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What is liturgy? Beauty that reveals God

In the Catholic Church we often talk about something we call “liturgy.” The question is: what is “liturgy?” Our new Director of Liturgical Music has extensively studied the liturgy and music and so will be sharing bits of her learning with the parish in several bulletin articles. I hope this can help us all to deepen our participation in the Holy Mass. -Fr. Patrick

The three criteria given by the Catholic Church for liturgical music are that it be (1) holy, (2) possess a beauty that reveals God, and (3) transcend time and space. Last time, we talked about what it means for music to be holy. This time, I’d like to talk about the second quality, beauty that reveals God.

Beauty is often thought of as a subjective standard. What is “beautiful” to one person is not necessarily “beautiful” to another. My first goal is to define beauty in a more objective sense. Beauty is the attractive power of truth. In order for something to be “beautiful” in an objective sense, it must be able to effectively reveal the truth. For liturgical music to be “beautiful”, it should reveal the nature of what is taking place in the liturgy, whether that is Mass, a sacramental celebration, the Liturgy of the Hours, or another form of liturgy. For practical purposes, I’m going to focus on music within the context of the liturgical celebration of Mass.

The Catechism of the Catholic Church elaborates on the quality of beauty by saying that liturgical music should possess “beauty expressive of prayer.” (CCC 1157) Beauty is the attractive power of truth, and liturgical language is essential to effectively revealing that truth. Since salvation hinges on the spoken word and sacred song is “closely bound to the text”, it is important that the spoken, or in this case, sung, words of the liturgy symbolize the heavenly realities effectively. (Sacrosanctum Concilium 112) Thus, our liturgical music should be very selective in its texts. Further, it is important to have music that is of its very nature expressive of prayer. Because Gregorian chant is “distinctive of the Roman liturgy”, it is therefore inseparably united to prayer. (SC 116) This is not to say that we can or even should only sing chant in Mass. Rather, that musicians must choose music that, like chant, effectively expresses the realities of the earthly liturgy in a way that draws our minds and hearts to that perfect heavenly liturgy.

Until next time, keep on singing!

~ Susan DeMarco, Director of Liturgical Music