The Influence of Vatican II on the Music of One Church

By Jeanne Dold

St. Cecilia is a small, Catholic, urban parish of about 300 families, reminiscent of a small country church. The building itself is over 100 years old. It lies on the border between St. Paul and Minneapolis in Minnesota. Since “St. Cecilia” is the Patron Saint of music and musicians, we feel a bit of pressure surrounding the musical life of the parish. Fortunately, the congregation embodies the spirit of the Second Vatican Council.

Memories from the 1970s are of a pastoral associate who led the assembly from the front by singing and playing her guitar, not unlike the guitar masses so popular immediately after the Second Vatican Council. In 1982, a trained musician was hired to sing while playing the piano or organ at all three masses and she, again, invited the assembly to sing along. I attended a few of these masses and noticed that this musician, while not a professionally trained singer, encouraged robust singing at mass with her smiling, open demeanor. Over the span of 7 years, her work advanced the reforms of the Council, later articulated in Sing to the Lord: Music in Divine Worship. “Within the gathered assembly, the role of the congregation is especially important. The full and active participation by all the people is the aim to be considered before all else.”1 “Singing is one of the primary ways that the assembly of the faithful participates actively in the Liturgy.”2 “Of all the sounds of which human beings, created in the image and likeness of God, are capable, voice is the most privileged and fundamental.”3 “The quality of our participation in such sung praise comes less from our vocal ability than from the desire of our hearts to sing together of our love for God.” 4

Eventually, this music minister issued an open invitation to the assembly for small groups to sing for Christmas and Easter. These groups stood in the front near the piano and sang, with or without harmony, along with the assembly. Most of the time, however, the musician just continued to invite the assembly to sing with her. She was following the General Instruction of the Roman Missal: “As our predecessors did, we take part by singing psalms, hymns and spiritual songs with gratitude in our hearts to God.”5 The effectiveness of this music minister was enhanced because she knew most of the people well as a member of the parish herself. The singing was enthusiastic, as if God’s praise couldn’t be contained and had to burst forth in song.  It was an emotional response to what the people knew intellectually about their faith. Again, the singing reflected the goals of Sing to the Lord. “The primary role of music in the Liturgy is to help the members of the gathered assembly to join themselves with the action of Christ and to give voice to the gift of faith.”6 “This common, sung expression of faith within liturgical celebrations strengthens our faith when it grows weak and draws us into the divinely inspired voice of the Church at prayer.”7

In 1990, a new music minister put together for the first time a “real” choir in the two years she was at St. Cecilia’s, which included her husband and a few friends. This caused some apprehension among the people because they felt that they were the primary choir, and they didn’t want their song taken away. Many in the congregation were further offended when this music minister brought the choir from her previous parish for one weekend to show them what an established choir could contribute.

In 1993, I was hired as the accompanist, choir director, and all-around planner and coordinator of music. The choir I inherited consisted of around 5-6 people singing in unison. At times, only 3-4 people came to sing as the “choir” with the assembly. After one such mass, a choir member pointed out that the group was a quartet, not a choir. However, we continued to persevere, rehearsing diligently every Tuesday night. As the choir grew, we were able to add more and more harmony to augment the unison singing of the assembly. The assembly came to appreciate and enjoy singing with the choir. Plus, the location of the choir near the people looked and sounded like one big assembly singing together, even though each had different roles.

Cantors led the people at two other masses and the assembly’s song continued with enthusiasm. Some cantors were easier to sing with than others. The assembly wanted to sing with someone whose voice sounded like theirs. The assembly reacted to cantors who saw their role as performers, particularly if their voices drew attention to themselves by volume or vibrato rather than supporting the assembly. Likewise, cantors who were unsure of themselves did not function well. This assembly understood the dynamic of leadership for liturgy in Sing to the Lord, that the role of music is to serve, and not to distract. “The role of music is to serve the needs of the Liturgy and not to dominate it, seek to entertain, or draw attention to itself or the musicians.”8  

While I firmly believe distractions are a major deterrent to the people’s song, it is sometimes difficult to detect or identify them if the music minister isn’t positioned to hear them or is not listening to the needs of the people. Music should bring people into deeper prayer and not distract from that prayer.  It should inspire and motivate people to participate. The cantors are expected to learn and rehearse the music before coming to mass. They should own the responsibility they have been given, not only in leading the assembly but also in inviting people to participate through their words and gestures.  When this is working, the assembly senses, maybe unconsciously, that this is not a performance but a coming together in worship and song for the glory of God.

Instruments to accompany worship soon became an issue for the assembly. There was an electronic organ and an old upright piano in the church when I arrived, but the organ was seldom played because the people didn’t like the sound. After a time, the organ was given to a convent but we still needed a quality piano. One parishioner donated $10,000 toward a Yamaha grand piano but more funds were needed. After announcing this need to parishioners, people actually stood in line over the next few weekends after the Masses with checks, which more than covered the cost. The parishioners were generous because this was their parish and they took this ownership seriously. This assembly, whether conscious of it or not, were reflective of Sacrosanctum Concilium, which says “Such participation by the Christian people as ‘a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a redeemed people,’ is their right and duty by reason of their baptism.”9

We were blessed to have exceptional, musical pastors during these years. Father Michael Joncas was one of them but left just as I was coming on board. The two pastors who followed were also musical and had lovely, natural singing voices. Through their example, these pastors embodied the heart of Vatican II, integrating spoken and sung word as they celebrated the liturgy. “Sacred song united to the words, forms a necessary or integral part of the solemn liturgy.”10 “Music does what words alone cannot do. It is capable of expressing a dimension of meaning and feeling that words alone cannot convey.”11 These Pastors not only sang with the assembly but also sang melodic settings of the Eucharistic Prayer throughout the seasons of Advent/Christmas and Lent/Easter. Their voices drew the assembly in and you could almost hear a pin drop. Unfortunately, these prayer settings were discontinued after the revision of the Roman Missal in 2011 and the people missed them.

Over the years, the choir has grown to around 30 people with an even balance between sections. As they improved, anthems became more and more frequent during the Preparation of the Gifts. The assembly has come to appreciate the choir, seeing members of their own community participating, only in a different way. However, the choir continues to harmonize with the people on all of the hymns and responses each week because they, too, are members of the assembly. Over time, the assembly has grown to understand an important and new role for the choir and other specially gifted musicians that enhances the singing of the assembly. “The whole assembly is actively involved in the music of the Liturgy. Some members of the community, however, are recognized for the special gifts they exhibit in leading the musical praise and thanksgiving of Christian assemblies. These are the liturgical musicians. Liturgical musicians are first of all disciples, and only then are they ministers. Joined to Christ through the Sacraments of Initiation, musicians belong to the assembly of the baptized faithful; they are worshipers above all else. Like other baptized members of the assembly, pastoral musicians need to hear the Gospel, experience conversion, profess faith in Christ, and so proclaim the praise of God.  Musicians who serve the church at prayer are not merely employees or volunteers. They are ministers who share the faith, serve the community, and express the love of God and neighbor through music.”12 It is the people who do the liturgy – not the choir or the priest doing it for them. Everyone does liturgy together.

New and younger families have come into the fold and are caught up in the singing, happy to participate, as well. There is a climate of hospitality and a strong tradition of greeting newcomers and visitors. This has the effect of drawing people into the worship that is already in place. The church doesn’t have much of a gathering space so when people arrive, especially for the 10:00 a.m. mass, they chat quietly in the pews with one another. This is their way of keeping connected and establishing community. Their Gathering Rite begins when they enter the church building and ends with the opening hymn. I usually play a classical piano piece or a hymn arrangement just before the opening hymn at each of the masses, which seems to focus everyone on the mass to come.

The parish has an abundance of traditions. The assembly knows that some of the music selections for specific liturgies will not change. Special songs sung during specific liturgies, some written especially for this parish, are sacrosanct! We sing a variety of styles, generally from the Gather 3rd Edition Hymnal, which includes both traditional and contemporary hymns.  Even though our parish would probably not be described as conservative, people love the old, traditional hymns they remember from their past. We also incorporate some Latin but when, for example, the choir sings a piece such as “Sicut Cervus,” the Pastor or a worship aid will give the translation so the assembly can silently participate, making sure the offering is not a performance. “Even when listening to the various prayers and readings of the Liturgy or to the singing of the choir, the assembly continues to participate actively as they ‘unite themselves interiorly to what the ministers or choir sing, so that by listening to them they may raise their minds to God.’”13 Most of the music in this GIA hymnal is of good quality. The music chosen each week from the hymnal reflects the sacred scriptures read at mass. Since the pastor preaches on these same readings, the people notice and appreciate the common thread or message which runs through the mass.

At the Sunday 10:00 a.m. mass, the choir sings as one member cues the assembly while I direct from the piano. At the Saturday evening mass, a classical guitarist and a seasoned bass guitarist, both members of the parish play with me. Neither instrument is patched into the sound system so that all three of us can hear the blend. More instrumentalists play for Christmas, Easter, and other special occasions. It is important to the assembly that the instruments aren’t too loud. The most common complaint I hear from parishioners who have visited other churches is that they can’t hear themselves singing over the organ. They understand the assembly’s song is the most important musical vehicle for the liturgy. “Musical instruments in the Liturgy are best understood as an extension of and support to the primary liturgical instrument, which is the human voice.”14 The choir and cantors also sing for All Soul’s Evensong and a more elaborate Advent Evensong with hired string players.    

Another important part in maintaining strong singing is consciousness of the assembly’s comfortable vocal range. Many hymns as written are pitched too high for our assembly. If the notes go above a C or D the octave above middle C (C5, D5), I transpose the music down a step or two, depending on the key. Christmas carols are notorious for being pitched too high. This is an extra layer of work but it is very much appreciated. I use software called Finale for transposing and arranging SATB music for the choir.

I find that the following from Sr. Miriam Winter’s book, Why Sing?, is reflective of my experience at St. Cecilia: “The post-Conciliar Church is a symbol of hope and healing in the midst of a suffering world. Jesus chose to make this world the primary arena of grace in order to prepare the way for the world that is to come. Like every symbolic sign, music ‘refers’ one to something beyond itself. It opens the door to the indefinable realm of meanings and reactions.  Ritual music is always aiming at the whole human individual and his or her encounter with the God of Jesus Christ. When music is fused with the church’s ritual, allowing music to be the handmaid of the Holy Spirit, then there is great hope that through the liturgical experience the Christian assembly will be ‘struck to the soul…’ that it will be somehow changed in Christ.”

Winter also says, “People in love make signs of love, not only to express their love but also to deepen it. Love never expressed dies. Christians’ love for Christ and for one another and Christians’ faith in Christ and in one another must be expressed in the signs and symbols of celebration or they will die.”15 As St. Augustine says, “Singing is for the one who loves.”

  1.  Sing to the Lord: Music in Divine Worship. Washington, D.C.: United States Conference of Catholic Bishops., No. 11.
  2.   Ibid, No. 26.
  3.  Ibid, No. 86.
  4.   Ibid, No. 13.
  5.  General Instruction of the Roman Missal, No. 39 (various editions).
  6.  Sing to the Lord: Music in Divine Worship, No. 125.
  7.  Ibid, No. 5.
  8.  Ibid, No. 125.
  9.   Sacrosanctum Concilium, No. 14. Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy (Sacrosanctum Concilium, 1963). https:// const_19631204_sacrosanctum-concilium_en.html.
  10. Ibid, no. 112.
  11. Sing to the Lord: Music in Divine Worship, No. 124.
  12. Ibid, Nos. 48, 49.
  13. Ibid, No. 12.
  14. Ibid, No. 86.
  15. Winter, Miriam. Why Sing? Portland, OR: Oregon Catholic Press, p. 216-231.