LITURGY CORNER By Rory Cooney
“People in love sing songs of love.”
That is how Music in Catholic Worship (MCW), the 1978 US Bishops’ document on sacred music, talks about the theology of celebration. I think it’s something we can all relate to, in one way or another. The experience of love somehow changes our perception of the whole world, of all of our experiences. We might not start singing spontaneously as we skip down the street, like a character in a musical, but we live in a more musical world. We experience love through the music we hear on the radio or play on our devices; we create and listen to playlists that express and heighten our experi- ence of love. We are taken, maybe, in the way that Mia and Sebastian are taken in the unforgettable scenes from La La Land, to dance in the air in a planetarium, surrounded by planets and stars. Love does that to us, and music helps us express what’s going on inside.
When I was a child, if I had been asked (and I probably was asked) to say how to behave in church, especially at Communion time, I would probably have parroted what I was told by my parents, teachers, priests and sisters: BE QUIET! We were taught that Communion was a Jesus-and-me moment, and nothing else was worthy of our attention. But the renewal of the Mass in the 1960s began to refocus our ideas about what it meant that Jesus was among us and really present. We began to see that, in the Eucharist, Christ was present, certainly in the consecrated bread and wine but also in the ministry of the ordained, in the proclamation of the word of God, and in the very presence of other people, of the baptized body of Christ, at worship with us. We began, slowly, it appears, to recover the sense of the Body of Christ, not as an object but as a subject as the living presence of Christ, head and members, full of the Holy Spirit, offering the world in worship of the Father.
Music in Catholic Worship went on to describe the role of the Communion song in the celebration of the Mass: “The communion song should foster a sense of unity. It should be simple and not demand great effort. It gives expression to the joy of unity in the body of Christ and the fulfillment of the mystery being celebrated.” Communion, a word which suggests the unity Christ intended among us by calling us to sit down at table together and remember him, is thus fostered, not just by the procession to partake of the
Eucharistic food, but by joining together in singing about the unity and peace that are God’s gift to us in Christ. Think about the words we most often sing as we come to take Communion: “One bread, one body, one Lord of all,” “May we be one,” “What is this love spread before us …? Let us gather at God’s table,” “One in heart, one in hope, one in hunger,” “I (myself) am the bread of life,” “I say yes, my Lord, to every word you speak.” Even when we say “I” at Communion, we say it as a communion of several hundred present and in union with the whole church. Our “I” is a ritual “I” – it is the “I” that is Christ, head and members.
Because they emphasize adoration rather than communion, most benediction hymns are not suitable. In general, during the most important seasons of the Church year-Easter, Lent, Christmas, and Advent-it is preferable that most songs used at Communion be seasonal in nature. For the remainder of the Church year, however, topical songs may be used during the Communion procession, provided these texts do not conflict with the paschal character of every Sunday.”(33)
MCW goes out of its way to say that we sing songs of unity at Communion. That is proper behavior at the Eucharist, not silence! And even when we might sing other songs, for instance, seasonal songs at Advent and Christmas, Lent and Easter, it is singing themtogether that is important. The act of singing itself is an act of communion, of “making unity with” our sisters and brothers. It’s practice for the real world, where we need to learn to go out of our way to do for others as we would have them do for us. It’s not always our first choice, or easy, or in our wheelhouse to sing. But it’s the right thing to do, so we do it.
As we continue to reflect on the Eucharist through the end of August on these Bread of Life Sundays, why not make an extra effort to take part in the singing, especially the Communion song? Even if “faith does not permeate our feelings,” says MCW, singing “can give bodily expression to faith as we celebrate … We become one with others whose faith is similarly expressed. We rise above our own feelings to respond to God in prayer.” That’s how it is when people are in love. Sometimes, you just go through the motions until feelings catch up. Practice, they say, makes perfect!