Why the Church Needs Music Education

By McMahon, J. Michael | Pastoral Music, April 2009 | Go to article overview

Why the Church Needs Music Education

McMahon, J. Michael, Pastoral Music

One of the enduring liturgical legacies of the Second Vatican Council will surely be its emphasis on participation. The Council was unambiguous in its assertion that in "the restoration and promotion of the sacred liturgy, this full and active participation by all the people is the aim to be considered before all else."1 The very nature of the liturgy as a communal action demands the participation of the faithful. It is both a right and duty that flows from sacramental incorporation into Christ's Body at baptism.2

In enumerating some of the ways that the faithful take an active part in the liturgy, the Council gives pride of place to singing: "To promote active participation, the people should be encouraged to take part by means of acclamations, responses, psalmody, antiphons, and songs, as well as by actions, gestures, and bodily attitudes. And at the proper times all should observe a reverent silence."3 Of the nine modes of participation listed by the Council, the first five involve singing!

Since the promulgation of the Council's Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy Sacrosanctum Concilium, official liturgical documents have placed increasing emphasis on the critical role of singing in the liturgy. The most recent edition of the General Instruction of the Roman Missal, for example, devotes a complete section to "The Importance of Singing,"4 considering it first - along with movement, posture, and silence - as ways in which the entire assembly takes an active part in liturgical celebrations. The bishops of the United States likewise recognize the importance of sung participation in their most recent guidelines on music in the liturgy, Sing to the Lord: Music in Divine Worship. The bishops direct that "music should be considered a normal and ordinary part of the Church's liturgical life."5

A Primary Language

The Church's teaching and guidance on the singing role of the worshiping assembly and on the musical character of the liturgy itself strongly suggest that music is a primary language of Christian worship. In order to fulfill the Church's call to take an active part in the liturgy through singing, both members of the congregation and their ministers need to develop the skills used for singing the liturgy. The acquisition of these skills involves more than learning songs and responses. Preparing people for active participation includes developing an appreciation of music and musical art, learning the fundamentals of musical language, fostering a sense of joy in singing, and nurturing the practice of singing with others on a regular basis.

Because active participation in worship is at the heart of the Christian life and because music is a primary language of the liturgy, music education is an essential element in Christian formation. An integral part of faith formation surely needs to include the experience of singing together and basic training in the musical notation used for communal singing. Music education ought to be considered an essential part of catechesis. Musical formation of Christians equips them to embrace that participation in the liturgy that is their right and duty.

Formation for liturgical participation must also include exposure to the richness of musical art. Pope Benedict XVI has written: "Beauty, then, is not mere decoration, but rather an essential element of the liturgical action, since it is an attribute of God himself and his revelation."6 Education in the arts prepares men and women to experience the beauty of music, art, and architecture as a glimpse of God's presence and action in our midst.

The Formation of a Community

Like other elements of faith formation, music education is a life-long enterprise. Ideally it begins in families and social settings where singing, music, and art are valued and where children are encouraged to sing in choirs, learn to play instruments, and participate in other arts-oriented activities.

The U.S. bishops devote a section of Sing to the Lord to the role of Catholic schools and other educational institutions in promoting participation in liturgical music. Not only must these institutions form students in the songs of the liturgy but they should also "foster the joy of singing and making music."7 They should draw on musical treasures from the past, from contemporary musical expressions, and from the rich cultural diversity of the Church.8 Sadly, when faced with budget problems, Catholic schools have sometimes followed the practice of public school systems in regarding music and the arts as dispensable, failing to recognize that these are integral elements of faith formation. Most Catholic children in the United States do not attend Catholic schools, and so programs of faith formation need to assist in forming young people for sung worship.

The musical formation of priests and deacons is a particularly important element in the continuing renewal of the liturgy. Sing to the Lord follows other liturgy documents since Vatican II in emphasizing the importance of the sung dialogues between priest and people and in encouraging priests to sing their own particular parts of the liturgy. In order for ordained ministers to sing their parts with confidence, they need practical, hands-on training as part of their seminary formation. The official guidelines for formation of priests and deacons in the United States, however, offer disappointingly little support for solid training in this area. This lack reveals an unfortunate gap between the actual skills needed for liturgical ministry and the musical formation that is provided in many - if not most - seminaries and deacon formation programs.

People Make It Happen

Pastors, directors of music ministries, and other pastoral music leaders have an important role to play in the continuing musical formation of the liturgical assembly. A starting point for this formation is to recognize that singing and music are ordinary elements of liturgical celebration - at all Sunday and holy day Masses, of course, but also at other sacramental celebrations and, even to a limited degree, at weekday Masses.

Providing musical notation for the songs of the liturgy is an important building block in the continuing formation of the assembly for its musical participation. It is a sign of respect for those who read music, and it can assist those with limited reading ability to grow in their familiarity with musical language.

Music leaders also foster the musical formation of the assembly in their choice of repertoire, gradually building familiarity with music to accompany the actions and texts of the liturgy and drawing on treasures new and old to draw the assembly into the mysteries celebrated in the liturgy. In Sing to the Lord, the bishops encourage music leaders to take the limitations of the assembly into account but caution against underestimating their ability to learn.9 At times it may be helpful for the cantor or director to take a few minutes before the liturgy to prepare people for their musical participation. Yet good leaders can provide most musical formation without ever speaking a word - by skillful use of the organ and other instruments, by the clear and confident singing of the cantor, and by obvious musical cues.

A Life-Long Enterprise

Music education, like other aspects of faith formation, is a life-long activity that requires the leadership and support of families, pastoral leaders, and church institutions. Like those other aspects, music education's aim is the formation of a community of praise, prayer, witness, and service: "Christ, whose praises we have sung, remains with us and leads us through church doors to the whole world, with its joys and hopes, griefs and anxieties."10


1. Second Vatican Council, Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy Sacrosanctum Concilium, 14. Official English translation online at http://www.vatican.va/archive/hist_councils/ii_vatican_council/documents/vatii_const_19631204_sacrosanctum-conciliurn_en.html.

2. See ibid.

3. Ibid., 30.

4. General Instruction of the Roman Missal (2002), 39-41. Online at http://www.usccb.org/liturgy/current/revmissalisromanien.shtml.

5. U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, Sing to the Lord: Music in Divine Worship (STL), 110. Online at http://www.usccb.org/liturgy/SingToTheLord.pdf.

6. Benedict XVI, Post-synodal Apostolic Exhortation Sacramentum Caritatis (February 22, 2007), 35. Official English translation online at http://www.vatican.va/holy_father/benedict_xvi/apost_exhortations/documents/hf_ben-xvi_exh_20070222_sacramentum-caritatis_en.html.

7. STL, 54.

8. See ibid.

9. Ibid., 132.

10. STL, 8. See Second Vatican Council, Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World Gaudium et Spes, 1. Official English translation online at http://www.vatican.va/archive/hist_councils/ ii_vatican_council/documents/vat-ii_const_19651207_gaudium-etspes_en.html.

[Author Affiliation]

Dr. J. Michael McMahon is the president of the National Association of Pastoral Musicians.

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