This year our parish began the Advent/Christmas season with an evening of sacred music and readings in honor of Our Lady. Last night we closed out the season with a similar concert in honor of our Lord’s Epiphany. It was a sublime way to bookend such a sacred and joyous time. Listening to the music and the readings from some of Christianity’s greatest writers last night, I did not forget all my troubles… but I was lifted to a place where I could see them for what they were, mere distractions from the Love of God for me. Prayer has often been defined as “a lifting of the soul to God.” No other medium does this in the way that music does. That’s why in all the teaching of the Church, music is considered an integral part of Christian life… and sacred music, in particular, is not only integral but constitutive of the the Holy Mass.
For more on this concept I highly recommend reading the teachings of recent Popes and of the Second Vatican Council:
St. Pius X, “Tra le sollicitudini,”
Vatican II (Bl. Paul VI) – “Musicam sacram,” and
St. John Paul II – “Chirograph on Sacred Music“
My own reflection will be somewhat limited (Sunday mornings are pretty busy around here).
Last night, as people walked in off the street to listen to their fellow parishioners and neighbors singing great works of the western musical canon, I was reminded of a true story from one of our teacher in Rome. Father Marcato was our professor of New Testament scripture. A Dominican, he had spent a significant amount of time visiting holy sites from the first century in Asia Minor, especially Ephesus. While in a Dominican priory in Turkey, he met local Christians and was amazed to discover that many were recent converts from Islam. Turkey, while technically a secular state, doesn’t make conversion easy for its citizens, certainly Turkish civil society has little time for those who want to leave Islam. I only mention that to highlight Fr. Marcato’s surprise at his confrere’s success in baptizing Muslim Turks. My professor asked the local Prior, “How do you find a safe space to speak with these people about the Gospel.” The answer: “We leave the doors open at Vespers.” Like so many religious communities, the Dominicans in Turkey chant the psalms at Eveing Prayer, according to the customs of the Church. Western music is infinitely more melodic than anything the local Turks experience at their mosques and so people would just walk into the Church attracted and elevated by the music. There, in the privacy of the cloister, they could ask all the questions they wanted about this thing called Christianity, ultimately asking for Baptism.
In American parishes our musical development has been largely stunted these last several decades. The reasons are many, too many to examine here.
**For more, consider reading Thomas Day’s excellent book, “Why Catholic’s Can’t Sing,” and its follow up by Jeffrey Tucker, “Sing Like a Catholic.” (the second book is slightly polemical expressing the author’s heartfelt concern for the spread of the Gospel and the quality of music, but it’s points are well-made and researched)
Among the many reasons given I can anecdotally relate one: We need to make Church more accessible. Access is good, all people should be able to access the Truths of the Gospel, but all too often our imperfect human nature slides from “accessible” music to “comfortable” music, and then to music which is purely of this earth… and by definition then, “secular.” What begins as a well-intentioned desire to give people access to the saving truths of the Gospel too often ends in parish music programs that trap people in earthly categories.
Last night’s concert (and really all the music our choir presents at Mass) reminded me once again that “hard” and “challenging” are not the same as “bad.” …that humbling ourselves before the musical patrimony of the Church can be a new, even an uncomfortable experience at first, but that it ultimately rewards us with tasting heaven on earth… and that gives HOPE. To use a family analogy, it’s like giving yourself over to a grandmother’s hug. When you’re a kid, it’s often awkward, even embarrassing to be smothered in the love of an older relative… but when you get over it, you realize, there’s nothing more affirming or elevating that the warm (if sometimes choking) embrace of family. If more of our parishes embraced people with sublime sacred music, might we win more converts? The Turks would say yes.