What reform looks like

I am sometimes asked whether the reforms that I would implement if placed in charge of a parish’s liturgy are really practical; “is it not true,” they might ask, “that many Catholics can’t sing chant?”

I have an answer to that, but first I want to  provide some context. The seminal moment in my thinking about liturgical reform was the shift to the corrected translation. There were people who praised God for Pope Benedict and a finally-fixed the translation; there were those who cursed them for—well, that’s another story. But the average Catholic in the pews, it transpired, didn’t care. They didn’t care about the old words, they didn’t care about the new words; all they cared about was “tell me what to say and I’ll say it.” 1 They didn’t sign petitions opposing it 2; on the other hand, they didn’t they show up to the catechetical meetings to prepare them and teach them the words, either. They didn’t care—not in the sense that they were apathetic, but in the sense that it just wasn’t a big deal. They just showed up on the first Sunday in Advent and read different words. 3

At the time, this stunned me as much as it probably stunned Tony Ruff and the other would be mutineers, and I have other things to say about that, but for now, I just want to set that there as background. The point is that what happened, happened: The implementation happened with minimal fuss, even from those who weren’t very happy about it. 

With that in mind as background, I must say that I doubt very much that the average Catholic in the pews can’t learn chant. They aren’t being asked to sing the Exsultet—I have complete confidence that they will readily learn the Ordinary chants without any difficulty, just as they readily learn to sing the settings to which those parts are put in most parishes. It isn’t as though Catholics have never been asked to learn to sing newly-composed music at any point in the last five decades. Again, the promulgation of the corrected translation is instructive: The Missal supplies chants for the Ordinary, and our curate started using them at daily Mass. Within a few days, the daily Mass crowd were singing along from memory. It’s not difficult.

But even if I agreed, even if I thought that it would be difficult or that it would take a while, I don’t care. I just don’t think that it matters. Every time a new Mass setting or hymn is adopted by a parish, some, all, or none of the congregation learns to sing it—or they don’t, and no one cares. How many times have you assisted at a Mass at which an excessively-enthusiastic cantor is singing a song substituted for the Introit, and about a third of the congregation is mumbling along half-heartedly? No one seems to think that that’s a problem, or at least not a sufficient one to rethink their chosen musical course. In parishes where a choir sings more elaborate material at any part of the Mass, no one expects the congregation to join in—or cares if they can and do.

So what will happen if I get my way and implement my reforms? Will it ruffle feathers and create serious difficulties? I doubt that. What would happen is that the cantors, instruments, and the ghastly music would go away overnight. On the first Sunday, a schola of between one and ten people (depending on who I can scrounge up after purging the choir) will sing the ordinary (from the Missal) and proper (from the Simple English Propers) chants from the choir loft, where they’re supposed to be. This will be a shock for the congregation, no doubt. 

The following Sunday, the congregation still won’t be singing the propers, I’m sure. But they aren’t now, either: I have never assisted at a novus ordo Mass where the propers are even said, let alone sung, so what is being lost is not congregational singing of the propers, but congregational singing of some trite hymn, substituted licitly or otherwise for the proper chant. No loss. And meanwhile, some of them will pick up on the ordinary parts, and that will grow in time. The schola will have gotten tighter in their performance, and maybe they’ve even had time to rehearse a very simple piece of polyphony that we can slot in—say, the Agnus Dei from Byrd’s four-voice Mass.

My hope would be that after a few months, the schola will be able to sing simple polyphonic ordinaries for at least one Sunday service, and the congregation will be able to sing the chants from the missal for the other services. I suspect that within a year, a good fraction of the congregation will be able to sing along with the propers, but even if they can’t, I’m okay with that. And you know what? There may be people who will praise God for me, and others who rue the day and sign petitions to get rid of me, but what the introduction of the corrected translation tells me is that the average Catholic in the pews won’t care.

Reform is not complicated; it’s not even hard. What it requires is merely will on the part of the clergy.


  1. Cf. Burnet v. Coronado Oil & Gas Co., 285 U.S. 393, 406 (1932) (Brandeis, J., dissenting) (“in most matters, it is more important that the applicable rule of law be settled than that it be settled right”).
  2. See, e.g., https://web.archive.org/web/20120201204428/http://www.whatifwejustsaidwait.org.
  3. Some more happily than others, to be sure, but the point is that they just got on with it. See, e.g., http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2011/11/27/new-mass-translation_n_1114948.html.