When I was a university student and was volunteering at the Music ministry on campus, I had no clue on how one should pick the hymns for mass. I had no mentors on this and as the students come and go for the Catholic community on campus, no one seemed to pay attention to the fact that I would just pick the hymns that everyone liked to sing and hymns that have a good beat. Well, I am sure I did manage to pick Advent hymns for Advent and Lenten hymns for Lent, etc. However, there were not a lot of thoughts given to my selection of hymns back then.
After learning on the job for decades, I am pleased to say that my routine for picking hymns to be sung by the congregation for mass now starts with the readings. I usually read through the readings and Psalm for the day, understand the messages or themes from the readings, and then try to see how those messages are relevant to my life. I also take note of the day in the liturgical calendar. That is, I will make note of the whether it is a special feast day or one that the Pope or Bishop has destined it to be a special day. It might be a Day of Peace, or World day of the Sick, etc. With all information in mind, I will then scout through the hymnals to pick the appropriate hymns. Sometimes, there are other factors that I take into consideration. For instance, the range of the hymn might be a concern for some congregational members. On the other hand, there are times where hymns that parishioners like might be impossibly low for this poor soprano to lead. Of course, each congregation usually use a certain selection of hymns in the hymnals only. Picking unfamiliar hymns will lead to poor participation from the parishioners.
First of all, participation of the congregation in the singing of a hymn at the gathering is very important. It allows us to praise God in one voice. By default, singing hymns together will make us all breathe together and pause together. It does not matter what each of our singing voices sound like. (BTW, I am pretty sure God knows how well each of us can sing already. So, it really is not an excuse to not to sing.) The sweep of voices from all of us will create one sound of praise for God Almighty. It’s one amazing way to show we make up one body of Christ!
Of course, if hymns are picked according to certain feast days, they are bound to remind everyone of the significance of those feast days or the important acts of certain saints. For instance, how can one missed a Marian feast day when Immaculate Mary was sung?
Now, there are times when the hymn that was chosen for the preparation of the gifts echoes the homily perfectly. Those are magical moments! Those are the times when I feel that I have done my job, giving everyone another chance to savour the Word, to allow the Word speaks to everyone again.
There are also times when the lyrics in hymns lead one to ponder on the meaning and discover a theological thought that one has yet to ponder upon. For instance, the last line of the second stanza in “Crown him with many crowns” certainly make me pause for a long while. We certainly know well that Jesus died on the cross and triumphed over the grave, but “Who died eternal life to bring, and lives that death may die” gives me a lot of questions to think about. For instance, if “death” “dies”, what does that mean? When Jesus died, did he bring eternal life for all people then? He “lives” so that He is the first fruit of them that sleep? As a mathematician who has studied coding theory for several years, I can tell you that those twelve words seem more complex to me and tougher to decipher than lots of other codes.
Sometimes, the words in hymns give healing powers to those who needed it. I recalled one period of time when I was feeling sorry for myself, feeling down and momentarily having trouble finding purpose in life. I went to a daily mass and the priest led the small congregation to sing hymns without accompaniment. It looked like he randomly opened the hymnal and just picked the hymn that the book happened to open flat. During mass, I could hardly pay attention to the Word in my sad mood. I kept thinking about how all the things that can go wrong went wrong. At recessional, the priest started to lead everyone to sing “How Great Thou Art”. As I mentioned, there was no accompaniment, typical of daily mass. It was clear from the start that the priest started singing at a note much higher than usual. Those who are familiar with this hymn will know that the melody of this hymn rises to a climax at the end with a big pause on “Great” on the highest note of the entire hymn in the last line “How Great Thou Art”. As the priest had started singing the hymn at a high note to begin with, by the time the melody reached the word “Great”, as a soprano, I was the only one in the entire congregation who could sing out that note and everyone else was silent for that one note. That was a life-changing moment. A powerful eureka moment! I realized I just made “Thou Art” ‘Great’! God gives me a purpose in life! I was healed instantly.
Hymns can also remind one of important moments in their lives. Catholics celebrate many sacraments in church. These sacraments, by default, mark the different milestones in their lives. The singing of hymns, of course, is important in these celebrations. Most people remember the hymns sung at their wedding. The hymns, as reminders, can bring back fond memories of the deceased to their loved ones. The hymns can bring back the images of those who have moved away. The hymns can let you experience that joy of your child’s baptism. Sometimes, the hymns can even remind you of the voices of old friends and relatives.
Long time ago, in 1 Chronicales 23:2-6, King David counted the Levites who were thirty years old or more. Among them, twenty-four thousand were to supervise the work of the temple of the Lord, six thousand were to be officials and judges, four thousand were to be gatekeepers and four thousand were to praise the Lord with musical instruments! So, basically, God specifically assigned some of his people to be musicians. They have a definite purpose in God’s grand plan.
In Musicae Sacrae by Pope Pius XII, it says (28),
“the artist who is firm in his faith and leads a life worthy of a Christian, who is motivated by the love of God and reverently uses the powers the Creator has given him, expresses and manifests the truths he holds and the piety he possesses so skillfully, beautifully and pleasingly in colors and lines or sounds and harmonies that this sacred labor of art is an act of worship and religion for him. It also effectively arouses and inspires people to profess the faith and cultivate piety.”
As a church musician, I feel that knowing the power of hymns and the above statements are good reasons for spending the time necessary to pick the hymns that we sing at mass! Sometimes, I wish there is a handbook somewhere that will tell me all that I need to know to pick the right hymns. Alas, for now, I will just have to continue learning the art on the job.