St. Jude Catholic Parish - South Bend, Indiana

In the bulletin a couple weeks ago, I tried to tackle the question, “Why do we sing as Christians?” I answered that question in two ways: by explaining that God asks us to sing and designed us to sing. Today, we’ll look at the role of song in the history of the Church.

First of all, we inherited singing as a way to worship from our Jewish brothers and sisters. According to popular tradition, King David wrote the Psalms and established music as a form of worship. Early Christians continued the tradition of singing the Psalms at weekly worship. In the first century, Paul encouraged the Christians of Ephesus, “Be filled with the Spirit, as you sing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs among yourselves, singing and making melody to the Lord in your hearts.” The ancient practice of the Church was that all people sang in church, young and old, men and women.

During the Middle Ages, the Church developed our modern musical system. The notation system that we use today was started by monks trying to preserve volumes of chant. The notation enabled composers to write more elaborate works. This was certainly a very good thing for the development of our music: all modern Western music from Classical symphonies to modern pop tunes comes from this system. However, in the Middle Ages, relatively few people had the training necessary to read music. This led to the decline of congregational singing in the Church.

Within the last couple of centuries, there has been a great effort in the Church to re-engage lay participants in the music of the Mass. While this campaign was launched many years ago, the Church has redoubled her efforts within the last fifty years. Recent church documents give us a vision of a Church that is constantly engaged in a rich tapestry of song. Our heritage of chant and Renaissance polyphony finds itself in dialogue with modern compositions; Latin finds itself in dialogue with the native languages of the world. Choir, assembly, organ, and other instruments join together in praise of the God Who gives us everything, including the ability to offer praise. This all sounds pretty great in theory, right? We’ll take a closer look for what it means practically here at St. Jude in a future article.