MONG the lesser-known Fathers of the Church is Saint Nicetas (c. 335-414). Remesiana, the local Church of which he was bishop, was a small town in a Roman province during the fourth century, and it remains a small town even still, now situated within present-day Serbia. St. Nicetas was a contemporary of St. Paulinus of Nola, the poet-bishop often credited with introducing bells to the sacred liturgy. Nicetas and Paulinus, who were close friends in this life, now share a feast day on June 22.
The biggest claim to fame for Nicetas of Remesiana is his possible authorship of the Te Deum, the magnificent hymn of Christian praise. (Scholarship remains inconclusive about the hymn’s true author, and Nicetas is considered doubtful at present.)
It is more certain that Nicetas is the author of a marvelous text entitled De utilitate hymnorum, often known in English by the title “On Liturgical Singing.” This sermon is fascinating for its directness and continued applicability. Choir directors in the 21st century could easily be deceived into thinking that certain sections of this text are actually transcriptions of their own thoughts.
The sermon is not terribly long, and a substantial portion is reproduced below. In the portions that are omitted here, Nicetas acknowledges that some people consider liturgical singing superfluous and even suspicious. He rebuts these claims, appealing heavily to the witness of Sacred Scripture. The rebuttal is uncompromising at points: “The objection to singing is the invention of heretics. When their faith grows cold, they think up reasons for rejecting song. They cloak their hatred of the Prophets and, particularly, of the prophecies concerning the Lord and Creator. Under the pretext of piety, they silence the words of the Prophets and, above all, the heavenly songs of David.”
Nicetas traces the history of singing psalms and hymns back to Moses, whose famous canticle is recorded in Exodus, chapter 15.
Portions of Nicetas’ homily are reproduced here, using the translation of Gerald G. Walsh, SJ:
MAN WHO keeps a promise pays a debt. I remember promising at the end of my sermon on the spiritual value of vigils that, in the next sermon, I would speak of the ministry of hymns and psalms. That promise I shall fulfill, God willing, in this sermon; for I do not see how any better time can be found than this, in which the sons of light think of the night as day, in which silence and quiet are being offered to us by the night itself and in which we are engaged in the very thing which my sermon is to speak about. The proper time to exhort a soldier is when he is just about to begin the battle. So for sailors—a rollicking song best suits them when they are bending to the oars and sweeping over the sea. So with us. Now is the very best time to keep my promise to speak of liturgical singing—now that the congregation has come together for this very purpose.
[ . . . ]
When a psalm is sung, it is sweet to the ear. It enters the soul because it is pleasant. It is easily retained if it is often enough repeated. Confessions that no severity of law could extort from the heart are willingly made under the sweet influence of song. There is contained in these songs, for those who meditate on them, all that is consoling in the Law, the Prophets and even the Gospels.
[ . . . ]
No one should doubt that this ministry, if only it is celebrated with true faith and devotion, is one with that of the angels, who, as we know, unhindered by sleep or other occupation, cease not to praise the Lord in heaven and to bless the Saviour.
These things being so, brothers, let us have full confidence in carrying out our ministry of song. Let us believe that we have been given a great, a very great, grace by God who has granted to us to sing the marvels of the eternal God in the company of so many and such great saints, prophets and even martyrs. We confess to Him, with David, that ‘He is good.’ And, with Moses, we sing in these great canticles the glory of the Holy and Divine Spirit. With Anna, who is a symbol of the Church—once sterile and now fecund—we strengthen our hearts in the praise of God. With Isaias, we keep our night watch. We join Habacuc in song. With the holy fathers, Jonas and Jeremias, we join song to prayer. With the three children in the flames, we call on every creature to bless the Lord. With Elizabeth our soul magnifies the Lord.
Can any joy be greater than that of delighting ourselves with psalms and nourishing ourselves with prayer and feeding ourselves with the lessons that are read in between? Like guests at table enjoying a variety of dishes, our souls feast on the rich banquet of lessons and hymns.
Only, brothers, let us please God by singing with attention and a mind wide awake, undistracted by idle talk. For so the psalm invites us: ‘Sing ye wisely, for God is the King of all the earth.’ That is, we must sing with our intelligences; not only with the spirit (in the sense of the sound of our voice), but also with our mind. We must think about what we are singing, lest we lose by distracting talk and extraneous thoughts the fruit of our effort. The sound and melody of our singing must be suitably religious. It must not be melodramatic, but a revelation of the true Christianity within. It must have nothing theatrical about it, but should move us to sorrow for our sins.
Of course, you must all sing in harmony, without discordant notes. One of you should not linger unreasonably on the notes, while his neighbor is going too fast; nor should one of you sing too low while another is raising his voice. Each one should be asked to contribute his part in humility to the volume of the choir as a whole. No one should sing unbecomingly louder or slower than the rest, as though for vain ostentation or out of human respect. The whole service must be carried out in the presence of God, not with a view to pleasing men. In regard to the harmony of voices we have a model and example in the three blessed boys of whom the Prophet Daniel tells us: ‘Then these three, as with one mouth, praised and glorified and blessed God in the furnace, saying: Blessed art thou, O Lord the God of our fathers.’ You see that it was for our instruction that we are told that the three boys humbly and holily praised God with one voice. Therefore, let us sing all together, as with one voice, and let all of us modulate our voices in the same way. If one cannot sing in tune with the others, it is better to sing in a low voice rather than drown the others. In this way he will take his part in the service without interfering with the community singing. Not everyone, of course, has a flexible and musical voice. St. Cyprian is said to have invited his friend Donatus, whom he knew to be a good singer, to join him in the office: ‘Let us pass the day in joy, so that not one hour of the freast will be without some heavenly grace. Let the feast be loud with songs, since you have a full memory and a musical voice. Come to this duty regularly. You will feed your beloved friends if you give us something spiritual to listen to. There is something alluring about religious sweetness; and those who sing well have a special grace to attract to religion those who listen to them.’ And if our voice is without harshness and in tune with the notes of well-played cymbals, it will be a joy to ourselves and source of edification to those who hear us. And ‘God who maketh men of one manner to dwell in his house’ will find our united praise agreeable to Him.
When we sing, all should sing; when we pray, all should pray. So, when the lesson is being read, all should remain silent, that all may equally hear. No one should be praying with so loud a voice as to disturb the one who is reading. And if you should happen to come in while the lesson is being read, just adore the Lord and make the Sign of the Cross, and then give an attentive ear to what is being read.
Obviously, the time to pray is when we are all praying. Of course, you may pray privately whenever and as often as you choose. But do not, under the pretext of prayer, miss the lesson. You can always pray whenever you will, but you cannot always have a lesson at hand. Do not imagine that there is little to be gained by listening to the sacred lesson. The fact is that prayer is improved if our mind has been recently fed on reading and is able to roam among the thoughts of divine things which it has recently heard. The word of the Lord assures us that Mary, the sister of Martha, chose the better part when she sat at the feet of Jesus, listening intently to the word of God without a thought of her sister. We need not wonder, then, if the deacon in a clear voice like a herald warns all that, whether they are praying or bowing the knees, singing hymns, or listening to the lessons, they should all act together. God loves ‘men of one manner’ and, as was said before, ‘maketh them to dwell in his house.’ And those who dwell in this house are proclaimed by the psalm to be blessed, because they will praise God forever and ever. Amen. 1
T IS SOMEHOW consoling to know that many of the issues choir directors face today were familiar to Christians of the fourth century. What matters more than the presence of such issues, however, is our response to them.
The insights of Nicetas encourage us, in our own day, to continue working toward liturgical singing that is intelligent, beautiful, and humble. The act of singing God’s praises together ought to unite the singers, draw them out of themselves, and stir up faith among unbelievers. Above all, such singing must be prayer.
NOTES FROM THIS ARTICLE:
1 Niceta of Remesiana, “Liturgical Singing,” trans. Gerald G. Walsh, SJ, in The Fathers of the Church: A New Translation, vol. 7 (New York: Fathers of the Church, Inc., 1949), 65, 69, 73-76.