How can I keep them singing?
Family sing-a-longs can bring you closer to each other and to God—but they don’t have to be during Mass.
There are many ways my husband and I differ, but perhaps the most significant is that I come from a family prone to spontaneous outbursts of song while he comes from a family prone to subtle nods as they listen to the car radio together.
For my family, car trips meant hours of singing every church song the six of us could remember from the Glory & Praise hymnal popular in pews in the late ’80s and ’90s. We started with our favorites: “Sing a New Song,” “Be Not Afraid,” and “On Eagles Wings” and moved through whatever song my sister or Mom suggested, winding our way through the verses until our memories came up short. Even my older brothers, their heads in a Sports Illustrated or sci-fi novel, begrudgingly gave into the melodies at some point.
I loved those hymn-laden car trips, but the singing I miss the most as an adult with my own small family is the lingering Communion song, the one me or one of my siblings inevitably started to hum as we loped down the church steps after Mass. Crossing the hot blacktop toward the car, another of us would unwittingly join in, and by the time we were a few blocks from church the song would be a full but soft presence in the car, sustaining the power of the Communion moment for the duration of the trip home.
Singing, with its power to draw us deeper into the service, has always been my favorite part of Mass. As soon as I arrive at church, my second move (after genuflecting) is to check the playlist posted on the wall behind the choir. What will we be singing today? Are any of my favorites up there or is this a day when the music director decides we need new material that all the parishioners have to learn in the minutes before Mass begins?
It was a big disappointment for me, then, when my 8-year-old son, the one most like me in his willingness to burst out in loud song in public places, stopped singing at Mass. I didn’t notice at first as three little kids in a pew keep me distracted, but when I did, I nudged him.
“You have to sing,” I prompted. He shrugged. At the next song, I nudged him again. “Sing!” Again, he shrugged and kept silent.
On the way home, I grilled him. “Why aren’t you singing at church?”
“’Don’t know. Just don’t want to.”
“Singing is one of the ways we praise God,” I told him. “You like singing. It’s an easy way for you to participate in the Mass.” I could tell my words weren’t having an impact, so I went with the old adage every Catholic has heard a hundred times: “He who sings prays twice.”
“Dad doesn’t have to sing,” my son said.
I cut a look at my husband, who gave me a sidelong glance from the steering wheel.
“Daddy should sing, too.” I stared at the quiet, non-singing Daddy who was trying hard not to look at me. “In fact, I bet Daddy will be singing next week at Mass.” At this, my husband cut a look back to me that suggested I would lose that bet.
The next week, during the processional hymn, I thrust a hymnal under my son’s nose and let my finger trail along the verses as though not being able to follow along was the problem. He remained stubbornly silent.
“Why aren’t you singing?” I asked again. He jammed his hands in his pockets and let out a dramatically loud sigh.
“I just don’t want to,” he whispered.
“It’s part of the Mass, Atticus. We sing to show Jesus we love him.”
Begrudgingly and nearly inaudibly, Atticus sang some of the words. My husband was even less audible. Our little girls, 1 and 3, are unreliable participants at best in the Mass, so it was up to me. I pulled the hymnal back in front of me and resigned myself to carrying the burden of song for my whole family.
Filing out of church, I started building an argument in my head for all the reasons why singing at Mass is nonnegotiable. My plan was to start from the top down, addressing my husband in front of our kids in a way that would leave little room for disagreement. I was prepared to call his mother, my Polish Catholic mother-in-law, and bring her into this. I had Bible verses like “Make a joyful noise unto the Lord” ready to launch, but then I heard something that stopped my ruminations in their tracks.
Under his breath, my son was humming “I Am the Bread of Life.” Not wanting to jinx it, I let it continue without interference. By the time we were all buckled in the car, his absent-minded humming was still going strong. I couldn’t help myself and joined in at the high point, “He who believes in me.”
Quietly, without discussion, we picked up remnants of the song here and there the rest of the ride home. The 3-year-old hummed along, the baby slept, my husband participated in silent nods. I knew the following week might find muted voices in our pew again, but certain family traits and powerful moments cannot be silenced. As long as we have post-Communion family moments like these on occasion, I guess I can deal with the occasional non-singing in between.
Molly Jo Rose’s column, In and Of the World, focuses on finding God's goodness in the darkest places of the world.
Image: Ben White on Unsplash