The importance of music and the role of pastoral musicians can never be separated from the liturgy. This is true no matter what the circumstances are. I am a military chaplain who came to the Army after twenty-five years experience in various ministries in the Diocese of Providence, Rhode Island. Over the course of those years in the diocese, I had experience with good music programs and terrible music programs. The difference that good music and strong congregational singing make in a parish is undeniable.
The same is true in the military. Deployments in war zones, Middle Eastern countries, Kosovo, and at Guantanamo in Cuba all have given me a renewed appreciation of the importance of music ministries. I have been in Iraq, Saudi Arabia (twice), Egypt, and Kuwait for considerable lengths of time. Here are some accounts of the difference that music and music ministers made-and continue to make-in military communities in those countries.
"Will You Help Me to Welcome My God?"
In Iraq, "Bob," a young Indian man, organized a music ministry at Camp Speicher that made for an unforgettable Christmas Eve Mass. The man worked in a dining facility. He was at the first Mass I celebrated at the airfield. Afterwards, he asked: "Don't they sing at Mass in the United States?" I said: "Yes, but you have to have someone to lead the music." The next time I arrived for Mass, he was in the makeshift chapel, passing out printed sheets with very simple hymns that perfectly fit the liturgy of the day, and he started leading the music. This happened whenever we were able to celebrate Mass there. On Christmas Eve night, when I arrived for Mass, there were twenty-five musicians, twenty-five choir members, and 300 people in the congregation. I saw Bob and asked him: "What's going on?" He answered: "To celebrate Christmas it has to be festive, so I asked all of those who worked with me to join in singing and playing their instruments. Only a few are Christian. Then I went and asked every soldier who possibly could to come to the Mass." Besides the instrumentalists, he recruited the choir members. They had been rehearsing from midnight to 0200 for a month. After that experience our Mass attendance quadrupled, and all because of one volunteer music minister who was willing to ask: "Will you help me to welcome my God?"
In the Land of the Prophet
In Saudi Arabia, Catholic priests are only allowed to celebrate Mass for military personnel on the military bases and at embassies. Many Saudi government and military officials are open to allowing faiths other than Islam to worship, but the reality of the religious police and the fundamentalist orientation of many people do not allow them to suggest this openly.
Still, I had many opportunities to offer the Eucharist for third country nationals who otherwise would not be able to get to the sacraments for more than a year. The Christian community, Catholic and Protestant, always made sure that there was a choir where Mass was being offered; it was always made up of people of different faiths. When a priest or minister was not available, Christians would meet at various homes on Friday for an afternoon of prayer and fellowship, and the location would move every week to a different compound.
At the American Embassy, the Catholic service followed the Protestant service. While one group was celebrating their liturgy, the other group would be doing religious education. What was truly amazing in that setting was the former military who were playing major roles in religious education and in the Catholic Eucharist - people whom I almost never saw in those roles when they were in the States. Sometimes I asked them what made them get so involved in Saudi Arabia, and they would almost always reply: "There was nobody else."
There was a choir at every Mass at which I presided at any embassy. There was an ambassador from some country present every time I offered an "illegal" Mass at a restaurant or a compound. …