The American Robin, when in search of friendship, sings a cheerful song. And during courtship, he sings a whisper song and the female responds with a soft chirp. When defending their young against predators, both male and female robins sound an alarming note. So varied are the songs of birds that the Red-eyed Vireo can sing an astonishing 20,000 songs a day. Quite a repertoire!
People like to sing as well. Almost any human experience can make us break into song. We croon about friendship. We serenade about love and joy. We sing laments and chant hymns.
Some people sing in shows: others, in the shower. Some, in support of their sports teams: others, as part of a choir. In movies and commercials, at weddings and funerals, during patriotic events and sports events, on a bright sunny day or "just walking in the rain," people like to sing. Song belongs to every culture and every society across the centuries. Frank Sinatra is said to have recorded 1,200 songs. Quite a repertoire for the Chairman of the Board!
Over the last thirty years, researchers have pointed out the health benefits of singing. Singing reduces stress. It promotes emotional and physical well-being. Song also unites us with others. It touches our emotions. It draws us out of ourselves and binds us as one with others. Perhaps this is one of the reasons why song is so important to our worship of God.
Why few Catholics sing
Yet, for some reason, when Catholics go to church, not many of them join in the singing. How often at weddings, funerals, Confirmations or even Sunday Mass, few join in the singing. Is there a reason why Catholics find it awkward to sing in church? We could easily suggest a number of reasons.
Congregational singing has only come into prominence since the 1960s. In promoting "the full, conscious and active participation" of the faithful in the liturgy ( Sacrosanctum Concilium, 14), the Second Vatican Council encouraged the faithful to sing (118). The Council dedicated an entire chapter to music in the Liturgy (VI). Yet, almost 50 years later, not all Catholics are comfortable singing in church. Why?
No doubt the selection of hymns and songs makes a difference in the response of the congregation. Some are simply not suited for everyone to sing. People may like a particular hymn. But, if the rhythm, the arrangement, the melody and the register are not suited to average people, they will not sing it.
Some suggest that the frequent introduction of new and unfamiliar hymns inhibits people from singing in church. People enthusiastically sing "Tantum Ergo" and "Holy God" as these hymns were part of the repertoire repeated again and again in Catholic worship before the Council and they are still remembered. But, today, people are constantly handed missalettes with new selections each season. This constant change does not promote the necessary familiarity with words and melody that make it easier to sing along. People like to sing what they know.
Others suggest that the increased professionalism and prominence given to the music ministry may work against congregational participation. No longer in the choir loft, the music ministry is now more visible. In some churches, the music ministry awkwardly overtakes the sanctuary, even obscuring the congregation's view of the tabernacle. So professional, at times, is the music that people are more inclined to take it as a performance to be heard and applauded when finished.
In giving reasons why many people do not sing in church, perhaps we are actually answering the wrong question. Should we not be asking the more fundamental question, "Why should we sing in church?" How really important is our singing when we come to worship God? Isn't it enough that we say our prayers?
Some recent studies have revealed that singing is beneficial for one's mental health. One study reported that nursing-home residents showed a decrease in anxiety and depression when they joined in a singing program. Another study showed that those who sing in choirs were more satisfied with life than the general public. Any reader of Sacred Scripture would not find these results a new revelation.
When Saul began to deteriorate from the pressures of being Israel's first king, he became irritable, moody and unpredictable. Saul's advisers discovered the one thing able to calm him down. Song! They invited to court the young David, a skilled harp player and composer. Whenever Saul heard David perform, his tormented spirit found peace and refreshment (cf. 1 Sam 16). Indeed, music and song have the power to lift us from our problems and raise us to a higher level. But, there is much more to song than its earthly benefits.
The Bible has nearly 500 references to singing. Singing is a way of praising and worshipping God. Page after page in the Bible records example after example of individuals who broke into song when they experienced God's saving love. During the Exodus, when the Egyptians lay buried beneath the Red Sea, Moses sang a canticle of praise to God (Ex 15). When the Israelites defeated Sisera, the commander of the Canaanite army of King Jabin, Deborah, judge and prophetess, sang (Jd 5).
David sang his psalms. In fact, the entire book of Psalms is attributed to him. The prophet Isaiah sang a ballad in the temple courts (Is 5). In song, he celebrated the Lord's deliverance of those who trust in him (Is 26:1-6). The prophet Ezekiel was even said to have "a beautiful voice and [to play] well on an instrument" (Ez 33:32). Zechariah sang his Benedictus (Lk 1:68-79), Mary, her Magnificat (Lk 1:46-55). Paul and Silas sang a hymn of praise to God in jail (Acts 16:25).
Singing is part of the life of the believer and the worship of the Church. As the Second Vatican Council teaches, when "the Church 'sings', the faith of those taking part is nourished and their minds are raised to God, so that they may offer him their spiritual homage and receive his grace more abundantly" ( Sacrosanctum Concilium, 33). Our worship of God takes on a more noble form when we celebrate the Liturgy in song (113).
Gift of song
But there is another aspect to our prayers made in song. God has bestowed upon us the gift of song and he is present whenever we sing his praises. As the Old Testament teaches, God inhabits the praise of his people (cf. Ps 22:3). And, when the Church raises her prayers to God in song, Christ himself is present, already uniting us with the Liturgy of heaven (cf. Sacrosanctum Concilium, 7-8).
It is interesting to note that, according to Zephaniah, God himself sings. When he returns to judge the earth and ransom the redeemed, he will take away our judgment. He will free us from our sins. So great will be God's love for us that he will rejoice over us with singing (cf. Zeph 3:17).
St Augustine wrote very beautifully about hymns in the worship of God. Most often, he is cited for saying " Qui cantat, bis orat" (who sings, prays twice). But he had much more to say. In his commentary on Psalm 7:1, he said, "He who sings praises, not only praises, but praises joyfully." According to St Augustine, a song in praise of God is no ordinary song. It is a deep expression of love.
Singing God's praises is a privileged way of loving God. As St Augustine tells us in his commentary on Psalm 72:1, " cantare amantis est" (singing belongs to one who loves). There are certain depths of emotions and desires that neither prose nor even poetry can capture. Only singing can bring to expression the intensity of our feelings and convictions, for singing is love's response with heart and mind, soul and body to God who loves us.
On the final pages of Sacred Scripture, the seer John rips open the veil to give us a glimpse of heaven. We see thousands upon thousands, redeemed and standing in the presence of God. We hear them praising God in song, glorifying him unceasingly (Rev 4-5). Raising our voices to God in song belongs both to the worship of heaven and of earth. Those whose hearts are filled with the knowledge and love of God cannot help but sing in his presence even now. That is why we sing in church.
This article by Bishop Arthur Serra telli of Paterson, New Jersey, first appeared in his diocesan newspaper and is reprinted here with permission.