Judgment required in selecting music

By Pat Wettstein | For The Compass | August 26, 2016

The Living Rite column explores what you will see, hear, taste, touch or smell while at church this weekend.

While reading the Scripture passages for this week, I was taken by the first reading from Wisdom. It is a prayer attributed to Solomon seeking divine Wisdom to judge justly. There are numerous other prayers throughout Scripture that we may not always recognize as prayers: most memorably, the Canticle of Zachary from Lk 1:68-19 or Mary’s Magnificat (Lk 1:46-55). The ultimate prayer of Christianity, found in the New Testament, is The Lord’s Prayer.

There is a saying that to sing at Mass is to pray twice. Have you ever taken notice of the texts of the music at Mass? Does it remind you of Bible passages? (There are many hymns that use the Magnificat.)

While most hymnals will categorize the music by theme or season, there are two other elements that go into selecting music for any particular Mass: its scriptural references and its placement in the context of the Mass itself. You will usually find scriptural references at the bottom of a musical selection. It may indicate a book of the Bible on which it is based or actually cite the book, chapter and verse.

There is a reference book, published in 2008 by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, entitled “Sing to the Lord: Music in Divine Worship.” It is a must for parish musicians and liturgical leaders who select music for the liturgies. This book guides one through all of the parts of the Mass, when to sing, what to sing, who sings it and also when there is to be no singing at all, in other words, sacred silence. It cites the sung parts of the Mass, like the Gloria, responsorial psalm and the Gospel acclamation. Preparing music for Mass requires three judgment areas, all equal in their application: liturgical, pastoral and musical. These help to determine which type of hymn is pertinent or might be incidental to the Mass and need care so it does not supersede the action at the altar.

Some parishes have one or two people who select music, while others use a collaborative team. Whichever method is used, it takes time and good judgment not only to select music for certain parts of the Mass, but also to remain true to the scriptural passages of the day, the season and even the local cultural circumstances.

So the next time you go to Mass, take time to read through the texts of the music to find the origins and pay attention to where it appears in the Mass. Then you will appreciate more fully the careful considerations of those in your parish who are called to this ministry.

Wettstein is a volunteer choir director and former director of music and liturgy at Good Shepherd Parish, Chilton.

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