Editorials, Essays, Featured

Formed in Wonder, Love, and Praise

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If you were to survey members of a Roman Catholic congregation as they exited the church after Sunday Mass by asking what facet of the celebration made the greatest impact on them that day for good or for ill, odds are high that many of those surveyed (if not most) would name the liturgical music in their response. More than any other element (with perhaps the exception of preaching and the architecture of the church itself), liturgical music has the greatest capacity to shape how we celebrate the Sunday Mass week in and week out, season after season, year after year. Ask those same congregation members if they can remember the readings or a central point from the homily and it’s likely you won’t get an answer; ask them if they can remember one of the hymns and it’s likely you’ll get a serenade. Many parish communities view the music of its liturgies as a hallmark of their identity; many people seeking parish communities often site music as one of the reasons for or against choosing a particular parish. This reality raises several questions.

  1. Why does music exert such a great impact on our liturgical celebrations?
  2. What formation do liturgical musicians need in order to carry out their ministry effectively?
  3. What formation do parishioners need around liturgical music?
  4. What formation do parish and diocesan leaders need in order to allow the liturgical music of their community—and, as a result, the liturgical life—flourish?

1. Why does music exert such a great impact on our liturgical celebrations?

Put simply, music in general is one of the deepest ways in which we as human beings express who we are. Liturgical music in particular, then, is one of the deepest ways in which we as a worshipping community express not only who we are before God, but also who God has revealed himself to be in salvation history, and especially in Jesus Christ. This is why the fathers of the Second Vatican Council deemed music a “necessary, integral” part of the liturgical celebration (Sacrosanctum Concilium, §112). Imagine what it would be like to celebrate a wedding, or attend a funeral, or go through the seasons of the liturgical year without music. Truly, it’s unimaginable. The liturgical life cannot flourish without music. And yet, liturgical music is often a sticking point for many in ministry and in the pews. Which brings us to the next question.

2. What formation do liturgical musicians need in order to carry out their ministry effectively?

The role of music in the liturgy is two-fold: to help us express who we are before God, and to draw us beyond ourselves as we offer worship to God. It’s not either-or. It’s both-and. Both sides of the so-called “genre wars” reflect an impoverished understanding of the role music literally plays in the liturgy. Those who insist exclusively on choosing music to placate the congregation (or even the parish leadership) miss the mark by neglecting the reality that the music we sing is meant to form us, just like the liturgy is meant to form us. Those who insist exclusively on choosing music that speaks to the transcendent element of worship but leaves behind those trying to offer that worship in the pews miss the mark by neglecting the reality that the music we sing and hear isn’t made in a vacuum—it’s made in a particular place in time by particular people, and while there will always be room to grow, that growth must be undertaken with love and respect and compassion for those who are trying to worship God in the best way they know how.

Formation for liturgical music ministers needs to include a robust liturgical and spiritual formation that captures their imaginations and reminds them of why music is so important to the relationship with God in the first place. With all of the responsibilities that liturgical musicians have, it can be easy to lose sight of the forest for the trees and become bogged down in the details of rehearsals and planning meetings and even the liturgical celebrations themselves (ask a liturgical musician sometime when the last time was when they felt like they could actually pray during a liturgy in which they were also being asked to sing or play). I’ve had conversations with countless musicians who have expressed a hunger to learn more about why we pray a certain way in the liturgy so that they might better understand how music can help reflect the theology that’s operative in the celebration. This is the need. A liturgical musician who is as formed in the liturgical facet of her ministry as she is in the musical.

On the other side of that coin, though, the musical formation cannot be neglected either. For the liturgical musician who has been working with the same hymnal and doing the same music for the past two decades, some new musical formation—offered through a theological lens—is necessary, if only to remind them gently that “the way things have always been done” might not be the best approach, and perhaps an encounter with something new, like singing the Propers or the Liturgy of the Hours, might breathe new life into their approach to their ministry. The point is that liturgical musicians must continue to learn and to ask questions about the liturgy, about music, about their own relationship with God, about the people whom they are striving to serve, in order to prevent their ministry from becoming stagnant.

3. What formation do parishioners need around liturgical music?

Given the ubiquity, the instantaneous availability of music in today’s society, people may mistakenly begin to believe that the music of the liturgical life occupies the same space as the music of daily life—as something in the background that helps us avoid silence, or worse, as something pretty that serves as icing on the liturgical cake, or worst of all, as something that helps keep the liturgy entertaining. Parishioners need to be introduced to a theology of liturgical music that not only attests to its vital importance in the liturgical life, but also teaches them that they are not to be consumers of liturgical music who have the right to expect the music of the liturgy to do exactly what they want it to do; rather, this pastoral theology of liturgical music would teach parishioners how to open themselves up to being formed by what they sing, how to encounter the beauty of liturgical music in all its forms, so that they might be moved to wonder and praise by what they sing and hear.

4. What formation do parish and diocesan leaders need in order to allow the liturgical music of their community—and, as a result, the liturgical life—flourish?

First, parish and diocesan leaders need to understand that cultivating a flourishing liturgical music program is an incredibly difficult task. Liturgical musicians are largely underpaid and overworked—not only do many play multiple Masses every single weekend and every single holiday (even many parishes have at least one priest so they can take turns celebrating Mass), but throughout the week they also have to assist engaged couples and grieving families in planning music for weddings and funerals; they have to run rehearsals in the evenings and make do with limited resources. Parish and diocesan leaders need to be willing to invest in their liturgical music program—to pay directors of music a fair and living wage, to provide financial resources that will help them do their job more ably, to allow them time away from the parish for continuing education and formation. Granted, in many parishes, this is financially difficult, but to invest in the liturgical music is to invest in the liturgical life, and undertaken with prudence and care, such an investment will yield rich returns.

More importantly, however, parish and diocesan leaders need the same formation into a theology of liturgical music that parishioners do, since many liturgical musicians express feeling like their hands are tied by a pastor who only wants a certain kind of music at the liturgy. Liturgical music, like preaching, is meant to help those in the pews grow in their relationship with God, and to reduce the liturgical music ministry to a merely decorative function is to do the worshipping community a significant disservice. Parish and diocesan leaders must learn to understand that without a flourishing liturgical music program, the liturgical life of a parish or diocese will limp on interminably; people might not go so far as to leave the community, but they might not also ever really grow in their faith, because without excellent liturgical music, they might never experience the fullness of the transformative beauty and richness that the liturgical life has to offer.

Any work undertaken for the renewal of the Church will naturally turn to the liturgy, and any work undertaken for the renewal of the liturgy will naturally include liturgical music. At the McGrath Institute for Church Life, we take seriously the role that liturgical music plays in the liturgical life, in the life of the Church, and next Monday we will welcome two dozen liturgical music ministers for a week of formation around the relationship between liturgical music and the Word of God in Scripture. We will take a look at the various building blocks of liturgical music ministry, and we will explore the ways in which various genres of liturgical music engage with Scripture and invite people into an encounter with Jesus Christ. We hope to broaden their imaginations and present them with new ideas and insights that will allow them in turn to shape the liturgical experience of those in their pews and in so doing, renew the liturgical life of their parishes and dioceses with the beauty of music.

Featured Photo Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons; Runner1928 (CC BY-SA 4.0)

Carolyn Pirtle

Carolyn Pirtle is the associate director of the Notre Dame Center for Liturgy and a composer of liturgical music.