In 2011 Bishop Thomas Olmsted of Phoenix wrote a series of four articles for his Diocese, explaining sacred music. (Check out the entire series at: http://diocesephoenix.org/bishop-olmsted-columns). It is an excellent series. Here is an excerpt of his first article, for your edification. Most powerful in the words below, in my opinion, is the idea that the liturgy (and therefore the music of the liturgy) exists for the purpose of the glory of God and the sanctification of the faithful. Also beautiful for meditation is the idea that the only place we hear of Jesus singing is the night He instituted the Eucharist at the Last Supper. Jesus continues to sing in our Masses. I offer this excerpt as a start to answering the question, “Why do we sing so much at Holy Mass? Here are Bishop Olmsted's words:
St. Augustine recounts in his autobiography Confessions an experience he had during the singing of the Mass:
How I wept, deeply moved by your [Lord] hymns, songs, and the voices that echoed through your Church! What emotion I experienced in them! Those sounds flowed into my ears, distilling the truth in my heart. A feeling of devotion surged within me, and tears streamed down my face — tears that did me good.
How can we explain this overwhelming and transforming experience that led one of our greatest saints to the Church? Clearly, this was much more than a man simply being moved by a well-performed song. His entire being was penetrated and transformed through music. How can this be?
At Mass, Christ sings to the Father
The Catechism of the Catholic Church (#1157) makes a direct reference to St. Augustine’s experience when it teaches that the music and song of the liturgy “participate in the purpose of the liturgical words and actions: the glory of God and the sanctification of the faithful.
The Mass itself is a song; it is meant to be sung. Recall that the Gospels only tell us of one time when Jesus sings: when he institutes the Holy Eucharist (Cf. Mt 26:30; Mk 14:26). We should not be surprised, then, that Christ sings when he institutes the sacramentum caritatis (the Sacrament of love), and that for the vast majority of the past 2,000 years, the various parts of the Mass have been sung by priests and lay faithful. In the 1960s, the Second Vatican Council strongly encouraged a rediscovery of the ancient concept of singing the Mass: “[The musical tradition of the universal Church] forms a necessary or integral part of solemn liturgy” (Sacrosanctum Concilium,112). The Mass is most itself when it is sung.
This recent rediscovery of “singing the Mass” did not begin with the Second Vatican Council. Following a movement that stretches back at least to Pope Saint Pius X in 1903, Pope Pius XII wrote in 1955, “The dignity and lofty purpose of sacred music consists in the fact that its lovely melodies and splendor beautify and embellish the voices of the priest who offers Mass and of the Christian people who praise the Sovereign God” (Musicae Sacrae Disciplina, #31).
In the years immediately following the Council, there arose the need to highlight and clarify the Council’s teaching regarding the importance of liturgical prayer in its native sung form. In 1967, The Sacred Congregation for Rites wrote:
Indeed, through this form [sung liturgical prayer], prayer is expressed in a more attractive way, the mystery of the Liturgy, with its hierarchical and community nature, is more openly shown, the unity of hearts is more profoundly achieved by the union of voices, minds are more easily raised to heavenly things by the beauty of the sacred rites, and the whole celebration more clearly prefigures that heavenly Liturgy which is enacted in the holy city of Jerusalem. (Musicam Sacram, #5).
In other words, sung liturgical prayer more effectively reveals the mystery of the Liturgy as well as more easily accomplishes its heavenly purposes. In this way, sung liturgy is a revelation of Christ as well as a vehicle for profound participation in His saving work.
Such are the words of Bishop Olmsted of Phoenix, teaching his flock about song in Holy Mass. Soon, I’ll have another instruction on singing in Mass, hoping to show you why we sing so much in the Mass. Have a blessed week!
In cordibus Iesu, Mariae et Iosephus,