July 18, 2021 – Singing Singable Songs

Readings || Lecturas


Preached at Assumption Parish in Bellingham, WA

Previous Years: 2018

N.B. My letter about the new hymnal can be found at this link.


Our first reading speaks a lot about shepherds, but we lose something in the translation. The Latin word for shepherd is “pastor,” so when this reading is addressing the pastors of the people, it is speaking directly to those we would now call the bishops and priests of the Church. And every bishop and priest should shake in his vestments as he listens to the words, “You have scattered my sheep and driven them away. You have not cared for them, but I will take care to punish your evil deeds.”

Given the experience of the last 20 years, most of us probably think about the sexual abuse crisis when we hear about the pastors scattering the flock, and rightly so. But we can take solace in knowing that the Lord has promised to carry out his justice against those who have sinned against his people. However, we sometimes forget that the People of God are scattered as much by negligence as they are by sin. To continue the pastoral analogy, a flock of sheep can be scared off by a wolf, surely, but they can also be forced to remain in a meadow where all the grass has been eaten away, whence they scatter simply because they are looking for food that has not been provided for them. The pastor both protects the sheep from wolves, but also leads the sheep to verdant pastures.

The primary reason I am sometimes annoying as a pastor is that I believe this teaching that Christ will hold me accountable for my negligence. I have spent my entire life watching the Church die of starvation, stuck in a meadow that is no longer providing nourishment, as our people leave in droves in order to find something to satisfy their hunger. Hopefully those who remain have found something to feed them, but many have not. And this has caused me to spend my entire priesthood pushing against the status quo with a frenzied madness, desperate to find pastures that can once again feed the entire flock, including those who have been scattered. Nothing would be easier than being a popular priest, a maintenance priest, a priest that does nothing controversial and tries to keep everyone happy. But at the end of my life, I will have to answer directly to the Lord for the care I have provided to the people entrusted to me. And no amount of angry e-mails is as terrifying as the Lord sitting on his throne of judgement, asking me why I let his people starve.

So, with an introduction like that, you are probably wondering what I am going to change today. And the answer is our approach to liturgical music. I have seen greener pastures, I know they exist, and I cannot allow us to stick with a status quo that is slowly starving us. As we bring back congregational singing, now is the time to do what I know needs to be done.

So what is the problem?

The short version is that our current music is really difficult to sing.

The long version is that the Church, and particularly the Roman Rite, has always been open to the cultural contributions of the surrounding society. We have always absorbed into our liturgy and our art the best that the wider world has to offer, all for the greater glory of God. In periods of liturgical reform, like we saw during the majority of the 20th century, there is always a conversation about what is and is not allowed in from the outside world, what fits the liturgy and what is an offense to it. Immediately following the Second Vatican Council in the 1970s and 80s, there was a massive experiment carried out with liturgical music that saw a dizzying array of new songs and hymns introduced into the liturgy, all of which intentionally sounded like the popular music of the time. And this was a good thing! It was an appropriate and necessary thing. It allowed the culture of the time to contribute to the glory of God through the liturgy of the Church.

Unfortunately, as the decades have gone on, many people have begun to realize that this “modified folk” style of music is actually difficult for congregations to sing, despite the fact that it has become the standard musical style for most Masses in the U.S. Most of the songs in our Breaking Bread hymnal are rather advanced from a technical perspective, with many syncopations and strange intervals. Great for a soloist, good for a skilled choir, okay after a decade of memorization, but overall difficult for a general congregation. And this, in turn, has led to a generally poor experience of liturgical music marked by loud instruments and amplified cantors. After all, if a song is difficult to sing, the only way to get a congregation to sing along properly is to sing over the congregation and drown out their mistakes. Which is to say that, all over the country, the primary experience of liturgical music is feeling of being sung at rather than being sung with.

But this is not what the Church has in mind for music. What the Church desires is, honestly, something akin to that special moment in most stadium concerts where the artist sings her most popular song – the one that everyone in the audience can sing by heart – and then in the last refrain she cuts her mic so that everyone at the concert just hears themselves singing. Concert audiences LOVE that because it helps them feel their unity and their power. It is exactly this kind of moment that the Church has in mind with congregational singing. The Body of Christ, united in the worship of Almighty God, ought to feel its unity and its power through song. If you have ever worshipped with Presbyterians or Methodists who have kept their rich hymn tradition, you will know what I am talking about. It is incredible to be surrounded by people who are all pouring their hearts out together in song.

Which means that, in order to lead our community into greener pastures of congregational singing, I believe that it is necessary to make some changes to our approach to liturgical music here at Assumption, so that we can regularly feel our power and our unity; like those special rock concert moments, but every Sunday.

First, we are going to start using a different hymnal. By my evaluation, nearly half or more of Breaking Bread is unsingable by a normal congregation. You will receive a letter by e-mail this afternoon with the details on why I think this change is necessary and what hymnal we will be using. The letter will also be posted on my website and the parish website.

Second, with more singable hymns in place, we are going to start scaling back the volume of our cantors and our instruments, with the eventual goal of having minimal or no amplification for music. Our congregation should be able to hear itself sing, so that it can experience the unity and inspirational power that comes when the Body of Christ moves together as one. This is the same reason I cut my microphone during the Creed and the Our Father – you should be able to hear yourselves responding together as one, rather than being drowned out by my voice.

Thirdly, beginning with money already given by a generous donor, we are going to repair our original mechanical organ and make it playable from upstairs and downstairs, to give our music a more authentic, less electronic feel. Of course, any additional funds you might want to contribute to this project will be appreciated.

Finally, I am going to continue to introduce the chanted Mass responses. There is incredible power in the unadorned voices of the congregation offered together in worship. It allows us to feel united in a profound way, preventing us from praying at different speeds, and allowing us to express our passion together as one Body of Christ. The chanted responses unite the priest to the people and the people to each other.

My brothers and sisters in Christ, parishioners often have very strong feelings about music, so I do not expect these changes to be without controversy. I have tried to explain myself as best as I can, because you always deserve an explanation when I make changes. But explanations can only go so far. At this point, I am also asking you to trust me, more than I have ever asked for that in the past. At some point, I realize that you may have to experience what I am talking about in order to understand it, and there is some amount of transition between here and there, which is why I need you to trust me for a time. The Lord has promised that he himself will punish any evil I do to the sheep of his flock, and I always recall that with fear and trembling. I do not make this change, or any change, out of self-interest or partisanship. I make changes because I love Jesus and I love you and I want nothing more than to care for you as a pastor should.


Esta homilía solo se aplicó a la comunidad inglesa, por lo que solo se predicó en inglés. El diácono Josh Nehnevaj predicó la homilía en español.

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