May 02, 2018

Music at liturgy: full expression of faith 

By Bishop Arthur Serratelli *
Credit: Pexels
Credit: Pexels

In a recent U.S. Catholic survey, eighty percent of those questioned said that music at Mass was very important to them. However, only thirteen percent were totally satisfied with the music that they have and actually sing. The music at Mass is important, very important! It is not simply a performance by a soloist or choir, a background to accompany our prayer, a means to create a mood, or an incentive to shout and clap our hands. Music is integral to our liturgical worship. 

Pope Francis has clearly defined the purpose of music at Mass. He said that it is “first of all a matter of participating intensely in the mystery of God, in the ‘theophany’ that takes place in every Eucharistic celebration, in which the Lord makes himself present among his people, who are called truly to participate in the salvation realized by the crucified and risen Christ” (Homily at Santa Marta, December 12, 2013). The Second Vatican Council called for full, active and conscious participation of the laity at Mass. Like the introduction of the vernacular in liturgy, music is meant to foster this participation. 

However, Pope Francis has noted that the very “introduction of vernacular languages into the liturgy has raised many issues: of language, form and musical genre. At times, a certain mediocrity, superficiality and banality have prevailed to the detriment of the beauty and intensity of the liturgical celebrations” (Pope Francis, Address to Participants in the International Conference on Sacred Music, March 4, 2017). Good liturgical music should be both aesthetically pleasing and theologically correct. For example, any song that refers to the Eucharist as bread and wine has no place in Catholic worship. The Eucharist is the body and blood of Jesus and the songs we sing should express this reality.

Lifting our hearts to God in liturgy always goes beyond the boundaries of human speech. Thus, liturgy, by its very nature, calls upon the help of music and song to praise to God. Music varies from culture to culture. And so do the musical instruments. In liturgy, it is possible to enculturate the many types of songs and instruments in as much as they enhance the celebration and lead us to focus on God. 

When it comes to the musical instruments that are played at liturgy, the pipe organ holds a primacy of place in the Latin Church among all other musical instruments. Like no other musical instrument, it can express the full range of human sentiments, from joy to sadness, from praise to sorrow. Invented in the 3rd century BC, by the Greek engineer Ctesibius of Alexandria, the pipe organ was introduced into our churches in the 10thcentury. It has become the desired instrument for sacred music. With its variety of sounds and tones, it reminds us of the immensity of God. The pipe organ has the ability to surround us with the beauty of music that leads us to experience the presence of God who holds us in the embrace of his love, bringing harmony and joy into our lives.

Music plays such an important role in our worship of God because we are both body and soul. Prayer rises from the depths of our heart. Words alone do not suffice to express all that we wish to say. But, music has the power to communicate the messages and emotions that words cannot capture. Music is a bridge between the world of matter and the realm of the spirit. It transforms our life path into a conscious spiritual path. Music takes us out of ourselves and opens us up to God. Sound liturgical music, therefore, never centers on the community. Liturgy is not about what we want. Liturgy is, first and foremost, praise and worship of God and our entering into what the Lord himself wants for us. 

Many great composers, such as Beethoven, Bach, Mozart and Brahms recognized that their musical talent was not enough to produce good music. They needed divine inspiration. God himself loves music! After all, the Book of Psalms is a song book. Music comes from God, and when we participate in it – whether by writing, performing, or even just listening – we are receiving a gift from God. 

At Mass, there are times when we may choose to simply listen to the music and let our hearts rise in praise of God. But, moments of silently listening to music and song at Mass should be rare. Not joining in the songs of the congregation limits and diminishes our participation in the liturgy. The walls of our churches should reverberate with the sound of our singing at liturgy. In the words of the Letter to the Ephesians, we should “be filled with the Spirit, addressing one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody to the Lord with your heart…” (Ephesians 5:18-19).

Bishop Serratelli is the bishop of Paterson, New Jersey.

* Catholic News Agency columns are opinion and do not necessarily express the perspective of the agency.