Sed Contra: Praying by the Numbers

Several years ago this month, I nearly disturbed the decorum of my parish church in the northern suburbs of New York City. It was Easter morning. Theresa and I had brought our three year old daughter to Mass. The church was packed with people, but when the organist began playing “Jesus Christ Is Risen Today,” practically no one sang.

As the Mass continued, in spite of large numbers who stood around the walls of the sanctuary, there was never a moment when the voice of the congregation rose above a muffled grumble—we sounded like schoolchildren being forced through our daily grammar lessons, without much success.

Crisis readers who are aware by now of my Baptist years may consider me overly sensitive on this topic. But my complaint is one that I make on behalf of all Catholics who crave a greater sense of collective expectancy and gratitude in our worship.

Theresa and I are both converts, but our daughter, Hannah Clare, is a cradle Catholic. Her parents have the advantage of having consciously chosen the Catholic Church—we can see beyond the limp and lifeless liturgies. That morning, however, I wanted my daughter to be touched with the mood of unforgettable exultation that comes through the words and melody of “Now above the sky he’s King, Alleluia.”

I tried to make excuses to myself. Perhaps they don’t know the song, etc. But looking around all I saw were grim and bored faces, interspersed with a few faint smiles.

I confess that I probably panicked that day—was my daughter, I wondered, ever going to feel the pulse of great worship, the heartfelt songs, the rousingly chanted prayers? What about other young Catholics on this Easter morning: don’t they need more to take home with them than this reminder of the lukewarm church at Laodicea?

I was standing at the rear of the church, near the baptistery: how easy, I thought, to simply step forward at a momentary lull and say to everyone present that Easter morning was a time of joy and celebration, not mourning. “Let’s get off the treadmill of dreary obligation! Don’t we owe our children here a more vital expression of faith, of our gratitude and thanksgiving in the Risen Christ?”

I struggled with this, possibly Protestant, impulse for what seemed half the Mass, but I never moved. Theresa told me later she knew exactly what was going through my mind; she was glad I restrained myself. I’m not sure myself—perhaps I was only being a coward.

The problem I met in that parish on Easter morning appears to be widespread. Few things expose more clearly a parish’s spiritual temperature than its singing and praying. Robust singing also says “welcome” to both friends and strangers—it says we’re glad to be here and we’re in no hurry to leave.

What’s wrong? Are Catholics confused by all the changes in the liturgy? Are they turned off by all the had post–Vatican II music? Or does Mother Angelica have it right when she says, “People don’t sing when they’re broken-hearted.”

Whether confused, grief-stricken, or simply overwhelmed by bad taste, the tepid atmosphere of much Catholic worship needs discussing.

Catholics in America, for a variety of reasons, are not naturally evangelical. Peggy Noonan recently told me that she tried to get involved again in the Catholic Church during the early ’80s and would have stayed with it “if only someone had said, ‘Hi.'”

Our Holy Father has called us to a new evangelism. It is difficult to respond to such a call when we are reluctant or embarrassed to share our faith in word and song. I have some concrete suggestions for every parish that needs them: start singing, welcome friends and strangers, and make sure new parish members get more than offering envelopes.

My cradle Catholic friends tell me I will regret encouraging such things, that we are all better off without the awkward and superficial friendliness that results from church-supervised programs. I know what they mean. But we still must address the important issue of forming the religious emotions and affections of our young and rekindling the joy in older souls.

I want my daughter to know her catechism, “Jesus Christ rose from the dead.” But just as important for her, for all of us, is to experience the joy of celebrating that day and to express through song and praise the love that all Christians offer up in gratitude for their salvation.

Lovers don’t recite formulas, they sing—whether they have a decent voice or not.


  • Deal W. Hudson

    Deal W. Hudson is ​publisher and editor of The Christian Review and the host of "Church and Culture," a weekly two-hour radio show on the Ave Maria Radio Network.​ He is the former publisher and editor of Crisis Magazine.

tagged as:

Join the Conversation

in our Telegram Chat

Or find us on
Item added to cart.
0 items - $0.00

Orthodox. Faithful. Free.

Signup to receive new Crisis articles daily

Email subscribe stack
Share to...