I Plead Guilty about the Liturgist

He is grimacing with effort as he croons forcefully into the microphone.

He’s wearing faded blue jeans, a T-shirt and sandals revealing his hairy toes. He holds the notes a bit too long, and he is sadly off-key.

And you might wonder: Why in the world is she attending this rock concert if everything is wrong?

Answer: This is Sunday Mass at our local parish, and the man is a cantor.

This is just one more thing we have to put up with at a church that once had lovely, traditional music and even a Gregorian chant group.

This is just one more thing to offer up each week, as we sit through wretched Marty Haugen tunes (“We are many parts! We are all one body!”) – which are accompanied by the tinkling keys of what sounds like a “pie-AN-ee” you’d find in a Western-movie saloon.

It all started when a liturgist was hired about 10 years ago, and the rest has been history.  In short order, he added cantors , wretched songs, and don’t forget the “Stand up and greet your neighbor before Mass starts” nonsense.

You might ask:  Well, why don’t you leave, for heaven’s sake? Find something beautiful, something uplifting, something dignified.

Actually, we did just that, for about five years.  My husband and I attended an Eastern Catholic church, where the liturgy was truly reverential, and the only instrument we heard on Sunday was the human voice.

But the Divine Liturgy differs significantly from the Mass, which we were both so familiar with – and the Eastern Catholic liturgical calendar is not the same as the Roman Catholic one. The result was we felt quite out of step with our familiar world.

We also tried the only church in metro-Atlanta that offers the Latin Mass, but we had to drive a long way in our quite elderly car. And since people traveled to the Latin Mass from all over metro-Atlanta, as well as neighboring states, it was hard to get a real sense of community there.

In the end, we missed the people at our beloved home parish, only a mile from our home, and so we returned.

After all, the vivid memories run so deep. This was the parish where my husband was received into the Church, where we were married as Catholics, and where we became Godparents.

Since our return, my husband has discovered that if he prays the Rosary during Mass, he can block out the soul-numbing, rinky-dink tunes. But that grace, alas, has been denied me.

Worse yet, the more heinous lyrics (“Come to me and drink!”) get lodged in my brain at Mass and repeat themselves, ad nauseam (“Rain down!”), for hours afterwards.

The solution is obvious, of course: Continue praying things will change, and continue offering up our suffering.

We remind ourselves there are much bigger crosses than this one. We also try to look on the bright side, since we are endeavoring to get souls out of Purgatory each week.

Besides, there is something quite good that has come out of all this anguish. It is the mystery that I wrote, “Death of a Liturgist.”

The book is about a layman who wreaks havoc on a traditional parish by launching cantors, piano music, and “pop goes the weasel” songs during Mass.  He also gives the Stations of the Cross an ecological twist that enrages the congregation.

I’m a bit ashamed to admit how eagerly I plotted the death of my fictional liturgist –but it’s the truth and I’ll own up to it.

The cantor, however, escaped unscathed – at least for now.


Lorraine is a columnist with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, and has written two mysteries – “Death in the Choir” and “Death of a Liturgist” – along with a biography of Flannery O’Connor, “The Abbess of Andalusia.” All her books are available at www.lorrainevmurray.com

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About the Author

Lorraine is the author of “The Abbess of Andalusia: Flannery O’Connor’s Spiritual Journey.” She also has written three mysteries, most recently “Death Dons a Mask.” Her email is lorrainevmurray@yahoo.com. All of her books can be seen on her website is www.lorrainevmurray.com.

Lorraine V. Murray grew up in Miami, and graduated from Immaculata Academy High School. One of the nuns there predicted that if Lorraine went to a secular college, she would be in great danger of losing her faith. Lorraine thought that was funny, but in fact the sister’s prediction came true.

Majoring in English at the University of Florida, Lorraine bid farewell to her Catholicism when she was 19. She went on to get a Ph.D. in philosophy and became a radical feminist and atheist for over 20 years.

After teaching courses in English and philosophy on the college level, Lorraine worked as an editor in a university publications office. In her forties, the Lord called her back to her Catholic roots, and she went on to write about her conversion journey in her book “Confessions of an Ex-Feminist.”

Her recent books are "Death of a Liturgist," a fun-filled mystery featuring murder and mayhem in a Georgia parish, and "The Abbess of Andalusia," which explores Flannery O'Connor's Catholic journey. All her books can be seen at www.lorrainevmurray.com (link provided below).

Lorraine writes regular columns for the religion section of “The Atlanta Journal-Constitution” and “The Georgia Bulletin.” She lives in Decatur, Georgia, with her husband, Jef, a Tolkien artist and book illustrator. In her spare time, she bakes bread, watches hummingbirds, and chases squirrels out of her garden.

Connect with Lorraine at:

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  1. You need to do more than pray and offer up your suffering. If you don’t make your voices heard (respectfully and charitably) to the priest and liturgy director, then the parish will never know the suffering it’s inflicting on worshippers and why it needs to change things.

    Quietly amass a group of faithful Catholics together who desire a return to reverent worship, think up helpful solutions, and respectfully approach the priest. Be proactive. Remember, it’s not just your personal faith that is suffering here, but other souls in this parish as well.

  2. This article was just hilarious. Sorta. Ma’am, you may be a PhD, but you don’t know squat about music liturgy. I grant that you know what you’d like, but we in the music “know” wish to aid Holy Mother Church in her need to have music at Mass; now, and not in some utopian land of “saved” polyphony and right worship.

    You found lovely liturgy at an Eastern Rite service? Go there. You discovered a parish offering a wonderful Latin Mass with all the bells and chants? Extend yourself a bit, pay for the gas, drive the distance, and be comforted. Meanwhile, all of the rest of us unenlightened, schlocky Catholic Unwashed must somehow, some way, bear with the Ordinary Form and thereby risk putting up with the local amateur cantors with their hairy toes and strained, off-key voices.

    Here’s the reality. 95% of Catholic parishes in America aren’t rich enough to afford a music director with a college degree in music. For every church in McLean, Virginia or Pacific Palisades, California, with Dr. Whoozit playing a million dollar pipe organ and leading a world-class choir or a solemn chant madrigal, there are 50 parishes in places like Gooding, Idaho or Elbow Lake, Minnesota or Colonial Beach, Virginia who don’t even have a parishioner who can play a keyboard, much less an organ.

    And why do we get all books in the pews with the happy, sappy, dopey “heinous lyrics?” Because the liturgy services supplying those books provide accompanying handy missalettes. In handy formats. At an excellent price. Now, if a publisher in Oregon can supply the country’s parishes with conveniently formatted liturgical literature and lousy hymns, why can’t another publisher do the same with your more favored “sacred” hymns? What’s a local parish to do?

    I’ll tell you what we do. We go and do Mass with the liturgical resources we have. We use them, people like me, who (gasp!) play guitar. Damn well. People who aren’t tone-deaf. Who have a sense of rhythm, song-appropriateness, leadership, technical know-how. And, oh yeah…we do it for free. Because we love the Church and the People of God. We love that we occasionally hear people singing at the top of their lungs, praising God for all their worth. During Mass In the Ordinary Form. Go figure.

    Pax et Bonum
    Berryville, VA

  3. I am a professional musician (conductor/composer with advanced degrees) and employed as a Director of Music and Liturgy at a large parish. I think, in general, this blog is accurate. We must work very hard to elevate the quality of our liturgical music. There are dozens of theologically questionable and musically indefensible “songs” in the booklets put out by the major Catholic publishers. It may take musicians and liturgists with advanced degrees to recognize this and take appropriate action.

    But I must point out that the “heinous” lyrics you quote (“Come to me and drink”) are, verbatim, from the Communion Proper for the Pentecost Vigil. I’m not sure which setting you refer to, but Bob Hurd’s song “Come to Me and Drink” (published by OCP) is one of the few settings of this particular scripture which I’ve seen. Short of chanting the Latin proper for that Mass (a praiseworthy thing to do), I would hesitate to chastise a well-meaning liturgist who chose this song which has a completely scriptural refrain and verses.

    Settings of scriptures and Propers, even in contemporary style on piano, have some liturgical merit.

  4. @poverello
    In all the time I’ve been a parishioner, in 6 parishes, no one has surveyed me to see if I thought the style of music (whatever it was) was an aid to worship or something in competition with it – and then I hear music folks say they speak for me and the whole parish as to its needs. Because I sing on Sunday, almost anything put in front of me, does not mean it’s helping me. I may love what I’m singing, or I may just be polite ’cause I’m at Mass. Because one volunteers many hours to music in a parish (as do I) does not mean we can mind read.

    The thing is, if one learns that part of one’s parish would be better focused on Mass with the help of something other than GIA publishing etc…, then it’s a need. If you’re a leader, a musician, and dedicated, find a solution. Don’t make it about you, it’s not personal, solve the problem. Pick a Mass in the schedule and do it, it can be done in a small way – without full choirs and organs – If meeting the needs of the parishioners is a priority. Leadership isn’t about protecting one’s self, it’s about looking for opportunity to serve, and – diversity can be a lovely thing!

    For example, as it’s near lunch and i’m thinking of food… if you had a friend to dinner and they told you that honeybaked ham was the most heinous food to them, they were almost allergic, and craved something else, you wouldn’t insist they eat honeybaked ham – even if you make the best honeybaked ham ever. It’s not about your ham crafting.

    You are right about the print resources, the publishing houses have a great monopoly going. But there is a huge movement out there for open-source, free downloadable music for Catholic liturgy that is free of corporate control. It’s growing, it’s for the Ordinary Form, and doesn’t require a PhD, can be sung by “hairy toed cantors” as you say. It’s doable. I found a variety doing a web search, and a large collection at http://musicasacra.com/communio/
    I’ve heard “more traditional” stuff done by small volunteer-only groups similar to many volunteer-only guitar groups – I’ve even heard it sometimes WITH guitars. You can have that diversity in music with small resources, even without instruments – just a single human voice.

  5. My wife & I went through the same ordeal while we lived in Atlanta. We moved back to Louisiana in 2010 and furtunately we found a great parish, but prior to that, we found the same thing here,lame homilies that harped on the modern meaning of “tolerance”, some sins are “impulsive” therefore not really “sins”, comedian priest that felt entertainment was more important than the salvation of souls, etc.
    I pray that the church as a whole, not scattered as it is today, will get back on the right path and seriously preach the gospel & worship as intended by our Lord.

    Chris Landreneau
    Baton Rouge, LA

  6. I would love to see a day when we could have “guitar free Church zones” the way we have “drug free school zones”! I know that all you guitar wielding baby boomer hippy types are musical geniuses and that we common little folks are too dumb to appreciate you but if you guys are that great why is your music so bad? Someone could study the great cuisines of the world for years and claim to be a great chef but if everyone thought their food tasted horrible shouldn’t they just be quiet and serve that slop at home instead of trying to feed it to everyone else? I would bet that the same people who like that music are the same ones who don’t know better than to wear open toe shoes and shorts to Church.

  7. From the Rite of Exorcism:
    I command you, unclean spirit, whoever you are, along with all your minions now attacking this servant of God, by the mysteries of the incarnation, passion, resurrection, and ascension of our Lord Jesus Christ, by the descent of the Holy Ghost, by the coming of our Lord for judgment, that you tell me by some sign your name, and the day and hour of your departure.
    In regards to the insipid and infantile songs crooned at Holy Mass – we can only ask – How Long, O Lord? Schutte, Hurd, Foley, Joncas, Dana et al – please depart – you have possessed this Body too long!

  8. Reminds me of the old adage in the real estate world: location, location, location. I tend to agree with @poverello to a great extent. What I have to add is the complement to the old adage, that being “Pastor, Pastor, Pastor.” Money or not, trained liturgist or not, musically capable or not, the liturgy and whether it holds true to its form is the responsibility of the pastor. I know the hard part, and that is being patient and charitable as you attempt to affect change in liturgy: best to do so in conversations with the pastor. Hope it goes well!

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