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The Choir in a Synodal Church

By Astrid Lobo Gajiwala, Mumbai, India.

We have sought to sing like a choir, many voices as though expressing one soul.  The Holy Spirit has gifted us with an experience of the harmony that (S)He alone can generate; it is a gift and a witness in a world that is torn and divided.

These opening lines of the Synthesis Report of the Synod held in Rome from 4-29 October 2023, provoked a rush of emotions in me. The Synod being compared to a choir! Suddenly, the weekly pilgrimage up the beautiful, winding staircase to the Cathedral choir loft, to sing for the Eucharistic celebration, has taken on new meaning.

Aging joints and wooden stairs creaking in unison, with rests for quick breaths for anticipated crescendos, are now part of the opening bars of music that will lift a community in prayer. Precious hours on Saturday evenings devoted to practicing hymns, week after week, without respite, for decades, have become a sacrificial offering united with the sacrificial lamb. Accelerated rehearsals during Christmas and Easter are now viewed as precious opportunities to prepare for Jesus’ birth, death and resurrection as we immerse ourselves in the hauntingly deep lyrics.  

Sorrow, joy, lamentation, praise, despair, hope, comfort, unity, strife, peace – in song we cover the full gamut of the human experience of God. Who has not been moved by a God who “will raise you up on eagles’ wings (and) make you to shine like the sun”? Or been comforted by a God who promises never to forget you?  Or yearned for God “as the deer pants for the water”? Or felt uplifted singing, “Be exalted, O God above the heavens, let your glory be over all the earth”?

I look now at the church pipe organ too with renewed respect. It is a gift of praise lovingly handed down from generations and we in Holy Name Parish are blessed to hear it’s rich tones every week. Few know that church pipe organs do not need any additional amplification. The sounds produced by the pipes spread out in waves and are amplified by the high, often arched, ceilings of the church to literally embrace the congregation with glorious music in a way that cannot be replicated by any other musical instrument. I find it awesome that the architecture of old churches was designed keeping the acoustics of the pipe organ in mind. It indicates the importance of the pipe organ. It not only enhances the singing of the choir with resonance and fullness, but also urges you to leave all your worldly distractions behind and raise your voice in praise of God. And if you are lucky enough to hear the organist playing the organ solo (as happened to me in Vienna in an empty church) sit back, close your eyes, let the notes wash over you, and be filled with the immensity and magnificence of God.

Many people erroneously equate a church choir with choirs that sing religious music outside of worship services. The key element of a church choir however, is the presence of a worshipping community. A church choir cannot exist without its congregation. The two are inextricably linked.

According to scholars,[1] in the Old Testament, musicians were part of worship leadership, sharing a common spiritual responsibility. They were “called-out” ones and were consecrated as part of the tribe of Levi to minister to the Lord in music.  Consequently, they were supported materially in their ministry by the other eleven tribes.  Choir members are therefore minor clerics.

Being at the very heart of church life choirs have an essential role to play in the synodal Church. Their sacred music exemplifies the interrelatedness and dynamic relationship of the three pillars of the synodal Church –  communion, participation and mission – wherein each one enriches and orients the other two (Vademecum for the Synod on Synodality, 07.09.2021, No. 1.4).

When the faithful gathers for worship, the choir facilitates communion. It urges those present to seek repentance collectively, inspires them to listen to the Word of God as people with a shared tradition, prepares them to participate in the communal meal, and helps them to respond as one as they go forth.  Both the hymns selected and the attitude of the choir members are important to fulfil this responsibility.

In acknowledgement of this, Sacrosanctum Concilium, the Vatican II document on the liturgy, reminds us that through their participation in the Eucharist and liturgical services choir members add delight to prayer, foster unity of minds, facilitate participation in the life of the church, and confer greater solemnity upon the sacred rites.

Further, as an integral part of the liturgy, the sacred song united to the words fortifies us spiritually to fulfil the mission of the Church to give witness to the love of God in the midst of the whole human family.

But we cannot do this alone; we need the Holy Spirit. That is why, before we break into song, in a reliving of Pentecost, the Cathedral Choir prays aloud in the upper room: “Loving God, I come before you to offer my gift of music. Help me pray and sing our prayer. Help me lead your assembly in prayer, for the song is not mine, but ours. / Let us all resound with your praise. Through us, create the world anew in your image. / Fill us with your Holy Spirit once again. Rouse your power within us. Amen.

For all these reasons the church recognises sacred music not just as a part of sacred art, but as a lasting “treasure of inestimable value, greater even than that of any other art” (Sacrosanctum Concilium, 112). It is the responsibility of the worshipping community to preserve and add to that treasure.

[1] The Role of the Choir in Worship

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