Last Sunday afternoon, while my 11- and 14-year-old sons were in the kitchen making lunch, I heard them singing the recessional song from Mass earlier that day. Not wanting to break the moment, I stood outside the kitchen door and listened.
We attend a church with a mostly African American population and a fantastic Gospel choir, so the song they were singing, “He’s an On-time God,” lent itself well to their energetic sandwich-making. While neither has any kind of substantial musical talent, my boys definitely were capturing the spirit of the song, occasionally pausing in their mayonnaise spreading to hold the butter knife up as a microphone for the really important parts, as they had seen one of the choir members do at church. “He may not come when you want him”—pause to add lettuce—”But he’ll be there right on time. ‘Cause he’s an on-time God…” Slap the sandwich together. “Yes he is!”
Music is an element of the Mass that has the potential to help us to worship with our whole being. In
Liturgy with Style and Grace (Liturgy Training Publications), Gabe Huck and Gerald Chinchar say: “More than any other means of human expression, music can convey any human emotion, conviction, humor, remembrance… It is an important part of every life.”
So really it should come as no surprise that my young sandwich-makers were singing. While the readings and the homily engage our minds during Mass, music grabs both our mind and our heart—and sometimes our gut as well.
The issue, though, is that when it comes to music, most of us define ourselves as “audience.” We may enjoy music, but we see our role as listening to our iPods and going to concerts—we are not the performers. But there is no audience at Mass. We are all participants. And while we all sit in a big clump as at a concert, Mass is not a concert, not a consumer event.
Rory Cooney, composer and director of music and liturgy at St. Anne Parish in Barrington, Illinois, says the reluctance of some adults to sing at Mass may go back to their childhoods. “When I was a kid, I was told the right way to behave at Mass was to be quiet and face forward,” he said. “I think a lot of people were taught that. But really, the right way to behave at Mass is to participate. You do what you’re supposed to do during that part of the Mass, so when it’s time to sing, you sing.”
When an entire assembly is singing enthusiastically (even if they’re a little off key), a visitor to the parish will often remark that he or she can feel the spirit of the parish. That’s because singing is prayer in and of itself; singing is not just an interlude between prayers. An assembly that sings is praying. And you can feel that.
“A way to look at singing is this: Maybe you aren’t a professional singer; maybe you don’t even want to sing,” Cooney says . “But love isn’t always about doing what you want. Love is about showing up. If you sing because you know you should, even if you don’t always want to, your feelings will eventually catch up.”
Parishes committed to good music will work hard to find excellent musicians and to find enough money for quality instruments and access to sufficient books and scores. Every parish has its own personality, and music that works for one parish may not go over as well for another. A good director of music will be sensitive to the population of his or her parish, noting which types of songs have an enthusiastic reception and which the congregation struggles with.
As for children, Cooney says they “learn how to participate at Mass by osmosis. It’s not necessarily anything you’re saying. Parents don’t tell babies which hole in their face the spoon goes in; babies watch and figure it out. For better or for worse, kids look to their parents to learn what to do at Mass.” —by Annemarie Scobey from the pages of At Home with Our Faith, Claretian Publications’ print newsletter for parents on nurturing spirituality in the home. Winner of the 2010 General Excellence award from the Catholic Press Association. Here’s a sample issue.
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