IVING LANGUAGE TO MUSIC is daunting. Music lives in a realm that is beyond words. Yet as musicians of the Church we are often called upon to do so quite regularly, whether in rehearsal, in conversation with parishioners, or in writing. It is necessary to posses the ability to get others excited about something that words elude. How does one articulate the transcendent? Furthermore, finding the right mode of expression for a given parish at a given time will differ. Doing so takes practice, perception, and vision.
At Our Lady of the Assumption Parish in Fairfield, Connecticut, Music Director Michael Andrew Cooney, (a. k. a. “Mac”) has written an exquisite introduction for his parishioners on the role of sacred music in the liturgy. So supportive is the pastor, Fr. Peter Cipriani, that the article appeared in their bulletin in place of the pastor’s weekly column, From the Pastor’s Desk.
While Mac Cooney acknowledges the influence of other authors, including Jeffrey Tucker and Fr. Christopher Smith, perhaps his article may serve to guide those of us searching for the words to speak to our parishioners, choir members, and also clergy. But even when graced with the right words, nothing is a fait accompli. Evangelization and catechesis is the work of a lifetime. Here is Mr. Cooney’s article in its entirety:
Rediscovering Worship and Sacred Music
“How I wept, deeply moved by your hymns, songs, and the voices that echoed through your Church! What emotion I experienced in them! Those sounds flowed into my ears, distilling the truth in my heart. A feeling of devotion surged within me, and tears streamed down my face — tears that did me good.” (St. Augustine, Confessions 9:6, 14)
No doubt, music has a unique ability to stir our emotions. But we need to be careful that liturgical music does not become entertainment – or mood-music. Its purpose and function is obviously much deeper, and, if implemented properly, helps to reveal truths we desire to know.
The Catechism of the Catholic Church, #1157 states that “Song and music fulfill their function as signs in a manner all the more significant when they are “more closely connected . . . with the liturgical action,” Through the beauty of expressive prayer, participation of the assembly at the designated moments, and the solemn character of the mass, “actively participate” is realized through the meaning of the liturgical words and actions which give all glory to God and sanctifies the faithful.
In order to help achieve this, careful attention must be given to the style of music used in the liturgy. It must be set apart from the associations of popular culture – the confines of our daily lives, and transport us into the solemnity of the mass, outside of our daily space and time, and to the Eternal. In essence, we assume a countercultural mentality to fully participate in the sacred liturgy.
John Paul II issued a pastoral letter in 1998, directed especially toward the United States, in which he said: “Active participation” does not preclude the active passivity of silence, stillness, and listening: Indeed, it demands it. Worshipers are not passive, for instance, when listening to the readings or the homily, or following the prayers of the celebrant, and the chants and music of the liturgy. These are experiences of silence and stillness, but they are in their own way profoundly active. In a culture which neither favors nor fosters meditative quiet, the art of interior listening is learned only with difficulty. Here we see how the liturgy, though it must always be properly inculturated, must also be countercultural.”
So, you may ask, “Why are we hearing psalms and antiphons during communion at mass from time to time?” It’s a small first step, and but one example, to propel our worship to that more fully active participation, to turn our hearts upward to the Eternal, and leave the distractions of the day outside for a mere hour on a Sunday.
In my service to the church, I take seriously the responsibility to ensure we always seek a deeper, profound understanding of our faith through the music we experience at mass. To help achieve this, we must ensure that sacred music is better integrated into the ritual (just as the readings and prayers are directly integrated into the mass), and set-apart from the distractions of our everyday lives. The various church documents, specifically the General Instructions of the Roman Missal (GIRM), exist to aid in this endeavor, and direct our worship to unity with the universal church throughout the world. We have an obligation to commune with the whole universal church, and to realize, in humility, that we are worshipping with our brothers and sisters throughout the world.
I promise you, there is much more beauty to be discovered in our worship, and I am excited to journey with you in this discovery. Together as a parish family, with open hearts and minds, we can enrich our worship through our participation, and come to better understand our relationship with God the Father, Son and Holy Spirit in the sacred mysteries.
Sing to the Glory of God!
AC COONEY’S PASSION FOR SACRED MUSIC comes across clearly. Yet his words are measured and designed to meet people where they are but challenge them a little. This letter is but a step with many more to come.
Also, a prolific composer, Mac offers a large number of sacred works on his website. Many can be downloaded for free. You may also contact Mac Coney directly on his website.
Printing such an article in the parish bulletin takes a great deal of courage from the pastor and from Mr. Cooney. Please pray for their spiritual success!