The Power of Sacred Music is Transcendent

“The musical tradition of the universal Church is a treasure of inestimable value, greater even than that of any other art.” (CCC 1156)

Simon Vouet, “Saint Cecilia”, ca. 1626
Simon Vouet, “Saint Cecilia”, ca. 1626 (photo: Public Domain)

From the time I was a child, music has played a big part in my Christian faith. My dad was a church organist/choirmaster and I sang in his children’s choir at our Presbyterian church in upstate New York. By the time he moved to a nearby Episcopal church I was a teenager, and old enough to join the adult choir. We sang beautiful anthems in the English choir tradition. “Like As The Hart” and “My Eyes for Beauty Pine” by Herbert Howells, and John Ireland’s “Greater Love” stand out in my memory. As an adult, I worshipped for several years at St. Thomas (Episcopal) Church in New York City where I had the privilege of hearing its esteemed men and boys choir sing magnificent Mass settings by composers like Thomas Tallis and William Byrd.

When I felt called to become a Catholic a few years ago I had no expectation of experiencing again that kind of soaring sacred musical tradition. It simply wasn’t something I associated with the Catholic Church.

By the grace of God, I found myself seeking instruction at a church in a nearby town with a kind and compassionate priest who was also a former Episcopalian. Not only that: the church had a thriving sacred music program! A professional schola sings each Sunday morning at the 9:30 Solemn (Latin) Mass, bringing to life many of the Mass settings I never expected to hear again, and many others that were new to me. At the 11:30 Sunday morning Mass, a volunteer choir leads the congregation in the traditional hymns I’d grown up singing, and offers up beautiful motets, some in the English tradition, many in Latin.

In addition to exquisite Mass settings and polyphonic masterpieces, we’re privileged to hear the ancient Gregorian chants which were the original soundtrack of the Catholic Church dating back to the 9th and 10th centuries. There’s also a student schola for children and teens, who will, no doubt, someday spread their love for sacred music and chant in parishes far and wide. The organist/choirmaster reminds me of my father: he is as passionate about his faith as he is about music.

I realize that my church is more the exception than the rule when it comes to traditional worship. But I hear that more and more Catholic parishes are returning to the Church’s liturgical and musical roots. The Catholic News Agency reported what Cardinal Robert Sarah, prefect of the Congregation for Divine Worship, had to say on the subject at the Sacra Liturgia conference in London this past July:

We must sing the liturgy, we must sing the liturgical texts, respecting the liturgical traditions of the Church and rejoicing in the treasury of sacred music that is ours, most especially that music proper to the Roman rite, Gregorian chant. We must sing sacred liturgical music not merely religious music, or worse, profane songs.

For anyone interested in listening to a full Solemn Mass, sung in the ancient tradition, my church’s schola (the St. Mary Schola Cantorum of St. Mary’s in Norwalk, Connecticut) has made a CD. It includes everything musical you’d hear at a traditional sung Mass, from bells to chants to choral polyphony. It’s the first-ever recording of the Mass setting, Christe Jesu, composed by William Rasar in the 16th century.  If you’re interested in more information on it, or in listening to some excerpts, check out the CD section of the church website.