I have been attending mass with more frequency of late, no longer as a tourist, so to speak. Since I am coming from the outside to the inside, I figure I have a right to ask a few things I hardly ever asked as a tourist.

My questions have nothing to do with the great issues roiling in the Church, but with worship. Oh, not liturgics. I know the outline of the mass very well; it is essentially the same used by Lutherans. Better put, Lutheran liturgy is, when employed properly, a Catholic liturgy, except for a few hiccups here and there.

Lutherans, for instance, regard the canon, the Eucharistic Prayer, as optional. Blame Martin Luther; he got rid of it entirely. Luther said that prayer and sacrifice don’t mix. Prayer is sacrificial; we offer it to God. Communion is Gospel; God gives it to us.

In his Deutsche Messe (German Mass), Luther prescribed that priests chant the Words of Institution, the verba, using the same tone as the chanted Gospel reading, just to emphasize the connection between Gospel and Communion. Otherwise the German Mass pretty much resembles any other high medieval mass you might attend.

In fact, everything was chanted in Luther’s mass, except the sermon. With all the fads in preaching and delivery today I’m surprised—though relieved—no one is trying it.

Of the Eucharistic Prayer, though, Luther was wrong, and in contemporary Lutheran liturgical practice his distinction is often ignored and the canon is said. A good part of the Lutheran world still takes their Luther straight, however, and every vestige of the canon is excised altogether. Our bad; I mean, their bad. (The “we” and “us” part of becoming Roman Catholic can be so confusing.)

No, for me, the biggest thing is: Why can’t Catholics sing like Lutherans? I found the situation so troubling I finally made an appointment with a friendly priest (invented here on the spot for just this occasion) and poured out my difficulties, a confused convert asking painful questions.

Q: Let’s get right to the point. Why are Catholics such poor hymn singers?
A: It’s because we don’t have enough Lutheran converts.

Q: The hymn singing I hear hardly amounts to a “joyful noise.” Sounds more like plaintive squeaks from depressed marmosets.
A: Bless you, my son, for your candor.

Q: First thing I’d do, I’d make sure the hymn numbers in the little folder do in fact match the actual numbers in the hymnal.
A: There are many things we must simply accept as beyond human control.

Q: You must shame them to better singing. Denounce them and lash them with zest. Shaming is such a neglected part of parish leadership.
A: Uh huh.

Q: Yes, tell them right up front during announcements their singing stinks, that it is an embarrassment to the Hosts of Heaven. You must tell them the angels no longer veil their faces in awe of the Almighty, but out of indignation at Catholic singing.
A: Go on.

Q: And then tell them any nine little old Lutheran widows can sing better than the whole lot of them.
A: How about if I said eight Methodists on walkers?

Q: That’ll work. You tell them how to sing: Stand up straight, hymnal front and center, lungs filled, voices projected up and out, like they want to praise God in song.
A: And after that?

Q: Try them out on a couple verses of A Mighty Fortress and see if they haven’t improved.
A: I get the idea. But it’ll never work.

Q: Why?
A: We’re programmed Irish. Lutherans are programmed German.

Q: Come again.
A: Simple history. German Lutherans came to America with two hundred years of hymns in their history and they kept writing new ones. Irish Catholics came with bawdy songs that can’t be sung in mixed company; it was the only music the English let them sing.

Q: What?
A: Sure. The Irish invented the low spoken mass. Catholics singing hymns in public would otherwise have attracted the attention of their English Protestant oppressors. Besides, if they can’t bang a bodhran in church they wouldn’t sing anyway, just on principle.

That made sense, especially the bodhran, but I was downcast. I didn’t want a reason to not admire the Irish. The priest looked at me in deep sympathy.

“My son, you need to understand, that if God hadn’t made me a priest I would have stopped going to mass years ago because the singing is so horribly bad.”

Russell E. Saltzman is a former Lutheran pastor transitioning to the Roman Catholic Church. His latest book is Speaking of the Dead. He can be reached at russell.e.saltzman@gmail.com, and his previous First Things contributions are here.

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