Why Catholics can’t sing

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Or at least Irish Catholics – the predominant Catholic influence in Australia and apparently in the States as well.

While researching the demise of Gregorian Chant I came across the occasional comment that “of course, as Irish Catholics it was never part of our culture.”

I didn’t quite get it – being of neither Irish nor Catholic heritage myself.  But here it is, put forth at least by one source in writing, with a putative historical rationale:

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.


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.

And again:

The Irish people were persecuted for centuries. Their glory is that they “kept the faith.” There was little opportunity for singing at Masses celebrated behind the hedge rows; one did not have to attract the attention of English soldiers by singing. The silent low Mass was the norm. The American hierarchy is largely Irish in origin, and the lack of a liturgical musical culture among them is easily traced to the historical events of the past four hundred years.

I suppose if you’re struggling to keep the faith under violent oppression you can hardly be blamed for failing to also keep alive the integrity of ancient religious music.

If true, this would help to explain the prominence of the low Mass in Australia, which – free from outright suppression – was embellished with the addition of various hymns in place of the Proper chants.

Still, it isn’t right to say that Gregorian Chant was totally neglected.  Stumble into Benediction and you can hear the older generations chant Tantum Ergo; and many seem to remember the Anglicised chant for the Pater Noster. I’ve heard rumours that two generations ago Catholic school children may have learned the Missa De Angelis, an entire Mass setting in Gregorian Chant.

But these bits and pieces are evidently not enough to give any but the traditionalists a real passion for the Chant, and even the traditionalists would prefer to spice it up with a dash of polyphony. Not that I blame them, but with a wealth of Papal and Concilliar documents praising the heritage and unique merits of Gregorian Chant, you’d think there might be parishes somewhere actually practising it.

We could blame the Irish, but it would be fairer to blame the English, the Reformation, and centuries of bitter Anglo-Irish conflict. It’s late, and I’m tired, so let’s just agree for now that it’s thanks to Henry VIII that we can’t have nice things like this:




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