The Mystery of the Mass and Sacred Music

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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.

Mishel Stefanac


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  • Thank you for your article Mishel. I have actually been discussing the appropriatness of music at Mass with my parish priest and a few parishioners because I cringe when a Catholic teacher decides it is absolutely fine to play some hillsong at Mass! There is a time and place for everything and lest we say it – it was never intended that the Church be a community hall so please bring back the music which demands reverence and allows the soul to settle and pray. We are not at Mass to be entertained. The world is already too busy and distracting. Drums, brass, guitars cannot quiet the soul to a place where it can contemplate holiness.

    • Mishel

      Thank you Maria!
      Great points! You are spot on when you say ‘there is a time and a place for everything.’ That is precisely what inspired me to write this article. I wanted to get that succinct message across to our teachers.
      Good on you for discussing the matter with the Parish Priest. Too often school liturgy organisers forget that parishoners actually attend Mass too.This is something I often think about. I look around at the parishoners and wonder what they must be thinking when they attend a school Mass. Perhaps if more of us continue to raise this issue (and our dissent to happy-clappy tunes at a prayerful time) we may begin to see liturgical music brought back into the liturgy… and leave pop-songs to fulfill their role on the iPod, the radio and the background music we listen to when vacuuming.
      Thank you for your suport Maria!


  • Andrew C

    Very good article about the importance of choosing the right songs both as regards the lyrics and the music to complement the Liturgy of the Mass.
    As you rightly said, children will be more engaged if they understand the relevancy of the songs to the specific parts of the Mass. This will help them attend Mass in a more prayerful mode.
    As a teacher I appreciate that careful attention should be paid to both the lyrics and the type of music of the songs that are used to make sure that they lead the children to understand that these songs have a very different meaning and purpose than those heard elsewhere.

  • David

    Hi Mishel,

    Great article, thanks. Can’t wait to hear some more sacredness in the music at mass. We have a woodstock reunion most weeks down at our parish. I feel like taking my shoes off…

    Anyway, in reading the documents of the second Vatican council (as you do) it seems they actually sought to reinforce the value of Gregorian chant in the mass, but I’ve never seen or heard of it in my 30 years of mass going. Do you suppose there is any likelihood getting back to some Gregorian this century?


  • Mishel

    Thanks David.

    You are absolutely correct when you mention the Vatican Council’s encouragement of Gregorian chant. Like yourself, I cannot wait to hear more sacredness in the music at Mass.

    Fortunately, there are some good parishes around that have some reasonable choirs. In fact, I have heard Gregorian chant, and it occurred about two years ago. In Melbourne we have a service on Good Friday called ‘Tenebrae,’ and it is held at the Cathedral. It is a traditional prayer service, and is sung in a Gregorian tone. The times I have attended, there was a Gregorian choir that chanted throughout the prayer service. It was so moving. I cannot begin to express how emotive it was to hear the chanting, particularly on such a solemn day.

    Also, the seminarians in Melbourne have formed a Schola. Although it is not specifically a Gregorian Choir, the songs they have recorded on their CD are chanted in Latin. The seminary schola originated in 2008 for the World Youth Day in Sydney, and they still continue to sing/chant Latin hymns at Mass.I’m sure there are other parishers that have latin hymns or chant, it’s just a matter of trying to find them.

    I have hope that this edifying music, namely Gregorian chant, will be brought back into the liturgy and restored to a place where it can lead us to prayer. As you said, it’s been 30 years since you’ve heard it. In that time, I think many have forgotten the beauty of it. But it’s slowly making a come-back. We just need to revive it.


    • David

      Thanks Mishel that’s encouraging. Let’s hope it takes off again soon.

  • Toby Saalfeld

    At our parish school we have Benediction after the Mass on Friday. I went to the school and asked them not to sing “Lord of the Dance” for the Recessional afterward. I asked that they pick a tune that was more reverent. At the same time, I very nicely asked them to consider removing “Lord of the Dance” from their selections. Since I was one of the Cantors they responded well.
    I agree with most of the comments. We have a Girl’s Choir and Schola and an adult choir that is a Chant Schola. I have to tell you that some people are choosing the weekend of Chant to visit other masses. AND some are coming just for that Mass. So I see a need for some of the newer revent songs with leadership that looks at the appropriate ones for Mass and can give a reason so we can inform/educate the people on why we have eliminated certain songs.
    We are just a little rural parish in Oregon, but I am proud that we have encouraged so much music and we try to be revent too.

    • Jonathan Doyle

      Hi Toby, thanks for a great post. You actually present an interesting insight into the real experience on the ground. I am not advocating a complete rejection of modern music. I guess at one point Gregorian chant was brand new as well! I often think of the saying, “You can keep some of the people happy some of the time, but you can’t keep all of the people happy all of the time.” Thanks for making contact. It is great to hear from people on the other side of the world!

    • Mishel

      Great points, Toby. You have given me some good points to consider.
      What you mention is quite true; some like chant while others do not. Gregorian chant or Latin hymns are favourable to some more than others. And although this particular type of music may encourage some, it may also discourage others. I think when selecting any type of music for Mass, we should always have one question in mind; does it reflect what is taking place in the liturgy? Whether traditional, contemporary, Gregorian or Latin, whatever we select must be done so with prudence, so that it encourages the faithful to participate and recognise what is taking place liturgically. I particularly like your point about education. With whatever we include or omit, it is absolutely important to ‘inform and educate the people on why we have eliminated certain songs.’
      Thanks Toby!

  • Peter

    Apologies for coming late to the discussion. What you say is true and welcome, but in a sense doesn’t go far enough. Much of the discussion is still bogged down in prefernces for hymns, but the emphasis on hymns is misplaced – traditionally they weren’t sung at Mass. The new translation offers us the chance to refocus on singing the Mass, not singing things at Mass. A decent setting of the Ordinary of the Mass, the introit, the responsorial psalm, preface dialogue and communion antiphon would dissolve many of the rather sterile arguments about taste in hymns.

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