Lift Your Voice and Your Heart Will Follow

On her Nov. 22 feast day, St. Cecilia — patroness of church music — might be asked to pray that today’s Catholics lose their reticence over singing at Mass. (Let’s face it: We need all the help we can get.)

Mass is about to begin. The celebrant enters. The congregation stands to receive him. The music director announces the entrance hymn and tells everyone where to find it in the hymnal. The music rises. The cantor or choir belts out the tune.

And many members of the congregation, if not most of them, remain silent — like audience members taking in a concert.

Is this a familiar scenario in your parish? If so, what must St. Cecilia, martyr and patron saint of church music, be thinking — especially on her Nov. 22 memorial?

We know the thinking of Servant of God John Paul II on this subject. In 2003, on that year’s feast of St. Cecilia, he released a document celebrating the centenary of Pope St. Pius X’s 1903 instruction on sacred music, Tra le Sollecitudini.

“Popular singing,” wrote John Paul, “constitutes ‘a bond of unity and a joyful expression of the community at prayer, fosters the proclamation of the one faith and imparts to large liturgical assemblies an incomparable and recollected solemnity.’”

It’s no secret that many Catholics don’t sing at Mass. What should be better known: They don’t know what they’re missing.

Some excuses for keeping one’s mouth shut might actually have some substance, points out Linda Schafer, co-editor of the popular The St. Michael Hymnal and choir director at St. Boniface Catholic Church in Lafayette, Ind. For example, carpeting absorbs sound. When this happens, people only hear their own voices. “If they feel like the only one singing,” she says, “they won’t.”

Shafer says the placement of the music section also has bearing. Choirs in front can distract. Choirs in back attract. “People hear the choral sound coming from around and behind them, which seems to be coming from the congregation itself,” she explains. “That makes people want to be part of it.” Ditto the positive effect with high-quality pipe organs.

“Show me a church that has this situation,” she says, “and I will show you a church that sings.”

Can’t Sing? Sing Anyway

Of course, there’s more to singing, even if people push themselves to overcome these obstacles. After all, singing was important from the Church’s infancy. In his 2007 apostolic exhortation Sacramentum Caritatis (The Eucharist as the Source and Summit of the Church’s Life and Mission), Pope Benedict XVI pointed to St. Paul’s instruction to the Ephesians: Address one another in “psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and playing to the Lord in your hearts” (5:19).

The Holy Father also reminded us of St. Augustine’s keen insight on the matter: “Singing is an expression of joy and, if we consider the matter, an expression of love.”

Paul Jernberg, choir director, composer and founding director of Magnificat Academy in New Braintree, Mass., says singing at Mass is a way to enkindle the fire of God’s love in our hearts.

“At the heart of our faith is love of God and neighbor, and singing [at Mass] is one of the ways in which we can more fully enter into this relationship of love,” says Jernberg. “It’s a powerful way people can be drawn to their faith and to God — both the people who sing and the people who hear.”

Jernberg notes that one of the factors that led Augustine into the Catholic faith was the beauty of the singing at Mass. Music played a role in Jernberg’s own conversion, too, albeit in a much different way.

He recalls how, in Sweden, the sound of people singing the Psalms and Gregorian chant — in tune, out of tune and at all levels of singing ability — gave him an unforgettable experience of God’s grace. “For the congregation, something wonderful happens in spite of our talents, or lack thereof,” he says. “It’s a mystery. I’ve seen this. God goes beyond our musicality when we bring our love.”

Indeed, says Father Nicholas Pavia, parochial vicar at St. Joseph Parish in Shelton, Conn., Catholics should never worry about singing off-key or out of tune. He says he ought to know, as he inherited his grandmother’s love of singing heartily in church, despite a conspicuous lack of singing ability.

“Even though I have a voice like I do, I encourage people to sing,” he says cheerfully. “It’s part of the Mass and part of the prayer to sing. I’ve told the people many times: You don’t have to be worried if you don’t have a good voice. It’s the voice God gave you.”

Pipes of Peace

The vocally challenged often feel more encouraged to join in when the hymn selections are from the traditional Catholic songbook. “If you want the congregation to sing,” explains Shafer, “you have to have the kind of music untutored, unmusical people in the pews feel competent enough to sing.”

Many traditional hymns were chosen for The St. Michael Hymnal because of their dignity, she adds. They’re simple to sing, she adds. By contrast, many newer songs demand vocal acrobatics beyond the average person’s range.

Marie Pitt-Payne, former choir member at St. John Vianney Church in Northlake, Ill., now sings in the pews with her religious education students and her family. The catechist told the Register she appreciates traditional songs for their ability to present sound doctrine in a way that moves the heart as it informs the intellect. Asked to cite an example, she names the Eucharistic hymn “Jesus, My Lord, My God, My All.”

“Part of restoring people’s desire to sing is to engage their heart,” says Pitt-Payne, noting that before he became Pope Benedict XVI, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger stressed this point. The Holy Father, an accomplished musician, is especially fond of Gregorian chant.

Proclaiming the reality of our salvation is really what we should be singing about. Pitt-Payne concludes: “Singing is our grateful response to God. It’s giving him glory.”

Before the Mass’s Gloria, Father Pavia tells his flock, “If we want peace on the earth, then we have to sing his glory. If we give the Lord the glory with our hearts, our song, then peace will come down on the earth.”

The exhortation helps his parishioners sing the Gloria like they mean it — and to go forth to love and serve the Lord after the concluding hymn.

That must put a smile on St. Cecilia’s face — and a song in her heart.

Staff writer Joseph Pronechen is based in Trumbull, Connecticut.