The Great Catholic Music Debate

“Post-Vatican Folk” vs. “Reformist Retro”

A funeral I attended recently illustrates a musical dilemma that fuels the ire of Catholics on Facebook whenever the subject of liturgy comes up.

To set a tone of solemnity, two women chanted a Latin prelude as mourners entered. The casket was wheeled in with family members processing to the opening hymn, “Here I Am, Lord” (by ex-St. Louis Jesuits member, Dan Schutte), a classic of the post-Vatican “folk” musical repertoire.

The offertory song was Michael Joncas’s “On Eagles’ Wings,” another “folk” favorite, and one that has become a staple at funerals in churches of pretty much all denominations.

Two hymns of more traditional pedigree, “Adoro te Devote” and “The Strife Is O’er” were sung during Communion. There was also an instrumental interlude: Schubert’s “Ave Maria,” played on what sounded like a hammered dulcimer.

The final prayers of commendation were followed by another Latin chant. And the recessional hymn was “Be Not Afraid” (by Schutte’s former colleague, Bob Dufford).

The musicians did a fine job, though it can’t be said that these disparate elements fitted together all that well. But the music had been chosen by the family, and the selections demonstrated a basic fact of human nature: At times of emotional intensity and spiritual significance people like to hear familiar songs that comfort, encourage, and, in various ways, uplift them.

This emotional dimension is often not top-of-mind among Catholics who think about liturgy. That’s especially true for those of traditionalist sentiment (amply represented among my Facebook friends).

These people are drawn toward what they would call a more “sanctified” worship experience in which hymn preference skews to the classical and time-honored, if indeed hymns are included at all. Many urge abandoning hymnody altogether in favor of singing the Mass propers.

It goes without saying that the “folk” repertoire is anathema, seen as a flawed product of the worship form referred to contemptuously as “guitar Mass.” Countless Facebook postings (and articles linked to them) are replete with tales of wandering into some parish where the dreaded guitar group still prevails, and having to endure the pain and embarrassment of liturgical desecration.

Facebook traditionalists also comment on the poor quality of this music—poor in both composition and performance. Their complaints are often justified. Who hasn’t sat through at least one teeth-grinding rendition of “I Received the Living God” offered by a slipshod, three-chord guitar ensemble?

What the tradition-minded have difficulty recognizing (and find dispiriting when they do) is that many Catholics like the “folk” stuff. After decades of hearing this repertoire at Mass, as well as during funerals, weddings, prayer services, and other faith-related events, they have come to associate these songs with fond memories, moments of intense religious immersion, or family joy. Question their taste if you will, but for them this is what church sounds like.

Among the traditionalists, much hope has been invested in the expectation that changes in Mass language (accomplished by the Third  “Typical” Edition of the Roman Missal, introduced in 2011) would bring a wave of new Catholic hymns that are more conducive to the longed-for sense of sanctity.

But while composers have developed new Mass settings, and reworked old ones to fit the revised liturgical text, there has been disappointment on the song side. A few modern hymns have appeared that hearken back to pre-Vatican forms, or include Latin flourishes. Publishers have integrated older pieces into their hymnals as well. On the whole, however, a new repertoire has not been forthcoming.

This is understandable if you consider the costs involved in publishing, and the money tied up in established catalogues. It also reflects the reliance of publishers on songwriters of proven ability to write for “the market.” This last concern accounts for the sameness discernable in contemporary liturgical music. It’s no easier for a new songwriter to penetrate the Catholic music scene—or the protestant one—than it is to break into the commercial music business. This is disheartening, since you would expect hymn publishers to be on the lookout for authentic spiritual insights expressed in fresh musical ways. What they’re actually on the lookout for is songs that fit a conventional formula.

And so, music for Catholic worship divides itself between what can be called (for lack of more edifying terms) “post-Vatican folk” and “reformist retro.” Generally, the preferences for these two genres find expression in different parishes, or different Masses, on the weekly schedule. But sometimes, contrasting styles bump up against each other, as at the funeral I attended.

That isn’t necessarily a bad thing, even if it does make for some musical awkwardness.

One might hope for more careful attention to stylistic blending, perhaps in the ordering of selections. It would also be a good idea to cull out those “folk”-style songs that, because of structural flaws or lyrical weaknesses, don’t lend themselves readily to congregational singing. There are many of those, sad to say.

More sensitive instrumental execution would also help, particularly when “folk” pieces are accompanied by piano or organ. It’s hard for keyboard instruments to convey the “feel” of a song written for guitar unless you’ve got an exceptionally good player (next to impossible for pipe organs, which pretty much blow away the “folk” sensibility under any circumstances).

Given these caveats, a mixed menu of songs does suggest an inclusiveness that reflects the universality of the Church. A liturgy whose basic form is recognizable in wildly disparate cultural settings around the world surely can survive the juxtaposition of “Panis Angelicus” with “Earthen Vessels.”

I was not always so accepting of “post-Vatican folk.” I had spent my childhood in and out of various protestant congregations. Grand, anthemic, march-like hymns were what church sounded like to me (“Up from the grave He arose, with a mighty vict’ry o’er His foes…”). I’d also been exposed to Gospel music, particularly Gospel music slicked up for the mainstream audience by pop artists like Peter, Paul, & Mary.

When I first encountered the “guitar Mass,” this music struck me as amateurish. But, I’d been writing songs for some years, and so my creative instincts were engaged (not to mention my creative ego). I said to myself, “Hey, I can write this stuff.”

And I did. This led me into music ministry. This then fostered my conversion to Catholicism. And, for this, I’ll always be grateful.

I was highly critical of the genre at first, much put off by the boom-chinga-chinga strumming pattern typical of so many unrehearsed, limited-skill guitar players. But I discovered over time that, mixed in among all the sing-songy tunes, and insipid lyrics, there were a few pieces that stood up respectably as musical works of faith expression.

Bernadette Farrell’s “Christ Be Our Light,” David Haas’s “Deep Within,” Tim Manion’s “I Lift Up My Soul,” and Roc O’Connor’s “Trust In the Lord” deserve special mention. These aren’t necessarily the greatest congregational pieces, but when presented properly, such songs draw from “folk” simplicity, an evocative power that can actually be quite moving. There are other examples too (we mustn’t ignore John Michael Talbot, one of the leading lights of “post-Vatican folk.” But he’s less a songwriter than a crafter of aural textures, atmospheric musical backgrounds intended to encourage prayer and meditation).

It’s often asserted by traditionalists that this music is too us-focused. The songs put human beings at the center, rather than emphasizing God.

I think this is something of a “straw man” argument. Aside, perhaps, from certain Marian hymns (which deal with the unique attributes of the Blessed Mother), pretty much all Church music is us-focused—and always has been. It is, after all, about the relationship between God and his creatures, i.e., us. (If you want to sing exclusively about God, take up Evangelical praise music: “Our God is an awesome God …”).

Another criticism is that many songs speak too much for God, and put words into his mouth which are decidedly human, and often highly ideological. This complaint is valid. You do come across instances of trying to make God endorse certain political, social, or economic propositions. It’s been observed that “post-Vatican II folk” is the Democratic Party platform set to music. There’s much truth in this.

The explanation for most conflicts in lyrical viewpoint, however, is the fact that so many of these songs are based on psalms or canticles. In those Bible passages, God speaks, but perspective constantly shifts (usually without notice) between his words and those of the Scripture author.

One of the things that has hampered Catholic songwriting is a slavish literalism in rendering scriptural language into lyrics. This is why rhymes sound so forced (or are non-existent) and melodies tend toward the wishy-washy. It’s a fundamental mistake which the great hymn writers of the past avoided; they took Biblical concepts, and recast them artistically into coherent verse that was well-structured and rhymed powerfully.

You hear much about the “liturgical inappropriateness” of “post-Vatican folk” and how it displaced Latin, which the Church insists must retain pride of place in our traditions. But I think most of the discomfort with this genre comes down to the simple reality that a lot of these songs just flat-out stink, and there are so many bad musicians playing in church.

The poverty of musicianship is accountable to limitations of talent and budget that are the facts of life in your average parish. Hiring an accomplished music director, and building a first-rate choir, take money.

Song quality is a different matter. The post-Vatican period saw a grassroots movement of liturgical simplification (and confusion) in which the musical motifs of the then-popular Urban Folk Revival were adapted to religious ends. (This was also the period when the so-called “Jesus Movement” brought a similar aesthetic sensibility into Evangelical circles.)

The publishing ministries created during these years were able to enshrine this music as the common coin of “modern” worship, mostly due to a lack of any competing stylistic vision that had a strong constituency. It’s hung on ever since.

The charge has been heard that this was an effort to “dumb-down” Catholic liturgy, and weaken the Church (speculation which often detects the hand of Freemasonry at work). In truth, religious leaders were groping—trying to find their way in a period of great social turmoil—with scant direction from Rome. They saw contemporary music as a tool for keeping young people, then under the sway of ’60s youth rebellion, within the Catholic fold.

That has had decidedly mixed results. I think the Church would have been much better off embracing the musical conventions that were so well established in American Protestantism while bending them in a distinctively Catholic direction. When I was a young person, those soaring, noble protestant hymns, and rousing Gospel tunes, were the aspects of church life that had strongest appeal to me.

But all of this is water under the musical bridge.

Today, the so-called reform-of-the-reform is nudging “post-Vatican folk” out of its position of prominence, while “reformist retro” is on the rise. This may be a good thing in the long-run—if the revival of traditional forms prompts a recommitment to musical quality, and if we see greater resources devoted to good composition, and solid professionalism, in church musicianship.

If not, we may hear more Latin, but its presentation will likely be as cloying and amateurish as that of the tackiest guitar group.

Meanwhile, I would hate to see the whole post-Vatican musical “baby” thrown out with the liturgical “bathwater.” Even as fewer guitars are strummed at Mass, many small gems remain in the “folk” repertoire—songs that may be unsophisticated, even simplistic, but that continue to touch people’s hearts in a time when our Church is under varieties of stress that require faith, confidence, and unity.

Put in musical terms, you could call this: harmony. And all the carping only destroys that harmony.

Perhaps, the funeral I attended holds the key to our musical future: balance—albeit with less eclecticism, more discernment, and some charity for the sensitivities of others. Whether your preference is for “post-Vatican folk” or “reformist retro,” I believe there’s a place in God’s Church for all sounds. We are instructed, after all, not to debate our music, but to make a “joyful noise.”

Bill Kassel About Bill Kassel

Bill Kassel, along with being a liturgical musician, created and hosted a series of comedy programs called Kassel & Company for Ave Maria Radio, the EWTN-affiliated Catholic program producer. He also created a 90-minute special spotlighting rising artists of the independent Catholic music movement, and released an album of his own original songs, titled On This Mountain. Kassel has been a journalist, copywriter, and public relations consultant. He’s held creative staff positions with Dow Jones and McGraw-Hill, and served as marketing director for Guitar Player Magazine. He was Director of Public Affairs for Hillsdale College, and Director of Communications for the Ave Maria Foundation. He has authored articles appearing in the Wall Street Journal, New York Times, Los Angeles Times, Chicago Tribune, USA Today, Newsweek, National Catholic Register, American Legion Magazine, and other publications. His novel about the family of Jesus, My Brother’s Keeper — winner of the 2018 Catholic Arts and Letters Award — is available from Saint Joseph Communications. And his essays and random rants can be found online at his blog, “The Guy in the Next Pew” (


  1. There are three issues I have problems with: The use of ungodly instruments, the lyrics, and emotions.
    I will not here debate the relation between the emotions and music. But one is not to praise the music because it somehow stirs up emotions during the liturgy. The whole problem since the Council has been precisely the sentimentalism in the music of the liturgy, funerals particularly. This kind of emotion is quite fleeting, even pernicious. If there are any emotions, they should be passions directed to the love God, as well as neighbor. In other words, the music should raise the soul towards the sacred not the profane.
    It is precisely the profane that the use of ungodly instruments and music styles encourages. The guitar is associated with the ungodly profane world. Whether or not it is a wonderful instrument is not the issue. The organ was once quite profane, and even banned to this day in the East, but things changed. Now it is the contrary. I do not hear the organ much on popular “Classical” radio stations because of its association with Christianity. Broadway style music belongs on Broadway, not in the sanctuary. So-called folk may have some merit, but what usually passes as folk is not folk.
    Finally, why is it so hard to use the psalter to praise God? Using the inspired word of God harmonizes with the other prayers of the Mass. Gregorian chant Propers, for instance, is sung prayer using the inspired words of Sacred Scripture. I cannot say that the words of most hymns are inspired, and yet we prefer to use them along with the most profane melodies at Mass these days. Yes, it is about the people what they like, and what they want, rather than what is right. I guess there is also too much $ involved to simply use the Psalter, and sing together with the angels in heaven eternal praises to God.

    • Can you clarify your thought of what defines an “ungodly” instrument? By your definition, as long as it isn’t used in current popular (Western?) culture, it can only then be godly. I can think of many instruments not used in popular music that would not be effective in leading liturgical prayer. I prefer to use Psalm 50 as a point of reference: “Give praise with blasts upon the horn, praise him with harp and lyre. Give praise with tambourines and dance, praise him with strings and pipes. Give praise with crashing cymbals, praise him with sounding cymbals.” (Psalms 150:3-5 | NABRE). Both the lyre and harp are plucked string instruments in the same family as a guitar. The Church cannot limit herself to instruments that are from bygone popular music eras. The human voice is used in popular music, yet is the premier “instrument” for the liturgy.

      I’ve experienced profound emotion while praying certain Gregorian chants, but that doesn’t disqualify the music as appropriate for the liturgy. It’s important to distinguish “cheesy” from emotional.

      • It is important to remember that Psalm 50 is not giving instructions for right worship; Jews traditionally have not taken those instruments into their solemn temple worship. You’re quoting divinely-inspired poetry/lyrics and trying to apply it to liturgical praxis. That dog won’t hunt.

        The Church specifically recommends Gregorian chant, polyphony, and the organ as splendidly suited for use in the sacred liturgy. Why look for loopholes? Why try to figure out what music you can get away with? Why try to figure out which instruments aren’t expressly forbidden?

        The Church is generally proscriptive, rather than restrictive. By that, I mean that she tells us what we OUGHT to do, rather than tells us all of the myriad things that we ought NOT to do. It is much better to act out if humility and deference to the recommendations of Holy Mother Church than to bend the documents to our will by utilizing everything under the sun that isn’t specifically prohibited.

  2. The use of nonliturgical instruments like piano, guitar and keyboard should not occur in the Holy Mass. Musical style confusion brings about confusion in the faith. It is not surprising that the old folks like the 60s trash. They were forced to imbibe it Sunday after Sunday and they were told that everything done before the Second Vatican Council was passe and frowned upon by Church authority. They were and are liturgically malformed by the deforming New Mass. It will take time for the malformed in faith to die off and their musical tastes along with them. We have begun the 40 year wandering in the desert like the Israelites did. Hopefully, we can return to reverent, liturgical music at reverent, Holy Masses. I cannot attend such a Mass as you described because it is so nauseating. Is God really there? Are we worshiping Him or ourselves and our emotions at Mass? Many times in the New Mass with this bad music, worship is just about impossible. Is that of God to hinder people in worshiping God by using such awful and non-liturgical music? I offer it all up as best I can, but I attend the Tridentine Mass whenever possible as an oasis of liturgical sanity.

    • Avatar Dr. Maria Procaccino says:

      Ridiculous argument… We pray in the vernacular… You choose to pray in a 14th-“15th century version of the mass…. VCII Happened.. Mostly for good… Move along.. Not backwards.

      • “VCII happened.”

        Yes Vatican II happened. And as it happened, Vatican II didn’t toss Latin into the “trash bin of history” as so many people think. There was supposed to be a both-and approach, whereby there would be a place for both Latin and the vernacular at Mass.

    • Avatar Dr. Maria Procaccino says:

      Do you really think the Apostolic father’s sang chant and used only high organs!!!!

      • Avatar Bill Guentner says:

        Certainly not, primarily because Gregorian chant didn’t develop until about 600 by Pope Gregory the Great. The organ originated in the 3rd century. It was referred to as a Hydraulos because it used water to force the sound. It was not until the 8th century that the organ as we know it was developed. Therefore, the Apostolic fathers lived in the 1st century and the early part of the 2nd. Therefore, your argument against chant and “high organs” has no merit.

    • I was born in ’49, grew up with the Tridentine Mass. Yes I love the Latin Mass, but I also love reverently prayed Novos Ordo Masses, even with non-traditional instruments. Remember, that Jesus is there spiritually in the priest especially during the consecration when Fr. says the words of consecration in the person (in-persona Christi) of Christ.

  3. The description of the music as a funeral misses the most important point, which is it should not be about sentimentalism or what people feel comfortable with. The purpose of the funeral Mass is not to make the people attending that Mass feel comfortable. It is not about celebrating the life of the deceased or providing closure for those left behind. The purpose of the funeral Mass is to provide a vehicle by which the Church, through the efficacy of grace can promote restitution for the temporal punishment due the deceased for their (forgiven) sins. Barring either exceptional personal virtue or unforgiven mortal sin the deceased is headed for purgatory, not heaven. That being the case the repertoire of happy, triumphant folk music is both inappropriate and misguided. Worst it prolongs and deepens the suffering of the deceased, who should be able to count on the prayers of the family and community to reduce that temporal punishment.
    The fact that family members and the community at large do not seem to realize this is a stain on both the pastors of these communities and their Religious Education Ministers. Rather than talking about what kind of music people pick at funerals we should be talking about why people the funeral should be about them being comforted rather than the deceased (eventually) getting into heaven.

    • Avatar Dr. Maria Procaccino says:

      Actually, yes, it is to make the people comfortable and comfort them and encourage them to know the Their loved one is firmly in the arms of a loving God. BE NOT AFRAID.. Is one of the greatest hymns for creating that comfort written in the modern times… MODERN CLASS… Not folk as this neanderthal calls it.

      • “All comments posted at Homiletic and Pastoral Review are moderated. While vigorous debate is welcome and encouraged, please note that in the interest of maintaining a civilized and helpful level of discussion, comments containing obscene language or personal attacks—or those that are deemed by the editors to be needlessly combative and inflammatory—will not be published. Thank you” NEANDERTHAL?

    • I agree with TerryC. I came back to the Church after trying out various denominations, and at first I missed the enthusiastic hymn singing of the Protestants. My first parish after my return had a bunch of hippies playing guitars at every Sunday Mass, and after a while I noticed that the Eucharist was not the focus, the people were the focus. Later on, I became restive because of the unsingability of Catholic folksy hymns of the St. Louis Jesuits and their like. Not to mention the poor theology. Eventually I joined a renowned choir that sings Gregorian chant and sacred polyphony and joined the Church Music Association of America, and I began to read the official Church documents that tell us what the true intention of the Church is for music during Mass. We don’t need hymns like the Protestants do where the preaching, the hymns, the readings and the didactic prayers are all they have, except for maybe a “memorial” communion service once a month. We have the sacrifice of the Eucharist. The Church teaches that we are not supposed to be singing AT Mass. If we sing, we should be singing THE Mass. It’s not what you or I want emotionally, it’s what the Church teaches is fitting in our worship of our God.

  4. Although you mention it, I think you do not realize the biggest struggle for many parishes – money and/or talent. My sister and I are the entire musical team at our parish. She sings, I play. We both have full time jobs and have six kids between us, so our ministry is entirely volunteer. FRLBJ says piano should not be at a Mass, but when that’s your only option, you take what you can get. If I’m not there, we have the option of trying to get a local high school girl to play for me, or a guitar. Our attendance is lucky to break 100 on any given Sunday, and most of them can’t read music, so while my sister and I have done our best to weed the worst of the hymns out of the rotation and add new ones in, it is not easy.

  5. Avatar Peggy Doyle says:

    In the end you have made two valuable points:
    1) “…a mixed menu of songs does suggest an inclusiveness that reflects the universality of the Church. ” AND
    ,2)”…Whether your preference is for “post-Vatican folk” or “reformist retro,” I believe there’s a place in God’s Church for all sounds. We are instructed, after all, not to debate our music, but to make a “joyful noise.”

    Thank you for these.

    • Avatar Bill Guentner says:

      Personally I am opposed to both “post-Vatican folk” music and “reformist retro”. I much rather prefer Gregorian chant and organ music at Mass. But that’s me, not everybody agrees with me on that. Nevertheless, what I usually hear at many Masses is not a “joyful noise”; only noise from someone pounding on a piano accompanied with 3 and 4 guitars, a flute and sometimes drums. These instruments continually play at every moment the priest is not saying something. There is no room for silence, particularly after communion, when we should be contemplating the awesome sacrament we have just received. Popes St. John Paul the Great and Benedict XVI have written about the need for silence and have been ignored as most musical ministries completely ignore the recommendations of Sacramentum Concilium and Musicam Sacram.

  6. Avatar Diana Silva says:

    “I believe there’s a place in God’s Church for all sounds.” Not so much if talking about music for Mass. You divide the music into trad/retro and guitar/folk. Not a word about the documents that actually DO give direction. It’s not a matter of throwing out the folk baby with the bath water and then settling for untrained “retros” to sing badly. That’s a straw man. Are there no well-trained/formed musicians who can provide the music the Church desires? If not, are you supporting/contributing to such? We’re supposed to have truly sacred music that is true art, and we are supposed to be training musicians and producing music that grows ORGANICALLY from tradition. Read the documents. Just because you like it, just because it brings sweet memories, or even helps you pray doesn’t make it suitable for the Mass. When did “But I like it” become a criterion for discerning whether music is appropriate or not for liturgy? The Church draws all people to one. It doesn’t become everything to please all people. In music, universality is the product of sanctity and goodness of form, and the documents are pretty clear about what is meant by these terms.

    • “But I like it” is where the fraternal correction is necessary, as you have charitably written. Our preferences are irrelevant. What is relevant are the Church documents, already in place to ensure pride of place; not for changing sentiments, but for the Glory of God.

      • Avatar Dr. Maria Procaccino says:

        Nonsense, these hymns are MODERN CLASS IS which provide comfort at the time they are needed most not liturgical correction!

    • Avatar Bill Guentner says:

      Better said than my post.

  7. Avatar Rev. Richard A.Bucci says:

    The season of Christmas undeniably points to the “brain washing” efforts of the modernist musicians. There was no input from the people, who were quite content with the music of ages and who were struck down by sister and father experts when they complained. Only Christmas could restrain the barbarians at the gate – there would have been lanterns and pitchforks. Unfortunately the other season had not been so ingrained by the culture around the. SAD.

  8. Thanks for the well written article. You’ve managed to voice my objections to guitar without making those who like that style and/or have played for the Church terrible people. :)

    • First point: The problem is not with the guitar. The problem is with the people who play it. The parishes have this idea that anybody who can strum a few chords can lead the singing. Possibly, but it will sound like hell (choice of words intended). In truth, it takes much longer to get good enough on the guitar to play with basic taste and sensitivity than it does to do the same on the organ.
      Second point: Increasing the number of guitars just creates more noise. Add bass and drums and it becomes unclear whether you are in church or happy hour.
      Third point: The Church gets the music it deserves. If you don’t invest in talented musicians, you will get the untalented musicians looking for a performance opportunity (which is my fourth point). And Heaven protect the music director who intimates that some of those up on the altar playing and singing would better serve the congregation by remaining in their seats. Yet, regarding leading the singing in choir, St. Benedict advises his monks that enthusiasm is no substitute for talent. May I be more blunt: Some people can play and sing better than others. You find those people by auditioning musicians and not hiring those who cannot cut it.
      At Westminster Choir College in Princeton, NJ, any student can earn good money on weekends by being a section leader at any of the numerous protestant churches in the area. The jobs are posted on bulletin boards around campus. Try getting that gig in a Catholic parish.
      We insist on priests and deacons who go through a rigorous multi-year training process, but will accept a musician with Mel Bay Book I and a couple of months of playing along with the CD. Somehow or other, the Church wants to make music ministry democratic. Yet it would never dream of having lay people who have great devotion do the consecration. With this kind of contempt for what it takes to become a musician …
      Fifth point: Much of the post-Vatican II music was not very good. But the Church did not have the base of talented musicians to separate the wheat from the chaff.
      However, some hierarchs do manage to get the good music for themselves. I once attended an ordination ceremony at St. Patrick’s Cathedral. There was a string orchestra, professional choir, the cantor must have taken an afternoon off from the Metropolitan opera. The organist/music director was and is clearly a conservatory graduate.
      You have heard the joke currently making the rounds: The question is not why so many Catholics are leaving the Church; the question is why so many stay when they hear the music.
      I could go on forever, but I have to go practice.

  9. The bishops in America developed the criteria of liter kcal, pastoral and musical for sacred music. That seems reasonable and has guided any liturgical music I have had a say in. The document also shows that there are times in the Mass that all should sing to show unity, like the enters cd. Communion hymn and the final song. I see these basic rules violated all the time. Also, most of the church music composed right after the Council seems sing-songy or the lyrics seem weird or both. I must say that most of the people who add music to Catholic liturgy are volunteers using the music in the hymnals provided. As long as they are on key, and have a fair phrasing, dynamic and balance (careful drummers) I’m happy for any music at all.

  10. “Ungodly instruments”…friend, you are off your nut! The Bible specifically mentions stringed instruments…and exhorts us to praise God on them. “Let Everything that has Breath
    …2 Praise Him for His mighty deeds; Praise Him according to His excellent greatness. 3 Praise Him with trumpet sound; Praise Him with harp and lyre. 4 Praise Him with timbrel and dancing; Praise Him with stringed instruments and pipe.…” Get over yourself! I don’t remember a single Bible passage in which Jesus instructed us to use organs in our liturgies. This is the problem with this argument…ego. Go to whatever Mass you want, but don’t try to tell others what music should speak to them. Personally, when I have my ticket punched, I want the following songs worked into the liturgy: I Can Only Imagine, When I Get Where I’m Going, and Dwight Yoakam’s Hold on to God. And, if the priest is willing, Spirit in the Sky for the recessional….Kentucky Headhunter’s version!!!

    • One has to remember that the psalms with their timbrel and dancing and trumpets were used as the psalms were sung by the faithful as they made their way to Jerusalem, to worship. Outside! Trying to base the instruments used in the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass upon the writings of the psalms, in the pre-Christian era doesn’t work. You might find if you research that the closest music we have today, to how those psalms were sung all those years ago, is our Gregorian Chant. :)
      If you are going to a concert, you can pick any style of music you want. When you are going to participate in the Holy Sacrific of the Mass, you might want to think about why you are there, whose presence you are in and what it is about. It isn’t about you. It is about Jesus Christ. The old time How Great Thou Art is a good example of a song that gives glory to God. The songs you mentioned might sound good at the local bar, or at the closest mega praise and worship session, but not the Mass. So, if you are going to Mass for the music, you might want to pray about those motives. Music should not be a distraction, drums, guitars, all about me songs, they just distract from the Lord.

    • Avatar Fred Speciosa says:

      Well, sir,
      Allow me to point out some practical info for you. The organ has been the instrument of the centuries, first because it can provide the adequate volume to support singing for a large body of worshippers.
      It provides variety of tone to suit congregational singing, accompanying a cantor, a choir, other instrumentalist etc. The organ can spell out the harmony (SATB) in any configuration for a congregation, choir or other. In general, an organist is NOT an accompanist , he is a leader of the various aspects of liturgical music.

  11. Avatar Stella Whata-O'Hagan says:

    I take it you are only referring to European Catholics? What about indigenous Catholics don’t they have their own music that is sweet sounding to the Lord? What I am hearing is one size fits all and from my experience many Catholics are a people who turn up at Mass as an obligation and not as a service to God and the Church. The Music Ministry is in need of committed Catholics across the board, but what happens is that a few souls are left to carry the can. Traditionalists versus “folksy music” is not the issue, the issue is Praising and Worshiping God through song and musical instruments, whether a tin can for a drum, or coconut drum,or what ever else nature offers.

    • Avatar Philip Van Camp says:

      Have you ever heard the music at the end of “The Singing Nun”? The scene where She approaches a local (African) Mass? I love the music of the “Missa Luba”. If you can find an old CD or even older LP, buy it and enjoy! The liner notes are a good read also.

      • Avatar Philip Van Camp says:

        I just looked on e-bay & found a lot of CD’s & some vinyl of “Missa Luba” & “Missa Criolla”, so you might try some “indiginous” & different sounding music. God Bless

  12. Avatar Virginia Lee Hostman says:

    I spent a lot of time and thought on my post only to have it disappear and be redirected to another page requesting donations. My comments have been lost. So, I will try to summarize my main points.

    1. The real confusion lies, NOT with the music, but with the failure to catechise following Vatican II.
    2. No matter how perfect the liturgy, we as sentient beings, will have an emotional response to what we are experiencing and participating in. As I recall, Jesus, fully human and fully divine, wept.
    3. Our behavior upon entering the Church, before, during, and after the liturgy are just as important to the experience as the music.
    4. When the garments and covering of the casket were changed from black to white, we were told that this was a celebration of life as we commend that soul to God. But, as sentient and emotional beings, we are there as a worshipping community to give comfort to the bereaved as well.
    5. Our formal ritual is predated by humans who lived hundreds of thousands of years before the Biblical Times and the Christian Era.
    6. Our music actually was derived from the folk or people and reflects the culture from which it sprang.
    7. No matter how perfect our liturgical celebrations may be, our behavior when we are not at Church is the other main reason for confusion. Do we practice the works of mercy? Does our language reflect respect for our Omnipresent God? Do we behave publicly and privately what we profess to believe? Are we humble enough to ask forgiveness of those we hurt before seeking forgiveness in the Rite of Reconciliation? Do we bless ourselves in public or are we afraid of making someone uncomfortable?

    I’ll leave it there. I’m a convert (1960), married 47 years to Deacon (retired) James Hostman. I love God, my family, and want only peace on earth. God bless each and every person.

  13. The reason there are hymns rather than chant and latin as the language of the mass is active participation so the laity in the pews can pray and sing the the local language. Vaticanll changes was about active participation by the laity.

    • Vatican II only suggested that the Mass be in the language of the people so that they could have more particiation. If you read the documents, chant is what is what is recommended as the best form of music during the Mass and yes, Latin to be used by the laity.
      Singing folk musicand (horrible praise and worship) brought nothing except a lack of reverence. Word.

  14. Avatar Carol O'Reilly says:

    Very well stated, Mr. Kassell. I grew up in the High Mass and liked singing Traditional old hymns in the choir. Then, I finally met Jesus through the miracle that was and is Vatican II, and now, I would (inwardly!) applaud a grasshopper’s attempt to praise with sound. The only real music problem in Mass is (anyone) singing during Communion. This is precisely when no words are needed, and no words could suffice. A light instrumental (if not attentive silence) would be so welcomed.

  15. Avatar Mike Mullen says:

    I am a cradle Catholic; Jesuit educated, and love my faith. I served Mass for many years until entering the Marine Corps during Vietnam. I still know much of the Mass in Latin…..and yet “Here I am Lord” nearly brings me to tears consistently during Communion. Latin still has a place in my heart….but, I have discovered liturgical richness in many modern expressions of love and adoration.

  16. Such a silly thing to debate over. God made us all different. He doesn’t want us all doing the same thing and singing the same songs especially if those songs don’t move us and help us to grow closer to Him. I would much rather attend a Mass where I feel the Holy Spirit alive in the Mass. What moves some worshipers is different than what moves others. I’m with BW above, don’t try to tell other people what music moves them. If you are praising the Lord with your singing that is between you and Him and no one else.

  17. Avatar Dr. Maria Procaccino says:

    You are so far off base it’s mind boggling. The music you speak of is not “folk” music… They are now modern classics, grounded in Scripture, which people who suffered through the changes of the 70 and 80 relate to. Music for a funeral needs to be comforting for the family.,Not suit the rules of some outmoded idea of what is transendental. No priest should impose his musical predilection on grieving family. It they know this music it’s because they are going to church. Good for them… It means something to them While I am both a classical musician and a liturgist you will not be hearing AD Paradisum at my funeral Be Not Afraid!!!! Modern classics are fine worship and leave a heavenly melody in the mind and heart when their loved one has gone home to the Lord. They will not remember some polyphonic chant but they will remember an obstinent priest who needed to do it his way!!

    • Sounds like you’re the one imposing here, Doc. Have whatever music you want, just realize others have different preferences. Your angry replies, along with commenters who tried to redefine the debate/change the subject (that it’s really about Western vs. non-Western music, the issue of having good musicians instead of the “right style,” etc.) shows that these “modern classics” are apparently losing their appeal, in favor of styles of earlier eras. “Be Not Afraid” is a long (officially) approved and hymn used well beyond funerals; that does not mean everybody has to like it.

  18. Avatar Stephen Robertson says:

    Do you think worship would be any less accepted by the Father if it were accompanied by David’s Lyre? Something to think about.

  19. Avatar Joseph Rodriguez says:

    After Mr Kassels long winded expose on music I fell asleep…

  20. Avatar Scott8921 says:

    Well I have been playing my “ungodly instrument” at our youth mass for 15 years. I am an accomplished guitarist. I also play the piano, violin, and several brass instruments. Not all guitarists are amateurs…..We have an extremely vibrant and holy parish with a diverse music department. All different musical styles because we see the need for it. There is sometiing for everyone. I know that will disappoint some people on this page but it works for us.

  21. Thank you, Mr. Kassel. I appreciate various pieces of both post-Vatican folk and traditional music. Are we to believe that there has been no inspired music since prior to Vatican II? I frankly don’t understand angry, sour-faced saints who rail about music and liturgy. I love the liturgy. Yes, much of it is not done well, that is true. But, these people are usually volunteers. We are the church. If one has a talent or gift, they should share it rather than taking angrily to the internet. I’m generally ok as long as I don’t have a warbly voiced woman cantoring (although, sadly, there seem to be many of these.) Even this, I simply have to overlook, ask the Lord to forgive me for my emotions and judgments and bless her as she strives to serve Him.

  22. Avatar Joreen Kelly says:

    Thank you for this insightful article. I have a couple comments, and I’ll try not to be too lengthy.
    I began my career as a church musician at the age of 12 in the late 60’s when the fallout from Vatican II was still creating such chaos and confusion that no one was sure what to do or what music to play. I was there for the birth of the “Missalette” and, yes, “folk” music. As the old hippies say, “If you remember the 60’s, you weren’t there.” So I have to chuckle to myself when I read posts from younger people who appear to be trying to be Catholic reenactors, making snarky comments about the music of the “old people,” or as one writer remarked that he’s waiting for us all to “die off.” (thanks a lot. but I’m still on the bench and not planning to go anytime soon, so you’ll just have to wait a bit longer!).
    You weren’t there when John XXIII worked to reform a church that, though eternal, was at the risk of becoming mildewed, insisting that everything was the same as the 1930’s. You’ve never seen people who went to church and said the rosary through the entire Mass because they had no idea what was going on, or the poor souls who wouldn’t go to Communion because they had to take medicine in the morning or, who, because of a handicap, couldn’t kneel at the Communion rail and were embarassed. You weren’t around during Vietnam when our brothers and friends were forced to go fight for a cause they didn’t understand, coming home with hundreds of other boxes draped with flags. You never felt the gripping fear of the Cold War or remember the death of JFK, RFK and MLK, or the Civil Rights riots, peace marches or the disgrace and resignation of Nixon. You weren’t there when young people realized that there were issues that the church was not addressing – caring for the poor in slums, injustice, the marginalized, and the need for words of peace under the perpetual doomsday clock of nuclear annihilation, so you couldn’t understand how “Peace is flowing like a river” and “Take our Bread” meant more to young people than “Altare Dei” or “Ingrediente.” In a time when institutions like the government’s war machine were being challenged, the church had become just another “machine” to challenge. We needed to know why we should wear chapel veils (or kleenex and a bobby pin in a pinch), and what did that have to do with loving and serving God?
    Mixed into the upheaval, composers tried to make the music of the church, like the prayers of the church, accessible and relevant to a people who were caught up in a maelstrom of change everywhere in society. No more clacking rosaries on the pews throughout the Consecration, because, hello – Jesus is on the altar. No more singing songs of praise in a language that, though beautiful, was as remote as french or german unless you read the translation on the opposite page of your pocket missal. We needed to hear that, even though we love and serve God in this world, God does indeed love us and is merciful and forgiving.
    I play many funerals in our parish because, we are losing a great generation. It is true that the funeral is about praising God and saying prayers for the deceased. But the funeral Mass is much more, happening at a time in people’s lives when they are most raw and vunerable. In the 50 some years I’ve been on the organ bench I’ve played for more funerals than most of these kids will ever see, and I’ve spoken and comforted their widows, parents and children. I’ll cheerfully play “Panis Angelicus” and “Be Not Afraid” in the same liturgy, and if they want a guitar, they can have it, because it is a corporal work of mercy – what we’ve been commanded to do by our Savior. These are the people we are here to serve, and our Lord has given us the Mandatum to wash their feet – even if the music they request isn’t to our liking, because it’s not about us. The deceased has had Viaticum, but the people in the pews, in most cases, haven’t been inside a Catholic church since “and also with you,” and they need to know that the Church cares for them, too. WWJD?
    Jesus said, ““Then every scribe who has been instructed in the kingdom of heaven is like the head of a household who brings from his storeroom both the new and the old.” Matthew 13:52. Pre-VII hymnody and “Here I Am, Lord” can coexist, and pianos and guitars and flutes can take their places beside the organ and trumpet.
    As this old musician sees it, the real problem is with music ministers who worry too much about the music, but forget the “Minister” (one who serves) part.

  23. Mr. Kassell’s article was extremely well-reasoned and not all long-winded. It’s S.O.P. that in one breath rigorists of all stripes scream “It’s not about what I like” and in another offer commentary that is essentially an exact reflection of that perspective. If the Music Wars are analogous to real wars, they would most resemble WWI, everybody entrenched in mud, deadly sulfurous gasses constantly in exchange leading to demoralization and even (spiritual) death, and constant shifts in alliances.
    What Kassell offers is “cease and desist.” Not all bishops, few in fact, are like Patton or Eisenhower in knowledge, strategic skill, and motivation. So, undertake some more personal education if you’re not “happy” with your parish’s music. It is really not about repertoire or instruments or even talent. It’s about knowing what your faithful can do to improve that status. If that means convincing the pastor to allot sufficient funds for a truly knowledgeable director, acquiring new musical resources (The Simple English Propers or Psallite), or a consensus-oriented in-house deliberation that can exact the reasons that “Abba Father” is inferior in text and music to “Eye has not seen,” which may have more or less merit than “On Eagles’ Wings” or “Be still my soul.” Sacred Music is an expansive, varied universe that is over 2000 years old. It is not a trifle.

  24. Avatar Ted Heywood says:

    Relax folks! The writer makes some interesting points, but there is no definitive answer other than — if you have a specific liking then stand up and participate in making it happen. Otherwise, in humility, enjoy the ‘happy noise’ that those who are willing to stand up make. Nothing that we can do musically comes remotely close to that which gives glory to Him from the Heavenly Host continuously.


  1. […] Kassel asks whether “post-Vatican folk” or “reformist retro” will win “the great Catholic music […]