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It has been said that people usually leave Mass and only remember two things: the homily and the music.
While this is a pretty broad-brush assumption, there is truth to the idea that music in the liturgy sticks with people after the recessional has ended. Music also focuses and elevates both our hearts and minds, drawing us toward the sacred as all beauty does. This, in turn, helps us to be receptive to the grace poured out in the sacraments, drawing us into a deeper relationship with Christ.
Music is a phenomenon with universal appeal, an art that everyone can form a connection to, regardless of their knowledge or experience. It can help shape our emotions, focus our attention, and add greater solemnity to texts. One only needs to listen to the difference between the Lord’s Prayer being spoken and the same prayer being sung to recognize the difference music makes on the text.
As St. Augustine said, singing is for one who loves. Music in general, and singing in particular, not only elevates the spoken word, but also gives us a way to engage our prayer more intentionally.
It takes much more effort to sing a prayer than it does to speak it, and the unity we experience when singing together as a congregation presents a beautiful symbol of our unity in worship and belief.
While music leaders can certainly be scrupulous or deliberately esoteric in their selections of music for the Mass, it is more likely that they are seeking for beautiful music of high quality that helps people to lift their hearts to the Lord. This effect of music and beauty in the Church and liturgy in general is not merely window dressing: It is an important opportunity for the assembly to open themselves further to the grace poured out in the Eucharist.
Nothing we do can add to or subtract from the grace that God pours out on us in the Eucharist. Whether Mass is celebrated extremely reverently or halfheartedly, a validly celebrated Mass feeds us the Body and Blood of Christ.
Why then, is so much attention given to quality music and liturgy? Because disposition matters. Each individual’s relationship with Jesus, our sinfulness and our openness in prayer can all affect our receptivity of God’s grace. Beauty, whether in word, art, music or even silence, can open our hearts to prayer and make our reception of sacramental grace more fruitful.
Clearly, beautiful liturgy is no substitute for intentional discipleship, but it can help to guide people to discipleship by edifying them in prayer. God desires the best we have to offer in discipleship, in charity and in prayer.
Whether we have a wealthy liturgical life or the widow’s mite, we should offer the best we have to God in worship.
(Andrew Motyka is director of archdiocesan and cathedral liturgical music.) †