Singing at Mass — Oh My!

Today is the feast day of Saint Cecilia, the patron saint of church music. It seems like as good a reason as any to talk a little about church music. I am in no way qualified to make any judgments beyond that of an average parishioner in the pew. I don’t think that’s insignificant, though, because liturgical music should draw everyone in, even those of us who perhaps don’t carry a tune well.

Music has a vital place in the liturgy, bringing the congregation together in prayer in a joyful manner. In The Spirit of the Liturgy, Pope Emeritus Benedict wrote:

The singing of the Church comes ultimately out of love. It is the utter depth of love that produces the singing. “Cantare amantis est”, says St. Augustine, singing is a lover’s thing. In so saying, we come again to the trinitarian interpretation of Church music. The Holy Spirit is love, and it is he who produces the singing. He is the Spirit of Christ, the Spirit who draws us into love for Christ and so leads to the Father.

Among many changes that occurred following Vatican II was a more expansive interpretation of what constituted liturgical music. That led to a cottage industry producing various hymnals to instruct the faithful in all sorts of novel hymns to bring us all into the modern age. As with anything, I suppose, it was a mixed bag. On the plus side, much of the music was easy to sing – God help us, but it was the sixties and there were a lot of folk influences! On the negative side, the theology built into many hymns was weak or flawed. Much of that has been corrected as hymnals have been revised and, more recently, new hymnals have been produced that successfully collect the best of both old and new hymns.

The more important music at Mass are the “parts of the Mass” that we sing: the Kyrie, Gloria, Alleluia, etc. They emphasize the unity of the community’s prayer.

Which leads to the biggest issue with Catholic liturgical music: participation. I used to be someone who stood with they hymnal in my hand at the appointed times, never uttering a sound. One Sunday, our pastor called me on it and worse, he said I was a poor example to my children! Scolding is bad enough, but I knew he was right. So, from then on, I forced myself to sing along and encouraged the kids to do so as well. But, let’s face it. Catholics are not Baptists. Rarely do we see a Catholic congregation singing with full throat.

Although the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass stands alone – it retains its mystery in the hands of a boring or hurried priest and poorly executed music – it inspires and transports us almost to heaven when celebrated reverently and with beautiful music and full participation of the faithful.

On this day, may we turn to Saint Cecilia. May she intercede for us, that we may be inspired by beautiful music and offer our voices together for the greater glory of God.

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