In his wonderful children’s book (for all ages), The Little Prince, Antoine de Saint Exupéry wrote, “It is only with the heart that one can see rightly; what is essential is invisible to the eye.” Music is wonderfully and fully human. Every spiritual experience known to humans has been expressed through music, using our bodies (vocal cords, diaphragms, mouths, fingers, rhythmic movement of material instruments, etc.) to express something essentially spiritual (“invisible to the eye”). Music is not the notes printed on the page, those “guideposts” only point to its sublime spiritual essence of the interplay of tone and silence moving through time. Music, fundamentally, is immaterial and spiritual, connecting people and bringing them together. I think of the kind of experience as when I’ve been with over 20,000 people together singing and dancing in unison when Bruce Springsteen plays Born to Run in concert.
Music is powerful. In Plato’s Republic, the philosopher Socrates says, “more than anything else rhythm and harmony find their way into the inmost soul and take strongest hold upon it.” I can’t remember what I ate for lunch or what I wore last Tuesday, but I can sing along with every word of every song on Casey Kasem’s Classic Top 40 from the 70’s or the 80’s. Everybody loves music and finds it meaningful on some level. Each person doesn’t love every kind of music or even every example of the kind of music they generally like but love of music is universal. That’s probably why the most compliments and the most complaints a church receives are about the music. People feel it strongly and feel strongly about it.
This spiritual power of music makes it an essential part of our liturgical life. As Vatican II taught, “The musical tradition of the universal Church is a treasure of inestimable value, greater even than that of any other art . . . it forms a necessary or integral part of the solemn liturgy.” (Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy, no. 112) Music is not an “add on,” but an essential element of liturgical worship. Our worship aid is our prayerbook. To actively participate in the liturgy means that we have our prayerbook in hands, joining our voices in song (or humming along if we’re unsure of our voice or listening intently to choral pieces) and contemplating the words of the prayers.
Vatican II also stated that “the treasury of sacred music is to be preserved and cultivated with great care.” (Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy, no. 114) We are the heirs to a heritage of thousands of years of sacred music. The words of the Psalms we sing at every Mass are 3,000 years old. Monophonic and polyphonic chant is over 1,000 years old; the classical orchestral Masses of Mozart, Beethoven, and other composers have inspired people of all faiths for hundreds of years. Hymnody has likewise enjoyed a long, inspiring history. Spirituals, rooted in the ancient tradition of Lament, kept faith and hope alive during the horrors of American chattel slavery. Jazz artists such as Dave Brubeck and Chuck Mangione have composed Masses. Closer to our own times, folk singing such as popularized by the St. Louis Jesuits and contemporary Christian praise music have nourished the spirituality of generations. Jim Renfer, our Director of Music and Liturgy, thoughtfully ensures that a broad repertoire comprised of our entire musical tradition is represented in our parish liturgical worship. The aim is that while everything we sing might not be to everyone’s personal taste, every person should be able to find something in our sung worship that inspires and nourishes them.
For us as Roman (Latin Rite) Catholics, we have a special responsibility to keep the tradition of Latin chant alive. One of the greatest achievements of Vatican II was to encourage the liturgy to be celebrated in the language of the people assembled (vernacular) instead of Latin. This has led to more active and conscious participation in the liturgical rites of the church, especially the Eucharistic liturgy (Mass). However, Vatican II instructed that we should “also be able to say or sing together in Latin those parts of the Ordinary of the Mass which pertain to them.” (Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy, no. 54) When I studied under a rabbi a few years ago, I noticed that, while almost all of prayers in the synagogue were in English, young people preparing for their bar mitzvah or bat mitzvah were responsible for learning how to chant some Psalms in Hebrew. This demonstrated that music can not only bring people together in a particular congregation but connects us to all those in our faith tradition over its long history.
Music has the power to unite us with God and with each other, drawing us together in concord (“one heart”) and harmonious diversity. An example of this is the music we sing during the reception of Holy Communion. “Communion with the Body of and Blood of Christ increases the communicant’s union with the Lord . . . it also reinforces the unity of the Church as the Mystical Body of Christ.” (Catechism of the Catholic Church, no. 1416) Joining in the song before and after we receive Communion both illustrates and strengthens our harmonious unity in the Body of Christ. The dialogue between the music and a period of silence to personally welcome our Lord into our hearts is an insight into how our personal relationship with Jesus is always lived in concert with the entire People of God.