The National Catholic Review
Scripture in contemporary liturgical music

As Roman Catholics observe the 50th anniversary of the promulgation of the Second Vatican Council’s “Dogmatic Constitution on Divine Revelation,” it seems an appropriate time to consider ways contemporary liturgical music supports the word proclaimed and preached. Contemporary liturgical composers and lyricists have done a great service to the church by cultivating “easy access to Sacred Scripture…for all the Christian faithful” (No. 22). They have sowed the word in the hearts, minds and memories of the faithful by uniting scripturally based texts with memorable melodies.

Indeed, many composers and lyricists, hailing from a wide range of backgrounds, musical influences and theological training, have plumbed the depths of Scripture and created opportunities for hosts of parish communities to participate mindfully in the Mass through song. Combining scriptural texts and song helps worshipers relate to God, the local community, the world and all creation. Their compositional strategies include word-for-word setting, paraphrasing, stitching together thematically related parts of Scripture, meditation and personal testimony.

Each text writer brings his or her particular stance—a patterned way of understanding God, self and others—to a work. For example, when an assembly sings a contemporary hymn to begin Mass, worshipers inhabit the author’s stance toward God implicit in the text. The hymn indirectly answers questions like: Who is God? How near or distant is God? How does the piece characterize worshipers?

Composers and lyricists provide the corpus of pieces to be sung at liturgy. Those who select and perform hymns and songs help to make the prayer real for their local worshiping communities. Choosing from thousands of works, they focus liturgical prayer by applying images of God, church, Christian identity, sin, grace, Eucharist, justice, service and creation made available to them from published or unpublished music. They not only reinforce the word, feast days and liturgical seasons by their choices, they also reflect and shape the worshiping community’s self-understanding.

A review of the liturgical hymns and songs published since the year 2000 finds some common themes among contemporary liturgical composers. Here are some of them, with a sampling of lyrics.

1. These liturgical hymns and songs use Scripture to relate worshiping communities to God. Quite a few pieces have the assembly sing corporately in the first person singular. A number of categories are employed by composers to situate the worshiping community in relationship to God. The I-Thou relationship (first person to second person) is the foundational mode of expression in liturgy realized in praise and petition. Often the psalms employ the communal “we” when speaking to God. At other times, they use “I”—So my soul longs for you—to signify both the individual petitioner and the collective “we.”

We Glorify You! These compositions, often paraphrases of psalms or prophetic texts associated with specific liturgical seasons, praise God for creation and give thanks for redemption: We see your glory! All glory is yours! You made the heavens! How profound your wisdom! They urge worshipers to recount the great deeds of God through driving rhythms and uplifting melodies. Or they skillfully link thematically related passages to sustain the assembly’s recitation of the divine names: Christ, you are Shepherd, Lamb, Savior. God, you are our refuge, light, haven, shelter, defense, rock.

Guide me, O God! These pieces rely especially on the psalms. The faithful walk in personal and corporate darkness and call to God for direction. Text writers invite worshipers to relate directly to God through petition: I am weary, blind, lost, broken, bitter, in despair and grieving. Often these songs ask God to show us the way: Take away pride, fear, brokenness, pain. Teach, help, restore and shepherd me. Some lyrics assist the people to offer the whole self to God with joy: Take all I have, O God!

How long, O God! A few composers have explored the structure of social lament for expressing heart-rending cries to God: Overturn the status quo and manifest the reign of God soon! We hope in your mercy forever! Contemporary text writers mine psalms and prophetic complaints on behalf of the poor and oppressed, those who suffer injustice, as well as those who are weary, bruised and grieving. Singing together, the community pleads on behalf of all sisters and brothers: Why remain silent, O God? When will you answer? Why stand aloof? We hope in you!

Comfort me, O God! A large number of new pieces beg for comfort from God. Composers are responding to our difficult times, stress and isolation of daily life, as well as the pain of loss and dashed expectations. These pieces follow the lament structure noted above. They rely on scriptural paraphrases and personal testimony to recite litanies of grievances: I am bruised, battered, pained, suffering, weary, lonely, weak, broken, empty, afraid, despairing and alienated. They ask God for comfort: Hold me; fill my heart; touch my soul; overwhelm me with your love. This will become a significant focus in the future as more people feel the impact of an affluent society that leaves most people needy, our individualistic attitude that promotes estrangement and our intensely linked digital culture that renders users craving for meaningful connections.

Save me from the pit! Composers hit a higher pitch of desperation by turning to the psalms and prophets for images that enable those in difficult straits to cry out to God, our refuge. These pieces also use the structure of lament to call out for deliverance from the abyss while praising God directly for continued help. Assemblies acknowledge both need and trust saying, You turned my sorrow into joy. You healed my desolation. In you I have found stillness. The flood has overwhelmed me; set my feet on solid ground! I despair; fill me with hope!

Singing about God. In these songs, lyricists shift the focus to speaking about God in the third person. They draw from many sources in Scripture—the psalms, the prophets and much of the New Testament—to affirm divine fidelity, mercy and love: God probes our hearts, knows our ways, remembers our sorrows, heals the brokenhearted. The Lord filled my soul. God forgives and heals pain. God raises us up from despair. This approach relies upon a secondary effect of biblical narrative that praises God implicitly by detailing divine works of creation or saving deeds for humanity: Our God has done great things.

2. Composers use Scripture to relate members of local worshiping communities to each other and to the wider world. There are a number of patterns in compositions depicting the worshiper’s relationship to other persons, whether at the same liturgy or across the globe.

We are the body of Christ! Here, the congregation proclaims itself as the gathering where all hear one liberating word, dine on one nourishing sacrament, make communion around one table in healing peace and receive one mission to live the word in service. Here songs portray authentic Christian identity as the microcosm of a renewed humanity, one in Christ. Here, armed with a prophetic word, the faithful rebuke false divisions and conflict. Here the congregation promotes an intense focus on the presence of the reign of God realized now around one table of word and sacrament: We are the body of Christ!

The communion experienced by the worshiping community needs to be lived out daily. So critiquing divisions in the church, lyricists characterize the Christian assembly as welcoming: Come, all, whether poor, stranger, outcast, homeless, broken, scattered or oppressed! Come, old and young, just and unjust, sinner and saint, male and female, whole and frail! Jesus dining with sinners and castaways grounds the pattern for our practice today. Social critiques by the prophets as well as Luke’s story of the good Samaritan and Matthew’s parable of the sheep and goats deepen this vision.

These hymns and songs reinforce the local community’s self-understanding that “we” are doing something new, forsaking former blind ways and living out the fundamental values of the reign of God today.

Thus says the Lord! Prophetic summons relates directly to the above model as both its logical extension and foundation. These pieces gather together many sayings from the words of Jesus and the prophets to call, encourage and instruct the assembly on how our Christian discipleship needs to be lived out as an active care for justice: Feed the hungry, strengthen the weak, empower the weary, welcome the stranger, free the enslaved, give hope to the poor and liberate the oppressed. Lyrics promote a vision of the worshiping community as the place where proclamation of the word summons all to stand over and against the status quo and any form of injustice: Love one another; bear Christ to the poor and weak. Live the Gospel. Defend human dignity; transform the world! Let justice arise from the earth!

Fear not! Be encouraged! Quite a few hymn texts or song lyrics paraphrase passages from the prophets, Gospels and Pauline corpus to encourage the congregation by reminding them of God’s fidelity and mercy. Instead of addressing needs directly to God through lament, contemporary lyricists have members of the worshiping community speak to one another to mediate the compassionate word. Here the faithful take on a sacramental role, as it were, serving as channels of support and consolation in song: Come to Christ to find your rest. God will guide you for you have been called. We are the body of Christ! Lyricists work with other passages of Scripture to instruct, encourage and summon the people to live the life of Christ boldly.

Singing the words of Scripture. These pieces allow worshipers to strengthen and comfort each other by proclaiming the word of God in song: Don’t be afraid. You are my beloved. I hold you in the palm of my hand. You are precious in my eyes. I have chosen you. Composers have selected passages from the psalms, the prophets and many of Jesus’ sayings to reinforce genuine Christian identity: We are salt for the earth and lights on a mountain. We are the feet, shoulders, mouths and hands of Christ. We can shape the future! We are prophets of peace and architects of hope. We elect to serve God and neighbor. We give our hearts!

3. Liturgical composers use Scripture to relate worshiping communities to all of creation. There is a genre of song that praises God directly with a litany of the Creator’s work: The sun, moon and stars; earth, sea and the abyss. Lyricists look mainly to the psalms for images as composers set such texts in an upbeat and playful mood. However, there is a growing collection of pieces that promote responsible stewardship for creation. Lyricists enrich Scripture with notions from physicists of the new cosmology: We are all one. All created beings are kin. Ours is to receive the gift of creation and hand it on whole. At the same time, composers castigate those who exploit the earth’s resources for personal gain, rejecting responsibility for collateral damage: Repent of greedy, destructive ways. Creation groans for the birth of the children of God who will care for the earth! Lord, have mercy.

Each and every Sunday liturgy exhibits a kind of personality. Any congregation’s liturgical style exhibits a personality. What if assemblies whose self-expression is more outgoing and extroverted would add Bach, Palestrina or Gregorian chant? What if congregations of a contemplative or introverted kind would incorporate contemporary liturgical music? Why? The integration of different temperaments of music could help promote Christian maturity and possibly even unity. To put it another way, inasmuch as musical styles complement a contemplative and vertical style of liturgical prayer here or a horizontal, buoyant prayer there, might the joining of the two support Christian wholeness? It was at the Council of Nicaea that Antioch, which emphasized the humanity of Christ, came together with Alexandria, which stressed the divinity of Christ to revel in paradox—fully God and fully human! Perhaps we are on the verge of such a glorious and paradoxical union, served by liturgical music.

Robert F. O’Connor, S.J., known as Roc, a founding member of the St. Louis Jesuits singing group, has composed liturgical music for 40 years. He will become an associate pastor at the Church of the Gesu in Milwaukee, Wis., in mid-August.

Comments

Mary Beth Redmond | 5/19/2014 - 5:31pm

Yes!! I have been exposed to the breadth of liturgical music since I first started leading song in junior high - been singing about as long as Roc has been writing! Latin high mass through high school, while singing contemporary music in my parish. I was blessed to be part of the liturgical choir at the University of St. Thomas, where indeed, we would sing something in Latin in the same mass where we introduced a new piece by Michael Joncas. It seemed a no-brainer to me. We are a people of history, a community of saints, why wouldn't we carry forth and through the breadth of music we have experienced while always growing in that same experience? But we humans seem determined to divide - so many parishes I've been at have had a 'traditional' mass and 'contemporary' and never the twain should meet. I may not care for "Immaculate Mary," but I sing it with as much love as I can because somewhere in the church is a person who is carried to a special spiritual moment when he/she participates in the singing of the hymn. I also know that I carry so much more scripture in my being because I have sung it for so long and that scripture is so accessible to me in times of joy and sorrow because the words are carried on beautiful melodies that well up in me.

Larry Ehren | 5/19/2014 - 12:01pm

Having known ROC for many years, I affirm his observations. The revival of contemporary liturgical music rested on a number of principles....one of them being the use of Scripture for lyrics. Not only does his genuine enthusiasm for music and the liturgy shine through, so have many of his compositions over the years.

Omaha and Creighton University will miss him.....Milwaukee's gain. Blessings to you ROC!

Mike Evans | 5/19/2014 - 11:48am

But will new compositions survive the trend to Latinization of the liturgy? Will they be considered "formal" enough to be used in parishes? The picture of boys in cassock and surplice seems to answer any questions about involving the community as a whole in liturgical music. Welcome back to the 1950's.

Recently in The Living Word