preachers and musicians argue about whether
the homily or the music is the most important
part of the liturgy, the musicians always have
the last word. Usually they say, "No one
ever left church on Sunday humming the homily."
And they are right. What we sing here on Sundays has a way
of getting into our souls. Once we recognize that the Sunday Mass is not something
that we watch but something that we do, all of us, then we ask: How? How can
we say that forty or four hundred or fourteen hundred persons in a room around
a book and a table can all be the ones who make this liturgy?
Song is one of the answers to that. Perhaps it is the first answer. We come here
and we assemble and then we have a choice of how we understand every song that
comes from us. Some would observe what goes on here and say: Well, yes, the ritual
takes place, and now and then we stop and sing a song or maybe we sing as background
while something else is taking place. That's one way to explain our singing
The other way to understand what happens here is this: The people assembled here,
all of us, sing our liturgy. The liturgy isn't something that stops so
we can insert a song; it isn't something we can add singing to as background
music. Rather, the liturgy is something people sing. Singing is one way we can
say that this liturgy is done by everyone here. It isn't something extra,
something to make things longer or more solemn. Our singing is us doing the liturgy.
It is the church doing what the church needs to do.
We Catholics who are old enough remember the days of high
Mass and low Mass. High Mass had singing, though not often by all the people.
Sometimes one person played the organ and sang all the parts. Sometimes a choir
learned elaborate settings of the words. And then there was low Mass with no
singing. When the bishops of the world at Vatican Council II began the renewal
of the liturgy, they did away with this distinction. Singing was to be restored
to the people at every Sunday Mass. The past forty years have witnessed many
efforts to give song to the people, but it has clearly been difficult. Lots of
people went off in lots of directions. Many wellintentioned but sometimes
silly things have been written and sung. But much has been learned also, and
there is need now to get on with the challenge.
Why is it challenging for us? Why don't we want to get
in here and raise the roof with our songs? I can think of two reasons for starters.
First, we Americans don't sing; we hire people to do our singing for us.
Thanks to the amplifier, the iPod, and Muzak, we have music in our ears more
than any people ever. But we don't have it in our throats. We listen. We're
the audience. Just walking through these church doors doesn't change that.
Song has been woven thoroughly into the ordinary lives of ordinary people through
most of human history. We have had work songs, holiday songs, lullabies, love
songs, campfire songs, political songs, children's nursery-rhyme songs
and jump rope songs, protest songs, patriotic songs. These have been songs for
the people, for us. But there isn't much of any of that any more. So we
come here cold. We come here expecting someone else to do the singing. And that
is a terrible clash. No one else can sing the Mass for us. If we won't
do it, all of us together, it won't be done.
A second reason then that makes singing here such a challenge:
We believe, deep down, that it really doesn't matter if "I" sing
or not. How could it matter what I do? I'm just the person on the end of
the nineteenth pew. I may be one who slips in and out without a word to anyone,
or I may really look forward to gathering here with people I know.
Both challenges affect all of us. We're not used to
being singers; we like to listen. We're not used to thinking of ourselves
as the ones responsible for the liturgy; we just come to pray. No amount of urging,
demanding, begging, is going to change that for a lot of us.
Maybe all that can change it is good experience. To be even
once in the midst of an assembly of people who sing with delight and from their
hearts can open the eyes-and the mouth. Suddenly I know what song is meant
to be, a way that diverse human beings can have solidarity with one another.
Suddenly I know that this gathering isn't about my praying-that can
go on all week-it is about the church praying, and the prayer of this church
is louder and softer than any speaking voice; it needs to hold onto sounds longer
or let sounds go more quickly than any speaking voice.
When we have the experience each Sunday of a liturgy sung
by all, we know without anything being said that this song of the church takes
many sounds and that we need all of them. We need the short songs like the Alleluia
and the "Holy, holy," and the Great Amen. Songs like these are how
a crowd of people can make the church's prayer; we don't all have
to say everything, but we all sing our agreement and our praise.
We, the church, need songs in which our part is just to repeat
the same thing over and over, litanies in which we sing "Lord, have mercy," or "Have
mercy on us," or "Hear our prayer." These shape us into the
church, the people on this earth who were marked by baptism to watch out for
all the troubles and sorrows and demand God's mercy.
We, the church, need those songs like the one we sing each
Sunday after the first reading, the psalms from the Bible. These are our first
songs and our last songs. They are the songs that teach us everything about how
we sing. They are so old and from a culture that was hardly anything like ours,
but that is just where they are great: They are what binds us to our ancestors
and to one another. They are hard for us to take, but take them we must.
And we, the church, need all those other songs that are the
poetry of the church through the centuries and today, the hymns and spirituals
and carols, the poetry set to music in so many styles of singing. From old hymns
from the Latin like "O come, O come, Emmanuel" or Pange
lingua to distinctly American songs like "Precious Lord, take my
hand" or "What wondrous love" to modern compositions that may
or may not stand the test of time. This is our music for going in and going out
on Sundays, music that often teaches more than theology books do about what being
a Christian means.
In the end, Catholics are human beings and human beings have
known for a long time that they leave the ordinary speaking voice at the door
when they come to do the things that matter most in life. What we know that makes
singing even more vital for us is this: When we come through these doors, what
we do we do as the church. Singing-when the voice of the individual is
taken up in the voice of the assembly-is how the church does what it must
do and delights to do: the repentance, the praise, the thanks, the intercession
that is the singing voice of Christ in this world.
Copyright © 1992, Gabe Huck. Used by permission