tune could I play to express the intensely prayerful stillness of an early Mass? I doubt that my Polish ancestors wondered about their “church experience satisfaction” while huddled together in a freezing stave church for Sunday Mass. Why should I, in the 21st century, be any different than my genetic predecessors in the 11th century? My forebears participated in the living sacrifice of the Mass in any way which profited their salvation, and never according to prefabricated metrics.

    I sometimes wonder if my participation in PTB is truly irrelevant because I cannot, and will never, admit the utility of surveys to “improve” an “experience”. I would rather huddle in that metaphorical stave church where piety and contemplation had already conquered modern humanity’s veiled religious narcissism.

  5. Protestant Churches tend to be much more intentional in membership and those who join particular congregations tend to be like minded and of the same class. Their congregations are much smaller and everyone knows everyone else. Their tradition of emphasizing fellowship or the horizontal aspect of their active participation not only in worship but in adult Sunday school and missions contributes to them being very “churched.” Catholics on the other hand are much more eclectic in membership, we tend to have huge congregations, multiple Masses, hit and miss fellowship and our worship historically has been more vertical than horizontal, although we’ve been trying to balance that, sometimes in an over-correction, and the attempts at adult formation are haphazard and tend to focus more on the intellect than forming community or deep spirituality. Protestant Sunday School for adults forms community amongst the various groups who sometimes stay in the same Sunday School class for most of their lives. I have to agree with Fr. Anthony, we had an ecumenical prayer service for the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity in our church and the Protestants blow the roof off with their responses and willingness to engage–but they also like “Books of Common Prayer” and worship aids which we as Catholics have denigrated since Vatican II for laity use during Mass. Protestants also tend to have a very stable, strong repertoire of singing hymns with relatively few new songs thrown at them–they use a national hymnal and keep it for years–we have throw away hymnals with new stuff constantly being produced and discarded.

    1. Not clear whether “Books of Common Prayer” has something to do with the Episcopal/Anglican “Book of Common Prayer” — if so, could you expand on Catholic “denigration” of this foundational religious text ? Thanks.

      1. I was not denigrating the Episcopal Book of Common Prayer or any other Protestant Book of Worship, but lamenting to a certain extent what has occurred in the Catholic Church since Vatican II, a push not to use a worship aid except maybe a hymnal (although now some churches even use a projection screen instead). In the past I include myself in promoting a liturgical catechesis that Catholics should keep their eyes out of missals and missalettes and know by heart all the parts of the Mass and not follow the priest in any of his prayers or the Scriptures that are proclaimed. In fact I applaud Episcopalians, Lutherans, Methodists and Baptists all of whom have national hymnals and Books of Worship. I’ve participated in many Protestant services and I very pleased when I am directed to the page of their Book of Worship to follow and respond to various prayers and litanies. This is especially true of Episcopal weddings and funerals, not to mention ecumenical services.

  6. Rodney Stark’s chapter on “Mega-churches” from the 2005 Baylor Study in What Americans Really Believe busts most of the myths about mega-churches and church size.

    The following are the results for Protestant churches only, of course.

    Yes in comparison to small churches mega-churches do have a brighter picture about the reality and likelihood of heaven, but they also have a darker picture of the reality of hell and sin.

    Mega-church members are more likely to attend church weekly, tithe, and attend bible study than smaller churches.

    Mega-church members are more likely to report religious and mystical experiences than smaller churches.

    They are more likely to report that half or more of their friends attend their congregation than do smaller churches.

    They are more likely to bear witness to their faith both to friends and strangers than do small churches.

    Mega-church members are more likely to volunteer in the community than members of smaller churches.

    Sorry we Catholics can’t hide any longer behind the excuse that our parishes are bigger and therefore automatically provide poorer services.
    Whether big or small, Protestant clergy and congregations just do a better job than Catholic priests and parishes.

    1. Jack, the data also indicates that those who join mega churches do so in an intentional way–they go out of desire to be with people like themselves and for social reasons as well as religious. This is less true of Catholics. Protestant Churches also have a higher standard for their members and forms of accountability especially as it concerns tithing and then being faithful to that tithe with regular reminders sent when they fall into arrears. In fact their annual budget is based upon the pledge of tithes which must be committed to annually and in a written pledge and thus the annual budget is scientifically determined as compared to the Catholic method of determining an annual budget based on a “wing and a prayer” as it concerns what Catholics will contribute to the parish. People who join these types of churches which expect them to pay their dues and to participate do so precisely because of those expectations.

    2. Sounds like you are blaming everything on the Catholic laity; that Catholicism is stuck with unintentional and un-tithing people. A lot of those intentional and tithing Protestants are former Catholics who have found a better product, i.e. a church with better sermons, a better liturgy, and a more sociable congregation. It is pretty hard to be intentional and tithing when liturgy is mediocre and parish communities are mediocre as Vibrant Parish Life and other studies have shown.

      The difference is in the clergy not the laity. Protestant clergy have to compete, work harder and smarter and be more responsive to their members. The reward for their labor is more committed members.

      Catholic priests only work harder and smarter when the Catholic Church is forced to compete by the threat of Protestants taking away Catholics. That happened in the immigrant Church; its happening today in South America and in Africa. Catholicism is vibrant in those areas because it has competition.

      The problem with the American Catholic Church is the hierarchy is sitting on the accumulated wealth of the past, and can afford to sell off a lot of property to keep it running, and so does not worry about loosing people, especially when the remaining people are wealthy enough they can be counted upon to increase their contributions. The money trail explains everything.

      We are a very worldly church, have been for a long time, too interested in money, status and power rather than the Gospel. That is why we need Protestants, except they tend to become worldly, too once they are successful.

      1. Catholicism is vibrant in the south where I live precisely because of the challenge of Protestantism. You need to move south for a different perspective on Catholicism and being a parish which is very much tied into challenging parishioners to give of their time, talent and treasure which is precisely tied into them taking ownership of their parish, being a part of decision making, allowing them to take the ball and run with ministries they feel they can organize and make successful. But it doesn’t happen with out money and their sacrificial offerings and being challenged to respond to the biblical tithe of their earnings. I might add that the ability to hire full time professionals in music and ministry also helps us to compete–money, Jack, money, based upon a spirituality of giving, accountability (both on the institutional and personal level, i.e. clergy and laity) and following our Lord through faith and outreach and at the same time maintaining our uniquely Catholic identity, spirituality and liturgy, not to mention assent to legitimate authority in the areas of faith, morals and Church law.

  7. I expect it would differ according to one’s age.
    When I returned to the Catholic Church in the early 90s, I discovered all the changes that Vatican II had brought and was delighted. I met a new Church. With all the changes going on, the Church is looking once again like the one I left 50 years ago…

  8. This may be considered a bit off topic, but I am wondering what folks are thinking about the recently approved Neocatechumenal “Rite.” I admit I don’t know much about it. It seems to include a lot of congregational participation. Do folks see this as a model for future liturgical renewal or a NO aberration? Perhaps this could be a separate topic on the blog.

    1. Sandro Magister had an article on this which was discussed over at NLM


      Sounds a little bit like the “house” Masses that were more popular in the 1970’s and 80’s, an attempt to recover the meal nature of the Mass. Guess I was not impressed by them. And the abuse of “withdrawal” from the parish is real. I knew of one family who had the first communion of their daughter concelebrated by three priests at their home!

      Personally for small faith communities and families I think we should recover the agape, the ritual meal separate from the Eucharist, especially in these days where ecumenical friendships and families are common.

  9. claire bangasser :

    I expect it would differ according to one’s age.
    When I returned to the Catholic Church in the early 90s, I discovered all the changes that Vatican II had brought and was delighted. I met a new Church. With all the changes going on, the Church is looking once again like the one I left 50 years ago…

    That seems to be the hierarchy’s intention.

  10. But to answer the original question. I used to experience a feeling of closeness to God.

    Now, since my mass was stolen from me at the start of Advent, all I experience is sadness, anger, and hatred for the people who stole it, all because they didn’t like the previous mass.

    1. “Now, since my mass was stolen from me at the start of Advent, all I experience is sadness, anger, and hatred for the people who stole it, all because they didn’t like the previous mass.”

      This is nearly a verbatim repetition of what a dear friend of mine said forty years ago.

  11. Define “church”. If you are referring to the gathering space, that is not church. Church is the gathered assembly, not the space. WE are church. Too many neocons are trying to redefine Vatican 2 teachings to suit their traditionalist tendencies when the spirit of Vatican 2 actually moves us away from those rudimentary primitive practices of the middle ages. We no longer have to cling to outdated theatrically pious practices like genuflecting and striking our breasts. We are grown-ups now. WE celebrate! WE believe!

    1. WE celebrate! WE believe! WE stick our tongues out during Holy Communion at fellow Catholics who don’t happen to share our oh so groovy Gospel values!

    2. Barbara, why are genuflecting and striking of the breast outdated and theatrical?

      I’m also curious — you once said that you would start kneeling when the priest knelt. Do you genuflect or bow when the priest genuflects or bows (despite your feelings about genuflection being outdated)?

      1. Jeffrey,

        I think that Barbara’s mention of genuflection and striking the breast, which conservative or traditionalist Catholics endear more than progressive Catholics, is simply a reference to the belief that the current conservative hierarchy in the church is trying to change the church back to the way it was before Vatican II. A church that is completely foreign to many Catholics.

        Personally, if a person wants to deeply genuflect, strike their breast, or perform some other physical action that deepens their experience in church, I wouldn’t begrudge them, even if I myself don’t feel any need for it.

      2. Jeff,
        We are a priestly people by virtue of our Baptism. As a royal priesthood of believers, we stand as a community of the baptised reflecting the risen Christ with our posture when we assert ourselves at the table of justice, joy and celebration. It is no coincidence that even the USCCB has made standing the posture when we take communion. To answer your question, as a Baptised member of the faith-community’s priesthood, I refuse to genuflect. Bowing is sufficient for the clergy and it’s sufficient for all. Remember, WE are church. We celebrate! We believe!

      3. Barbara, the priest is supposed to genuflect thrice during the Mass: twice during the Eucharistic Prayer and one more time right before Communion. He does this even as a baptized member of the community he serves. (Some circumstances may prevent a priest from genuflecting, in which case he bows; and concelebrating priests bow instead of genuflect.)

        At the time of the first two genuflections, the congregation’s posture is supposed to be kneeling, but there are reasons that might not be the case; in such cases, when the priest genuflects, the faithful who are standing are expected to bow (not to the priest, obviously, but for the same reason the priest genuflects).

        Genuflection during the Mass is not rubrically required of the congregation (except on Christmas and the Annunciation, during the Creed, when everyone genuflects during the words announcing the Incarnation).

        Kneeling is another matter. (My parish happened to sing “Let us break bread together on our knees” yesterday.)

        And for all that “we are church”, the hierarchy is too. They’re not “more church” than the laity. And I find that, as a sharer in Christ’s priesthood through baptism, I am able to celebrate and believe even when my posture differs from that of the priest.

      4. Jeffrey – we don’t gather in a vacuum. No one can know what is in the mind or heart of a person who kneels to take Communion on the tongue. What is known is that many have said and/or written that unless one kneels to take Communion on the tongue, one is showing disrespect for and/or disbelief in the Real Presence. In that context then, the person who kneels is perceived as accusing all those who don’t kneel of grievous sin. When some write that the Latin Mass is the only true Mass, all Latin Masses become a threat to those who prefer a vernacular Mass.
        We should strive for more charity and less disapproval from all quarters.

      5. We should strive for more charity and less disapproval from all quarters.

        Certainly. Your remarks about the person who kneels being perceived as accusatory, or some people’s sentiments about “the Latin Mass” poisoning the well of Latin in the liturgy, reminds me of the Church’s over-reaction nearly a millennium ago when, in addition to withholding the Chalice from the laity, also made the concession thereof an excommunicable offense!

        The errors of some should not so freely restrict the liberties of the rest. Abusus non tollit usum.

      6. Jeffrey P., your continual attempt to be rational with what is a deeply emotional set of triggers is very noble. For some of the folks here, a reworking of Alexander Pope’s (!) words about Newton seem to apply: The Gospel and the Gospel’s ways lay hid in night/ Then God said, “Let Vatican II be!” — and all was light.

    3. Barbara Lowenthal on January 22, 2012 – 9:18 am

      We no longer have to cling to outdated theatrically pious practices like genuflecting and striking our breasts. We are grown-ups now.

      “And they brought unto him also infants, that he would touch them: but when his disciples saw it, they rebuked them. But Jesus called them unto him, and said , Suffer little children to come unto me, and forbid them not: for of such is the kingdom of God. Verily I say unto you, Whosoever shall not receive the kingdom of God as a little child shall in no wise enter therein.” (Luke 18:15 — 17 KJV)

      Who are the children in Luke?

      1. re: Gerard Flynn on January 23, 2012 – 8:19 am

        The closing verse clearly says that we who believe must become children to enter the kingdom of God.

        There are no “grown-ups” in the Church visible, but only metaphorical children. We are children who stumble and struggle to cooperate with grace. The well deserved crown is reserved for the end of our “childhood” race, which is our faith in this life. When we think we have outgrown the honor due to God, we cease to believe in God but rather worship an narcissistic construct.

    4. Are they redefining Vat II teachings to suit traditionalist tendencies because it links us to the Church prior the Council and nothing more than that? What is wrong with seeing that continuity? Moving away from the middle ages with the “spirit” of Vat II and into another epoch, antiquity, seems a bit artificial unless we are using Aramaic for Mass. The Church has moved past Aramaic rather quickly an onto Greek and then Latin, which as the Church grew stuck for centuries. And now allowance for the vernacular.Although I attend mostly the EF Mass, I do not mind a NO with all the traditional trappings that link it to the 1962 Missal for no other reason than it feels like the Pauline Missal belongs right where it is. As one continual path forward in continuity with the past. I have heard a robust singing of the Credo in Latin at EF Masses that has drown out completely singing in my local OF parish. Maybe the singing not being robust is simply because that is now our tradition. To mumble or humm bars to the hyms. Everyone is different and feels comfortable at different levels. I myself, sing or hum quietly when at the NO parish because that is what they all do. And yet during the EF Mass I sing much louder in Latin because that is what everyone else does. I am inspired by singing as was done centuries ago, in Latin.

      1. When and where did anyone sing as you describe it? Robust singing of the credo in Latin? Singing louder because everyone else does?

        These things happen only now, as a result of the Liturgical Movement and Vatican 2. Perhaps once in some monasteries or convents. I doubt that it was ever common “centuries ago, in Latin.”

      2. Mitch, who is the “they” of which you speak in the first line of your post? I am not sure I follow you.

        You’ve said something interesting below, however, where you ask if this is “now our tradition” to hum or sing softly.

        I think the status quo is perceived even by those who participate in it to be sub-normal. But I think, for some, the roots of the problem lie in having “nothing to sing about” — in other words, the evangelion is not felt to be news or to be the “message in a bottle” found by desperate souls in distress, as a promise of rescue, as Walker Percy so perceptively discussed it. We sing when we have something to sing about.

        What do others think?

      3. I have found that robust congregational singing is one of the fruits of a parish music program when it is treated as a true ministry with a high priority (that means adequate resources). Because a good music program is not cheap, pastors often settle for well-intentioned but inadequately prepared amateurs. You want good congregational singing? First, start with something singable. Too many contemporary pieces have syncopated rhythms, are not consistently metrical from verse to verse and are tonally ambiguous. This weakens participation. Second, a trained choir supports singing far better than a leader of song (in fact, a lot of the leaders of song I’ve heard actually have a negative impact on congregational singing). People sing better when they can hear other people singing well. Third, hire a professionally trained church organist that knows how to lead the singing via the instrument (sorry, no one is going to convince me that a guitar or even a piano provides adequate tonal support). Bad repertoire, lack of musical leadership / support, musicians that are not adequately proficient – these are the enemies of congregational singing.

  12. There is a difference. Most Protestants go to church because many want to go. In the Catholic church one of our priests reminds us that we must attend church to fulfill our “obligation”.
    That’s the difference, Protestants go because they want to and many if not most Catholics go because they are obliged to go.

    When you have good liturgy, good choral, a good homily that uplifts and explains our faith, and a presider who involves the laity in the liturgy and loves what he does then you have a recipe for church attendance loyalty, which is pretty much what Vatican II was all about in my opinion.
    When you have all of that then “obligation” doesn’t enter your mind at all because you want to go back for more and actually can’t wait until Sunday (Sat vigil) comes around again because it is the most uplifting experience of the week.

  13. There are many priests all over the English speaking world who know how to pray using the new missal in a way that continues to elicit joyful participation from God’s priestly people. I speak as someone who was convinced that the new translation would be all but unprayable. I’ve been pleasantly surprised to learn how to render the meaning of the prayers without following the Latinate constructions. C’mon, Sean, look around your area more carefully.

  14. When I attend a parish that is not Anglican Ordiariate, I am struck by a very different aura, a very different alivenes of the people. They are generally passive, don’t stand, sit, or kneel without some instruction for them to do so. When, for instance, it is time to stand for Alleluya they don’t energetically stand of thier own doing and sing Allelu to Yaweh on their own instantaneous energetic power Somewone needs to motion for them to do do so. And so the mass goes like this from beginnging to end, The responses are mumbled (they are certainly not hearty – why hearty may cause a stir – a stir that’s probably needed! The singing is, likewise, mumble singing of plunky-plunky guitar pieces or ‘keyboards’ that are silent unless you plug them into outlet, whereby they are able to make a variety of fake sounds which the more clever of their instrumentalists will assure you SOUNDS like an organ – e’en though it isn’t and doesn’t.

    There are other parishes at which the people just know when and what to sing and they stand and do it spontaneously and heartily – would you believe it? without any prompters instruction or announcement.
    All prayers, creed, kneel, sit, stand, singing just happens spontaneously from the group, each member of which knows what to do or follows someone who does. The service folder is a big aid in this, but so is a tradition of group dynamics lead by real church musicians with there feet firmly planted in heritage in the service of a liturgy that is the beauty of holiness.

    It is sad, but true, that if persons from the first mentioned church sould visit the second he and she would not ‘get with it’. They would lay the service folder in the pew and not follow it and just sand and sit there saying nothing (even when one tried to help them along) and remain deaf and dumb to all that was going on

    This paradigm does not, thankfully, fit all Roman Catholic Churches, but it fits far, fat too many of them that I ever have ocassion to…Cont…

  15. It is as though there were a pall or an air of numbness that should not be disturbed… like it would be a faux pas were one to release himself and go through the mass with the enthusiasm of one who knows what the liturgy is doing and what he is doing and get caught up in a spirit that does not need the commenator, the announcer, and the cantor or cantrix doing their horrid little pirouettes.

    1. the commenator, the announcer, and the cantor or cantrix doing their horrid little pirouettes

      With all due respect, such language denigrates a good many people who are out there trying to do their best to assist others in worship. I find the term “cantrix”, especially offensive with its implication that women shouldn’t be involved at all.
      I’ve known music leaders who seem to discourage congregational singing and/or treat the gathered adults as simpletions. If you are involved in such a situation, the solution is to express your concerns to that person, not to cast aspersions at random. It may be that you can help change a situation. Again, if it is the style of music that alienates you, take the same course. In the event that perhaps the majority of that congregation prefers things as they are*, perhaps you could find a congregation more in tune with your tastes. In any case, don’t sit there fuming!

      * I suspect than many Americans are not encultured to engage in any sort of singing. They are used to listening to the radio, attending a concert, etc. and sitting quietly. I think it is a rare person who could get such a crowd to start singing every Sunday without extra efforts. It may be a useful topic for discussion to discuss how to train adults to sing. At the very least, every person concerned with this should encourage musical training in our schools!

      1. Brigid,

        Mr. Osborn is a member of the American Guild of Organists, the American Musicological Society, the Anglican Use Society, the Plainsong and Mediaeval Music Society, the Royal School of Church Music, and the Church Music Association of America.

        Click on the About Us tab at http://www.gregorianchantschool.org/

        My impression was the “good many people” whom he was denigrating was the 99% of us Catholics who can’t sing.

    2. M.J.O. Many thanks once again for the humour. The problem is that some of the readers here forget that your post is a parody. If they had any sense they’d realise that the sterile dilettantism which it lampoons is just that.

      Using “pejorative” as an abstract noun and adding an
      extra letter is more likely to offend delicate ears and eyes than the harmless word “cantrix.”

      “I apologise for giving offence by using the term cantrix: believe it or not, it was not at all meant as a perjorative – quite the opposite!”

      1. MB –
        My goodness! I did slip up and misspell ‘pejorative’, didn’t I? One really does have to be careful here. Only a friend such as you would have pointed that out to me. I’m glad, at least, that you weren’t offended by ‘cantrix’. This assures me of your rationality and health. Um, is attributing parody to that which is not parody pejorative? Or, is it, perhaps, a denigrance?

  16. With due respect and no intent to denigrate:
    Your assertion that 99% of Catholics can’t sing is the real denigration. they can very well sing if they wish, and if the instilled feeling that they shouldn’t act until someone motions them to and gives permission were not an all-too-pervasive reality. Singing is human nature: it is a demonstrated reality that true ‘tone deafness’ and inablility to sing with others is a relatively rare phenonmenon.
    And, offences should not have been taken at my remarks. They were an expression more of pity that people do not realise their potential than denigration.
    I apologise for giving offence by using the term cantrix: believe it or not, it was not at all meant as a perjorative – quite the opposite!
    And, JR: I’m sure that you are not intimating that being a member of the societies that you list disqualifies one as a commentator on this subject??? I denigrated no one: I lamented a lamentable reality.

    1. It’s not that 99% of Catholics can’t sing; it’s that a lot of Americans have never sung either as individuals or members of a group. I am certain that someone from another culture would insist that every human can dance, but don’t try to prove that by looking at the typical Euro-American!

      The common plaint is that Catholics don’t sing, but I wonder how many people attending mega-churches featuring Christian rock groups are singing and how many are listening? Again, many Euro-Americans are encultured to listen to rather than to produced music. It’s going to take more than a few pre-Mass run throughs to change that.

      Please explain how “horrid little pirouettes” is not a denigrating phrase.

  17. Your observations are, I think, correct ones about American ‘passive participation’. This is a deeply lamentable cultural phenomenon which all of us, you and I, and all of us should strive to correct in each of our situations. We should not accept it as an unalterable, let alone a valid, condition of human culture of whatever ethnicity. It is WRONG. And yes, there is something about or within Catholic culture, at least in this country, that all too often re-inforces this stiffling passiveness.

    Finally: I will grant you this one point: yes, ‘horrid little pirouettes’ is and was meant to be a denigration. I have seen cantors with both arms raised on high and performing what could only be described as a pirouette while ‘leading’ the people in their song. This sort of posture has, as a matter of fact, been counselled against and officially disapproved of, but is still not extinct. A real live cantor leads by the skillful use of his or her voice and does not make a spectacle of him-herself. Those who do cannot be denigrated enough.

  18. MJO,

    When the “99% of us who can’t sing” do sing we sing because with know the music, and we sing with enthusiasm when we like the music. Unfortunately often the music chosen are things we don’t know very well, and hence have not had much of an opportunity to come to like them. Familiarity does lead to liking

    I listed all your credentials because your approach seems very far removed from where most of the people in the pews are, namely “do I know any of this music, and do I like any of it.”

    My approach to parish music is very simple. First choose things that people know and like. Second, when they don’t know something give them an opportunity to practice before Mass. I think those two things would improve things greatly.

    A parish where I was in the eighties had an organist who chose things the people knew and liked, and also practiced for five or ten minutes before Mass. Great congregational singing. We did not have a cantor or choir; we really did not need them.

  19. Jack, I agree that using music that people know and like is important. Unfortunately this means that in some places the same music gets used over and over, regardless of the season or of the suitability of the music. At the other end of the spectrum is music chosen because the third line in the third verse relates to a theme from the second reading, but no one knows the melody and the piece does not get used again for 6 months. Obviously there must be a balance among the pastoral, liturgical and musical aspects of each selection. This is one of the hardest parts of being a music director.

    My experience is that practicing music before mass is not optimal. People are coming in, some are praying, some looking for the day’s readings, etc. I have always introduced new music after Communion, when everyone can focus. For a hymn, I have the organist play it through completely once, emphasizing the melody, then the choir sings it alone while the assembly listens, and then ALL the remaining verses are sung by all. I would then schedule the piece for the next 2-3 weeks to reinforce it. Also, by publishing your own parish worship aid, you can reuse the same hymn tune with different words – that helps a lot. Of course that only works for traditional hymnody. For congregational mass setings, I would limit the number to 4: 1 for advent/Christmas, 1 for Lent, 1 for Eastertide and 1 for Ordinary Time. In some places the mass music seems to change every few weeks. I don’t understand the rationale for that.

    1. Those of us who are in the 99% who are unconfident of our singing are always happy when we see a list of songs that we know how to sing, and never, never think that we have sung a song that we like too much. You have to be among the 1% who are confident of their singing ability, especially of music they have never seen before, to think thoughts like “I like that but I have sung that too often.”

      Yes, exposing the congregation to new music by first having the choir do it on their own is one way of helping the congregation to learn and like new music.

      However, I suspect the defacto situation in most parishes that MJO has put his finger upon without correctly identifying the dynamics, is that the “implicit social contract” is that the congregation is invited to sing along with the choir even though they don’t know and have never sung the particular music, or heard it or practiced it. Thus the hesitation. Do I pick up the song book and try to sing? Do I just listen while others sing, etc. Do I just hum along? Join in a refrain here and there. So Mass just ends up being a very poorly managed music learning session unless all the hymns have been well chosen which they are usually not.

      On the other hand, in the situation which I described in which the organist led the people and practiced before Mass, the explicit social contract was that the people were going to sing the Mass, that is why we practiced and there was no choir to fall back upon. Fortunately she was a very outgoing person who made the practice sessions enjoyable.

      In the parish where I travel about a half hour to worship, there is a brief practice of any new music at the beginning of Mass (never more than a few minutes). However the choir also practices in the church before Mass. When the new choir director attempted to move the choir practice to another room, there was such an objection that by a 2 to 1 vote people brought back the choir practice to the church.

      1. Jack, I guess our experiences and how we interpret them are different. I do not want to hear the choir practice before mass. I want to prepare myself for mass, either by praying or reviewing the readings of the day. All I can say is that introducing new music after Communion when everyone, including the clergy and other ministers, can focus on it has proven successful for me. Re: overusing certain pieces – there is always going to be tension between relying on familiar music, regardless of content, vs. appropriate, less familiar music. Frankly, I do get tired of some music. It is not a question of style or taste. Just as I am tired of singing “How Great Thou Art”, I am also tired of singing “Now Thank We All our God”, both of which get scheduled whenever the music director is at a loss for something more relevant. Is the point of congregational singing simply to get maximum participation, or to sing something that emphasizes the readings, season, etc, even if the music is a bit more challenging? While we’re on the subject of the choir, there seems to be a feeling among some that the only function of the choir is to support congregational singing. That’s certainly one of its functions, but if it’s the only one, I might ask if having that kind of choir is worth the trouble. Just as I enjoy hearing (yes, passively) a good homily and seeing an appropriately decorated church, I also enjoy hearing the choir sing its own repertoire. Each ministry has its own role. We do not (or should not) read the readings aloud along with the lector, we do not all distribute Communion to one another, and so we should not insist that all the music at Mass be congregational.

  20. Rita Ferrone :
    Mitch, who is the “they” of which you speak in the first line of your post? I am not sure I follow you.
    You’ve said something interesting below, however, where you ask if this is “now our tradition” to hum or sing softly.
    I think the status quo is perceived even by those who participate in it to be sub-normal. But I think, for some, the roots of the problem lie in having “nothing to sing about” — in other words, the evangelion is not felt to be news or to be the “message in a bottle” found by desperate souls in distress, as a promise of rescue, as Walker Percy so perceptively discussed it. We sing when we have something to sing about.
    What do others think?

    They = the neocons that Barbara refers to in her post way above mine…I was responding to that..

  21. I’m quite late to add my two cents here, but we have a situation in which most Americans cannot read music! Hymnals and even the copies of the revised chant meant to be sung by the assembly are useless – because people cannot read them! I think it behooves those of us who are fortunate enough to have learned to read music to sing any and every piece allotted to us so that others may follow our voices. Educating everyone in solfege does not seem to be on the horizon… So if you can read, you must sing!

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