WENTY-THREE YEARS AGO, down a hidden side street behind the Berklee College of Music in Boston, I walked into a church named for Saint Cecilia. Nearly all of Boston’s downtown Catholic churches are well-hidden on side streets. This one was no different. Built by the sweat of poor working class Irish immigrants, this beautiful nineteenth century edifice was well crafted to be kept secret from Boston’s upper class residents despite its enormity. Plain on the outside (yet opulent on the inside of the upper church), it is easily missed to this day.
Upon entering the dimly lit lower church, I knelt in a pew near the tired, dusty Hammond organ. Crumbling tile under my feet and drab paint peeling from the walls, I peered around at what was no small chapel. The lower church was lined with ample side altars for a rectory full of priests’ private masses. There were row upon row of cheap electric votive candles. Six hundred overflow worshipers fit easily when the upper church was already full with twelve hundred worshipers. It was replete with an assortment of statuary including a kitschy rosy-cheeked St. Cecilia and a life-sized copy of Stefano Maderno’s The Martyrdom of St. Cecilia under the high altar. It was 1989 and I was twenty years old.
Yet, I was home. Now at the age of forty-three with so many changes in my life, it seems quite improbable that I would still be the Director of Music and Organist at St. Cecilia Parish in Boston. I like to say that I have hardly gone anywhere in my career; the choir loft is a mere fifty yards away from my old dorm room at Berklee. That I am still here is improbable, but perhaps inevitable.
Saint Cecilia, the patroness of sacred music, certainly holds a deeply special place in the hearts of musicians. But her reach extends far beyond musicians, for music has a unique way of finding its way into hearts and spirits and dwelling there. St. Augustine said that “Singing belongs to the one who loves.” It is love that drives musicians to create music. But it is love of God (not just love of music) that drives sacred musicians to so intensely and completely hand over their lives to the Church (usually without fully realizing it until it is much too late) so that they might praise Him, bless Him, adore Him, and glorify Him. To some this seems irresponsible and ill-advised, but perhaps for the sacred musician it is inevitable. God’s love will find us and draw us near. “It was not you who chose me, but I who chose you and appointed you to go and bear fruit that will remain…” (John 15: 16)
However, music also gives expression to our fears, our desires, our longings, and especially our sufferings. Not only to our personal sufferings, but of those all around us. This is why we hand over our lives and our music to God’s glory alone: When we enter the doors of our churches to sing our praises to God, one never knows what pain, suffering, grief or burdens those among us carry. If music helps carry the crosses of our brothers and sisters, then music we must make, passionately, intensely, reverently, and devotedly.
This is the beauty and the gift of community that prays together, for the Mass – a sung prayer – is our greatest prayer. Our voices raised in prayer each week can provide comfort and solace to our brothers and sisters in need. Our very presence at liturgy, along with our spoken and sung prayer, have untold effects on others and can act as a lifeline in ways which we will never know.
Saint Cecilia, guide us and inspire us.
Sancta Cæcilia ora pro nobis!