Thought for the Week
Solemnity of the Body and Blood of Christ/Corpus Christi
We are very fortunate in our parish to have music at all three of our Sunday Masses, and lucky too to have dedicated choristers and instrumentalists who together provide different but complementary repertoires. It is great that so many people join in the hymns, sacred songs and parts of the Mass, even if sometimes the melody line is new or the words less familiar than the warhorses which have grown a tiny bit stale through excessive repetition. I for one had never heard such a beautiful rendition of the Pentecost sequence as this year, and when the music group is accompanying the liturgy I am glad when new musical ground is broken. I do not know what sort of voice St. Augustine had but I am grateful to him for having encouraged the people of Hippo to raise their voices in praise of God: “he who sings prays twice”.
St. Ambrose had a great influence on the young Augustine and it was he who baptised him (and his son, born our of wedlock, Adeodatus). We know that the basis of Augustine’s fascination with the Bishop of Milan was precisely his voice, his eloquence and the exquisite Latin in which he preached. But it was Ambrose who is generally considered the father of Church music as it was he, when he and the Catholics of Milan were locked up in their cathedral, who taught his people hymns and trained them to sing. In Milan they still have a very distinctive Ambrosian chant, and in the Breviary many of the hymns recited in the Liturgy of the Hours had Ambrose as their author. It is distinctly possible that the music he heard in Milan, and the way the devout Milanese sung during the liturgy, persuaded Augustine that he should encourage the people of his own diocese in Hippo to sing in church.
Church music is very much at the heart of English life and culture. Radio 3 broadcasts sung Evensong twice a week and, even though it is no longer on air, one of the most long-standing and popular programmes on Radio 2 was a half hour of hymns on a Sunday night. For us Catholics the singing of hymns during Mass is a relatively recent thing. Up until Vatican II when Mass was in Latin we certainly sang during Mass, but in what is termed the proper of the Mass and almost always the Missa de Angelis. Hymns were sung at Benediction or during school assemblies. Now in the Mass they have taken the place of the Introit, Offertory, and Communion antiphon. English Catholics have adjusted to this change in the musical menu much better than, say, the Irish. And that is probably because the churches of the Reformation, such as the Church of England or the Methodists, not only sing a lot during worship but have over the years produced such great hymn writers: Martin Luther to start with, Paul Gerhardt in Germany, Charles Wesley in England and Mrs. Cecil Alexander to name but a few. We owe our friends from the churches of the Reformation a great debt, and prize their musical tradition. The best way of saying “thank you” to them is by prizing music in our worship as much as they do and by singing as lustily as St. Ambrose did in Milan Cathedral one thousand seven hundred years ago.
Fr Patrick’s previous “Thoughts” are in the Gallery.
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