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Renewing A Vision:

The Meaning of Participation in Sing to the Lord: Music in Catholic Worship

by Kevin Vogt

This article is reprinted from GIA Quarterly [Volume 32, No.1] with the kind permission of both Kyle Cothern, Permissions Editor, and the author.

In November 2007, The United State Conference of Catholic Bishops issued Sing to the Lord: Music in Catholic Worship. [STL]1 The purpose of this document was to calm controversies, to clarify Church teaching, and to stake out a "high middle ground" covering a range of issues under the broad categories of the diversification of roles, the nature of music to be employed and the modalities of its performance, principles guiding its preparation, and the musical structure of the rites.2

These guidelines were framed by the value of liturgical participation, one of the primary tenets of the Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy

[T]his full and active participation by all the people is the aim to be considered before all else, for it is the primary and indispensable source from which the faithful are to derive the true Christian spirit.3

STL affirms this tenet with great clarity and force but also recovers important insights from earlier Roman documents, specifically the recognition that participation in the liturgy must be "internal, in the sense that by it the faithful join their mind to what they pronounce or hear, and cooperate with heavenly grace."4

While the notion of interior participation has often been used to promote an unmodified use of inherited choral literature in the reformed liturgy, STL does not advance this agenda as its purpose for reemphasizing interior participation. Rather, the concept aims at the union of heart and mind with the words, songs, or actions of the ministers or the choir, so that "by listening to them [the faithful] may raise their minds to God."5

The document quotes Pope John Paul II in acknowledging that the art of interior listening is not easily learned in a culture that "neither favors nor fosters meditative quiet."6 The pope points out that although "liturgy must always be properly inculturated, it must also be counter-cultural."7 On the other hand, he reminds that external participation must be cultivated so that "internal participation can be expressed and reinforced by actions, gestures, and bodily attitudes."8

The dialectic between "internal" and "external" participation is often experienced as a polarity or tension, especially when these notions are weaponized in the so-called "worship wars," often focusing on the "thing" of music or the rite (the ars artefacta) rather than on the act of making music or ritual (the ars artefaciens)."9

The "high middle ground" sought by STL — and by the Church — is not simply a peaceful, transcendent balance between contradictory positions but a kind of unitive integrity in which "what we sing with our lips we may believe in our hearts, and what we believe in our hearts we may show forth in our lives."10

In his final letter to the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments, Pope John Paul II described this integrity as the ars celebrandi, the "art of celebrating":

[T]he effectiveness of [Christ's] action [in the eucharist] is a fruit of the work of the Holy Spirit, but also requires a human response. The ars celebrandi precisely expresses the capacity of ordained ministers and of the entire assembly, gathered together for celebration, to bring about and live the meaning of each liturgical action. This "art" is one with the commitment to contemplation and Christian consistency. Through rites and prayers, we must let the Mystery reach and permeate us.11

Pope John Paul II strongly implies here that the art of celebrating is first an interior, receptive act. Josef Pieper similarly proposed that leisure and festivity are radically receptive states, wherein effortless knowing and even complex, seemingly effortless activity are not directed toward a secondary end — a requisite disposition for worship.12

Cultivating a receptive disposition

How do we cultivate this disposition in ourselves and in our liturgical assemblies? STL holds several keys in its guiding principles on the diversification of roles within the assembly and the musical structure of the rite and their constitutive elements, all related in some way to the dialogical, conversational nature and structure of the liturgy on scales large and small.

As with any conversation, an alternating rhythm of speaking and asserting with listening and receiving is essential to the movement toward communion in which empathy and mutual identification grows. In the dialogical enactment of the liturgy, we grow in our capacity to unite heart and mind with the voice and action of another — of the priest celebrant, the lector, the minister of hospitality, the psalmist, and even the choir, which mirrors the sacramental identity and heavenly destiny of the entire assembly of the Church. All this growth is directed toward the capacity to unite hearts and minds with the risen Christ, the High Priest, in his eternal sacrifice of thanksgiving and saving act of intercession for the life of the world.

The question of exterior participation is more complex, because "bringing about" and "living" the meaning of liturgical action requires simultaneous radical receptivity, a capacity that is supported by all the practical guidelines and suggestions in STL related to formation and inculturation. The equation of participative celebration with radical receptivity can be illustrated by the following experiences from my own music ministry.

Several years ago, I was giving a cantor workshop in which I gave the participants an unfamiliar hymn text. I asked them to sing along with me to an equally unfamiliar tune. Most were able to sing a split second behind me. I asked them to reflect upon the experience of singing this hymn. After a couple of superficial answers, someone volunteered that they had felt anxious, that it was hard work, that they felt self-conscious and worried that their ignorance of this supposedly well-known, excellent hymn would be exposed. Eventually, everyone admitted to the same. I suggested that this may be the experience of many people in our liturgical assemblies each Sunday!

I then intoned the Mode VI Easter Alleluia — with which everyone was familiar — and we played around with it. I asked them to sing the first two syllables lightly, as if tiptoeing up the stairs. I asked them to "bloom" or "lift" the voice on the high note. We did that a few times, listening for the most pure, "blue" ōō vowel they could imagine. Then I asked them to close their eyes as I intoned the Alleluia again. They responded after a slight hesitation, singing beautifully, artfully, confidently, sensitively — and blindly — coming to a crisp consensus at the beginning and end of each "alleluia." No visual cue, no obligatory arm waving, no vocal dominance (no microphone), no autocratic stick beating — just a gentle consensus.

When asked to reflect on this experience, one man said he was amazed when he became aware of the collective breathing of the group One woman, as if emerging out of an ecstatic vision, exclaimed, "I think I became an Alleluia!" Ars celebrandi, indeed!

Another window into this mystery occurred in a lesson with an adult organ student. Bob was an excellent pianist, but coordinating all his limbs at the organ remained a challenge. He tried very hard but couldn't make it through a piece. Using distractions and verbal affirmations, I encouraged him to let go of control, to abandon all effort. Bob played through an entire movement of his Mendelssohn sonata, perfectly fluent and elegant. Reflecting on his experience, he said it was as if he was not playing the piece at all but just listening to it, drinking it in. Radical receptivity! Ars celebrandi!

Finally, after Morning Prayer on the final day of a diocesan clergy conference, a priest (who had once been a Benedictine monk) reported an epiphany: "After all these years of praying the Divine Office, something happened to me during the antiphonal chanting of the psalm-verse couplets. Somewhere in the middle of the second psalm I stopped waiting for my turn to sing and started waiting for the Word of God to be sung to me." Interior participation! Ars celebrandi!

In each of these stories, someone had an experience of an altered state in which they experienced themselves to be radically open and receptive, in some cases while doing something very difficult and complex. This capacity will be cultivated by the making of musical liturgy, following the pastoral wisdom of STL, but how might we extend this formation so that all interior participation is congruent with outward expression? The mental state described in the preceding anecdotes is described by psychologist Mihaly Csikszenmihalyi in his theory of "flow."13 Edward Hallowell applies this theory to a cyclic process by which joy is created (discovered) and sustained:

  1. Connection — a safe environment, often involving safe human relationships
  2. Play — exploration within the safety of boundaries, in which is discovered that which is virtuously pleasurable
  3. Practice — the repetition of those things that are virtuously pleasurable
  4. Mastery — the result of practice
  5. Affirmation — the sense of belonging to a larger community of those who have achieved similar mastery, a new environment of safe relationships in which the process continues and expands14

This model might be readily applied in programs of liturgical music formation as a pedagogical scaffold aimed at cultivating — and not simply describing — the ars celebrandi. The renewed vision in STL of a "Christian consistency" between outward activity and a receptive interior disposition is rife with potential to help us reconnect to the "primary and indispensable source of the Christian spirit."

Article written Fall 2020

Kevin Vogt is the director of worship and sacred arts at Saint Michael the Archangel Church, Leawood, Kansas, and a lecturer in organ and church music at the University of Kansas. He previously served cathedrals in Saint Paul and Omaha, and he holds degrees from Saint Olaf, Notre Dame, and KU.

Copyright © 2020 GIA Publications, Inc.
All rights reserved.
Reprinted by permission of copyright owner and author.


End notes:

  1. United State Conference of Catholic Bishops, Sing to the Lord: Music in Divine Worship, hereafter STL (2007).
  2. Anthony Ruff, OSB, "Sing to the Lord: Gifts and Challenges," 2 (lecture in honor of Robert W. Hovda, Thirty-second Annual Convention of the National Association of Pastoral Musicians, Chicago , Illinois, July 7, 2009). Ruff was a member of the drafting committee for Sing to the Lord.
  3. Second Vatican Council, Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy Sacrosanctum concilium, hereafter SC (December 4, 1963), 14.
  4. Sacred Congregation of Rites, instruction Musicam sacram, hereafter MS (March 5, 1967), 15.
  5. STL, 12.
  6. Pope John Paul II, quoted in STL, 12.
  7. Ibid.
  8. Ibid.
  9. Etienne Gilson, The Art of the Beautiful (Westport, Connecticut: Greenwood Press, 1965), 13.
  10. Some readers may recognize this familiar turn of phrase from the "Chorister's Prayer" used by the Royal School of Church Music (RSCM), founded on the late-Classical idea of musical correspondences and the Patristic maxim Lex orandi, lex credendi (and its extension, Lex vivendi, expressing the unity of worship, belief, and action (instrumentality).
  11. Pope John Paul II, Letter to Francis Cardinal Arinze on the occasion of the Plenary Assembly of the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments, 3.
  12. Joseph Pieper, Leisure, the Basis of Culture, trans. Alexander Dru (New York: Pantheon Bools, 1952) 71.
  13. Mihaly Csikzentmihalyi, Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience (New York: HarperCollins, 2008).
  14. Edward M. Hallowell, The Childhood Roots of Adult Happiness (New York: Ballantine Books, 2002), 61-68.
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