I love that the liturgy is made up of both the ancient and the modern. Old, steadfast laws and traditions meet the new and ever-changing culture and yield the beautiful, living Church. At each Catholic Mass, the nave is filled with evidence of what happens when young and old collide.
Fresh Easter lilies pose proudly near the antique Presider’s chair, the newborn is held by her grandmother, the altar server presents the Sacramentary for the bishop, and for Life Teen parishes, the drum set tries hard to make friends with the pipe organ. All of these things hold an important place in making the liturgy sacred. The constant challenge for those of us in musical service to the liturgy is to present the rituals, hymns, and songs of Mother Church in a way that speaks to the average parishioner.
I’m relatively certain my tombstone will read, “Here lies Josh. He picked songs.” It seems like it’s all I do. Having said that, such attention to song selection can really speak to the assembly on Sundays when they realize that the readings, homily, and music all stemmed from the same theme. For each Mass, I try to choose one brand new song (two at the most) and several familiar songs. Brand new songs are important, but too much all at once will leave the assembly voiceless. Often I find myself playing contemporary songs that I’ve played countless times but the congregation sings with such passion that I know I’ll probably end up doing it again.
However, the real blessing comes from reviving a song like “All Creatures of our God and King” or “Hail Holy Queen.” A simple refrain like “Lord of life, light of day/ Heaven and earth sing joyful praise” makes a great addition to “Joyful, Joyful, we Adore You” and gives the assembly a repetitive, learnable phrase to sing. Many times we write off a song as one that can only be done on an organ or by a choir when really, with a little rearranging, it can be a powerful contemporary song because of the familiarity. Chris Tomlin’s “Amazing Grace/My Chains are Gone” is a great example. By deciding to freshen up an old hymn, we’re drawing the traditional into the modern while at the same time offering the ability to sing from our hearts because the melody is so perceptible. In the same way, using chant or Latin text is a great way to bring the history of the Church into the Mass. (As a note, you might ask your pastor for correct pronunciations. A few of our parishioners are still confused about who Miss Ray Ray Nobis is and why we sing about her.)
Over the course of two thousand years, the Church has left a trail of chants, hymns, and anthems at our disposal. We return the blessing by continuing the tradition and offering our own interpretation of these and trust that Christ continues to make all things new.