Before the Second Vatican Council, it would have been unusual to hear people in the assembly singing. Although official church documents encouraged the assembly to sing, much of the music was in Latin. An even greater barrier, however, was a collective mindset. It seemed as though we all agreed that the job of the assembly was to pray (silently), and the job of the choir and music leaders was to sing. Music ministry was a top down affair in which music was provided by the experts for the benefit of those of us in the pews.
The primary aim of the Second Vatican Council was to invert that model. The first document issued by the council, the Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy, gave us a new agenda for music ministry. The primary minister of music is no longer the choir, organist, cantor, or music director. The primary minister of music is the worshiping assembly.
The assembly has always participated
While this seems like an innovation, it is really a return to our roots. Ancient texts dating back to the 100s and forward describe the Christian assembly singing their worship at the Sunday Eucharist. In the very earliest times, there were no choirs. The assembly was the choir. As the church grew and developed, choirs began to accompany the main assembly. So, in the fifth century, St. Augustine describes alternate choirs that would engage in sung dialogue with the assembly and the presider. And this rather complicated feat of worship was accomplished without hymnals, worship aids, or projection screens!
Eventually, as the language of the liturgy began to diverge from the language of the people, the “work” of the liturgy fell to the clergy and the musicians. After centuries of the assembly remaining mostly silent in the liturgy, the church decided the assembly needed to reclaim its voice. Hence the bishops at Vatican II wrote:
Mother Church earnestly desires that all the faithful should be led to that fully conscious, and active participation in liturgical celebrations which is demanded by the very nature of the liturgy. Such participation by the Christian people as “a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a redeemed people (1 Pet. 2:9; cf. 2:4-5), is their right and duty by reason of their baptism.
In the restoration and promotion of the sacred liturgy, this full and active participation by all the people is the aim to be considered before all else. (Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy, 14)
Pastoral musicians have a big responsibility in accomplishing this “aim to be considered before all else.” Music is an essential part of the engaging the assembly in full and active participation in the liturgy. St Augustine said that our souls are more powerfully moved when our words are sung rather than spoken (see Confessions, Book X, chap. 33).
The Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy devotes an entire chapter to sacred music. The bishops wrote:
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 sacred song united to the words, it forms a necessary or integral part of the solemn liturgy. (112)
Why is the liturgy so important?
The reason this is all so very important is the fate of the world depends upon the liturgy. “The primordial song of the Liturgy is the canticle of victory over sin and death” (Sing to the Lord, 7). That song does not end when Mass ends. “Christ, whose praises we have sung, remains with us and leads us through church doors to the whole world, with its joys and hopes, griefs and anxieties” (Sing to the Lord, 8; see Second Vatican Council, Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World, 1).Pastoral musicians have a big responsibility in accomplishing this “aim to be considered before all else.” Music is an essential part of the engaging the assembly in full and active participation in the liturgy. Click To Tweet
In 2007, the United States Bishops, in Sing to the Lord: Music in Divine Worship, wrote:
Charity, justice, and evangelization are thus the normal consequences of liturgical celebration. Particularly inspired by sung participation, the body of the Word Incarnate goes forth to spread the Gospel with full force and compassion. In this way, the Church leads men and women “to the faith, freedom and peace of Christ by the example of its life and teaching, by the sacraments and other means of grace. Its aim is to open up for all men a free and sure path to full participation in the mystery of Christ.” (9; see Second Vatican Council, Decree on the Church’s Missionary Activity, 5.)
Our participation in the liturgy, particularly sung participation, leads those who don’t know him to full participation in Christ.
It’s not just about making music
The work of pastoral musicians and music leaders cannot be focused only on the production of music. Too much is at stake. If we are going to celebrate liturgy that saves — saves us and saves the world — we have to become a singing church, a church that is both moved and on the move through the power of our common song.
If the pastoral musicians among us can help us establish regular liturgical celebrations in which the assembly becomes the primary minister of music, the primary choir, the primary voice of Christ offering a sacrifice of praise, we will witness geysers of faith in our parishes.
Faith grows when it is well expressed in celebration. Good celebrations can foster and nourish faith. Poor celebrations may weaken it. Good music “make[s] the liturgical prayers of the Christian community more alive and fervent so that everyone can praise and beseech the Triune God more powerfully, more intently and more effectively.” (Sing to the Lord, 5; see Musicae Sacrae, Encyclical of Pope Pius XII on Sacred Music)
It is time for the assembly to reclaim its voice. To make that happen, we turn to the pastoral musician among us to remind us every time we gather of what St. Augustine taught about our journey:
You should sing as wayfarers do—sing but continue your journey. Do not grow tired, but sing with joy! (Sermo 256, 1.2.3)