By Caroline Smith
A national conference celebrating pastoral music has highlighted the role of music and song in bringing people together and reflecting the very nature of the Church, as an integral part of its ritual, liturgy and prayer.
The Sing With Joy! United in Diversity conference – held in Scarborough from Thursday 5 to Saturday 7 October – was the third national conference of the Australian Pastoral Musicians Network (APMN) and brought together around 300 people over the three days.
Keynote speakers included American liturgical music composer David Haas and Director of the Australian Catholic University (ACU) Centre for Liturgy Professor Clare Johnson, who reflected on the importance of music to the Church and its people.
Mr Haas, who is Director of the Emmaus Centre for Music Prayer and Ministry in Minnesota is one of the pre-eminent musicians in this field, having composed songs since the 1980s including Blest Are They, You Are Mine and We Are Called, and often collaborated with other Christian songwriters such as Michael Joncas and Marty Haugen.
Addressing an assembly on the first day of the conference, he said that while the more technical aspects of pastoral music were important, it was essential for people to focus on its main purpose, which was to ‘point to Jesus’.
“Our ultimate goal is to show and reveal, not only to our parish assemblies, but to the whole world who Jesus Christ is,” he said.
“As a Church, this is our ultimate call: not just to be good musicians, not just to become skilled liturgists, not to be skilled in music notation software, although these things are important, our ultimate call is to show and reveal Jesus Christ to the world, through our music and our sung prayer.
“And if it is not consumed with you and I having a Messiah complex in the best sense of the word, if it is not centred in Christ, it then will be a failure.”
He added that to realise this, it was necessary for musicians to understand the context of liturgy, and how music has been integral within it throughout the history of the Church.
“The question for the early believers was how do we keep this memory (of Jesus) alive? They took that Jewish tradition of Torah and Sabbath, and did what Jesus did on the night before He died, and gave thanks,” Mr Haas said.
“They had no books that came down from central authority, they just remembered the stories and shared the bread.
“Our challenge as pastoral musicians and singers is how do we get people to sing? We have to explain to them what to sing about: the early Church knew that, it came from that. Having something to sing about triggered everything else that they did.”
As well as helping our assemblies to celebrate the weekly theme of every Mass – the death and resurrection of Jesus, the paschal mystery – music was also a way of uniting people as a community, in the midst of a selfish ‘me’ culture.
Professor Johnson, who spoke on the second day of the conference also spoke of music’s role as a uniting force, saying it could act as a ‘glue’ binding members of the faithful together in celebration.
Reflecting on how theological guidelines view music within the liturgy, she said it was expected to play an important role, for example at the beginning of Mass.
“The user manual for Mass, the General Instruction of the Roman Missal, informs us that the purpose of the entrance chant or song is to open the celebration, foster the unity of those who have gathered, introduce people to the liturgical time or season, and accompany the procession of the priests and ministers,” Professor Johnson said.
“When I read these statements it strikes me that our Church places a lot of trust in the medium of music, to be the catalyst of connection, the binder of bodies, the fast setting fixer, in other words the glue that unites many individuals into one body, ready to worship.”
Documents such as Musicam Sacram – which was published after the Second Vatican Council – also emphasised the power of music and its ability to reveal the mystery of the liturgy.
“Musicam Sacrum #5 explains that through the use of music five things occur: prayer is expressed in a more attractive way, the mystery of the liturgy is more open, the unity of hearts is more bound together by the union of voices, minds are more raised to heavenly things by music, and the whole celebration more clearly configures the heavenly liturgy that was enacted in the holy city of Jerusalem,” Professor Johnson said.
Music also had the capacity to bind people together, according to psychological studies, showing the wisdom of its usage in Catholic ritual over time, she added.
“Recently scientists have posited that singing is a universal human behaviour, suggesting that all humans have the capacity to engage in singing and it may have risen as an evolutionary adaptation to promote group bonding among early humans,” Professor Johnson said.
“Beginning our liturgies with song is the smartest thing we could have done, psychologically and socially in order to kick-start our corporate ritual action in a way that bonds us faster than any other activities.”