Guest Author of this article: Daniel
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In the Catholic Book of Character, Edward Garesche S.J. indicates that whatever enters the imagination remains there until death, even if not always present to consciousness. We are therefore obliged to nourish the imagination with good and beautiful things that lead us to God. This summarizes the beneficence of having good music in our liturgies on a human level. Everything employed in the worship of God seeks firstly to glorify Him. Secondarily, though probably just as important, is its salutary effect on us.
The Gregorian Mass is saturated with symbols expressed through gestures, sounds, and smells for a reason which is at the very heart of religion: To bring mankind into an encounter with the Divine. Like our incomparable Savior, the Mass is composed of divine and human elements. Its divinity consists in the offering of the Son to the Father in atonement for our sins and those of the whole world. However, in order that we may more fully benefit from its effects, the Church draws our attention to this mystery by stimulating our imaginations with beautiful ritual, for the more beautiful something is, the closer it is to God, Who is Beauty Itself.
Until the reforms of the 1960s, it was generally accepted that only the most beautiful and holy music, especially Gregorian chant, was suitable for the solemnity of the Mass. With the introduction of the "folk Mass," however, music in the liturgy became intimately tied with the world, losing its holiness to secular influences and beauty to shallow popular forms. The imagination no longer had the opportunity to soar into the transcendent, but was dragged into the immanent.
Such a description of these reforms might sound ridiculous. Why is music so important that I should view recent history with this perspective? The Second Vatican Council responds in the Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy that music is the most esteemed of the Church's liturgical arts, as it most directly speaks to the soul. That is, music, more than any other element of the liturgy, affects the imagination, having the power to raise our thoughts to heavenly things or lower them to worldly distractions. When we raise our minds to God, we are praying; music therefore has a direct correlation to our life of prayer. Therefore man has a greater potential for holiness when he is nourished with the bread of beauty in the worship of God.
This is why the return to beautiful liturgical music in recent years is such a good thing and so important. One could almost say our salvation depends on it. If we do not conceive heaven as being someplace beautiful, then we will not want to go there. We are drawn toward things that please us; only God, Who is infinitely pleasing, can satisfy our infinite longings, but we cannot know this if He is shrouded and blocked out by ugliness. It is imperative, then, that all parishes begin the process of restoring beauty - dare I say, God Himself - to their liturgies. Through music, the liturgy can become more God-like, greatly sanctifying its participants and, consequently, the world.
Such a noble task rests with church musicians in cooperation with their pastors. Establishing or reorganizing a parochial music program can appear a daunting task. In considering the challenges, though, musicians should always keep in mind that there is no obstacle too great for God's grace to overcome. Be sure to complement all your efforts with prayer.
Having a supportive pastor is essential in enacting meaningful and enduring changes. It is through his preaching and teaching of orthodoxy that a congregation will be able to appreciate the gradual changes that you will implement. Depending on your situation, this might be the most difficult part of the process and will require more prayer.
Once you have the support of your pastor, your primary concern will be to address the twofold challenge of teaching your choir good vocal technique and acclimating the congregation to proper liturgy. Concerning the former, if you do not know where to start, it is good to keep in mind that the two most important components of good singing are breath control and unity of vowels. Regarding the latter, I offer my own experience.
For the purpose of training both choir and congregation, it is best to begin with hymns, avoiding a complete switch from one style of worship to another. This also permits your choir some time to begin learning the art of singing chant. Some good sources of hymnody include the Traditional Roman Hymnal - one of the best in my opinion, the St. Gregory Hymnal, the Westminster Hymnal - text and music are separate here, and the Adoremus Hymnal. Hymns are the best way for your choir to practice good singing and for the congregation to become accustomed to orthodox text and beautifully crafted melodies.
You should use chant hymns that have been harmonized - such as Creator of the Stars of Night or Of the Father's Love Begotten, for example - whenever possible in order to prepare the way for the propers. When you believe your choir is ready, you may start adding simple propers. One of the best sources of free online chants and chant resources is www.musicasacra.com. I have found the Anglican Use Gradual - approved for use in the Mass - wonderfully suited to novice singers and congregations. They use psalm tones and high English, making them accessible yet exalted.
If you have attained these heights in your liturgies, then your parish is well on its way to fostering great holiness among its parishioners. From here, the paths are as varied as the branches of a Christmas tree. You may choose to employ polyphonic music of the renaissance, modern compositions (www.canticanova.com is a good place to find some of these), or simple hymns. The sky is your limit and the rubrics your foundation.
St. Cecelia, pray for us!