Sermons

Summary: How does our singing in Church advance our mission and witness?

Feast of St. Cecilia 2013

“Sing to the Lord, bless his name; tell of his salvation from day to day.” Over and over, we read in the psalms, that our response to the saving power of God is to sing to Him. St. Augustine wrote that to sing praise to God is to pray twice. That’s so true. In my experience, singing is the one prayer action that most effectively drives the word of God down into my hard heart. We all bear that burden, a hard heart. As Ronald Knox taught, the greatest tragedy is not a broken heart, but a hard one, one that cannot be penetrated by love. Singing cracks open the carapace of many hearts. And even hearing inspirational songs does it. There are dramatic stories of men and women hearing a cathedral choir and miraculously coming to Christ and the Church.

It’s unclear why St. Cecilia is the patron of liturgical music. She is often pictured with a little pipeorgan–which hadn’t been invented in the third or fourth century when she is supposed to have been martyred. The story we have of her consecration to God as a virgin, her marriage to a man named Valerian, and his acceptance of her virginity, and of their martyrdom is probably a pious fiction, written for the edification of the faithful and the promotion of consecrated virginity. But since her name appears in the Canon of the Mass, we should accept that she existed and witnessed to Christ all the way to her death, however and whenever it happened. And, especially today, we should invoke her intercession for the Church, and a true revival of authentic Catholic music in our worship.

Recently I received an e-mail communication from the local chapter of the Pastoral Music association. It featured a quote that I recall said “Nobody ever left Mass humming the homily.” Almost the same day, a diocesan newspaper arrived with a full-page summary of a workshop on “guidelines for good liturgical music ministry” given at a Catholic leaders’ conference.

The gist of both communications is that we have made wonderful progress in liturgical music over the past fifty years. To further improve, we need to get familiar with the relevant documents, be sensitive to the music of other cultures, show enthusiasm, practice songs with congregations before Mass, not leave during the homily (!), move those pesky pre-Mass prayers earlier in the pre-Mass period, and reduce the quality of the choral sound so that “churchgoers feel they are not good enough to sing along.” Also have occasional silence and “sometimes incorporate a song based on the antiphon.”

I am reminded of a definition of insanity attributed to Einstein: doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results. For the past fifty years we have generally ignored the Vatican II Constitution on the Liturgy, and the post-conciliar document “Musicam Sacram,” have done pretty much everything Fernandez recommends, turning most Masses into lite-rock “sacro-pop” concerts. Then we wonder why congregations don’t sing, our young people are leaving, our ministries languish, our RCIA classes are not full, and our collections are stagnant.

Let me share with you my own experience as a Catholic deacon. People love to pray in song, when that prayer is guided by the Church. The Church encourages me to sing “The Lord be with you,” a blessing, when I lead prayer or introduce the Holy Gospel. And that is about the only time that most of the congregation sings–as they bless me with the sung response, “and with your spirit.” When they don’t sing is during the kind lite-rock hymns that musical bands lead with amplification and Fender guitars and drum sets.

Our Liturgy is supposed to be a representation on earth of the divine worship of heaven, as we read in the book of Revelations. Many Protestant denominations call worship a “divine service.” We tend to forget that “divine service” is defined in Luke 12:35-40. The Master is serving us. We are doing nothing to make God’s life better. He is present and it is Christ’s action in the priest that is doing everything for us, making us like Jesus Christ and His Mother. Whatever the shortcomings of the 1962 “Traditional” Latin Mass may be, its long suit is that it emphasizes the Divine Service of God’s people, and our utter dependence on His grace. This is particularly true in the so-called Low Mass, where the priest does everything and the people listen and pray in silence, or the Latin “dialogue” Mass, in which they pray the Latin responses, which are few in number.

By way of contrast, the 1970 Missal of Paul VI is often performed with wall-to-wall talk and singing. The general feeling it invokes is that Liturgy is something we do for God and each other. That’s upside-down. The primary action of the Mass is a divine action. God speaks to us through the Scriptures–and that includes the Introit, Offertory and Communion antiphons that are given in Gregorian chant settings. God gives to us through the Eucharistic prayer and the following communion. Our role is to receive with gratitude and awe those gifts of Word and Communion. Because the Lord, who needs nothing, who is entirely self-sufficient in Himself, condescended to come to earth and give everything through His sacrificial death, which He re-presents to us in Eucharist.

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