The Power of Beautiful Sacred Music

Just digging up an old post from my personal site, from my pilgrimage to DC for the 2013 March for Life. Enjoy!

The mosaic behind St. Cecilia’s altar in the crypt church
at the National Shrine, with a beautiful antiphon from
lauds on her feast day: Whilst musicians made music,
Cecilia sang unto the Lord, saying: O let my heart be
sound in thy statutes, that I be not ashamed.

As I mentioned in my previous post, assisting at Mass at the National Shrine was amazing, not only because of the beauty of the church we were privileged to worship in, but also the music. I will say without reservation that the shrine’s professional choir is the best choir I have ever heard. But on an even more important note, they are not only singing plain old standard music well, they sing sacred music well.

As I walked into the church on Saturday afternoon, the choir and congregation were singing Kyrie VIII, which a friend and I instantly and happily joined in on. After they finished the kyrie gracefully, the cantor intoned Gloria VIII and the massive organ filled the church as the congregation began: “et in terra pax homínibus.” I was intensely joyful, only having heard the gloria in Latin one other time in the Ordinary Form, and marveling at the grand sound of the massive organ filling the beautiful shrine with the praises of God.

Glória in excélsis Deo et in terra pax homínibus bonae voluntátis.

But as they reached “Laudamus te,” the organ fell silent, and I realized they were singing the Gloria in alternatim, as they often do at Papal Masses, and some larger churches on important feasts, and the choir broke out into fantastic polyphony. That’s when I just about lost it.

I went weak in the knees. My jaw literally hung open. I felt chills straight up my spine as I mouthed along with the prayers the schola was singing in such a sublime manner. The beauty of the church, combined with the stunning beauty of the music, had quite literally sucked me into the liturgy unfolding before me. It was almost a form of ecstasy.

Did I stay for the rest of Mass? You betcha. And the music was just as good throughout the rest of the Mass as well, as they sang the propers, Victoria motets, and fantastic organ interludes. It was one of the most prayerful Masses I had ever been to.

That’s what sacred music needs to do. I felt physically weak, and had a deep feeling of peace and joy after hearing what I will call one of the most beautiful pieces of music I have ever heard.

Imagine if I had been an atheist walking off the street, not sure of the direction of my life, not appreciating the beauty in life, and that music had that same effect on me, causing me to stay, and come the truth, and be baptized the following Easter. Somehow I doubt that guy screeching away “Here I am Lord” on a guitar would have the same effect on me.

Our liturgies should be filled with the good, the true and the beautiful, but we need to focus especially on the aspect of beauty. We can reach the people through beauty. Sometimes it’s the only way. When people have their minds closed to the truth, sometimes the only way to reach them is through their emotions and their heart, as I was reached last Saturday.

Pastors, hire sacred musicians who know their stuff, and pay them well. Music directors, know your stuff, and do it well. When done well, you will affect more souls than you will ever know.

And while you’re at it, send a donation to the CMAA.

Here’s a recording of the gloria (and some other music from the Mass, starting at about 0:48), so you can hear what I heard. The recording isn’t the best, but at least you can hear what I’m talking about. It begins with the congregational verse of the gloria, and then when the organ stops (on Jesu Christe), the polyphony verse (Domine Deus…). Keep in mind the sound of both the choir and the organ are filling the entire church the whole time. After the gloria, it contains part of the responsorial psalm, offertory motet, and organ improvisation after that.