Mouthing the Words

A few years ago I was at a liturgy in a small, unfamiliar parish in another part of the state. As usual, I did my best not to sing so loudly that I stuck out from the rest of the congregation, but I still sang as clearly as I usually do. Processing to communion we were singing You Are Mine (to which, of course, I know all the words), and the young man in front of me, a few steps from the communion station, turned around and whispered “Nice job!”

Singing has always been easy for me, and I enjoy it. Fortunately, I also get paid to do it. Weekends you can often find me at the front of one parish or another, raising my holy hand and smiling wide in hopes that those assembled with me to worship will also raise their voices in song.

There’s a look I get from some communities where singing is not the norm. It is a hostile, challenging look that says “no matter how hard you try you are not going to get us to sing with you”. This always disheartens me. I am happiest when I am not needed, that is, when everyone is singing so confidently and and enthusiastically that I can’t be heard over them.

Recently at mass I wasn’t hearing a thing from the congregation when I raised my hand to invite them to sing. During the Gloria I thought “this is going to be a long afternoon”. Mine felt like the only voice in the church, and I felt guilty and foolish, like I was putting on a concert when we were supposed to be praying together.

During the Sanctus, I noticed something: everyone was moving their lips. I couldn’t hear sound from them, but nearly every person I could see was at least mouthing the words. Maybe they didn’t want to raise their voices because they felt exposed in the half-full church. Maybe their throats hurt. Maybe they don’t like singing, or they’re not used to it. But still, they were doing something. They were mouthing the words.

I can’t get frustrated with those who don’t do the things that come naturally to me. In the same way I have to beg mercy of those who can’t understand why I struggle with the virtues I don’t possess or the things I don’t like to do. When faced with the things that we can’t do wholeheartedly, how many of us have the discipline and heart to at least give it a shot?

So I sang, and looked around, and prayed that all of us gathered might keep mouthing the words, if nothing else.

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6 Responses to Mouthing the Words

  1. Chase says:

    Did this church happen to have carpet? Reverberation and the carrying of sound have been huge casualties of modern church architecture and remodels. The Church got by without microphones for centuries. Our sister parish finally replaced carpet with hardwoods last year and the difference is overwhelming. A few voices go a long way when they can bounce off the walls and not get sucked into the floor.

    More on topic, some liturgists feel like they’ve failed when people don’t sing loudly because of that whole notion of “active participation,” but it’s an interpretation that leaves out any possibility of internal personal engagement in the Mass. There isn’t necessarily anything wrong with wanting the congregation to sing more, but the music minister’s eyes should be on the prize of leading people to prayer, however that may manifest itself.

  2. Steven Olson says:

    As a Roman Catholic cantor, I can certainly relate to your experience. And how wonderful are those moments when the assembly sings and all we have to do is gently lead.

  3. truthslinger says:

    It is the Song of the Heart that cries out to the Most High…
    It is also for us to speak to each other in psalms and praise…
    Keep singing chearing on the faithful to run the race, finish strong, and give priases to our God.
    and maybe they will catch it in there heart to sing along, making a joyious noise unto Him who called them out!

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