The Mystery of the Mass and Sacred Music
Another sacred cow is led to the abattoir by gifted theologian and writer Mishel Stefanac who has the courage to say what many of us have been thinking. Is there a chance that we might one day see Top 40 power ballads removed from school liturgies? Read on…..
Previously I wrote about some of the reasons why our students are disengaged during Mass, and suggested some solutions to this constant dilemma. Music, when used appropriately, is another way we can engage our students during Mass. However music can also be detrimental depending on the songs used. So often we are tempted to select songs that are catchy or familiar to students, as we think that these songs will appeal to their tastes and they may feel more engaged in the Mass. However, this may be causing more harm rather than good.
Playing the beautiful Andrea Bocelli song ‘The Prayer’ may sound endearing, but when played during Communion does it actually reflect what is taking place? It is for this reason the Church encourages sacred music to reflect what is occurring liturgically, rather than providing songs for entertainment.
As teachers we are in the position to select hymns for a school Mass, and it is important to use prudence in selecting hymns that actually reflect what is taking place in the liturgy. By prudence, I don’t suggest picking the loudest, exciting, rhyming, fun-loving popular songs. Although these songs get children singing and usually stay in our heads all day, we have to ask ourselves, ‘are these songs engaging?’ and most importantly, ‘are they leading our students to prayer?’
‘He who sings prays twice.’ This quote, attributed to Saint Augustine, is a reminder that when we sing during Holy Mass, our songs of praise are more than just recitations of songs. Now I will be the first to admit that I cannot sing, let alone sing prayerfully. I am what some people call tone-deaf but I have a real appreciation of good music, particularly if it helps me pray. Despite my singing deficiency, I find there is something mysterious about sacred music during Holy Mass; it actually hits a soft spot that makes me want to sing. However, I emphasise the notion of ‘sacred’ music not just any random, religious-sounding tune. When sacred songs are used during Mass they have the capacity to elevate our prayers, and engage us in the liturgy. When used appropriately, sacred music and singing can lead us to pray twice.
From the very beginning of the Mass, it is the music that sets the tone of prayer.
I have attended Mass with children when up-beat songs about celebrations are played. Naturally these songs create an environment where they feel it’s time to party. I question whether these up-beat, celebratory songs do anything to create a prayerful atmosphere. Admittedly, it’s not just the children. So often I find myself distracted from the get-go because the song had nothing at all to do with praising our Lord. Then comes the next challenge; trying to settle them down after such songs. As a trial, I once taught a class the hymn ‘Holy God we praise thy name.’ After explaining the lyrics, and allowing time for students to ask questions, they began to realise that Mass was a time to praise God. Incorporating this song at the beginning of Mass set an entirely different tone, and actually prepared the students for what they were entering into. I noticed that students were more prayerful, thus more engaged.
Then we come to the most distracting time for students during Mass, which happens to be the most important time; Holy Communion. Younger children use this as a time to make faces at their friends. Older students use this as a time for ‘catch-up,’ and unfortunately that ‘catch-up’ is not with Christ. If sacred music is to fulfil its role, whereby it connects us with liturgical action, then we need to think twice about the music we select.
I can recall a high school Mass where the beautiful song ‘The Prayer’ was performed by the school choir. While it was sung beautifully, it had absolutely no relevance to the liturgical action that was taking place. This was an important moment during Holy Mass, a time of Holy Communion with Christ, yet the students were more engrossed with the performance by their friends. You can’t blame them. They were distracted rather than encouraged to pray, and by the end of the song the students broke out into applause. With the focus on performance, there was a lack of focus on Christ. I advocate showcasing our students’ talents, but there is a time and a place for talent shows and Mass is not one of those times. Just because a song has the word ‘prayer’ it does not necessarily entail a prayerful song. If sacred music is to fulfil its role and ‘add delight to prayer’ then careful selection of the music we use during Mass is vital. Sacred music has the capacity to engage our students in the Mass if used appropriately.
It is amazing how song lyrics remain in a student’s mind. After all, we use songs to help memorise timetables, ABC’s and counting patterns. When songs are repeated often enough during Mass, they too influence our faith. I recall a time when I was discussing Eucharist with a class. One student discussed how she felt after ‘eating the bread,’ and then asked me when she’d be able to ‘taste the wine.’ Although she was right in identifying bread and wine I corrected her saying, ‘you mean the Body of Christ.’ Perhaps this sounds fastidious, but it is an example of how music influences thought. When hymns such as ‘share in the bread, share in the wine’ are repeated enough, our students can quite easily be misled into thinking that’s what they receive at Mass. It is absolutely essential for the music we use to reflect what is taking place. Just a simple switch to a hymn such as ‘Soul of my Saviour’ can work wonders. I have used this hymn with eight year old students, and although some of the words are unfamiliar it still relays the right message. With lyrics such as ‘Body of Christ be thou my saving guest’ students will begin to think more about the presence of Christ rather than bread.
Needless to say, when I actually played the music for this hymn, the children displayed a greater reverence. Perhaps it was the calm tune or even the sound of the organ, but the children responded in a more reverent manner. These hymns are great teaching resources too. Printing off lyrics and discussing them during class can be a simple teaching moment. The children don’t even need to sing. Listening to the music and the lyrics creates the atmosphere for prayer. If we become more conscious of the hymns we select, and what we are actually singing, then perhaps we will create a more prayerful and engaging environment.
Saint Paul, in his letter to the Ephesians, encouraged the importance of ‘addressing one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody to the Lord with all your heart…’ It is important that we impart this to our students and encourage them to make melody to the Lord. The Church also encourages the importance of sacred music, stating it ‘should be closely connected with liturgical action.’ If we focus on creating a prayerful atmosphere, and pay more attention to the lyrics of a hymn rather than how ‘catchy’ it sounds, our students will be more inclined to pray. Consequently the words heard in songs will connect with what is taking place in certain parts of the Mass.
Mass is the source and summit of our faith. It is a time where we offer our praise and thanksgiving to God and therefore it should be an expression of beauty. Sacred music has the capacity to elevate us in prayer and is an essential element in beautifying the Mass. With prudent selection of liturgically appropriate hymns, let’s bring the beauty back to Mass, and provide our students with an opportunity for prayer. Although we may not regard our singing voices as beautiful (which I openly admit), it is the relevance and prayerfulness of the lyrics that matters most.
As Saint Augustine said, ‘he who sings prays twice.’ Perhaps we need to make an effort to convey this message to our students… provided the hymns we use reflect prayer rather than popularity.