One issue that has received considerable criticism is the document's emphasis on congregational singing. The critique relates to the Second Vatican Council's emphasis on active participation of the faithful during Mass, which has been widely misinterpreted to mean that the congregation must be physically active at all points, but especially in singing. (Sing to the Lord is certainly not the only church musical guide to receive this critique.) As is well known, this interpretation led to considerable changes in the music of the church. For example, we've seen a musical selection based on accessibility rather than artistic quality, the loss of contemplative and prayerful devotion in Mass in exchange for a focus on the visible- to-the-eye community of individuals singing together, the general decline in the quality of the liturgy that takes place when individuals are forced rather than compelled internally to sing, and the distraction caused when individuals in the congregation sing loudly or poorly.
The purpose of this post is not to repeat the lengthy and numerous arguments about active participation or more broad critiques of church music. Rather, I want to highlight just a few questions that the official musical guidelines like Sing to the Lord seem to fail to address, at least to a non-musician like me. The list below is far from exhaustive and is preliminary.
1) The purpose of sacred music "is the glory of God and the sanctification of the faithful" (Sacrosanctum Concilium). At what point does congregational singing hinder these purposes?
a) One can easily imagine that bad or loud singing of others becomes a distraction from the prayer of the Mass, thereby hindering the glory of god and one's sanctification.
b) A considerable risk exists that singing can easily turn into showmanship, where the purpose of singing is showing off to other members of congregation rather than singing to the glory of God.
c) Reading a hymnal can be distracting, in that one is reading notes and words without having time to understand their meaning or having the moments needed to allow the musical art to affect one's devotion and prayer. In addition, asking the congregation to read hymnals assumes a basic ability to read music; those without musical training may be further distracted by the musical notation and the frequent errors in singing that occur when unable to properly read the music.
Both points a) and b) are supported by commentary on Matthew 6:6, which is relevant to the extent that we believe that the Mass is a prayer. "The Holy Mass is a prayer itself, even the highest prayer that exists" (His Holiness Pope St. Pius X).
Pseudo-Chrysostom: "We should not pray to God with loudness of tone...but with a silent heart, for three reasons." The third reason is that "because if you pray aloud, you hinder any other from prayer near you."
He continues: "Whoever then so prays as to be seen by men does not look to God but to man."
Participation must also be external, so that internal participation can be expressed and reinforced by actions, gestures, and bodily attitudes, and by the acclamations, responses, and singing (Sing to the Lord, 13).
This quotation cites Sacrosanctum Concilium but leaves out a key sentence: To promote active participation, the people should be encouraged to take part by means of acclamations, responses, psalmody, antiphons, and songs, as well as by actions, gestures, and bodily attitudes. And at the proper times all should observe a reverent silence.
In addition, the reasoning given for the conclusion that participation must also be external is that internal participation has to be expressed and reinforced by various actions. This reasoning seems to contradict the omitted sentence from the Sacrosanctum Concilium quote, assumes without qualification that internal participation is expressed and reinforced by external actions rather than hindered by them or unaffected by them, and seems to ignore the role of stillness and silence as essential to internal participation.
The quality of our participation in such sung praise comes less from our vocal ability than from the desire of our hearts to sing together of our love for God. Participation in the Sacred Liturgy both expresses and strengthens the faith that is in us.
The first sentence in this quotation ignores the effect that singing has on the quality of others' participation in the liturgy. It also mentions a desire to sing together, rather than an individual's desire to sing himself. How does one know the desires of others at Mass, and why should we be thinking of others' desire to sing?
The second sentence does not mention if the participation refers to sung participation or just the concept of participation. It is also vague in that participation needs a qualifier, such as "quality participation" expresses and strengthens the faith that is in us.
Our participation in the Liturgy is challenging. Sometimes, our voices do not correspond to the convictions of our hearts. At other times, we are distracted or preoccupied by the cares of the world. But Christ always invites us to enter into song, to rise above our own preoccupations, and to give our entire selves to the hymn of his Paschal Sacrifice for the honor and glory of the Most Blessed Trinity.The last sentence in this quotation seems to ignore the omitted sentence from Sacrosanctum Concilium, which calls for silence. The first sentence does not state what form of participation is challenging, though the second sentence suggests that the subject is singing. The second sentence fails to instruct us what to do when our voices are less than our convictions, what to do when our voices are greater than our conviction, or what to do when our convictions are greater than our voices. Overall it assumes that singing is a cure to distraction, which is false if one sings while the mind is distracted.