During World Youth Day in Krakow this past summer, nearly 20,000 young people knelt before the Holy Eucharist, praising the Lord, as Catholic musicians led songs of praise and thanksgiving. I watched as tears streamed down faces, and many young people, touched by the moment, formed long lines to receive the Sacrament of Penance and Reconciliation by going to Confession.
Music can be a powerful part of our relationships with Almighty God. Every culture and generation sings songs and hymns of praise and thanksgiving to God that speak the love of their hearts. As a child, I learned numerous hymns most treasured in America— “Holy God We Praise They Name,” “How Great Thou Art,” “Amazing Grace,” “To Jesus Christ Our Sovereign King.” As a young man, I learned inspiring religious-themed folk songs of America, Ireland and Poland that helped me to grow in my devotion to God. They helped me to keep the Lord in the forefront of my mind; they gave language to my praise and gratitude to the Lord, and they became a part of my devotional life. Because I shared them with others, they became a part—an important part—of the Catholic culture I continue to share with my parishioners, family and friends.
We need singing and music and songs in our family life, our parish life, our faith community, and the life of our prayer. Scripture calls us to “make a joyful song unto the Lord,” and St. Augustine tells us, “He who sings, prays twice.” It is almost impossible to imagine a robust Christian civilization, or a robust spiritual life, without music. I’m grateful to our parish musicians who strive to give us their best in preparing liturgical music. Thank you Matthew, Jonathan, Eric, Chris and Dylan.
The Second Vatican Council taught us that music is “a treasure of inestimable value,” that “adds delight to prayer” and “fosters unity of minds.” The Church has long known that we especially need music during our most important and most sacred moments of worship: during the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass. In fact, the Second Vatican Council said that music “forms a necessary or integral part of the solemn liturgy” of the Mass.
But, music at Mass has a different purpose than the devotional music of our families, communities, and personal prayer lives. The Church says that sacred music, sung during our liturgies, is for the glory of God and for our sanctification. At Mass, we offer our lives to God through worship, unified with the Eucharistic sacrifice; and we receive the graces that make us saints, and draw us into a solid relationship with God. The Church says that certain kinds of music, developed over centuries, help us to actively participate in the Mass and to more fruitfully receive the graces of the Eucharist. The Second Vatican Council taught these kinds of music should be preferred during Mass. It also eschewed secular music in any sacred liturgies.
In the first place, when it is possible, the prayers and responses of the Mass itself should be sung, including short introductory reflections and short musical meditations, called antiphons. The Second Vatican Council also taught that the ancient custom of Gregorian chant should “be given pride of place” when it is possible. Other kinds of music, like beautiful sacred polyphony, also should have a special place in Mass.
Sacred music in Mass is different from the devotional and folk music that impacts so many of our lives. Sacred music amplifies the sacred words of the Mass, pointing us more deeply into the mystery of the Eucharist, and uses tones and rhythms that aid us in contemplation. Through careful reflection over thousands of years, the Church has developed a sense of the music that best fits the mystery of the Mass, and when sung with reverence and humility, gives glory and honor to Christ’s sacrifice.
The Church does not teach that we should only use old music during Mass. In fact, Pope St. John Paul II encouraged composers and musicians to write new music that speaks to modern man, but that is rooted in continuity with the genius and richness of the Church’s tradition. Today, many composers are writing beautiful sacred music, building upon the richness of all that has come before, and is faithful to the wisdom and teachings of the Church.
Many of us priests have returned to chanting certain parts of the Mass, and many lay Catholics are learning to do the same. All of these efforts help us to glorify God in the Mass, and to contemplate the mystery of the Holy Eucharist.
Through the proper understanding and use of sacred music, the Holy Spirit is at work. He is helping us to grow in deeper understanding of the meaning of the Mass. In that way, we can grow closer to the Lord. Whether at Mass, or with our families, or in our cars on the way to work, when we praise the Lord with song, we lift our hearts to Him, and He touches our hearts with His love.