Liturgical Music in the Catholic Churches of Australia: Crisis and Response – Reflections and Suggestions

I offer the following essay for consideration by all in the Church who have a role in determining what the Church sings during the celebration of the Liturgy of the Eucharist and who have responsibility for providing the Church with resources in accordance with this determination. The opinions expressed here are entirely my own; I ask only that they be judged on their own merits.

Liturgical Music in the Catholic Churches of Australia:

Crisis and Response – Reflections and Suggestions


By David Schütz


A. Personal Background and Expertise

Through experience in various roles in service of the Church, I have formed a broad understanding of Christian church music and hymnody both ecumenically and in the Catholic Church in particular.

In 1986, as a third year seminary student, I was invited to join the Department of Liturgics of the Commission on Worship of the Lutheran Church of Australia as their minute secretary. Over the years following, I was appointed to full membership of this Department, and to the Department of Hymnody and to the Commission on Worship which oversaw the work of both departments. From 1989, I worked as research officer for two major liturgical publications of the Commission: “Church Rites” (Openbook, 1994) and “Rites & Resources for Pastoral Care” (Openbook, 1998).[1] From 1995 to 2000 I was also a member of the Australian Consultation on Liturgy for the Lutheran Church. From 1997 till the time I left the Lutheran Church in 2001, I was the project manager for the Lutheran Worship Resources, a complete package of officially produced and sanctioned resources for liturgy and song to accompany the three year lectionary, produced electronically and provided free to all pastors of the Church.[2]

Of course, in addition to this, after my ordination in 1992 I served as a parish pastor for nine years, first in Adelaide, and then in Melbourne in a three congregation parish. This experience continually grounded and expanded my understanding of the role of liturgy and song in the pastoral context.

When I left the Lutheran ministry in 2001, I was employed part-time by Fr Gregory Pritchard as the Parish Music Coordinator of Our Lady of Perpetual Succour Catholic Parish in Ringwood. I had responsibility there for training and organising the choir and cantors, for coordinating the organists and music groups, for school liturgies and music, and for generally resourcing the parish in liturgical song. I held this position until 2004. Today I am a rostered cantor for one Sunday each month in my current parish (St Joseph and St Bernadette’s Parish in Boronia). I also serve at St Patrick’s Cathedral as the regular cantor for lunchtime Masses on feasts and solemnities.

B. My Lutheran Experience

When I came to the LCA Commission on Worship in 1986, they had just completed the production and publication of the “Supplement” to the 1972 Lutheran Hymnal. The Commission gained a great deal of expertise from this simple task and had to face directly the monumental changes that had taken place in English liturgy and song between 1972 and 1986, such as the change from archaic to contemporary English, the explosion of new hymnody, and the radical changes in style between traditional hymnody and the new material.

Several serious challenges faced the Lutheran Church in those years. Firstly there was a general “do-it-yourself” attitude toward liturgy among the majority of pastors. Home-made liturgies were fast replacing the Church’s traditional Divine Service. Secondly, the rise of “contemporary worship” was a challenge to the traditional musical styles and content of Lutheran hymnody. Contemporary composers had banded together to produce a collection of folk-style songs in the first two books of what became the “All Together Now” series. This was widely replacing the 1972 hymnal in many parishes.

In the 1990’s the “worship wars” escalated. No longer simply a battle between “traditional” and “contemporary” styles, the emerging Church Growth movement among US Evangelicals was challenging the very purpose of Christian worship and the Sunday service toward evangelistic goals. Hymnals and liturgy books began to be replaced by overhead projectors and photocopied worship sheets. Parishes were no longer bound by materials that they could find in published (official or otherwise) volumes, but were sourcing material more freely via means of the internet and subscription services.

At that time the proposal came for the production of a new edition of the Australian Hymnbook on broad ecumenical lines. The Lutheran Church of Australia realised that its resources for creating and publishing a new hymnal of its own were limited, and so joined this ecumenical effort. The Department of Hymnody undertook a complete review and revision of the traditional repertoire of Lutheran hymnody (including retranslation of older texts) as well as selecting the best of the new music that had emerged from the (ever expanding) series of “All Together Now” songbooks. These were submitted to the Australian Hymnbook Committee and most were accepted for inclusion.

“Together in Song” contained no liturgical ritual material as such, and so it became clear that the Commission on Worship had to resource the parishes of the LCA in some other way. By the late nineties there was a flood of materials appearing on the internet and freely being used in Lutheran worship services. The Commission realised that it had little real effective authority by which to limit the use of unsatisfactory materials and so set about to create an alternative resource, cheaper and more easily accessible than the competition. This is where the Lutheran Worship Resources project came in. I initiated and piloted a prototype with about 100 participating parishes. The success of this pilot led to me being appointed as the project manager for a complete Church-wide resource, involving extensive work and commitment from the voluntary personnel of all five departments of the Commission (Hymnody, Liturgy, Music, Visual Arts, and Drama)[3]. The project also included:

  • Several volumes of settings for responsorial psalms for the three-year lectionary – produced freely by musicians of the Lutheran Church, copyright-free for use by parishes of the Lutheran Church of Australia
  • An extensive list of recommended hymns and songs for each Sunday from the three available resources (the Lutheran Hymnal and Supplement, All Together Now series, and Together in Song).
  • Newly translated versions of traditional hymns in contemporary English.
  • Collects, intercessions, acclamations and antiphons for each Sunday of the lectionary cycle.

The Lutheran Worship Resources were produced electronically and distributed free of charge and free of copyright to all parish pastors. Over a period of four years, these officially produced materials effectively stemmed the tide of foreign material entering into the LCA. From reports and personal experience I know that they continue to be used in Lutheran parishes today.

A major difference between Australian Lutherans and Australian Catholics is that Lutherans view singing in the liturgy as the norm and sing with enthusiasm. They see nothing unusual about a fully sung liturgy interspersed by half a dozen hymns and songs. In the Lutheran Church it is generally the pastor who chooses songs for worship, usually to match the theme of his preaching. Cantors and “music ministers” are not common, as most parishes are easily able to sing with only an organ or another instrument to lead them. Taking all resources available to me in my parish, as a parish pastor I had access to more than 2000 hymns and songs (850 in the Hymnal and Supplement, 450 in the All Together series, and a further 900 in Together in Song). I could rely upon my congregations to know at least half of these.

C. The Crisis facing the Australian Catholic Churches

In an era when even the Holy Father speaks of a “sharing of gifts” via ecumenical relations with other ecclesial bodies, one ought to be able to see the sharing of expertise in and enthusiasm for music in the Protestant bodies as at least one such gift. It is commonplace to hear complaints from converts to the Catholic Church about the state of liturgical music and song in Australian parishes, yet most Australian Catholics themselves seem completely unaware that there is anything amiss or unusual going on.

But to newcomers the crisis in liturgical music and song is glaringly obvious. As I have travelled around Australian parishes in the last ten years, there are some general observations that are made all the more notable for the very few exceptions I have experienced. Here are some of my observations regarding the current state of liturgical music and song in our parishes:

  • Except in some ethnic Catholic cultures, there is a general resistance to the acceptance of singing as an integral part of worship. This is usually attributed to the Irish heritage.
  • In an effort to overcome this resistance, parish “music ministers” feel pressured to “give the people what they like”, although their judgement on this matter is usually based on their own tastes rather than any authentic or objective research.
  • Parish pastors are often untrained, unskilled and/or ignorant in liturgical music and song, and so delegate the choice of music used in the liturgy to lay coordinators (who often may be capable musicians but may not be much better trained or prepared in the liturgical and theological principles).
  • Due to a shortage of trained musicians and to the new technology now available, cantors and musicians are being replaced by vocal recordings. Since many worshippers are conditioned by our entertainment society, they have learned to listen to these recordings rather than join in the singing themselves, with the result that recorded song tends to discourage congregational participation rather than encourage it.
  • At the same time, no published print resource of Catholic liturgical music and song which has been authorised by ecclesiastical authority currently exists for purchase in Australia today.
  • This leaves a vacuum which is being filled by other enterprises, usually driven by commercial interests of composers and publishers rather than by the interests of the Church and of what is most appropriate to the liturgy of the Roman Rite.
  • Nevertheless, new material is being produced and introduced into our parishes and schools at a vast rate by private enterprise, with the result that Australian Catholics have no shared repertoire of song among themselves, let alone with other English speaking Catholic Churches, nor any lasting personal appropriation of the Church’s song, nor any consolidated patrimony to pass on to new generations.
  • On the contrary, a “cult of the new” is being fostered by publishers and composers to the detriment of the Church’s patrimony in music and song.
  • The music of this new material is often too difficult or unsuitable for congregational singing, having been written and designed for solo performance by the song writer at concerts.
  • The new music often has little connection with the tradition of the music for the Roman Rite.
  • Many of the texts of the new material suffer from a number of drawbacks, primarily theologically, such as in the naming of God, the use of the voice of God, meaningless or trite phrases, or doctrine simply contrary to the Catholic faith.
  • Many new texts are also deficient linguistically (they contrast markedly to the language of the new translation of the missal) and poetically.
  • Many of the new texts display a lack of comprehension of the purpose of liturgical music and song, not only in ritual terms, but also in terms of the theological function of liturgical praise and adoration.


D. Some Insights from my Lutheran Experience

While it is my observation that the crisis in liturgical music and song facing the Catholic Churches of Australia today are more extreme than anything we ever faced in the Lutheran Church between 1986 and 2001, I do see similarities. The Bishops Commission for Liturgy and the National Liturgical Music Board obviously have responsibility for a Church community much larger and more diverse than that for which the LCA’s Commission on Worship was responsible, but on the off chance that the experience I have gained from both my national and parish level involvement in liturgy and hymnody may be of some service to the Church, I humbly offer a few suggestions here for how the Commission and the NLMB might proceed in the current circumstances.

Two fundamental and related problems face the Catholic Churches of Australia in relation to liturgical music and song today: the first being the huge influx of new, untested and unauthorised material into our parishes; and the second being the absence of any alternative officially authorised Australian Catholic resource for parishes to use as a source and guide. There are two ways of responding to this crisis. Both must be adopted and used together as a single strategy.

The first way of response is by official authorisation of suitable material and the parallel rejection of unsuitable material. The Lutheran Commission on Worship was well aware that official condemnations were an ineffectual method to forestall the use of inappropriate material and resources in public worship. Catholic clergy are, in the current climate, perhaps approaching a level of disdain for authority similar to their Lutheran brothers, but at least Catholic bishops, in contrast to comparable Lutheran authorities, do have a real and effectual canonical authority and oversight over the liturgy in their diocese. Catholic bishops in Australia have the authority to act and must act to authorise appropriate material and to restrict the use of material that is inappropriate. At the same time the ACBC Commission on Liturgy and the National Liturgical Music Board would do well to heed the Lutheran awareness that authoritative declarations alone are not well received by the Australian psyche. Authoritative declarations will always be received negatively as “restrictive”.

The second way of response must therefore be used at the same time: ample, accessible, authorised and (above all) affordable resources must be offered to parishes by the Church itself in the place of the substandard material currently being provided by private commercial enterprise. The Lutheran Commission on Worship found this strategy very effective. No matter how opposed a parish pastor may be to dictates coming out of “head office”, if we provided everything on a platter for them, they used it. We discovered that when parish pastors and musicians were provided with a quality resource in a number of formats (including electronically) with as little copyright restriction as possible, and to which they could quickly go to for everything they need to prepare Sunday liturgy, they no longer went to the effort of searching out resources from unofficial sources. Moreover, they saw the provision of such materials as positive action on the behalf of the Church, and became more open to looking to the authorised bodies for material rather than unauthorised commercial publishers. We succeeded in beating the commercial interests on a competitive playing field because we were the Church producing for the Church.

To repeat: the two steps to overcome the current crisis in liturgical music and song are the official restriction of unauthorised, poor quality material on the one hand and the provision of high quality, authorised resources on the other hand.

But perhaps the first step is even more fundamental: We must first realise that a crisis actually exists and that the time for action is now. When Dr John Kleinig became the Chair of the Commission on Worship in the early nineties, he declared to us that there was no longer any room on the Commission or any of its departments for “free-riders”. The members of the Commission and its Departments had a responsibility to produce quality resources quickly to answer to the urgent needs of the Church.

E. What is the immediate crisis?

Over the last decade, in response to Liturgiam Authenticam, great care and attention has been given to the accuracy of the English translation of the Ordinary Rite of the Roman Mass, on the principal that the words and language which we use to worship directly affects what we believe. Yet at the same time, action in regard to the songs that are sung in our Eucharistic liturgies has received much less attention. Some years ago, I attended a lecture by a visiting American Methodist liturgical scholar. He related an anecdote of an old African American woman who said to him: “When I hears it, I thinks about it; but when I sings it, I believes it!”. This is, of course, simply the old rule of lex orandi lex credendi at work. St Augustine was getting at something similar, surely, when he said “He who sings prays twice.” What is sung has twice the power to affect what the singer believed compared to texts that are simply spoken. By attending to the language of the Liturgy we have plugged a leak, but, by not attending to the songs which are sung in our parishes, we have left the tap running.

Of course, the NLMB has responded to the Liturgiam Authenticam’s request for a list of recommended songs, and has now also received the Holy See’s response. This process took far too long, but at this point we must look to the future. Now that the Holy See’s response has been received, it must be urgently acted upon. The task of reviewing the music and song currently in use in our Churches must be completed and work must begin on the production of a resource for Australia-wide use that will enable the whole of the Catholic Church in this country to sing “as one voice”.

Already the delay in this vital project has created a vacuum into which one resource in particular has inserted itself with gusto. The “As One Voice” series of song books is, according to the editor of Catholica Australia[4], used in 80% of our parishes (note: the editor of Catholica is closely connected to the people behind Willow Connection, the publisher of “As One Voice”). Yet in the NLMB’s list of recommended songs, only 55% of the first volume and 34% of the second volume’s contents made the recommended list. That means the greater percentage of songs in these two volumes did not come up to the standard of the criteria of the NLMB for use in the liturgy of the Church. Now, the Willow Connection is launching its new “Next Generation” book and preparing to hold the “As One Voice National Christian Music Conference” in September to promote it. It is plain to see from their advertising material that this Conference is intentionally targeting Catholic parishes. And Willow Connection has never submitted its material to the Bishops Commission for approval nor ever sought either an imprimatur or a nihil obstat from the Bishops for their publications.

In addition there are a host of individual composers of new liturgical music bypassing all authoritative revision processes and selling their wares to our parishes. Whatever the quality of this work, what the Church sings in the liturgy should not be dictated by composers and publishers who have a vested financial interest in promoting their material. Yet as long as there is a vacuum of authorised collections of liturgical music and song that is accessible and affordable, these commercial interests will continue to impose themselves upon the Church’s liturgical practice. The longer this vacuum exists, the harder it will be to introduce and promote authorised resources when they finally become available.

F. What must be done right now?

The time has come to recognise that there is a real crisis in the area of liturgical music and song in the Catholic Churches of Australia, and to act to meet this crisis. The question of how the crisis is best to be met and how the Church is best to be resourced to meet the requirements of Liturgiam Authenticam is a question for the Bishops Commission on Liturgy and the National Liturgical Music Board.

Permit me, however, to make a few suggestions for action:

  1. The NLMB’s review of all liturgical music currently available must be completed as a matter of urgency.
  2. The completed “Recommended List” must be promoted by the Bishops in a way that encourages the use of the recommended material and discourages the use of material that fails to meet the Church’s criteria.
  3. The Bishops Commission and the NLMB must work towards the production of a resource based on the “Recommended List” for Australian parishes that is authoritative, accessible and affordable.
  4. To achieve this as speedily as possible, two visions will be required. The first is a vision of what kind of resource would be desired in an ideal world. This will set the benchmark. But at the same time a second vision is required, a vision of what kind of resource can actually be produced in the short term, given the urgency of the task. It must be recognised that if we delay until we are able to produce the perfect resource, the Church will not succeed in meeting the challenge of the current crisis.
  5. A time line for the production of the resource must be determined.
  6. Financial and human resources must be made available to achieve this production time-line.


There are many variables in this outline. For instance, we may discover that there is not a market for a hardcopy “complete-in-itself” hymnbook. Australian parishes have embraced the electronic technology that makes it possible to reproduce material for a whole parish by purchasing just a couple of music editions for the music team and (with a copyright licence such as that from “Word of Life”) reproducing the material by means of powerpoint and overhead screens. The sales of “Together in Song”, for instance, have been much lower than for the previous “Australian Hymbook” for precisely this reason. It may be difficult to convince a commercial publisher to invest in the project of producing a hardcopy hymnal as sales may not be projected into profits. It may be that an electronic resource rather than a printed resource may have to be considered. Alternatively, a joint publication with another English-speaking publisher (eg. Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops) could be considered, in the same way that Gather Australia “piggy-backed” off the American GIA produced Gather.

The financial considerations are indeed considerable. I believe that it has to be accepted that it will be a very expensive enterprise for the Church to produce any liturgical music and song resource at all. However the return for such an investment will also be considerable. The Church invests in many different endeavours, but the one activity of the Church in which the most Catholics regularly participate is the Sunday liturgy. Although the financial cost of such a resource will be very high, there will be a rich return in terms of the spiritual life of the Church at every level for generations to come. But the alternative is terrible to contemplate, and the inevitable cost of inaction to the spiritual life and evangelising mission of the Church will be a continued decline in the faith of the Church.

Another difficulty that must be faced is the fact that new compositions and texts will continue to be produced. This is, in fact, a gift of God’s Spirit, and should be embraced, but at the same time a simple, speedy and accessible process must be put in place to allow composers and writers to submit their material for the process of approval by competent authorities. I have a suggestion in this regard. The responsibility for reviewing new material for provisional use might be delegated to the bishop of each diocese. He may decide that writers and composers of new material be required to submit their material to the local diocesan liturgical officer for approval before they use it in their parish. After approval and a period of provisional use, the material, if deemed suitable and of value, could be forwarded to the NLMB for more general approval for use throughout Australia. In part, this constant production of new material – not to mention the rehabilitation of older material that has fallen out of use and could well be revived – might mean that a rather more “open ended” resource should be envisaged, perhaps as a series of books such as “As One Voice” currently represents.

There is yet the problem of the decline in available musicians that has seen the rise of the use of pre-recorded music in our parishes (played either on CD or as MP3’s on a computer). The problem with using pre-recorded songs is that they are not designed for congregations to sing along; in fact the recorded voice of the professional singer or choir actually encourages the congregation to become a non-participatory audience which listens to rather than sings the song. I would personally recommend that in the production of any resource by the NLMB, the Bishops Commission consider also providing a complete set of pre-recorded musical accompaniments – without vocal tracks – for use by parishes that do not have musicians. These may be CD’s, MP3’s or (conceivably) even midi files (designed to be played through the many high standard electronic keyboards currently available). A resource that provided a seamless combination of print music, electronic texts for powerpoint projection and recorded musical accompaniment would make a very attractive package for Australian parishes.

Willow Connection must also be commended for their initiative in holding a conference for parish musicians to resource them for their ministry. Any authorised resource produced by the Church would want to utilise the methodology of seminars and conferences held around the country, perhaps even on an annual basis, to provide skills and formation for parish musicians and cantors. Such seminars would give opportunities to educate in matters of copyright, selection of music for the Sunday mass, and proper use of the resource.

I have sought to offer these reflections and ideas out of love for the Church and a desire to see us move forward in such a way that the liturgical music and song we use during the celebration of the Eucharist be suitable for the Mass of the Roman Rite and the new translation of this liturgy soon to be introduced. I pray that God will bless our Bishops, the work of the Bishops Commission on Liturgy and the work of the National Liturgical Music Board as they give attention to these matters for the good of the whole Church.

[1] For a full list of the resources the LCA provides for its congregations, see this pamphlet online: and also this page on their website:

[2] Available online at:

[3] Acknowledgement of my role in this project and the background to the project can be found here:


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