A colleague in her sixties shared the story of being a young girl and being told by her music teacher to simply “mouth the words.” Scarred by the experience, the woman still hesitates to sing today. Many of us can relate to that experience. Judging by the thousands of contestants who try out for American Idol each year, most of us are not blessed with stellar singing voices. While young children are likely to sing with joy and abandon regardless of what they sound like, teens and adults are much more likely to limit their musical expression to the shower, singing “Happy Birthday” in a large group, or accompanying the radio in the car if driving alone.
An exception to this unspoken rule of “no singing allowed” should be in Church. God gave us our voices and we should be willing to offer them up to God in liturgical song as a means of prayer. According to the Catechism of the Catholic Church, “song and music fulfill their function as signs in a manner all the more significant when they are ‘more closely connected . . . with the liturgical action,’ according to three principal criteria: beauty expressive of prayer, the unanimous participation of the assembly at the designated moments, and the solemn character of the celebration.” (CCC 1157) “Unanimous participation” – that means all of us.
I sometimes feel badly for the music ministers. Our parish is blessed with several wonderful singers and musicians, both paid and volunteer, who lead the congregation in song. They have beautiful voices and are a pleasure to listen to, but if they judge their success by how many people sing along, they are bound to be discouraged. Our job, as part of the congregation, is not to listen to them, but to join along. No one sounds bad in Church, especially if everyone is singing. There is something supremely beautiful about all those voices raised in song and prayer. Young and old, rich and poor, black and white, our voices all come together in joyful praise.
Part of the intent of the liturgical reforms of Vatican II was to get the congregation more involved in the liturgy. Mass is not meant to be a spectator sport. Yes, it still counts if one attends mass but doesn’t speak the prayers aloud or engage in song. Somehow, though, it seems a little like attending a banquet with your closest friends and not engaging in any conversation.
I do understand the reticence. Many of us have had humiliating experiences of singing badly in public. Like my colleague, we may have been told flat out to stop singing, that we can’t sing and shouldn’t torture other people by our efforts. Church is different, though. We are there to worship God, not to worry about the opinion of our neighbor. God wants to hear our voices lifted in song. Can’t sing? Sing anyway. Be part of the wonderful gift of liturgical song.