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From Eagle’s Wings to Agnus Dei

When we got into our, um, conversation last week about good vs. bad liturgy, people from both sides of the spectrum chimed in with what they thought would be the remedy, and I appreciate that, I really do, but I’m not looking to go to any “extreme.” In fact, I’m actually quite happy b0uncing back and forth between contemporary and classic, progressive and traditional. It was never a matter of needing one type of perfect liturgy or a perfect liturgical element but rather a matter of just wanting to participate in Mass and feel like I was getting what I need to deepen my relationship with God. I happen to be one of those people who can get that equally well from the often-dreaded “On Eagle’s Wings” or the old-school Latin “Agnus Dei.” In fact, I prefer a blend, which is precisely my problem. Again. I don’t fit into anyone’s “camp.”

Sometimes I think about the music I’ll want at my own funeral Mass. Yeah, must be the Irish coming out in me. And that kind of sums up my approach to liturgical music: Give me good music that moves me through it’s haunting beauty, like “Panis Angelicus” for instance, or something singable that doesn’t make me pass out from needing to reach notes too high for dogs to hear, like “Table of Plenty.” That’s correct. I just requested “Panis Angelicus” and “Table of Plenty” in the same breath. And you thought last week’s blog post was a problem.

I would like to suggest churches throw away the weird, impossible-to-sing but seemingly liturgically correct songs in favor of something classic or simple or just plain beautiful. And dare I even suggest that maybe we start listening to what’s going on in Christian music circles in general — not just Catholic circles — to hear the really great new spiritual music that’s out there. Some of it is jaw-droppingly inspiring. I’ve got a whole playlist of it, if you want to come over and listen. Stuff that brings me to tears every time I hear it, and other stuff that fills me with a come-and-get-me-God kind of conviction. Good stuff. Unfortunately, most Catholics are still struggling with that last verse of “Lord You Give the Great Commission,” so they never get to Laura Story’s “Blessings.”

And although this will send some progressive or contemporary folks into convulsions, how about we pull out one of those really basic old standards from days gone by. The ones even little kids can sing because they’re so easy; the ones older Catholics can sing because they’re engrained in our DNA: “Holy God We Praise Thy Name,” “Hail Holy Queen,” “Immaculate Mary,” “Praise to the Lord.” I dare you. Put one of those into rotation next week and stand back and be amazed at how many people will suddenly start singing. Why? Because they know the songs, because they don’t have to be opera divas to hit the notes, and because sometimes it’s just nice to belt out “How Great Thou Art.”

Folks like me aren’t asking for perfection. What we’re asking for is something real, something that makes sense to our hearts and souls, something that doesn’t make us want to wear ear plugs to Mass.

If you choose a song with five verses of allegedly profound words and no melody, expect people to stand there with mouths closed. And, guess what? If their mouths are closed in frustration, there’s a good chance their hearts will close just a little too, and soon you’ve got a church full of people looking at their watches instead of looking at their God.


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  1. Anne #

    Hello, Mary,

    Your recent posts have started some serious conversations at our house. The “contemporary” Mass that we attended last night featured a rock band with two “front” singers, a visiting priest who had the congregation shouting “Amen” during the homily, and rousing applause after the homily. However, it left me frustrated.

    The songs, which may be fun to sing along to, didn’t match the reading or the message of the homily. The priest ad-libbed during the eucharistic prayer. And many people skipped communion. It felt like the emphasis of the Mass was on the visiting priest, who even danced down the center aisle during the recessional, rather than on the Eucharist. I left with many questions:

    Am I being difficult to please?
    Is it okay for the priest to interject his own words into the Eucharistic prayer? Was there liturgical abuse? Who should I ask about it?
    Why would a priest okay music that include phrases and messages that contradict Catholic teachings? Does the priest even pay attention to song selection?
    Why aren’t there contemporary arrangements of traditional hymns?
    Why is okay for the music to be so loud during the distribution of the Eucharist that Eucharistic ministers have to shout to be heard?

    To reflect on the sentiment of your first article, yes, this Mass was energetic and interesting. It might have even been enough to encourage newbies to come back. But was there anything that really explained why it was any different from, say, the rock-n-roll Protestant church down the road? Was there anything that focused on the real presence of Christ in the Eucharist? I’m not sure sure.

    Thanks for letting me unload,

    September 30, 2013
    • Mary DeTurris Poust #

      Oh my! I have been at a Mass where the priest ad-libbed throughout the Liturgy of the Eucharist so much that it really became all about him and not about Jesus, and my husband and I even questioned whether we should received Communion. It was that bad. So I totally get what you’re saying. It seems there’s no middle ground, or, if there is, it’s so bland everyone is just sleepwalking through it. But I love it when a beautiful song starts and you can see the congregation perk up because it’s something they recognize and like. Priests and music ministers need to take notice. And the problem isn’t just in little parishes. I’ve seen these same issues in cathedrals, which really should be serving as models. Sigh…I could go on and one. Thanks for writing here.

      September 30, 2013
  2. Our parish will be moving into a new church building in a few weeks. It will have a beautiful new organ. I hope we take some time to evaluate the music at liturgy. I don’t mind a mix of styles of music, but just because it’s in the music book doesn’t mean it’s liturgical. I would really like to see sung Mass propers used more often. The Chant Cafe has some lovely ones in English for those who are allergic to Latin. I want music that is melodic and theological. Is that too much to ask? The ones you mentioned, like “Holy God We Praise Thy Name”, are great examples. There is a noticeable difference when they are played—people sing!

    September 30, 2013
  3. BeHonest #

    I always read your blog but don’t always comment right away. I was reading about how you felt about wanting to walk out of the Mass (in a past blog). I must say we “Catholics” have come a long way. And still have a lot of change to go. I will say there is something for everyone being in Liberal or Conservative aspect.
    I personally take what I can from all aspects of the church and leave the rest where its at… And say a prayer. Things are changing but for some not at a fast enough rate. Each parish has to stand up for what they want which won’t be easy because its such a big mix of personalities and different teachings of the Catholic religion.
    Keep up the good work! And don’t give up… 🙂

    September 30, 2013
  4. Beth #

    Dear Mary,

    I missed your post from last week and just read it. It is such a consolation to hear someone voice what is my experience as well. At our parish recently I have cried through the music. That is I have cried tears of sadness. I have said to my husband I can not come here again. We are like refugees week to week going to parish to parish trying to find a mass we can sing to the music at AND have our children sing to. During the offeratory and communion hymns no one is singing because they are not actually songs you can sing too. When I go to the Cathedral in our state it is the same thing. It appears in fact that the office of worship encourages this kind of disconnected liturgical music because it is superior or so they were told when they went to Rome. (I know my frustration comes out here. I ask readers to be kind and patient with me and not scold me for just going to Mass and expecting nothing)

    Every week we tell our kids we are going for the Eucharist. They see the emptiness in the community and the music. Last week they asked me why I was crying on the way home. I said it is because I want to be able to sing in church. As Catholics we spend a lot of time letting everyone know how much better we are because we have the fullness of truth. However, if we humble ourselves we can learn so much about building community and beautiful music from our protestant brothers and sisters.

    I am completely bewildered that our pastor does not recognize that no one is singing. I am not looking for a rock band but I have experienced some beautiful contemporary music in the past with guitars, keyboards and yes drums that were not distracting. It would not be that much to ask that one mass a weekend be geared towards something besides the organ. We are all drawn to the Lord by different types of music and parishes should recognize this. However, I have searched high and low and it is a rare place where the people and the music are filled with joy. The state of affairs for music is not drawing our kids to the Lord.

    That said, I have learned to incorporate the music at home and the sermons online and seek out the community in a multitude of ways.

    Thanks for bringing up this topic

    September 30, 2013
  5. Maria #

    I am always saying that one person’s favourite hymn is anathema to someone else. I struggle with the music in my church because it doesn’t seem to have any connection with the readings, we sing some hymns far too often and completely overlook others, and it often feels as if people are looking on liturgical singing as some giant sing-a-long.

    September 30, 2013
  6. Beth #

    I wanted to add that it took a lot of courage for you to share these thoughts today and last week. I read through the comments of last week and see you received your share of scolding and shouts of “we only go to Mass to receive the Eucharist not to be entertained” and “this is all about you.” **sigh** Hang in there. Someone is listening. The Eucharist of the source and summit of our faith and the beauty of the liturgy should reflect that.

    September 30, 2013
  7. Sasha #

    Not much to say, just thought you might like to know that my 9yo son’s favorite song is “Immaculate Mary.”

    Hang in there. Or move t0 South Central PA! We would love to have you.

    September 30, 2013
  8. Shannon #

    Our parish recently welcomed a new music director. She came from KY to WA, a huge move–but it also meant she really hadn’t had the chance to come and visit, to see what the parish was like.

    Her first Sunday on the job, we celebrated our annual Spirit Mass, getting all things up and running for the year. It was her first chance to see who *we* are at worship.

    And it was good. Particularly the singing–which included English and Spanish languages, as well as other pieces based on Celtic music (and could just have easily incorporated some African pieces). Full throated singing, from everyone.

    It took years to get to that point, but we’ve been celebrating like that for a couple of decades now.

    A parishioner who recently celebrated his 50th wedding anniversary told me that they’d had two dozen people visiting from the midwest for the occasion. (And that wasn’t Spirit Mass weekend.) Many of them remarked on the music, and the hospitality, and the lectors, and the preaching, and the graceful actions of acolytes and eucharistic ministers who all knew what they were doing and did it well.

    I wish we could export it all, but we believe who we are called to be and that has to be a start.

    September 30, 2013
  9. Ally #

    For the record – I did want to giggle at your suggestion of “How Great Thou Art” because as a Protestant who has visited two Catholic Churches recently that both sang this, I was struck by the fact that 1) from what I saw at these two churches, Catholics don’t know this song (not just they didn’t sing, because they were SLIGHTLY louder on other songs) and because I’ve never been somewhere where people didn’t, i didn’t know that 2) apparently I stand out on it because no one else is even singing the chorus loudly, much less holding the notes their full value, so I’m singing out “then sings my soul……” And I realize… I might as well have a sign on my back that says both “Protestant” and “former voice major” 😀

    (For the record, the category of “former voice major” completely set me up to not stand out too badly on my very first visit to a Catholic Church… This particular church decided to sing the Agnus Dei in Latin that Sunday… Well I didn’t know their tune, but at least I knew the full text, which would not have been the case in English!)

    September 30, 2013
    • Mary DeTurris Poust #

      How Great Thou Art is one of my favorites. Maybe because I have Protestant roots on one side? 😉

      September 30, 2013
  10. Robert M #

    More liberals promoting liberal theology will only get you what you are currently getting, failed church leaders and declining parishoners. I know you can probably show me stats for increased church membership when the priest decided to forget GOD and bring in liberal theology, but all you get are more libs who want religion and GODS word to fit their own personal beliefs. Just like the Jews who suffered and continue to suffer for torturing, crucifying and rejecting Jesus. The Catholic church has been paying for their sacreligious vatican 2 and their acceptance and coverups of evil perpetrating the church. The Catholic church should know better than anyone else that the further you get away from GOD the more intense GODS punishment will be. Liberalism is a severe mental disorder, liberals should be locked away in mental hospitals….not followed in thought, word or belief….especially when GOD and religion are involved.

    September 30, 2013
  11. Brad #

    Music at Mass is such a challenge because for those involved in the music program it is their best prayer to God while for those in the pews it is anything from a deep prayer to just another noise during the liturgy. That being said, it seems to me the goal for the music team is to find that which is appropriately pastoral, reverent, and orthodox.

    Pastoral means the music should be something the sheep in the pews can sing even though they did not go to Wednesday evening rehearsal or major in music at college. Many of the golden oldies are what they are because they march along in predictable fashion. One may or may not like the Eucharistic song, “I am the bread of life,” but one cannot deny that irregular hymn is difficult to sing when 700 folks are supposed to sing it together. Pastoral also means songs that resonate with the sheep in the pews, so some of the golden oldies are not so golden for the not-so-oldies. (Bread was an objectively inferior music group from the early 1970s, but even a Bread song is still an old friend to someone coming of age then. Perhaps Haugen’s “Gather us In” is an analog for Catholics of a certain age.)

    Reverence is a combination of words and tune and rhythm. I noticed at a Presbyterian wedding that their hymnal included “On Eagles’ Wings” but chose to change the words from “I will raise you up” to “God will raise you up” because of the traditional reluctance to sing as though you are God. Tune and rhythm work together, with the challenge being that a song that reminds everyone of something they heard on the radio (e.g., the Cat Stevens hymn) or on Broadway may pull them away from the liturgy rather than into it. Part of the appeal of Latin and chant, I believe, is that you will never hear it on SiriusXM and that “other-ness” helps you meet our entirely “other” God in the Mass.

    Othodoxy sometimes runs into poetic license, the most common instance that comes to mind is the objection to the “when we eat this bread and drink this cup” response to the mysterium fide. We, of course, will not eat bread but the body of Christ. Perhaps the writer wanted only one syllable; not every deviation from orthodoxy is fully intentional.

    September 30, 2013
    • Mary DeTurris Poust #

      Thank you for this thoughtful response. I can appreciate how difficult it must be to select music that will appeal to the masses at Mass. Sometimes I think music ministers forget that people in the pews just want something they can attempt to sing — even if it’s not familiar at least fairly easy to grasp — or something they can meditate on that lifts them up even without their participation — chant or some other choir hymn. But no doubt that beautiful music can transport us and give us that deep prayer we crave.

      September 30, 2013
  12. George #

    I’ve read and re-read all your recent posts about the Mass and it seems to me that you are seeking something and/or wanting something but can’t quite get it all in one time. I have to ask though, what is your entire purpose of going to Mass? Who or What are you seeking/wanting? Maybe you’re just wanting to rant and rant?

    I think you know very well that most parish musicians/choir members are volunteers, and if they are paid, its all peanuts. And, because most parishes can’t afford to hire a true professional music conductor and/or have a “The Voice” auditions for its choir, they have what they can get.

    If anything, we should all be praying for all the ministers in our liturgy–priests, deacons, ushers, greeters, choir, musicians, etc. before mass so that in and through them we’ll be able to encounter the holistic presence of God or better yet, hear his message!

    I feel that as we all enter into the sacred liturgy, we are all called to participate and respond with our whole being. And if we can’t hit the note of a song or even carry a tune, so be it! I’ve never ever experienced a whole church chanting or singing all together like its the Mormon Tabernacle Choir at any liturgy I’ve attended. Never ever! Because some just choose not to sing, which is fine.

    So ease up a bit in your critical assessment of what is the liturgy. If anything, I encourage you to be more supportive, cooperative and leading in your parish to make the whole liturgical process an encountering of Christ’s presence, celebrating in joy, hope, peace, and love.

    There’s already too many in the gallery throwing their “two cents” of complaints/criticism at the pastor and whole parish. But yet, not enough of the same are doing anything to be encouraging, building, leading, etc.

    May you truly experience His peace and love.

    September 30, 2013
    • Mary DeTurris Poust #

      I specifically said no one is asking for perfection. I’m certainly not expecting perfection. I’d much have some off-key notes or missed chords with a little sincerity and joy. I’ve heard from others over on Facebook who are feeling the same way, wishing for something they can at least TRY to sing along with, rather than standing there unable to even begin because the hymn is so un-singable. I have been a member of several contemporary choirs in my life. I have actually written spiritual music. I know what it’s like to get up there and have to sing in front of a congregation, and I can’t say we always succeeded in giving people what they wanted and needed to pray, but we tried our very best and made it our prayer.

      When I wrote my first two posts last week, some commenters asked me to please follow-up with specifics. So that’s what I’m going to try to do — talk about places where maybe we — and I mean all of us, not just a select few — can do a better job of making liturgy meaningful.

      Thanks for your comment.

      September 30, 2013
  13. Susan #

    Wow, you really spoke to me again.

    When I was a child, my Dad played organ at our parish, St. Paul’s in Staatsburg, NY, at 8:00 AM mass for many years when the mass was still in Latin. Needless to say, our family arrived very early for mass, and stayed late!

    Not only would Dad play for mass, but Sundays he would play our organ at home and the songs would all be sacred ones. I even remember the cover of the music book he used. One of my Dad’s favorite songs was “How Great Thou Art.” Whenever I hear that song (hardly ever now) I get goose bumps and know that Dad is looking over my shoulder. I never knew it was a Protestant song.

    But I do know that whenever I recognize a song a church, I always perk up and want to sing (even though I am horrible.) I am fortunate to belong to a parish here in NC that is so community oriented and wonderfully supportive. We have awesome priests and the homilies are so inspirational and relevant, so I consider myself very fortunate in light of your recent posts.

    Also, our music people are awesome, but sometime I can’t go along with their choices. “Amazing Grace” is a big no-no for me . My husband is a firefighter, I’ve heard it too many times, and it doesn’t speak to the Catholic in me.

    Thanks for your outlook on things that some of us have not, or cannot express! God Bless

    September 30, 2013
  14. Hi Mary,

    I heard about your blog by a tweet from HuffPost. So glad I came across this! It is an affirmation to what we strive for each Sunday at St. Monica’s in Santa Monica, California. So much of what you speak about needs to be modeled by the hierarchy of the Church, but as you allude to, many cathedrals in our country, and most papal events for that matter, do not model liturgical music that is diverse and approachable by the common person in the pew.

    I’m not sure if your blog will allow me to post a few links, but I would love for you to check out our weekly livestream. Offer me your comments. Do you feel a sense of connection? As director of music for this mass, and Media Ministry Coordinator for the parish, my prayer is that we can use our new “livestream ministry” to reach out to more folks who are looking for exactly what you have described.

    I sincerely would love your thoughts on our weekly broadcast, how we can improve, and how we can spread the word!
    Dan Houze

    Our website is:

    Fav homilies:

    Fav songs:

    Eucharistic Prayer & Echo Our Father:

    Singing of the Gospel (Feast of Christ the King):

    Complete archives:

    September 30, 2013
  15. becky #

    Thank you for challenging us to think about what it means to be church together. I am a music person, and sometimes I’m completely bored at church, while other times I almost start crying from the enormity of Christ’s sacrifice for us. A mix of music, like you mentioned is right ont. I thought I was the only one who could appreciate both. It so often feels like a person has to pick one or the other. I appreciate your posts! Blessings!

    October 1, 2013
  16. Dominic MacAller #

    Mary, I read and appreciated your recent posts, and your gracious reactions to the comments. I want to join my voice to those encouraging you to hang in there and keep saying what needs to be said. To those who scold, saying we come for the Eucharist and not to be entertained, I say yes, that is true. But the US Catholic Bishops in Sing to the Lord have also declared that: Faith grows when it is well expressed in celebration. Good celebrations can foster and nourish faith. Poor celebrations may weaken it. Good music “make[s] the liturgical prayers of the Christian community more alive and fervent so that everyone can praise and beseech the Triune God more powerfully, more intently and more effectively.” (Chapter 1, article 5). You’ll notice there is no mention of musical style or genre here! Blessings and peace to you.

    October 2, 2013
    • Mary DeTurris Poust #

      Thank you! I appreciate the dialog happening here.

      October 5, 2013
  17. Beth #

    I wanted to come back and add to the thoughts here. For me, getting to daily mass once a week that has no music is refreshing. When I get there mid week I can recovery from the weariness of Sunday Mass with difficult music. Having no music is better than having music no one can sing to. At least I can hold onto this!

    October 2, 2013

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