Finding common ground, even when it comes to a universal language like music, is a challenge. Just ask any family on a road trip what music they prefer and they will likely offer varied and diverse opinions. Opinions are also varied and diverse when it comes to liturgical music. Some prefer more traditional music, while others like more contemporary songs.
Contrasting preferences among congregations, coupled with hundreds of thousands of songs from which to choose for any given liturgy can make planning the music incredibly complicated. That’s why in most parishes, each Mass has its own particular musical style, and that’s also why many have argued for a common diocesan and national repertoire. But, are either of these strategies the best approach? Do they ultimately meet the criteria to support the liturgy in its aim to unify the People of God?
The U.S. Bishops document on music in the liturgy, Sing to the Lord, tells us that choosing music for Mass is a balance between three criteria: liturgical, pastoral, and musical. The liturgical judgement assures a connection between the readings and the prayers of the liturgy with the texts of the songs. The liturgical judgement also affirms that the texts of the music are theologically sound in that they express what we believe. The pastoral judgment takes into consideration the assembly. This judgment encourages music that is singable and that helps the people to pray. The musical judgement underscores the integrity and the quality of the music itself.
But Sing to the Lord doesn’t stop there. When speaking about music in Catholic schools, it says schools “are to cultivate the repertoire of sacred music inherited from the past, to engage the creative efforts of contemporary composers and the diverse repertoires of various cultures.” It also says, “Liturgical music today must reflect the multicultural diversity and intercultural relationships of the members of the gathered liturgical assembly.”
These statements call us to look beyond our own individual preferences in order to satisfy the common good. As Sing to the Lord asserts, “Charity, justice, and evangelization are thus the normal consequences of liturgical celebration.” If we can practice charity, justice and evangelization within the liturgy, then we can live it outside in the world. Then and only then will we have a song worth being sung.