Rainsticks and bongos and chimes, oh my!

We were out of town this past weekend, so we attended Mass in a parish other than our own.  Our experience has sparked some inner turmoil and discussion.

Before Mass, the choir started a song which shook me out of my prayer in surprise–there were bongos in the song.  I tapped David gently over Elle’s head– “Bongos!” I mouthed to him, my eyes wide.  We shared  a silent giggle.  I’m not anti-bongos; they just struck me as funny.


Later, the chimes were used.  Yes, the chimes that are used signify dream sequences or fairies flying around or other magical occurrences.  David and shared another wide-eyed look.

The climax of our instrumental journey came during the sprinkling rite.  As the priest walked around with holy water, I couldn’t help but turn to look at the choir to confirm my suspicions–a rainstick!  They were using a rainstick while we were singing about being cleansed from our sin.  I couldn’t look at David.

These musicians were talented.  They had practiced.  Unfortunately the music at Mass this weekend was a huge distraction for me.  I don’t want to be all Screwtaped by this–to miss out on the most holy part of my week because I’m being nit-picky about the music, but I also feel like I need to explore this idea about music and Mass.  I have no degree in liturgy or theology, but I’d still like to think through this issue and find some peace.  My reaction to some of the music at Mass was to laugh.  And that troubles me.

First, I need to consider my background.  Growing up my Mass experience was largely OCP type music.  My parents sang in the choir, so I grew up participating in the music at church.  This cover image is a big part of my childhood.  

Little girl Alicia hoped that we’d bring out the tambourine and sing “And The Father Will Dance” at the end of Mass every week.

And then I met David.  Mass was often a part of our dating, but I never realized he had Strong Held Ideas on Liturgical Music until we were planning our wedding ceremony.  I was all, “Let’s One Bread, One Body this up!” and he was all, “Do you think the choir would mind doing all the music in Latin?”  Since Latin wasn’t something with which I was familiar, it made me bristle.

Mostly over the years we’ve kept our ideas to ourselves about liturgical music.  We go to Mass and participate, whatever the musical stylings may be.  (I do have to remember to pat David gently during lent so he doesn’t audibly groan when we sing “Ashes,” though.  He’s not being judgey–it’s an involuntary response.)

For almost eight years, my struggle at Mass is keeping my kids from being a distraction to others, so thoughts about liturgical music have taken a back seat. However, when we were visiting a different church for Mass a while back, I realized my views on the organ had completely evolved.  Our home parish is a guitar/piano kind of parish.  So it makes sense that when I was younger I found the organ–uncool.  You don’t need the organ to sing my favorite childhood Christmas song, “Violet in the Snow,” after all.

But that particular Mass, everything was different.  The big, old, clunky organ–it covered the noise of my kids shuffling around in the pew.  It was really easy for me to follow along with the music, because the organ made the melody clear.  The soft playing of simple melodies without the choir at the offertory helped me be prayerful.  Oh man, David was right.  David was right.  Right then and there, I wished we had organ music all the time back at home.  Grownup Alicia is a big fan of the organ.

This is a lot of backstory to talk about a little rainstick, isn’t it?

Yesterday after Mass, David and I talked about the music.  I asked him (he DOES have a degree in theology) to give me some concrete sources on liturgical music.  He said that the Church isn’t super specific on what is or is not allowed because Catholicism is universal–it crosses countries and centuries.  In short, we can’t definitively say, rainstick=good or rainstick=bad.  It’s more complex.

I did some research, and it supports what David said.  Sacrosanctum Concilim states

120. In the Latin Church the pipe organ is to be held in high esteem, for it is the traditional musical instrument which adds a wonderful splendor to the Church’s ceremonies and powerfully lifts up man’s mind to God and to higher things.

But other instruments also may be admitted for use in divine worship, with the knowledge and consent of the competent territorial authority, as laid down in Art. 22, 52, 37, and 40. This may be done, however, only on condition that the instruments are suitable, or can be made suitable, for sacred use, accord with the dignity of the temple, and truly contribute to the edification of the faithful.

According to Musicam Sacram

63. In permitting and using musical instruments, the culture and traditions of individual peoples must be taken into account. However, those instruments which are, by common opinion and use, suitable for secular music only, are to be altogether prohibited from every liturgical celebration and from popular devotions.[44]

Any musical instrument permitted in divine worship should be used in such a way that it meets the needs of the liturgical celebration, and is in the interests both of the beauty of worship and the edification of the faithful.

64. The use of musical instruments to accompany the singing can act as a support to the voices, render participation easier, and achieve a deeper union in the assembly. However, their sound should not so overwhelm the voices that it is difficult to make out the text; and when some part is proclaimed aloud by the priest or a minister by virtue of his role, they should be silent.

Looks like there is good news and bad news.  The good news is that I’m not crazy for giggling at the rainstick, because rainsticks, bongos, and chimes are unusual and out of place at Mass here in the Midwestern United States.  I’d also giggle if a family brought a baby into Mass with just a diaper (something we’ve done when we forgot spare clothes), just because it’s something novel.

The bad news is that it looks like there might need to be an uncomfortable discussion with the priest about the liturgy.  If it were my home parish, David would probably sit down with Father and talk about his concerns.  Fortunately they have a relationship where they talk about all sorts of things, so it wouldn’t be a confrontation so much as a discussion.  But–this was not our home parish.  So we’re sort of off the hook.  I think.

Liturgical music can be a contentious issue; there are lots of opinions surrounding it. I know that my opinions are based largely on how I feel, so I’m grateful for the wisdom of the Church to help me navigate the waters of discerning what is true, beautiful, and holy, regardless of my emotions.  Looks like we won’t be bringing any finger cymbals along to Mass next week, but we will also participate joyfully, even if the bongos make an appearance.


  1. // Reply

    Hmmm…ever been to a polka mass? With accordions and such? I never have, but growing up in my home state I had seen them advertised. Was always curious what that sounded like. We have an organ at our church—and it hasn’t been played once since we’ve lived here…almost six years. I’ve been given permission to teach myself how to play it—so God willing, there will be organ music in the church once more….once I’m not holding babies of course. PS- ahh the Glory and Praise book. I love hymns as well…but I have to admit, I’m a fan of a lot of songs from that book. I love the harmonies in that book. My favorite song is Peace Prayer done acapella. Soo pretty.

    1. // Reply

      I have heard of polka masses before…I always wondered if they dressed for the occasion. 🙂 Our parish still sings lots of Glory and Praise songs, and I don’t have a problem with that. Except for that song with the line “You give marvelous comrades to me.” That’s distracting. Comrades? Comrades? What is this 1950 Russia?

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        I will laugh (quietly) every time I hear the comrades part in the song now.

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    I love going to different parishes and experiencing different music, and am often surprised at how widely it varies. To be honest, I have a really hard time with the music at our home parish, because while it’s beautiful (and I’m sure very liturgically sound), it’s almost impossible to follow and sing, and I often look around to see people looking confused and trying to catch up to a sound with a strange/slow/whatever tempo. Most people just don’t even bother to try to sing anymore, which I think is sad! But the parish we often attend when on vacation with my parents has the exact opposite style- very upbeat, inviting, even if not the most liturgically appropriate. (Last week, the ended mass with good ole “Jesus loves me”, which made me giggle a bit, HOWEVER, it was kind of beautiful and actually really moving to see the entire parish from the youngest babes to the seniors belting out the words, all united in song, because they all knew and loved them. But I totally agree that a lot of it is based on your own experience- I still love the songs I grew up singing most of all, I can’t help it! 😉

    1. // Reply

      One of my favorite parts of traveling is attending Mass at different churches, too. It’s interesting to see the different ways of celebrating.

      Being in a parish that sings, though–has a huge impact in the overall experience at Mass. And it’s not just because loud singing covers up kid noises, either.

  3. // Reply

    I have to agree with you on the bongos/rainsticks/chimes front, with one exception: if they’re being played by children. I’m not sure it’s appropriate every week, but for special family-oriented celebrations, a bit of “joyful noise” can be good!
    My basic rule when choosing hymns is if it makes me laugh for any reason, it’s out, because I won’t be able to concentrate enough to play… (so goodBYE, Lord of the Dance and co.).

    1. // Reply

      That’s a good point! If it was little ones with maracas, I wouldn’t have thought anything about it. Thanks for sharing your thoughts. 🙂

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