Quick Lessons from the Catechism: Singing and Music (and the Benedictines of Mary)

Earlier this week, in collaboration with De Montfort Music/Decca, the Benedictines of Mary, Queen of Apostles released yet another fantastic album which displays their love for, and the beauty of Sacred Music. The 27-track album titled, Easter at Ephesus, focuses on the beauty of chants and hymns with an Eastertide motif. For the Benedictines of Mary, this marks their fourth album, which follows Advent at Ephesus, Angels and Saints at Ephesus, and Lent at Ephesus. All three of these albums received the top award for Billboard’s Top Traditional Classical Albums for 2012, 2013, and 2014. They were also named the top artist for 2014 on Billboard’s Top Traditional Classical Album, making it now three years in a row.

As one who grew up not knowing the beauty of sacred music in the Catholic Liturgy, this new album and the albums that proceeded it by the Benedictines of Mary, as well as the other albums being produced by De Montfort/Decaa, gives me great hope that sacred music is on the rise in the Church. We have been held as captives to long by poorly written Catholic “hymns” from the 1970’s, 1980’s and 1990’s. Many of these songs give us an incomplete understanding of Catholic theology. Catholic theology is professed in many of the classical Catholic hymns before this time period and throughout the history of sacred music in the Church.

Furthermore, the influx of Protestant music into the Holy Mass has also been a troubling occurrence since the early 1990’s. Many of these contemporary Protestant songs, which are often heard on Christian radio stations are fine for praise and worship, but have no place in the Catholic Liturgy. Even the way these songs are written differs from sacred music since many of these songs have the chords you would hear in a traditional rock song. We need to cease singing these contemporary songs, dismiss the guitar, and sack the drum set. As Catholics, it’s time to bring back the beauty of sacred music in our liturgies. The Catholic tradition is full of beautiful hymns – we need to sing them in the Catholic Mass!

One more point before I get to what the Catechism of the Catholic Church says about Singing and Music. When I lived in Austin for two years, I attended St. Mary’s Cathedral and often went to the Noon Mass on Sundays. Let me tell you – between the solemn and prayerful praying of the liturgy from the priests combined with the schola cantorum, who sang in a choir loft, it was as if Heaven and Earth were uniting, which actually does happen in the Mass. I had never experienced anything like it before!

Play Sacred Music

Now that I have said this, let’s read what the Catechism teaches on singing and music. I have highlighted certain phrases that stand out and which need to be taken into consideration –

“The musical tradition of the universal Church is a treasure of inestimable value, greater even than that of any other art. The main reason for this pre-eminence is that, as a combination of sacred music and words, it forms a necessary or integral part of solemn liturgy.” The composition and singing of inspired psalms, often accompanied by musical instruments, were already closely linked to the liturgical celebrations of the Old Covenant. The Church continues and develops this tradition: “Address . . . one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody to the Lord with all your heart.” “He who sings prays twice.” [#1156]

Song and music fulfill their function as signs in a manner all the more significant when they are “more closely connected . . . with the liturgical action,” according to three principal criteria: beauty expressive of prayer, the unanimous participation of the assembly at the designated moments, and the solemn character of the celebration. In this way they participate in the purpose of the liturgical words and actions: the glory of God and the sanctification of the faithful:

‘How I wept, deeply moved by your hymns, songs, and the voices that echoed through your Church! What emotion I experienced in them! Those sounds flowed into my ears distilling the truth in my heart. A feeling of devotion surged within me, and tears streamed down my face – tears that did me good.’ (St. Augustine) [#1157]

The harmony of signs (song, music, words, and actions) is all the more expressive and fruitful when expressed in the cultural richness of the People of God who celebrate. Hence “religious singing by the faithful is to be intelligently fostered so that in devotions and sacred exercises as well as in liturgical services,” in conformity with the Church’s norms, “the voices of the faithful may be heard.” But “the texts intended to be sung must always be in conformity with Catholic doctrine. Indeed they should be drawn chiefly from the Sacred Scripture and from liturgical sources.” [#1158]

I would highly encourage you to purchase the new album by the Benedictines of Mary as well as the other albums being produced by De Montfort/Decca. I would also encourage you to learn more about the importance of sacred music and chant at a good blog titled, The Chant Café. From there, you will find other sites and more titles to read focusing on sacred music and chant.