The Scandal of What We Sing

It is with deep gratitude that I greet the new translation of the Mass into English.  At last, we will have a rendering that is theologically and linguistically precise, that captures the figurative meanings intimated in the Latin, that respects the poetic form of the prayers, that embraces the sacred, and that resonates with the word of God.  Well done, gentlemen!

Yet there is still more good new work to do – or still some bad old work to be undone, in a realm that may affect us even more viscerally than the language of our prayers: that used in the songs we’re given to sing in church. In order to understand the gravity of what we’ve endured (and sadly, gotten used to) in recent decades, it’s needful to resort to analogies.

Imagine a committee charged with revising the texts used for high school literature.  Its members are not English professors, and do not actually like the long tradition of English poetry and fiction.  They riffle through the pages of the old textbook.

“Shakespeare, hmm,” says the chairman.  “We’ll keep a little of that.  Some people like tradition.  Maybe Romeo and Juliet. That’s about love, isn’t it?  But who’s this fellow Herbert?  He can go.”

“If Herbert is going,” says the person to his left, who on inspection appears to be a woman, “then definitely Milton should go.  All that nonsense about the hosts of heaven being warriors offends me.  Adam offends me.  Eve offends me.”

Another member, glancing at the clock, pipes up.  “Maybe all poems  about warfare of any sort should be annihilated.”

Agreed.  So Paradise Lost, The Idylls of the King, Beowulf, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, and Chaucer’s Knight’s Tale bite the dust, along with every religious lyric by George Herbert, John Donne, and Gerard Manley Hopkins.

“You know,” says another of the women, “I think that poems should be more cheerful.  There’s a lot of pessimism here.  It doesn’t reflect the spirit of the modern world.”

Agreed.  So the scissors clips away The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, In Memoriam, most of Robert Frost, and all of T. S. Eliot, Thomas Hardy, and Jonathan Swift.

“I’m still really uneasy about a lot of what’s left,” says another member, blushing.  “The politics is all right, but the masculinity is stifling.  It reminds me of a sweaty locker room.”

Agreed.  Banished are the rest of Chaucer, Spenser, Sidney, Defoe, Johnson, Blake, Wordsworth, Byron, Shelley, Keats, Dickens, Faulkner, Hemingway, Stevens, and O’Neill.  Someone makes a special plea for A Streetcar Named Desire, because the paperback cover has a  picture of Marlon Brando stripped to the waist.

The chairman surveys what’s left.  “We’ve come a long way.  Of the 500 original pages, only 50 remain.  Now we have to find material to replace what we’ve discarded.”

“That should be easy,” says the impatient member, glancing through his checkbook.  “Does anybody here write poetry?”

“I write poems!” says the chairman.

“So do I!”

“Me too!”

“My roommate writes short stories.”

“I won first place in a story competition in high school.”

“I wrote the poem for our yearbook.”

“I know somebody who writes jingles for cereal commercials.”

“The people at our Womenpower meetings produce free verse poems extemporaneously.”

“Excellent,” says the chairman.  “What say we each contribute five or ten things of our own, and get two or three of our friends to contribute the same?  It’ll pay.  Then we can fill the rest of the space with copyrighted material from popular songwriters.  But there’s still one problem,” he says, his face turning grave.  “Look at those old poems.  Does anyone see what I’m seeing?”

“They rhyme?” someone volunteers.

“Well, some do, but that’s not it.  Look at that old language!  Who’s going to understand the thou’s and thee’s?  And that’s not the half of it.  Look at this line from Alexander Pope.”  He lowers his voice to a growl.  “The proper study of mankind is Man.

“Ooohhh, that’s terrible.”

“What shall we do?”

“I have an idea,” says the chairman.  “Does anybody have any expertise in grammar?”  The members glance at one another, sheepishly.  The cryptofemale raises her hand.

“Perfect,” says the chairman.  “Gladys, see to it that these traditional poems are altered to suit the objectives of our textbook.  Well, it’s almost lunchtime.  Do I hear a motion to adjourn?”

Or I imagine another committee, walking about a neo-Gothic church built by Irish miners in the nineteenth century.  The walls and ceiling are covered with paintings.  They’re not by Michelangelo, but they are quite good, and some are deeply moving.  The Irish knew they couldn’t do the work themselves, so they hired an Italian from Europe to decorate their church.  When a fire damaged the paintings twenty years later, they scrimped again, to bring over the painter’s protege for the restoration.

The walls between the stained glass windows are painted with figures from the Old Testament: a crowned King David, Gideon blowing his trumpet, Moses with the tablets, the youth Samuel.  Over the windows in medallions are paintings of ten of the apostles, each with his Latin name in the halo, and each, except John, bearing a sign of his martyrdom.  The apostles Peter and Paul are portrayed in large medallions in the sanctuary.  The ceiling is dominated by an enormous painting of Mary as Queen of the world, treading on the serpent and giving the rosary to Saint Dominic.  In the foreground a youthful Saint Michael wields his sword.

The committee members shake their heads.  “This is going to be an extensive job,” says the chairman, Father Bob.  “The first thing to go is that communion rail.”

“But I like the mosaics in it,” says an old woman, who has attended church there for seventy years.  “There are all the symbols of the Eucharist: a basket of loaves, two fish, a bunch of grapes, and the Lamb.”

“That’s all well and good, Nellie,” says Father Bob.  “But we must move with the times.  It’s the Spirit of Vatican Two.”  The other members nod.  None of them has actually read the Council documents, but they can recognize a spirit when they see one, especially if it’s pointed out to them.

So the committee make their way around the church, marking with an X the goats to be separated from the sheep.  Among the goats, besides the marble communion rail and its mosaics, are a dozen statues, the tile floor with its cruciform patterns, the pipe organ, the medallions of Peter and Paul, and the marble altar at the back of the sanctuary.

“This means,” says Father Bob, “that we’ll have a lot of free space.  Any ideas?”

“My brother has one of those organs with finger keys and chords.  The white ones are major and the black ones are minor.”

“My aunt Fanny makes posters out of felt for her kindergarten class.”

“I once did Lassie from a paint-by-numbers set.”

“Splendid suggestions,” says Father Bob.  “But there’s still a problem.  Look at what’s left, all those prophets and the ten apostles and the big paintings on the ceiling.  Look at Michael.  Does anybody see what I’m seeing?”

Nellie has left the group and is going home in search of antacid.  The others glance at one another.  They suspect the Ghost of Vatican Past again, but they don’t know what’s implied.  Father Bob proceeds to tell them, whence they vote democratically and unanimously to alter the paintings that remain.  Ray from the hardware store will paint smiles on the apostles and prophets.  Linda, who did a Celebrate Diversity cartoon for the town’s overpass, will paint two women, one Chinese and one African, to stand with John and Mary in the crucifixion painting in the sanctuary.  Father Bob will mount the scaffolding to put flowing hair and breasts on the archangel Michelle.

The two scenarios above are a fair description of what composers and editors of hymnals did to Catholic church music in the 1970s and ’80s. In my next essays, which will run on succeeding days, I’ll analyze in detail the damage they did and how we can restore beauty, dignity, and pathos to the music that accompanies our praise and sacrifice to the Lord.

Anthony Esolen


Professor Esolen is a teaching fellow and writer in residence at Thomas More College of the Liberal Arts, in Merrimack, New Hampshire. Dr. Esolen is a regular contributor to Crisis Magazine and the author of many books, including The Politically Incorrect Guide to Western Civilization (Regnery Press, 2008); Ten Ways to Destroy the Imagination of Your Child (ISI Books, 2010) and Reflections on the Christian Life (Sophia Institute Press, 2013). His most recent books are Reclaiming Catholic Social Teaching (Sophia Institute Press, 2014); Defending Marriage (Tan Books, 2014); Life Under Compulsion (ISI Books, 2015); and Out of the Ashes (Regnery, 2017).

  • Deacon Ed Peitler

    …and perhaps we can have a few ideas presented here regarding how we should proceed in bringing about the changes suggested.

  • G.

    I’m looking forward to this in a big way. I’m a church musician in an odd situation. I have advanced degrees in music performance and theory. I always preferred the pipe organ. But I saw a need for a good strummer in my parish and could not bear to sit in the pew and not do something. So I bring my capo and steel-string guitar and do what I can. It takes the edge off to at least have the hymns we’re stuck with played well.

    But oh, the hand we’ve been dealt. I don’t know where we’d get better music, or if one could break the institutional inertia and complacency toward vacuous, feel-good hymns with deplorable lyrics.

    How did we get from, say, Lucis Creator optime to “Share the flavor of life” in “Bring Forth The Kingdom”?

    What strikes me most since the corrected translation has been implemented is that the music seems even more strikingly out of step and unsuitable for what is taking place on the altar.

    It is my hope that the new translation will have the gradual effect of elevating everything around it.

    In the meantime, every time a sung Mass part rolls around, it just feels like the musical equivalent of shouting “Caaaanoonnnnnballllll” and making an inappropriately large splash.

  • Nick Palmer

    Amen! Let’s clear the bilges.

    And, while we’re at it, what about the idea of the congregation actually singing the hymns? Our parish has a very good adult choir, but now Sunday 11:00 Mass has become a concert. The current “model” is the congregation singing an Entrance and Recessional hymn. The Choir sings alone at the Offertory (1 song) and Communion (3 songs, especially popular are medleys). In days of yore the congregation sang a song at each of the four traditional spots, and the choir sang alone a single post-Communion reflection hymn. Nowadays, we we might even be stirred by applause after the third Communion hymn.


    • Sarto

      Tsk. What an affront to refined ears. Rome could jam the new and improved latinized wonder down our collective throats, but will it be able to force a single new hymnal onto congregations in the same way? Never say never. But fortunately, the Church seems at the present moment to be leaving the choice up to the market place.

      Let’s see…the fourth Sunday with our purified liturgy. I sat near the front in a church with standing room only and kept an eye out for parishioners bumping against the ceiling, carried away by the poetry of the new prayers.

      But it was the same old same old. The restless sound of families with children…people singing and others–like me–choosing to let them do the singing while I did the meditating…our foreign language priest mangling the delicate nuances of newly mandated words…a ten minute wait for the chance to go to Communion…gratitude for the music which really did lift our minds and hearts…gratitude for the people around me, along with my usual amazement at their numbers and their patience with what was actually a pretty mediocre experience if you were looking for drama.

  • Beth

    Thank you, thank you, thank you!

    Cannonball, indeed!

  • Causus Omnium Danorum

    Great article, Dr. Esolen–now, can you do anything about the music at St. Pius?

    God Bless!

  • Catholic priest

    Anthony, you may want to look at the newly revised GIRM in the Roman Missal. The only mention of any type of hymn is found in no. 87 where it mentions that after the four options listed for singing a chant (no hymn), a psalm, canticle of praise or hymn may be sung. The implication is that hymnody is only allowed in this part of the Mass. Chant is the only option at the Entrance Rite and the Offertory.

  • Frank

    Dr. Esolen – I am a Catholic and a composer and I thank you for bringing this to light on a widely read website where – I hope – it will stimulate vigorous debate.

    “None of them has actually read the Council documents, but they can recognize a spirit when they see one, especially if it’s pointed out to them.” bingo!

  • Brian Potts

    And sadly that does seem to be the way at least portions of Norton’s Anthologies of Literature were selected, and the way at least some churches were renovated.

  • steven

    As a follower/reader of many blogs, I see the same complaining about the music we suffer through, but I see little in the way of how to foster change. Would it be beneficial to start with our local Bishop? The USCCB? Local Pastors seem unable or unwilling to be the David we need to go against the Goliath that is the Music Ministry at our parishes.

    • Sarto

      The music ministry has always been the Goliath. In the pre-Vatican II days, it was the little old lady in the choir with the worn-out soprano voice who refused to give up and die in peace. It was the guy at the organ with the bad timing. It was the Gregorian chant that sounded like the lament of a Georgia chain-gang. And on, into the new stuff. Any pastor with a dime’s worth of sense does not argue with the choir director. Then or now.

      But please, please, please, let’s hear “Oh, MER-ry we CROWN thee with blaw-SUUUUMS t’DAAAY, KaWEEEN of the an-JEEELS, KaWEEEN of th’ MAYYYY….” The song almost killed me when I was a kid holding down my place in the living Rosary circle, but I need to remember how good the good old times really were.

  • Jennifer

    Oh, spot on. The tonal and lyrical inertia at the “music ministry” level is just appalling…we are at the point of attending the [very inconvenient] Spanish Mass because the musical options in English are so utterly terrible. The beauty and power of the new spoken parts is totally overshadowed by the still-ostentatious presence of bad music.

    I feel like the bishops missed a big fat chance to DO something about the state of music in the American Church, but instead (as one commenter said) they’ve let the market drive the change. All we’ve got now for the Commons is a whole bunch of new awful music, awkwardly shoved in where the old awful music used to be. It could have been an opportunity for catechesis, improved words, more Latin.

  • Ann

    I’m happy and at peace with the return to the purification of the liturgy. It is right and just. However, I see a potential for uncharity – looking down on the “spirit of the Vatican” as we purify, and in turn, the liturgical world of the 70’s looking down on the stodginess of the current move back to the old, and more reverent way we worship(ped).

    I pray we are all careful and charitable as we all try (desperately) to “get it right” for the love of God. How He must smile from up above as we scramble to please Him.

  • Dvora OCDS

    Professor, please don’t waste your words whining about the problem. Become a vital part of the solution! Write new hymns with sound texts and theology based on metrical tunes and submit them to the “big three” publishers. Teach your students to become solid hymn writers, and instruct them how to get their work published. Conduct workshops to inform your avid readers how to do the same. As a professional liturgical musician and choral director, I can tell you that solutions are needed, and are needed now.

    • Art

      Ummm… I believe thousands upon thousands of appropriate hymns have already been written. If any composer has the ability to support himself/herself financially in order to dedicate full time to creating new, high-quality hymns for the liturgy, that would be WONDERFUL. But it seems unreasonable to identify that as the solution. My impression is that the solution has to do with attitudes. My choir director has the attitude that 2,000 years of musical treasures cannot be trumped by a half-century of compositions suited to fleeting, time-bound whims. Besides, the majority of our Church’s treasured musical compositions are available for free! The choir director at the parish next door has the attitude that the people in the pews “wouldn’t appreciate” such liturgically appropriate music. I think if attitudes were changed, there would be a sweeping renewal. As to HOW attitudes can be changed, I suppose anything is a start. Including the publishing of intelligent articles like this.

    • HV Observer


      The poetry that Professor Esolen writes, and the music he advocates, are precisely the music and poetry that The Big Three Publishers of Intrinsically Unworthy Music Products would reject out of hand.

      However, solutions are already here! See the resources at my post below.

  • Anthony

    I’ll just say Carey Landry…. and leave it at that!

  • HV Observer
  • Zophia

    But this is EXACTLY what happened, post 1940’s, with the writings of Hemingway, John dos Passos, Carl Sandburg and more. A group of editors REMOVED all the refs mentioned above by DR Esalen as a joke. They were ruthlessly cut, all Thees and Thous actually forbidden, rhyme forbidden; words like ‘love’ disallowed in 20th century poetry. I was TOLD this at university poetry society meetings. It was announced to practising writers in at least one writer’s conference (Australasia). But it had come much earlier. They DID put scissors into everything.