Liturgical music connects us more deeply to the celebration of the Eucharist. Participating in Mass involves the whole person, including our senses, as well as our intellect.
In a 1988 speech to choir members of “Harmonici Cantores,” St. John Paul II said that “as a manifestation of the human spirit, music performs a function which is noble, unique and irreplaceable. When it is truly beautiful and inspired, it speaks to us more than all the other arts of goodness, virtue, peace, of matters holy and divine. For good reason it has always been, and it will always be, an essential part of the liturgy.”
The St. Louis Jesuits, highlighted in this week’s issue, are synonymous with liturgical music. The group, which will perform for the last time in St. Louis this September, are known for producing and publishing more than 150 liturgical songs and hymns, such as “Be Not Afraid” and “One Bread, One Body,” which continue to be played in churches around the world.
“The music of the St. Louis Jesuits both grew out of and contributed to the cultural ethos of the late ’60s and early ’70s,” said Dawn Riske, director of music ministries at Christ the King Parish in University City. “The music of the St. Louis Jesuits helped people pray and spoke to the emerging spirituality of the burgeoning ‘Baby Boom’ generation.”
Liturgical music serves as an expression of the divine, whether connecting us to Scripture, prayer, or even Church teaching and tradition. Through music, we are able to internalize God’s message and prayerfully meditate on the meaning behind the words.
The Catechism of the Catholic Church notes that “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” (“Sacrosanctum Concilium,” no. 112). 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’” (Ephesians 5:19; St. Augustine, Expositions on the Psalms 72,1:PL 36,914; Colossians 3:16) (Catechism of the Catholic Church, #1156).
One of God’s greatest gifts to us is the gift of song. No doubt there are many different styles of music used within the liturgy. Some people may prefer the beauty of traditional Gregorian chant, while others find a connection to God through a more contemporary praise and worship style, such the St. Louis Jesuits — or within the last few decades, Catholic artists such as Matt Maher. No matter our preference, sacred music that brings our attention to the Eucharist gives us the opportunity to experience God’s infinite love, give thanks and ask for His mercy, and most of all, proclaim His glory.