Care in the Choice of Music: SttL 122-125

Paragraphs 122 through 125 of the US Bishops’ document Sing to the Lord offers some good advice for those preparing the music at liturgy.

It should go without saying that choosing music is a serious matter and it likely doesn’t surprise you that the pastor has the overall responsibility to see this is done well.

The bishops also advocate both participation and collaboration:

Effective preparation of liturgical song that fosters the maximum participation of the gathered assembly is a cooperative venture that respects the essential role of a variety of persons with mutual competencies.

The bishops give a favorable nod to many “disparate elements” that form a human liturgy, andf suggest that a “certain unity” is achieved by the coordination of prayers, homilies, decoration, and physical actions. Note this:

This kind of ritual art requires that those who prepare the Liturgy approach it with artistic sensitivity and pastoral perspective.

Liturgy as a whole is described as a work of art. I think this important insight needs to be more widely considered. We are speaking of multimedia. That might strike some as modernistic, but the truth is that the liturgies of the distant past often achieved this creative synthesis of elements.

In paragraph 124, the bishops acknowledge that music “express(es) a dimension of meaning and feeling that words alone cannot convey.” It’s another language. I hope that statement isn’t taken with too much of a romantic bent. But the elements of music contribute additional layers of understanding to the sung text or the other aspects of ritual. The bishops urge consideration of the “affective power” of music–no less than the text of the songs. This seems only wise to me. But I would caution against attributing only emotions to the “second language” of music. Music can be intellectual, and can appeal also to one’s logic, one’s will, one’s resolve. It also intrudes on the physical life of a believer–more than toe-tapping, but also the committal of sacred texts to memory. Just consider how much more often we remember words because they are sung.

This section on care in musical choices ends with some brief reminders. You will be surprised by none of them: music serves the liturgy, church music isn’t for entertainment, sometimes simplicity is the better choice and other times, a community’s full resources are amassed to praise God. A final word from the bishops:

The primary role of music in the Liturgy is to help the members of the gathered assembly to join themselves with the action of Christ and to give voice to the gift of faith.

This is more important than meets the eye. The measuring tool of the fruitfulness of a music ministry is this: does it facilitate unity with Christ? Giving voice to God’s grace isn’t just about the literal meaning here. Does a parish’s music inspire, or help to inspire a disciple’s response? What are the tools that help a parish assess this honestly?

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About catholicsensibility

Todd lives in the Pacific Northwest, serving a Catholic parish as a lay minister.
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