Sing to the Lord: Music in Divine Worship (STL) (2007) is the
United States Catholic Conference of Bishops' most recent statement
on music sung in Catholic liturgy in the United States. It
supersedes Music in Catholic Worship (1972) and its supplement,
Liturgical Music Today (1982). The document builds on previous
statements issued on many levels, including conciliar documents
and curial instructions.
When a new Church document is first released, the typical
focus is often on changes in the rubrics. In other words, we look
to see what has changed regarding what or when some ritual
action (in this case singing) is performed or who performs it.
Questions regarding why a change is made do not usually delve
much below the surface. Rather, concern usually focuses on
whether there is a change in what is considered "liturgically correct."
To get to deeper levels of understanding "why," one needs
to move into the realm of theology.
In the case of Sing to the Lord, the theology is both traditional
and radical. It is traditional because it embodies the
ancient faith of the Church in new circumstances of time and
place. It is radical because its directives take their inspiration
from the most fundamental principles of that faith. These theological
principles resonate with what we, as Catholics, already
believe about creation, Jesus Christ, human nature, sacraments
(especially Baptism), God, and the Church. This is not to say
that the document is a theological tome. Rather, its theology is
like a gentle but steady undercurrent from which its assertions
and directives flow. Much of it is implicit rather than explicit.
Nevertheless, its presence is important to acknowledge for many
reasons, not the least of which is to answer the question of "why."
The very first article of STL is a profound statement about how
song fits into our relationship with God. It states:
||God bestowed upon his people the gift of song. God dwells
within each human person, in the place where music takes
its source. Indeed, God, the giver of song, is present whenever
his people sing his praises.
This statement focuses on the mystery of creation and God's presence
within it. God as Creator is the source of both our song and our
human bodies. In addition, this same creative God is present in
a particular way when our bodies serve as instruments of his
praise. Genesis 1:31 tells us that God looked upon all that he created
and declared it very good. This includes all of material creation,
including our human bodies with their natural gifts for
Thus, our faith affirms that all of God's creation is very
good. It also tells us that this loving Creator chose to reveal Godself
to us by taking on human flesh in history. The theological
term for this is the Incarnation. Christians believe that the Word
of God, the Second Person of the Trinity, became human in
order to show us the Father, to reveal to us who God is. He did
this through the bodiliness of Jesus who took on human flesh in
a particular culture, speaking a particular language, in a particular
time in history. One way in which theologians speak
about the Incarnation is to describe Jesus Christ as primordial
sacrament. Because of this, the material world of every time and
place has the potential to mediate the holy. This is especially the
case with our human bodiliness. In other words, if we believe
that God chose the material world and the human body as the
way to communicate with us, then this is the case, not only during
the historical life of Jesus, but throughout the history of
humankind. This belief in the goodness of creation and in the
revelation of God through the humanity of Jesus Christ is the
basis of our belief in the sacraments and sacramental rites.
The Church's radical belief in sacramental rituals flows out of its
belief in the sacramentality of creation and in the Incarnation.
This is the basis of the notion of sacramentality. Those who live
life from the perspective of a sacramental imagination have their
eyes and ears attuned to God's invitation to enter into a transforming
relationship. Such a life stance requires an openness to
being surprised by the presence of God in the mundane, in the
everydayness of human existence. Having a sacramental imagination
enables us to view the world as the place where God
reveals God-self to us and where we respond to that revelation
(Kubicki, Presence of Christ, p. 16). The theologian Louis-Marie
Chauvet insists that we do not simply have a human body, but
are human body (Symbol and Sacrament, p. 149). Because of this,
the only way we can experience both God's action and our
response is through activities that are profoundly temporal and
spatial (Osborne, Christian Sacraments, pp. 70 –72). So we need
rituals or sacramental celebrations that are embedded in a particular
time and place, culture, and people. And we need our
bodies in order to celebrate these sacraments and experience
them as meaningful.
The bishops articulate this clearly when they say, "In
Liturgy, we use words, gestures, signs, and symbols to proclaim
Christ's presence and to reply with our worship and praise" (6).
We need bodies to do this. Furthermore, they point out, music
"mediates our relationship with God and spiritual realities, especially
love (2). Music can do this because it truly is one of the
symbols of the liturgy. Furthermore, music is part of that material
world created by God (1). The only way music can exist is
within a particular cultural context. That is why Sing to the Lord
expresses an openness to the potential use of music of all cultures
in the liturgy. STL, 81, asserts that "In every age, the Church
has called upon creative artists to give new voice to praise and
prayer." Thus, while the Church acknowledges its treasury of
sacred music, it welcomes a variety of expressions (81). The
Church does so because it believes that every culture can and
must mediate the action of God in our lives and our response to
that action. It is true that the document encourages the fostering
of Latin and Gregorian chant, especially at international gatherings
(61–62). However, it does not designate these as the best or
only choice for every time and place. Rather, every age, every
culture, every place, has the potential to serve as a means for
worshipping God and receiving grace. This is clearly expressed
in the section on diverse cultures and languages. In this section,
the acknowledgment of the rich heritage of Western European
tradition is followed by the exhortation also to acknowledge
the rich cultural and ethnic heritage of a culturally pluralistic
America (57). This openness to the cultural diversity of the
Church in the United States is not simply an expression of hospitality
or good manners. Rather, it is the authentic response of
a sacramental Church that believes that this is the way God has
chosen to enter into a loving relationship with all humankind.
Throughout Sing to the Lord are many references to the gathered
assembly. The first of these highlights the action of gathering
week by week (5). But the invitation of Christ is not simply to
gather, but to participate in the sacred mysteries (23), a point
reiterated many times in the document. Indeed, since the promulgation
of the Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy at the Second
Vatican Council, the full, conscious, and active participation by
all the people has been identified as "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"
(CSL, 14). Naturally, there must be an internal dimension to this
participation that is signaled and promoted by an external
demeanor. Both are necessary so that, as the gathered assembly,
we might enter into song in a way that enables us to rise above
our self-preoccupation and give ourselves over to participating
in Christ's Paschal Mystery (12 –14). This connection between
exterior and interior again highlights the sacramental nature of
the singing to which Christ invites us (13, 14).
But there is another important dimension to the role of
the assembly as primary music-maker in its very designation as
"gathered." Both the General Instruction of the Roman Missal(2002) and the Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy emphasize
that the assembly gathers in order to form one body. Sing to the
Lord echoes this emphasis on unity (see 25, 27, 67, 72, 73, 142,
189, 191, 192). Such repetition of an idea signals that deep theological
principles are at work in this insistent call to unity. These
principles include an understanding of the gathered assembly as
an instance of the presence of Christ and an understanding of
the assembly as participating in the life and love of the Trinity.
The Gospel according to Matthew (18: 20) records Christ
promising his disciples that "Where two or three come together
in my name, there am I in their midst." At the Last Supper Jesus
prayed "May they all be one. Father, may they be one in us, as
you are in me and I am in you, so that the world may believe it
was you who sent me" (John 17:21). These scripture passages
root the Church's conviction that unity is both a sign of the presence
of Christ and an imitation of the life of the Triune God. For
when we gather, or more precisely, when, by the power of the
Spirit we are gathered, Christ is present in the Church in order to
incorporate us more fully into his Paschal Mystery (Kubicki, 38).
The more fully we become incorporated into that mystery, the
more fully we, as gathered assembly, become the one body of
Christ. This is what it means to be Church.
Singing the liturgy, therefore, plays a critical role as a unifying
activity. This happens when song selections are made with
the makeup of the assembly in mind. It is promoted when music
leadership understands its role as service to the assembly's song.
It also occurs when the assembly participates wholeheartedly to
the invitation to sing its prayer. When such dynamics exist, singing
assists not only in uniting the assembly in the worship of
God, but also in giving it a tangible experience of being one.
This unity, however, does not eliminate the need for diverse
musical expression. In fact, it presupposes it. As STL, 30, explains,
both the treasury of sacred music and the music of various cultures
are welcomed. This diversity of musical expression requires
that the assembly learns to respect and to enter into styles and
genres of music that may be unfamiliar. Doing so may involve
letting go of personal preferences and reaching out in hospitality
to an increasingly diverse local community. This is part of what
is meant by the transformative effect of communal music-making.
STL, 10, sums it up well when it quotes Saint Paul: "We,
though many, are one body in Christ and individually parts of
one another" (Romans 12:5–6).
In addition to the transformation or holiness of the assembly,
there is also the question of the holiness of the music. In the
1963 Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy (112), the Council
Fathers explain: "Therefore sacred music is to be considered the
more holy, the more closely connected it is with the liturgical
action, whether making prayer more pleasing, promoting unity
of minds, or conferring greater solemnity upon the sacred rites."
The 1972 Music in Catholic Worship develops this idea further
when it connects the notion of sacred music as symbolic and integral
by saying: "Among the many signs and symbols used by the
church to celebrate its faith, music is of preeminent importance.
As sacred song united to words, it forms a necessary or integral
part of the solemn liturgy" (MCW, 23). The Constitution ties the
holiness of music to its connection with the ritual action. Music
in Catholic Worship ties the holiness of music to its connection
with texts. Sing to the Lord asserts something even more
profound. It says that "Sacred music is holy when it mediates the
holiness of God and forms the Holy People of God more fully
into communion with each other in Christ" (69). The focus here
is on the transformation of the assembly into Christ and the
mediation of relationships within the community and the community
with God. This kind of theological thinking reflects the
theology of Louis-Marie Chauvet. He speaks of symbolizing
activity as mediating identity and relationships. The liturgy and
its music-making are symbolizing activity. This articulation of
the role of music reaffirms previous claims that music is integral
to worship and that it has the potential to promote the ongoing
conversion and transformation of the assembly into the one
body of Christ. This is what makes music liturgical or sacred.
This is why liturgical music-making is an awesome task.
In speaking of the Liturgy of the Hours, STL, 230, describes
the role of daily prayer as "sanctifying time." This traditional
language has been used in such documents as the Constitution
on the Sacred Liturgy, the General Instruction of the Liturgy of the
Hours and Laudis Canticum. However, if we take seriously the
creation narrative in Genesis, we might argue that God sanctifies
time, not human beings. What we can do is consecrate time
by dedicating it to the praise and worship of God. This word also
appears in Church documents and may be more theologically
precise. If we use the word "sanctifying," we are acknowledging
that time, as part of fallen creation, is in need of redemption. If
we use the word "consecrating," we are acknowledging that time
is a gift of our Creator God who made all things very good. By
setting aside time to worship, we are consecrating it to the praise
of God and our transformation into Christ.
Time is a dimension, not only of the Liturgy of the Hours, but
also of the Eucharist. We observe the periodicity of time when
we gather at regular intervals, whether weekly or daily. The
Christian impulse to gather on the Lord's Day is our response
to an invitation that God extends to each of us through our
Baptism. Baptism plunges us into the Paschal Mystery and
enables us to respond to God's self gift through our self gift.
Because we are baptized, we are "authorized" to do Eucharist,
that is, to respond to Christ's mandate to "do this in memory of
me." It is ultimately Baptism, therefore, that gathers us into the
one body of Christ and enables us to participate in the life of the
Trinity through our life in the Church.
All ministry in the Church, including music ministry, is
rooted in Baptism. Its context is grace. Understanding it this
way signals a return to the New Testament notion of diakonia(service). This notion of service or ministry is grounded in the
community and is performed for the sake of building up the
kingdom of God. It applies to all aspects of music ministry,
including that of cantor, psalmist, choir, instrumentalist, director
of music ministries, organist, singing presider or deacon, and
the singing assembly. Nevertheless, despite this differentiation
of roles, all liturgical ministers belong first to the assembly.
Called forth from the assembly, music ministers are invited to
offer their gifts at the service of the community's prayer, not to
flaunt personal talent.
Much food for theological reflection is in Sing to the Lord. It
offers all those involved in liturgy, but particularly those
involved in music ministries, the opportunity to ponder more
deeply the faith dimension of their vocation. It also provides an
opportunity to reflect more deeply on the meaning of our musicmaking
within the context of liturgy. Possibilities for such
ref lection include focusing on the mystery of creation,
Incarnation, redemption, sacramentality, and ministry. Most
especially it includes our participation in living out, through our
music-making, the Paschal Mystery of Jesus Christ!
1. Have you ever had a tangible experience of the bodiliness of
singing the liturgy as a means of communing with God? In what
way did the music enable this experience?
2. What specific guidance does Sing to the Lord offer you for
enabling the assembly to see itself as the body of Christ through
3. How can our weekly and yearly musical planning enhance the
assembly's experience of unity?
4. What one new approach to music ministry can you
implement now to heighten both the assembly's and your
awareness of the sacramentality of music-making?
5. Will knowing the theology behind the directives in Sing to the
Lord make a difference in the way you approach your liturgical
6. Which point(s) made in this essay do you believe is (are) most
important to share with your local assembly? Why?
7. Do you see your life and ministry as a participation in
the Paschal Mystery of Christ? What does that mean in