May 2014 Print

Is Congregational Singing Catholic?


Fr. Peter Scott, SSPX

The question here does not concern the singing of vernacular hymns by Catholics before or after Mass, or during processions or Benediction of the Blessed Sacrament, or other non-liturgical functions. It concerns the singing of the common Latin chants of the Mass, such as the Kyrie, Gloria, Credo, Sanctus, Agnus Dei, and the responding to the priest when he sings Dominus vobiscum, per omnia saecula saeculorum, etc.

Several objections are given to singing by the congregation of such liturgical texts. The first and most convincing is quite simply that in some places in the English-speaking world it simply is not the custom, and has not been the custom within living memory, or even for generations. Would it not be a modernist imposition to force it on the people who are trying to pray their Mass? The second is that being a liturgical action, the chant at Mass should be reserved to the clergy and not allowed to all the faithful. For St. Pius X states in his 1903 motu proprio on Church music Tra le Sollecitudini that “the cantors in church fill a true liturgical office” (§13). A third is that St. Pius X likewise forbids women singing in church, and women obviously make up a large part of the congregation: “Women, not being capable of that office cannot be admitted to form a part of the choir or schola” (ibid.). A fourth reason is that, as St. Pius X points out in the above-mentioned motu proprio, Gregorian chant must be “a true art, for if it was otherwise, it could not have on the mind of the hearers the beneficial influence that the Church wants it to have in using it in its liturgy” (ibid., §2). A final reason is the abuse of active participation by the liturgical movement, which was not St. Pius X’s intention in the above mentioned motu proprio, since the Latin text does not have the word active, but simply the word participation (Introduction and §3).

A little investigation will show that the opposition to congregational singing is largely a historical and cultural one, and not one related to the Church’s teaching. Let us take, first of all, the often quoted motu proprio of Saint Pius X on Church music. This text is fundamental to the liturgical movement, for it gives the principle of an orthodox understanding of the importance of Holy Mass and the Divine Office, and the refutation of the modernists. For St. Pius X the Mass and Divine Office are theocentric, directed towards Almighty God and the worship of His Divine Majesty. For the modernists they are anthropocentric, directed towards man, his instruction, his education, his feelings. The focus is entirely different. Active participation in the liturgy is for St. Pius X both internal and external, uniting oneself with the divine victim interiorly, and also playing one’s role in the external ceremonies. This text is from the introduction to the motu proprio:

“Filled as We are with a most ardent desire to see the true Christian spirit flourish in every respect and be preserved by all the faithful, We deem it necessary to provide before anything else for the sanctity and dignity of the temple, in which the faithful assemble for no other object than that of acquiring this spirit from its foremost and indispensable font, which is the active participation in the most holy mysteries and in the public and solemn prayer of the Church.”

It is true that when one looks at the Latin version of the text contained in the Acta Sanctae Sedis, Vol. XXXVI, p. 388, one does not find the word active, but simply the word participation. Does this mean that the translation that uses the word “active” is inaccurate, although it is translated this way in all the vernacular languages? Not at all, for if one checks the Acta Sanctae Sedis, one will find this remark, in Latin: “The official text, written in Italian, can be found in this volume on page 329.” On that page, another note will be found confirming that this text was indeed written by the Roman Pontiff in the Italian language, but that it is also given in Latin because it concerns the entire Catholic world. The official Italian text is very clear, and speaks about “active participation,” of which the above is a literal and correct English translation. Clearly, then, St. Pius X was not speaking about a passive participation, simply being present, but about an active participation.

This is confirmed in §3 of the same document, which states: “Special efforts are to be made to restore the use of the Gregorian Chant by the people, so that the faithful may again take a more active part in the ecclesiastical offices, as was the case in ancient times.” You will note that the Pope makes reference to an ancient custom, lost in much of the English-speaking world, of the faithful themselves singing the Gregorian chant. To the objection that the word active is not present in the Latin version, it must be answered that this is simply a question of translation, and that the Latin translator thought that the use of this word was not necessary to convey the meaning, already contained in the words participatio and participes in Latin. In fact, the Italian, the official and original version is very explicit: “affinché i fedeli prendano di nuovo parate più attiva all’officiatura ecclesiastica…” and the English translation is certainly correct.

However, lest we be in any doubt as to the mind of the Pope, it is to be interpreted by another Pope, and one not modernist at all, one who wrote a magistral encyclical to condemn and refute the deviations of the liturgical movement. It was Pope Pius XII in 1947, who in Mediator Dei spelled out the meaning of this active participation, pointing out that it is first of all an interior participation in and union with Christ’s offering of Himself to His heavenly Father, which requires great purity of soul to be victims in our own turn (§98-104). However, then he describes the outward means that are apt to bring about this internal participation, and in which active participation, the singing of the Gregorian chant is to be included:

“Therefore they are to be praised who with the idea of getting the Christian people to take part more easily and more fruitfully in the Mass, strive to make them familiar with the Roman Missal, so that the faithful, united with the priest, may pray together in the very words and sentiments of the Church. They also are to be commended who strive to make the Liturgy even in an external way a sacred act in which all who are present may share. This can be done in more than one way, when for instance, the whole congregation in accordance with the rules of the Liturgy, either answer the priest in an orderly and fitting manner, or sing hymns suitable to the different parts of the Mass, or do both, or finally in High Masses when they answer the prayers of the minister of Jesus Christ and also sing the liturgical chant” (§105).

Every traditional Catholic finds it quite normal that all the faithful should have a Missal to follow the prayers of the Mass. Why would he not also want to sing the responses and the common chants? Essentially because he is not familiar with this custom. It is true that in the Latin Rite the custom was in many places lost and sometimes discouraged, on account of the inability of the people to sing correctly the chants. However, anybody with an elementary knowledge of the Eastern Rites will confirm that the custom of the whole congregation singing was never lost. The problem in the Latin Rite was not a doctrinal one, but a practical one. In fact, it was long before St. Pius X that the bishops of the United States strove to encourage congregational singing and to bring a remedy to this practical difficulty, as this quote from the Catholic Encyclopedia of 1912 establishes:

“The Second Plenary Council of Baltimore (1866) expressed (No. 380) its earnest wish that the rudiments of Gregorian chant should be taught in the parish schools, in order that ‘the number of those who can sing the chant well having increased more and more, gradually the greater part, at least, of the people should, after the fashion still existing in some places of the Primitive Church, learn to sing Vespers and the like together with the sacred ministers and the choir.’ The Third Plenary Council of Baltimore (1884) repeats (No. 119) the words of the Second Council, prefacing them with ‘Denuo confirmemus.’

“The words of the quoted councils and of the pope imply a restoration of congregational singing through instruction in Gregorian chant, and therefore clearly refer to the strictly liturgical offices such as solemn or high Mass, Vespers, Benediction (after the Tantum Ergo has begun). Congregational singing at low Mass and at other services in the church, not strictly ‘liturgical’ in ceremonial character, has always obtained, more or less, in our churches. With respect to the strictly liturgical services, it is to be hoped that the congregation may be instructed sufficiently to sing, besides the responses to the celebrant (especially those of the Preface), the Ordinary (i.e. the Kyrie, Gloria, Credo, Sanctus, Benedictus, Agnus Dei) of the Mass in plain chant; leaving the Introit, Gradual or Tract sequence (if there be one), Offertory, and Communion to the choir; the Psalms and hymns at Vespers, leaving the antiphons to the choir. The singing might well be made to alternate between congregation and choir” (M. T. Henry).


Having laid out these principles, we are now in a better position to answer the legitimate objections. Clearly the Church has not and does not oblige congregational singing, so that the custom of the faithful not singing is not reprobated or against the law of the Church, nor does the pastor have grounds in Canon Law to oblige any individual or congregation, or impose any punishment for refusal to do so. Certainly, there are persons and congregations who simply cannot sing suitably even the Ordinary of the Mass. However, persons who have the ability to do so ought to follow the mind of the Church, and to co-operate when encouraged by their pastor. Moreover, they cannot invoke the local custom that this has not been done, even for centuries, since the Church has made it quite clear that the absence of the chant by the people is not something desirable, but a decadence due to ignorance and inability and one that ought to be corrected, when and if possible.

To the objection that the singing of chant is a liturgical function, a distinction must be made. The singing of the Propers of the Mass, which St. Pius X foresees be done by the schola cantorum, is properly speaking a clerical function, just like serving at the altar. Clearly only men can sing in the Gregorian schola, just as only men can serve at the altar. However, the singing of the Ordinary of the Mass, which comprises the parts of the Mass that belong to the faithful, is their function in virtue of the sacrament of baptism, which gives them a small participation in the priesthood of Christ, and enables them to participate actively in the Mass by offering themselves with the divine victim, by receiving Holy Communion, and also by saying or singing the responses and the Ordinary chants. This is what Pope Pius XII teaches when he explains the priesthood of the faithful and condemns the modernist confusion between this priesthood and the ordained priesthood: “It is therefore desirable, Venerable Brethren, that all the faithful should be aware that to participate in the Eucharistic Sacrifice is their chief duty and supreme dignity, and that not in an inert and negligent fashion, giving way to distractions and daydreaming, but with such earnestness and concentration that they may be united as closely as possible with the High Priest…” (Mediator Dei, §80). He goes on to explain how the outward and interior forms of active participation are to be closely united one to another: “Their aim (these methods of participation in the Mass) is to foster and promote the people’s piety and intimate union with Christ and His visible minister, and to arouse those internal sentiments and dispositions which should make our hearts become like to that of the High Priest of the New Testament” (ibid., §106).

The answer concerning the objection about women immediately follows, and is confirmed by Canon Law. Women are not to sing the liturgical chant, that is the Gregorian chant, which is properly speaking a liturgical act reserved for the clergy, in which men can participate, but not women. The only exception to that is for women religious, following their own rules, provided that they are not easily visible (Canon 1264, §2). However, this does not mean that women cannot sing compositions that are not properly liturgical, such as hymns and polyphony, for which the Church shows a certain toleration, and which has become quite frequent due to the absence of competent male singers. This is the remark of Bouscaren & Ellis, Canon Law, p. 650: “The motu proprio of Pius X was quite severe in excluding women from all part in liturgical singing. However, the S. C. of Rites has since shown the mind of the Holy See to be rather lenient in yielding partly to local customs in this matter. A decree addressed to the Archbishop of New York in 1908 permits women to sing in church choirs, but requires that women and girl choristers occupy a separate place from the men and boys.”

All the more does it not follow from the fact that women cannot sing the Proper liturgical chants that they cannot sing what the entire congregation sings. St. Paul’s command to women not to speak in Church does not refer to singing, but to teaching, as is clearly evident from the text of I Cor. 14:34: “Let the women keep silence in the churches: for it is not permitted them to speak, but to be subject, as also the law saith.” It is not proper for them to take a position of leadership, as is teaching. But this is not at all the case with congregational singing, sung by everybody together.

Remains the objection that Gregorian chant is a true art, and that although the singing of the Ordinary chants is not difficult, as is the singing of the Propers, it still must be done correctly if it is to be done for the greater glory of God. Hence the duty of the priests to teach the chant to all the children, as the Second Council of Baltimore requested, that the ancient custom of singing so as to pray twice might be restored everywhere in the Latin Rite, and not just in certain fervent parishes.