Friday, September 15, 2017 - Updated: 2:04 pm
QUESTION: I have never understood why the Catholic Church makes such a big deal about singing at Mass. I don’t get the point. Surely they did not sing at the Last Supper. I prefer a lot more quiet at Mass where I can pray and not be disturbed. Is that really so wrong?
ANSWER: Obviously, we don’t have any confirming audio of the Last Supper so we can’t say with certainty exactly what happened during that sacred meal. However, we can make some inferences from the Passover meal customs current at the time of Jesus.
At the usual Passover celebration, there was the first cup of wine accompanied by two blessings. These were followed by eating the herbs and unleavened bread. As the lamb was brought in, the symbol was explained and the first part of the Hallel was sung (Psalm 112-113a), and the second cup of wine was consumed. Afterward, the lamb was eaten, the third cup of wine was consumed, together with a thanksgiving prayer and the remainder of the Hallel (Psalms 113b-117) was sung. It is likely that there was singing at the Last Supper. That, however, is not the only reason why singing is so integral to Catholic liturgy.
In 2007, the National Conference of Catholic Bishops issued guidelines for music in Catholic worship. This document, titled “Sing to the Lord: Music in Divine Worship,” replaced two earlier documents, “Music in Catholic Worship” (1972) and “Liturgical Music Today” (1982).
The latest document sees music as a gift bestowed by God and one that arises as a cry from deep within our being. It is a way for God to lead us to the realm of higher things. Music is, therefore, a sign of God’s love for us and our love for God.
These documents also describe something that is part of our communal experience. Has anyone attended a birthday party where those gathered recited the “Happy Birthday” tribute? It may not be sung with the finest quality, but it is sung. Even people who don’t sing often enough find themselves joining in Christmas carols and patriotic songs.
The principle seems to be the same; celebration and singing go together. It was that way for our ancestors in faith who sang the Psalms as they celebrated God’s activity in their lives. Isn’t that what the Eucharist is, a celebration of the activity of God in our lives and our worship of gratitude for it?
Mass is not supposed to be a quiet background for our private devotional prayer. Mass is a community celebration at which we use sound and silence to worship God and support one another. Withholding our participation in song can’t help but weaken the symbolism for ourselves and others.
Silence, however, is important in our prayer and worship. But in large communal gatherings, when there is an absence of music or common prayer, is there really silence? Too often, the ordinary sounds of a large group of children and adults does not really provide the kind of silence conducive to prayer. We need to grow in our use of silence in liturgy, but there are human limitations that are not easily overcome.
Father Bober is pastor of St. Kilian Parish in Adams and Cranberry townships.