Wednesday, 19 March 2014

“But I Can't Sing It”: What of Liturgical Music?

By Edmund Lo, S.J.

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How do we “participate” in liturgical music?

This is a question that I have been pondering recently. As some of you know, I have been singing in a chant-polyphonic choir for more than a year. Our repertoire would often have songs that are practically “unsingable” for the congregation during mass. These include Gregorian chant tones and complicated polyphonic pieces, sometimes in Latin. I often wonder how the congregation feels about them. Do they find it prayerful? Do they treat it more like a musical performance? Or are they completely tuned out because they cannot sing along with it?

I do think that there is value in having liturgical music in a language with which the congregation is familiar. At the very least, I would be able to follow along, if not to sing along myself. Then again, this common language does not guarantee a meaningful participation. Just because I am singing along does not mean that my heart is in it, and I will be the first to admit this. We can approach this question from another angle: Are there ways to participate in liturgical music if I do not know the words? Do I need to be saying and singing everything in order to be a full participant?

Being from Hong Kong, I have always cherished the hymns that are written in a more traditional, poetic language with a Chinese melody. They may not always be my cup of tea, but they are the fruits of “inculturation”, of the Christian soul adapting to the form of the local culture. That being said, I remembered how I was captivated by the tune of Adoro Te when I was a child. I was so young that I wouldn't have had a clue what the words meant even if it was sung in Cantonese, but I did know that the tune was prayerful. It was leading me to a different place.

There is something about the music that bypasses the words. As St. Augustine would say, “he who sings prays twice” (interestingly, he did not say anything about singing well or poorly). I would add that those who do not sing pray nevertheless. My chief formator in my early Jesuit days was an opera singer before he joined the Jesuits himself, and he would always encourage us to pray with the music. Indeed, listening to Handel's Messiah can be a prayer in itself. There are times when we can allow the music to carry us. This is a helpful image: Carry us to where? There must be a directionality behind liturgical music; it is going somewhere. It is not created to be an end in itself, or else it turns into an idol as an object of worship.

The role of the music is to help carry us heavenwards. When this takes place within the context of the liturgy, it allows us to actively participate in it, in that our hearts are being drawn towards the Source of our deepest desires. My choir boy mentality resonates with this very much, that my effort in singing William Byrd's Agnus Dei is hopefully not wasted in being an instrument of God at the mass. We may not be verbally active, but we can still be spiritually active. This is not a matter of being stuck in our heads, either; this kind of spiritual activity demands an active participation through listening. It most definitely involves our senses. We can move our lips, but it matters very little if our hearts are not moved.

Are there, if any, obstacles that are preventing us from participating in the liturgy through music? We need to examine our experiences to see whether we are giving the liturgical music a fair shake. If we are actively analysing the choral piece, the problem is not its technical and complicated nature. Rather, it may be our overly-analytical mind who turns music into music theories so that we can lord over them. Or, do we feel excluded if we cannot sing along with it? It is easy to immediately slam the door on something that appears foreign to us. It seems to me that the more fruitful approach is to enter through its door and utilize what it has to offer, so that it ends up helping us move closer to the Lord.


  1. Actually, S. Augustine's supposed quote in Latin is "Qui bene cantat bis orat" - who he sings well prays twice, although Fr. Z doubts it altogether.

    And yes, I totally agree with you on your point about "participation" in liturgical music. Gregorian chant and polyphonic music are very uplifting, like incense. For me, anyway. =)

  2. I am a great fan of jazz music and there was a great piece in Commonweal on the legacy of Mary Lou Williams.I was not aware of her attempts to insert jazz as an art form into Catholic liturgy. This piece by Ian Corbin is a very good analysis of art in the Catholic imagination and in particular the American form of art, jazz.

    I wrote about her in my blog here: