Catholic Diocese of Spokane, Washington
Official News Magazine of the Diocese of Spokane
P.O. Box 48, Spokane WA 99210
(509) 358-7340; FAX: (509) 358-7302
Striving for good music
by Father Jan Larson
(From the April 9, 2009 edition of the Inland Register)
In 2007 the U.S. Bishops, in their publication “Sing to the Lord: Music in Divine Worship,” explained why music and song are a part of our liturgy: “Obedient to Christ and to the Church, we gather in liturgical assembly, week after week. As our predecessors did, we find ourselves ‘singing psalms, hymns and spiritual songs with gratitude in our hearts to God.’ This common, sung expression of faith within liturgical celebrations strengthens our faith when it grows weak and draws us into the divinely inspired voice of the Church at prayer. Faith grows when it is well expressed in celebration. Good celebrations can foster and nourish faith. Poor celebrations may weaken it.
“Good music ‘makes the liturgical prayers of the Christian community more alive and fervent so that everyone can praise and beseech the Triune God more powerfully, more intently and more effectively. In human life, signs and symbols occupy an important place. As a being at once body and spirit, man expresses and perceives spiritual realities through physical signs and symbols.... Inasmuch as they are creatures, these perceptible realities can become means of expressing the action of God who sanctifies men, and the action of men who offer worship to God.’ This sacramental principle is the consistent belief of the Church throughout history. In liturgy, we use words, gestures, signs, and symbols to proclaim Christ’s presence and to reply with our worship and praise.”
Good music and song are critical to liturgy done well, yet some parish communities still tolerate mediocrity. Music and song are far more than icing on the liturgical cake. Music and song are not only a way we express our communal prayer; they are also ways of communicating the Gospel. It follows, then, that nothing ought to be spared to do it right. Many parishes endure the efforts of sincere but inept musicians simply because their services are offered gratuitously.
But look at what we will sacrifice to see that other important services are done well. When we want the church’s plumbing to work properly, we don’t hesitate to hire professionally trained plumbers. We also pay properly trained electricians, landscapers, etc. We do this simply because we don’t want important things like water and electrical systems to go wrong. Why would we care any less for the quality of our liturgical music and song? Parish liturgy committees should seriously consider paying musicians a fair hourly rate for their work, including the needed hours for rehearsal. If well-trained and competent musicians and singers donate their services, let it be their decision, and not the policy of the parish.
One can appreciate what good music and song add to the liturgy by imagining a liturgical celebration without it. It is a real struggle to try to express joy, thanksgiving, welcome, praise, sorrow and other moods without some kind of musical expression. A few Catholic communities tout their music-less liturgies by calling them “the Quiet Mass” or the “Meditation Mass,” but these are aberrations of authentic Catholic liturgy. Deliberately taking music and song from the liturgy is to deliberately deprive the participants of full and active participation – that essential quality of the liturgy that is to be sought out before all others. At the other extreme are those countless liturgies that have been afflicted rather than enhanced by inferior music or musicians, music that is badly chosen, badly played, badly sung, or badly heard because of poor acoustics in the building. Between the two extremes is to be found liturgy with good musical support, and if the liturgy is the most important thing we can do as a church, then does it not seem that we would want to provide quality at any cost?
(Father Larson is a priest of and liturgical consultant for the Archdiocese of Seattle.)