March 2012 Print

Why Do We Sing in Church?

Fr. Leonhard Amselgruber, SSPX

Is there any place in the world where there is no music? We invariably come across music in one way or another—just think of the many CDs and iPods all around us, whether in the concert hall or from a loudspeaker of a store. We hear music practically everywhere we are, whether in the form of sounds, tones, voices, or melodies. Hopefully we have the habit of singing or playing music together in the family, singing a lullaby, around the Advent wreath or Christmas tree—and why not before or after saying the family rosary? Research has demonstrated again and again the important role singing and learning to play an instrument play in early education, in particular.

Imagine a typical birthday party without singing “Happy Birthday to You.” Wishes of “good luck” and “congratulations” can of course be conveyed casually or in writing, but nothing beats a tune sung together to celebrate a happy occasion.

Think, for instance, of the inspiring, almost devotional atmosphere that grips everyone during a sports event when the national anthem is sung.

Part of Religious Life

It should be noted that this is not simply a secular phenomenon; it has always been a part of religious life as well. I am referring here to the wondrous atmosphere that reigns during the liturgy when the faithful join their voices with the priest, thus putting a solemn stamp on the celebration. After all, what can be greater and more supreme than the wondrous salvation made possible by the sacrifice of the Son of God become man as He is again present among us? This fact alone makes the celebration unique and extraordinary. We celebrate this particular event by wearing the best clothes, jewelry, and rich liturgical vestments, by choosing a form of speech that elevates the ordinary recital to a melody that is pleasing to the ear. The range of Catholic Church music is very broad indeed, from Gregorian Chant to harmonious polyphony carried out by all, or a group.

Our church music has a long legacy, for it has played a significant role in the Church since her very beginning. Already in the times of the Old Testament, the people of Israel were urged to join in song whenever God rescued them or came to their aid in a powerful way, for example, after crossing the Red Sea and the destruction of their Egyptian pursuers, or when Moses and his people rejoiced in song to glorify God who had delivered them from long-lasting oppression and allowed them to taste freedom again. To be sure, the deliverance from slavery was a too important and wondrous event for anyone to be silent or suppress his emotions!

A similar outburst of joyful song erupted from the entire population after Judith cut off the head of Holofernes—an event that averted the threat of occupation of their town and country.

Just think how much David, the royal bard, has added to music, namely over one hundred psalms, which priests and monks pray weekly and which composers throughout the centuries have set to music in a variety of ways. Every situation in life is portrayed by the psalms, every emotion, whether joy, merriment, gratitude, or praise, which are side by side with remorse, repentance, misery, and requests. Now, King David sang and accompanied his hymns with a harp, since melodies can better express one’s inner feelings than mere words.

David also institutionalized music so that it became part of the cult of his time. He explicitly ordered that Levites and musicians sing and play instruments to celebrate the return of the stolen Ark of the Covenant to Jerusalem. In fact, he made sure that song and musical instruments be automatically included in future celebrations. For the place where the Ark of the Covenant was, i.e. where God was present and worshipped, it was fitting that there He should be praised both in song and word.

Christ’s Attitude Towards Music

What was Christ’s attitude towards music? Actually, careful readers of Holy Scripture may recall the place where He also spoke in the form of a song, namely at a very special moment during the Last Supper. According to St. Mark (14:26), our Lord sang a hymn of praise together with the Apostles, namely the Hallel psalms, which were a very important part of the Jewish Paschal ritual. Actually, this hymn reproduced the act of thanksgiving of the Israelites following their deliverance from captivity in Egypt, as mentioned above. In fact, the entire celebration revolved around this very event. In reality, on that notable evening Christ replaced the shadow and the figure with the Light and the Reality. In other words, the remembrance of the Passover became the first Mass during which the freeing from human chains was mysteriously replaced by the deliverance of a much worse bondage, namely the spiritual slavery of sin and of the devil. Here the exemplary and unique event of the Old Testament was eclipsed by the redemption accomplished by Christ, a deed that does not refer to a particular race or epoch, but which affects all men of all time. In this respect, the hymn of praise has a further meaning, namely its object is now the salvation through Redemption in its entirety, i.e. the Passion of Christ, as well as His actual presence in the Blessed Sacrament.

During this celebration our Lord sang together with the Apostles, surely not thoughtlessly nor out of habit, for He did only what His Father wanted Him to do. Though His command “Do this in memory of Me” refers directly to the preceding consecration, that does not mean that it cannot be applied to the other things our Lord carried out that evening. The music that accompanies Holy Mass is anchored therefore by Jesus Christ Himself, the model, which justifies it.

Another point encourages us to join others here on earth to sing a hymn to God, namely the heavenly liturgy which we will enjoy one day forever. St. John the Evangelist gives us an impressive description of such a heavenly worship in his secret revelation. There, four creatures standing in front of the Lamb’s throne, the twenty-four elders holding their harps and the throngs of countless angels intone a new song, namely the hymn to the Lamb, whose blood has redeemed mankind. The holy seer uses perhaps all too earthly ways of expressing himself to portray his extraordinary vision. On the other hand, there is a definite analogy between music here on earth and that in heaven.

Cantare Amantis Est

As is well known, the human heart is capable of giving forth sweet rhythms and harmonious, edifying sounds issued from the soul, which are love-inspired attempts to glorify God. This is, first of all, a purely internal phenomenon, a spiritual outflow emanating from the soul. After all, since we are not pure spirits as the angels, but are made of flesh and blood, our hearts’ outpourings must have a physical way of expressing themselves. In other words, our faith must be corrobor=ated by deeds. Our love for God is expressed by song among other ways.

As St. Augustine said, only the lover sings. But why song in particular? Because singing is the highest form of speech. It demands all our reserves. The body is more involved while singing, which requires greater effort. To sing means a total involvement of oneself, much more than speaking, thus fulfilling in a more perfect manner Christ’s principal commandment: “Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with thy whole heart, and with thy whole soul, and with thy whole mind, and with thy whole strength” (Mk. 12:30). This is further expressed in the following statement: “He who sings, prays twice.” Since singing demands more effort, it is more effective. It merits, therefore, more graces, as stated by Pius XII in Musicæ Sacræ Disciplina, his encyclical on Church music: “Sacred music likewise helps to increase the fruits which the faithful, moved by the sacred harmonies, derive from the holy Liturgy.”

Come to think of it, everything is affected by music, for example, the art of healing. Not that the effect of music can be measured precisely or that its influence can be put in words, since both the susceptibility as well as personal emotional state of the moment naturally play a role. On the other hand, it has been proven that some pieces of music are very invigorating or inspiring, others help you to relax, others make you “switch off,” invite you to dream, or to be cheerful.

The Church has established certain requirements regulating sacred music. It must give the liturgy some support, elevate the faithful, and help one to become more pious. Early on, St. Augustine understood the impact music has on the soul when he said: “I perceive that our minds are more devoutly and earnestly elevated into a flame of piety by the holy words themselves when they are thus sung, than when they are not; and that all affections of our spirit, by their own diversity, have their appropriate measures in the voice and singing, wherewith by I know not what secret relationship they are stimulated” (Conf. X, 33). Since the principal office of sacred music is “to clothe with suitable melody the liturgical text proposed for the understanding of the faithful, its proper aim is to add greater efficacy to the text in order that through it the faithful may be the more easily moved to devotion and better disposed for the reception of the fruits of grace belonging to the celebration of the most holy mysteries” (Motu proprio Inter Sollicitudines of St. Pius X). Music should therefore, in effect, help elevate our souls towards God.

Radiating Inner Calm

Obviously, Gregorian chant is particularly well suited for the liturgy, for it radiates a very special inner calm to the soul. Furthermore, its startling harmony and depth are quite different from any other music. In fact, there is hardly a better way to express the Church’s unity than this Latin chant sung una voce. We should be aware of this, and therefore let us sing it loudly and together. In Gregorian chant, all that the Church requires of her music is wonderfully realized, namely holiness (that is, the absence of all worldliness), universality (it can be sung by all men from every corner of the world), and lastly, the claim of being true art (having a true objective and a high artistic quality).

In addition, composers of all time have produced religious music, which can truly give the soul the means to appreciate divine beauty. The popes have stressed again and again that in this respect, the 20th century is not an exception. However, it is true that they refer to classical compositions and to those that fulfill the above criteria. Avant-garde or experimental works, not to mention pop and rock music, naturally do not satisfy the above requirements.

On the other hand, not all Church music is necessarily confined to the liturgy, for some religious music, played in special concerts, can awaken a similar wholesome reaction in the soul. Think for example of the great oratorios of Handel’s Messiah, the Paulus of Mendelssohn, or the lengthy musical settings of Haydn or Bruckner. St. Philip Neri and his clerics put great stress on this practice of dispensing spiritual welfare. In fact, the musical oratorio originated in this type of setting.

Take Part in the Holy Sacrifice

Popes and bishops employed composers throughout history, inviting them to create new works to celebrate the mystery of our Redemption for one purpose only—to glorify God. In fact, a real treasure of first-class compositions of sacred music has been amassed in the course of centuries. To guard and keep this treasure is definitely a part of the tradition of the Church. The post-conciliar loss of faith can also be clearly seen in the field of sacred music resulting in almost a rule to exclude Latin-based hymns and their substitution by terribly shallow mundane pieces. It is certainly well worth keeping the great masterpieces of sacred music, for their beneficial effect on the soul is undisputed. Would it not be wonderful for a living tradition to restore anew these treasures to their original place and prominence? To treasure sacred music is a genuine apostolate.

St. Pius X coined the term “participatio actuosa,” a concept that denotes the active participation of all the faithful at Holy Mass. He requested that everybody in church follow and take part in the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass. To pray and sing all together is the best way to achieve that. Not that everyone is capable of expertly singing arias of Haydn, like Empress Maria Theresa did. On the other hand, would it be too much to ask us to answer with a liturgical “Et cum spiritu tuo” or an “Amen”? Such a response would be much in line with the spirit of St. Paul, who exhorts the Ephesians saying: “Speaking to yourselves in psalms and hymns, and spiritual canticles, singing and making melody in your hearts to the Lord” (Eph. 5:19).