This is the latest column from Bishop James Conley of Lincoln, Nebraska, reprinted from the Southern Nebraska Register.
It was an extraordinary experience to kneel before the Blessed Sacrament at Copacabana Beach in Brazil, at World Youth Day in 2013. Catholic musician Matt Maher led us in worship—more than 3 million people, and Pope Francis, sang “Lord, I need you, Oh, I need you,” as Matt Maher softly played the guitar.
At the Mercy Center in Krakow this summer, nearly 20,000 young people knelt before the Eucharist, praising the Lord as Maher and musician Audrey Assad led songs of praise and thanksgiving. I watched as tears streamed down faces, and young people touched by the moment lined up for the sacrament of confession.
Music can be a powerful part of our relationships with Almighty God. And every culture and generation sings songs and hymns of praise and thanksgiving that speak the love of their hearts.
As a child in the Protestant church, I learned the canon of hymns most treasured in America— “How Great Thou Art,” “Amazing Grace,” “Nearer my God to Thee.” As a young man, I learned the inspiring folk songs of Ireland, England, and France. Those songs helped me to grow in devotion to God. They helped me to keep the Lord in the forefront of my mind. They gave language to my praise and gratitude to the Lord. They became a part of my devotional life. And, because I shared them with others, they became a part—an important part—of the Catholic culture I continue to share with my family and friends.
We need singing, and music, and songs in our family life, the life of our community, and the life of our prayer. Scripture calls us to “make a joyful song unto the Lord,” and St. Augustine tells us that “he who sings, prays twice.”
It is almost impossible to imagine a robust Christian civilization, or a robust spiritual life, without music. The Second Vatican Council taught that music is “a treasure of inestimable value,” that “adds delight to prayer” and “fosters unity of minds.” The Church has long known that we especially need music during our most important, and most sacred moments of worship: during the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass. In fact, the Second Vatican Council said that music “forms a necessary or integral part of the solemn liturgy” of the Mass.
But music at Mass has a different purpose than the devotional music of our families, communities, and personal prayer lives. The Church says that sacred music, sung during our liturgies, is for the glory of God, and for our sanctification. At Mass, we offer our lives to God through worship, unified with the Eucharistic sacrifice. And we receive the graces that make us saints, and draw us into relationship with God. The Church says that certain kinds of music, developed over centuries, help us to actively participate in the Mass, and to more fruitfully receive the graces of the Eucharist. The Second Vatican Council taught these kinds of music should be preferred during Mass.
In the first place, when it is possible, the prayers and responses of the Mass itself should be sung, including short introductory reflections, and short musical meditations, called antiphons. And the Second Vatican Council taught that the ancient custom of Gregorian chant should “be given pride of place” when it is possible. Other kinds of music, like beautiful sacred polyphony, also should have a special place in Mass.
Sacred music in Mass is different from the devotional and folk music that impacts so many of our lives. Sacred music amplifies the sacred words of the Mass, pointing us more deeply into the mystery of the Eucharist, and uses tones and rhythms that aid us in contemplation. Through careful reflection over thousands of years, the Church has developed a sense of the music that best fits the mystery of the Mass, and when sung with reverence and humility, gives glory and honor to Christ’s sacrifice.
The Church does not teach that we should only use old music during Mass. In fact, Pope John Paul II encouraged composers and musicians to write new music, that speaks to modern man, but that is rooted in continuity with the genius and richness of the Church’s tradition. Today, many composers write beautiful sacred music, building upon the richness of all that has come before, and faithful to the wisdom and teachings of the Church.
This week, more than 200 musicians from across the Diocese of Lincoln gathered at our first annual “Sacred Music Clinic,” to learn and practice the principles and traditions of the Church’s liturgical music. Many of them will introduce the beautiful customs they learned in their parishes, in small ways. Many of our priests have begun learning to chant the prayers of the Mass, and many lay Catholics are learning to do the same. All of these efforts help us to glorify God in the Mass, and to contemplate the mystery of the Eucharist.
Father Daniel Rayer, chair of the Diocesan Liturgical Commission, the planning committee chaired by Father Rayer, Amy Flamminio and Jessica Ligon, and all the members of the liturgical commission worked very hard and so well to plan and organize our sacred music clinic this year. I’m grateful for their work.
It is clear to me that in the Diocese of Lincoln, the Holy Spirit is at work. The Lord is helping us to grow in deeper understanding of the meaning of music in the sacred Mass. In that way, we can grow closer to the Lord. And at Mass, or in our families, or in our cars on the way to work, or on a beach with three million people, when we praise the Lord with song, we lift our hearts to him, and he touches our hearts in love.