Life-Giving Funerals

The Importance of Skill in Music Ministry

The Death of Christ, by Fra Angelico

It is exceedingly difficult to stand before mourners assembled for a funeral Mass, look them in the eye one at a time, and sing—with them, to them, and sometimes for them—of truth, love, and life. Still, this is a duty that must not be neglected by those who are skilled in music, since the quality of music offered to mourners is integral to the consolation and evangelization of the faithful and unchurched alike. To limit mourners to a lower quality of strengthening, dignifying, joyful, and faithful music than God has made available to them is to commit an injustice.

Yet, there is a not-so-tacit understanding in many locales that the quality of music doesn’t matter, or that it should be a factor but is subordinate to other dubious “virtues” such as raw talent or sentimentality. As a multi-instrumentalist with college-level training in my primary instrument, and a passion for teaching, I have, again and again, heard church music ministry participants proudly proclaim that they don’t read music, that they can’t even match pitch, and that it doesn’t matter. “God only cares that I have a right heart!” they say. But the person who volunteers for a ministry without a calling, while knowing he cannot fulfill the requirements, does not have a “right heart.” Likewise, it is also true of the person who is recruited into a ministry without possessing the requisite skills and, yet, does not set out to acquire them.

Both Scripture and the Church make it clear that skill is an important component of music ministry. The Bible first mentions this when David returned the Ark of the Covenant to Jerusalem: not only was Chenaniah’s skill spelled out as the reason for his musical leadership, but he was skilled to the extent that God honored him by highlighting his name in Scripture. Psalm 33:3 later instructs the just to “sing to God a new song; skillfully play with joyful chant.”

But is music important enough to God’s kingdom that we could reasonably consider time, energy, and wealth devoted to the subject as good stewardship of our resources? The history of God’s people, and millennia of Church interpretation, say it is so important, and we should devote the resources.

Music’s Historical Roots in the Book of Genesis and Beyond

The first mention of music in the Bible is Genesis 4:21, where Jubal is described as the ancestor of those who play string and wind instruments. In this genealogy, only the ancestors of herders, metal-workers, and musicians are called out. Herding and metal-working were very important to early Jewish society; given its place among these professions, music was clearly important as well. Note that we are given this information in the fourth chapter of a work that is more than eleven hundred chapters long.

Music was also important in Moses’ time. Modern Jews teach that every word of the Hebrew sacred texts as communicated to Moses was originally sung. Today, these words are notated with cantillation marks,1 which indicate the tune. The Talmud tells us that when Nehemiah 8:8 speaks of interpreting or explaining what was read, it refers to using the ta’amim—in other words, singing it (Davidson 2014).2 The Levites sang The Book of the Law of God to the people because music explains, that is, it teaches. This is true not just of the lyrics, but of the music itself.

When David brought the Ark of the Covenant up to Jerusalem a few hundred years after Moses’ time, he first instructed those who were to carry the ark. He then instructed the chiefs of the Levites to appoint musicians “to make a loud sound of rejoicing;”3 once the ark was brought in, he appointed particular Levitical ministers to praise God with music. During this time, David also integrated music into the regular worship of God.

Since this is not intended to be an exhaustive study of music in the Bible, let us move on to the New Testament, where Paul instructs the Ephesians to address one another “(in) psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and playing to the Lord in your hearts, giving thanks always and for everything in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ to God the Father.”4 Faith brings joy; joy finds full expression in singing; and because our joy in our salvation never ceases, neither does our music-making.

Clearly, music has been a part of the story of God’s people since the beginning. It has been used to teach since at least Moses’ time. It has been an integral part of worship since David’s time. And, since the very earliest days of the Church, we have been instructed to make music to the Lord in our hearts, sounding a continuous paean of praise to our Savior.

The Importance of Liturgical Music

Though not central to our sanctification, music is certainly more than a merely aesthetic addition to our lives in Christ. In fact, the Church acknowledges that good music makes praise and supplication more powerful, focused, and effective.5

The General Instruction of the Roman Missal (GIRM) cites the ancient proverb: “Whoever sings well, prays twice over,”6 and it specifically states the importance of singing within the Mass.7 Bishops are instructed to “be vigilant in ensuring that the dignity of these celebrations (of Mass) be enhanced and, in promoting such dignity, the beauty of … music … should contribute as greatly as possible.”8 Furthermore, in his Apostolic Exhortation, Sacramentum Caritatis, Pope Benedict writes about the importance of paying attention to several elements, including music, when planning the Mass, because the liturgy operates inherently on many levels “which enable it to engage the whole human person.”9

The Church teaches that those who lead God’s people in music-making are more than mere performers, that “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.”10 Musicians perform not just music but also a true liturgical ministry11—one which is “especially cherished by the Church.”12

Thus, in addition to the call to hone their skill and artistry as musicians, music leaders are called to develop an intimate understanding of the liturgy; and because they not only make music but also lead and teach, they bear a great responsibility to grow and deepen in their own intimacy with God. But the development of this total package is a duty that is not to be handed to just anyone. The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) explicitly states that “the community of the faithful has a right to expect that this service will be provided competently.”13

And yet, important as these functions are, the ministry of music is about more than solidifying the dignity of the Mass, strengthening and expressing the faith of the congregation, or developing musicians as godly individuals and leaders. It is also a tool for evangelization.14 In this age of moral relativism, he who denies God must first accept the bad news that he is a sinner before he can appreciate the Gospel.

Funerals and Evangelization

Returning to the issue of providing music for funerals, this means that a funeral is often the most effective opportunity for such evangelization: Through the darkness and doubt that comes from grief, mourners are made starkly aware of their deep need for God. Many who abhor the thought of stepping into a church for other reasons are obliged to do so by social norms in the case of a funeral for a loved one. While they are in the church, should its ministers not try to do everything in their power to offer music that is beautiful and joyous, giving them reasons to reconsider their personal, and all-too-often nihilistic, answers to the great questions? After all, “the primordial song of the Liturgy is the canticle of the victory over sin and death.”15 Obviously, where does this song need to be heard even more—in all of its unfathomable joy and exquisite beauty—than during a funeral? When does a person experience a greater need for faith and fellowship with the saints than at the occasion of a funeral Mass for a loved one where death is so profoundly presented?

Music is a powerful tool which the Church, and its members, use to share love with the people present for not only funeral Masses, but for all the Church’s sacraments, services, and celebrations. As with any power, it is best used to “express the Paschal mystery and the Christian’s share in it.”16 What is the Paschal mystery? One pure and unblemished Lamb who sacrificed himself willingly for the sins of all. What is our share in it? Through that sacrifice, though we were lost, we are now saved, and made co-heirs to the kingdom of heaven. This is the Good News; there is no better. Truly, mourners need to hear it more than most we seek to evangelize, because even believers of strong faith can be temporarily shaken in their beliefs by grief. The Church acknowledges this in the Prayer of the Faithful spoken at funerals, which asks God to “dispel the darkness and doubt that come from grief.” The USCCB speaks to the power of song to strengthen faith and “(draw) us into the divinely inspired voice of the Church at prayer.”17

Though most churches make space for personal preference in funeral song selection, even when it is not liturgically appropriate (e.g., allowing Schubert’s Ave Maria at Communion), the music of the Mass is not primarily about personal preference in music, or even in musicians. Its potential for impact is too great to be devalued in that way. The GIRM tells us that in the preparation of liturgy, “the Priest should be attentive rather to the common spiritual good of the People of God than to his own inclinations.”18 It further exhorts liturgical planners to take the “greatest care” in arranging the Eucharistic celebration so that the elements – including the music – will “aptly respond to the spiritual needs of the faithful.”19

The USCCB acknowledges that we have a right to our preferences, and even that our appreciation of music is deeply personal. “But unless music sounds, it is not music, and whenever it sounds, it is accessible to others. By its very nature song has both an individual and a communal dimension.”20 The choices made regarding this issue have extensive consequences—although good celebrations can foster faith, “poor celebrations may weaken it.”21 The GIRM also supports the view that quality matters. This can clearly be seen in its discussion of the use of fine arts in churches when it says “what should be looked for is that true excellence in art, which nourishes faith and devotion, and accords authentically with both the meaning and the purpose for which it is intended.”22

Weighing and Balancing Music Ministry Skills

Scripture, as well as the Catholic Church in the United States, and the Catholic Church at-large, all plainly state that the quality of music in worship is important. In all cases and for many reasons, we have a responsibility to give God’s people the best music he has made available to them. Therefore, the relative skill of available musicians should be weighed when deciding which music leaders to make available to the most vulnerable of the people to whom we minister: our mourners.

Though it is clear that a music leader’s skills should be considered at funerals, there are two points of sentiment which are too often allowed to overrule this consideration. First, there is the opinion that only men and women who are members of a given parish should be allowed to sing funerals within that parish, in order to keep it a “family affair.” And yet, praise be to God that the salvation offered through Jesus Christ applies to more of mankind than merely his covenant family, Israel! If not so, how many more of us would be forever lost? Furthermore, to intimate that a Catholic who attends a different parish is outside the family is to betray a deeply mistaken understanding of the Body of Christ.23

The second point frequently overriding the consideration of a music leader’s skill at funerals is a prevailing viewpoint much more dangerous to deny, because it sounds like a point of unassailable social justice: Paid work in the Church should be handed to those with the least material wealth, regardless of the availability and suitability of workers who are better equipped. This opinion, though a popular one, is simply contrary to the character of God. Yes, Scripture tells us many times that God hears the cries of the poor. However, it does not claim that he hears their cries exclusively, or that he prefers their cries. Sirach refutes this outright: “For (he) is a God of justice, who knows no favorites. Though not unduly partial toward the weak, yet (he) hears the cry of the oppressed.”24 That the poor are heard at all is an achievement little known in the history of human justice; it is only in the court of God where all are deemed equally entitled.

When sentiment is allowed to override Scripture and doctrine, the ramifications are felt far beyond the obvious. It harms the mourners, the equipped musicians who are passed over, and the wider community—including those outside the walls of the church, who, among other repercussions, find in this promotion of substandard music a confirmation of their contempt for the things of God. Furthermore, it wounds the alleged beneficiary, that relatively unskilled musician whose appointment was based primarily upon church membership or financial status. When work is handed to a person whom God has not called to do this, or is not prepared for it, that person’s time and motivation to find and perform his own calling are diminished and, therefore, so is the Body of Christ.

Scripture and the Church make it clear that justice requires the grieving people of God be given the best available resources with which to encounter their grief during the funeral Mass. God never gives permission for any of us to act unjustly; such an act would be contrary to his character. Given that, why are such paltry pieces of worldly wisdom ever allowed to override God’s character as he has revealed it to us?

Well, when it comes to music in our churches, how many of our decisions incorporate grace? Over and over again, Scripture shows us that the Lord’s math looks nothing like the world’s. King Solomon demonstrates with gruesome overtones that ½ baby+½ baby≠1 baby.25 The Apostle Paul reiterates that within the marriage covenant: 1+1=1.26 Twice, Jesus performed the miracle of the loaves and fishes. The first time he set the equation so that,27 and the second time he saw fit to make .28 Finally, and most importantly, Christ’s single and eternal sacrifice on the cross propitiated God’s justice for a number of sins so vast we might consider it nearly infinite.

This is the mathematics of grace. The math of the world tells us to cut our losses and stay with the 99 sheep who behaved themselves; the mathematics of grace tells us the one lost sheep is more valuable than all the rest combined. However, the mathematics of God’s covenant with us is only viable within a church operating by grace, one in which all members, “whether ordained ministers or lay Christian,” remain faithful in “fulfilling their function or their duty” by “carry{ing} out solely, but totally, that which pertains to them.”29 When members of the Church shirk that which pertains to them and reach out for that which does not, God’s math is marred by sin and even the innocent are injured. Though according to the world’s wisdom, paid work alleviates poverty, churches must not collude in a process whereby they add to the personal wealth of a relatively unskilled musician by subtracting from the comfort available to the mourners who need it so very badly. This is the zero-sum game, the fruit of the scarcity mentality, which God demonstrates, over and over again, that it means nothing in his kingdom. This is not the music of a life-giving grace; it is the discord of sin and death.

Our God is a God of abundance beyond all telling. What could God do, what would he do, if churches focused on finding and employing the best musicians he has made available to them for the celebration of the funeral Mass? What would happen if those less equipped for the work left it to those better prepared, and instead performed the work to which they themselves have been called? The Church will find that where there was not enough, now there is abundance. This is the music of grace: The more we give according to our calling, the more we are given, that we may give.

The bereaved desperately need the fruits of this melodious grace, and it is imperative that we do not allow worldly considerations, and philosophies to persuade us, to withhold any part of the relief due to them. A funeral Mass is an hour of intense pain, during which the ministers—priests, Eucharistic ministers, altar servers, readers, ushers, and musicians—surround the mourners with a faith unclouded by grief, thus serving as evidence of continued life. We must follow the guidance of God and the Church, at every point, applying the best resources available toward making our still-bright faith shine as beautifully as possible, that we may comfort those who mourn, and draw their aching hearts closer to God who loves them best.

  1. In Hebrew, ta’amim, meaning “to taste.”
  2. Baruch Davidson, “Who Made Up the Way We Sing the Torah?” Chabad.org, March 4, 2014, chabad.org/library/article_cdo/aid/817346/jewish/Who-made-up-the-way-we-sing-the-Torah.htm.
  3. 1 Chr 15:16.
  4. Eph 5:19-20.
  5. Sing to the Lord: Music in Divine Worship (Washington, DC: United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, 2013), no. 5, cf. no. 15 (hereafter, STL)
  6. The General Instruction of the Roman Missal (Washington, DC: United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, 2011), no. 39.
  7. General Instruction (GIRM) nos. 40 and 393.
  8. GIRM no. 22.
  9. Richard B. Hilgartner, forward to The General Instruction of the Roman Missal, (Washington, DC: United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, 2011).
  10. Sing to the Lord (STL) no. 49.
  11. Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy, Sacrosanctum Concilium, no. 29.
  12. STL no. 48.
  13. STL no. 50.
  14. GIRM no. 385, cf. Francis, Evangelii Gaudium (2013), nos. 14-15.
  15. STL no. 7.
  16. STL no. 246.
  17. STL no. 5.
  18. GIRM no. 352, cf. no. 385.
  19. GIRM no. 20.
  20. STL no. 2.
  21. STL no. 5.
  22. GIRM no. 289.
  23. Though a further argument could be made for employing highly qualified non-Catholic musicians when they are the best available — both to fulfill the call to quality and to evangelize the musicians themselves – that would comprise another paper.
  24. Sir 35:12-13.
  25. 1 Kgs 3:16-27.
  26. Eph 5:31, Gen 2:24, Mt 19:5-6, Mk 10:7-8.
  27. Mt 14:16-21, Mk 6:31-44, Lk 9:10-17, Jn 6:5-13.
  28. Mt 15:32-38, Mk 8:1-9.
  29. GIRM no. 91.
Angela Biggs About Angela Biggs

Angela Biggs is a classically trained vocalist and amateur lever harper who lives with her husband in western New Hampshire. She serves as a cantor at St. Denis of Hanover, teaches privately, and works closely with the West Claremont Center for Music and the Arts to bring quality arts experiences to her underserved community. Mrs. Biggs holds a Bachelor of Science degree in Accounting/Finance, summa cum laude, from Southern New Hampshire University.

Comments

  1. Thank you for your thoughtful article. My parish’s cantors have recently begun to restore the chanting of the Subvenite and the In Paradisum (in Latin) at funeral Masses, which are celebrated in English in the ordinary form. The timeless chants add a depth that cantors at other parishes may wish to consider as well.

  2. Carole Zinter says:

    Magnificent! Inspiring! Brilliantly researched and written! Also, because your initial desire, in order to make sense of a painful betrayal, was to focus on Scripture rather than anger or resentment, you have been enlightened, and by sharing your process, you now are generously offering enlightenment to those who read your paper. Thank You, Carole Zinter

  3. J.: Though as a vocalist I personally dislike singing the In Paradisum (it doesn’t sit in my voice well!), I agree that it is fitting and beautiful in a funeral. I sang with one Music Director who scheduled it for every funeral I sang with him, and it was never out of place. Furthermore, as an art form unique to the Catholic church and uniquely suited to its liturgy (consider the many levels of difference between “singing Mass” and “singing at Mass”), and with a spareness so wonderfully suited to grief, I believe Gregorian chant is an exemplary tool for evangelization.

    On the other hand, there is quite a lot of legitimate space for personal preference in music selection. In this article I’ve chosen to stay far away from the discussion of what types of music are best for a funeral – or which I prefer – because until I started my own research, I had seen and heard nothing but opinions. When I suddenly *needed* truth, I was unable to find a cogent, Scripturally- and doctrinally-based statement about the fundamental truths that are necessary to uphold educated opinions. It is my hope that someone in a similar position will someday find this article and have everything she needs right at her fingertips. Or at least a better starting point. :)

  4. I agree with your essential point that music excellence glorifies God. Beyond that I think you engage in well-intentioned straining to make an air-tight case where there cannot be one. That the best person must always be the performer at a funeral, or that music is a mandatorily-uniform element mandated by justice (!) — those are simply opinions. “Scripture and the Church make it clear that justice requires the grieving people of God be given the best available resources with which to encounter their grief during the funeral Mass.” Nonsense. Scripture certainly does NOT make this clear as an imperative. And while Tradition makes clear the Church is to provide an arena for encounter, it does not mandate on with the “best available resources” (a highly subjective criteria especially in the Arts). You remind me of Obama arguing that everyone deserves two free years of community college. It is a wonderful idea, but not one is that can be demonstrated to be a ‘right,’ unless you start mandating. And though our math sounds good, we all know that Christianity is not math, and in divine mathematics 1 + 1 can easily equal more than two. I imagine I would love being in your parish and benefitting from your talent and passion for excellence. A last aside. I am an Art instructor, and I admire good musicians. But I grew up in Protestant churches where music ministries dominated the proceedings and we had a procession of paid musicians, ones who sang gloriously but also seemed to put on a ‘performer’s face’ of faith. Church seemed as much like show as it did worship. Now I see with my pagan friends who have paid gigs in Catholic churches: they sing meticulously, and the rest of the week talk down the Church’s faith and network with other musicians to talk sense into wavering priests about gay marriage and divorce. So it is not only the pewsitters who need evangelizing, but also the people up front. At what point then does the Church become the World? We don’t believe a think but it all sounds and looks beautiful? Is this the Episcopal Church?! But maybe for me it is a personal issue. In my own conversion an initial stumbling block was the “professionalism” that emanated from the whole Cantor-led shtik in the modern American parish. It was as if the people depended on the musician to do the music thing. He or she was like the real shaman or performer, and the priest was the onlooker along with the rest of us. And the result was one that felt like the people were not worshipping but witnessing a show. I wondered, “What good is a faith that does not provoke people to sing?” So I am all for music, and excellent music to boot. But essentially mandating paid musicians in the name of quality funeral evangelism…. Sorry, but it sounds like something that would come out of the Catholic equivalent of some sort of federal over-reach. Music too often manipulates emotions, the better the music the more so. Let the priest speak truth to grief and do the heavy lifting of funeral parlor evangelism.

  5. Richard Brown says:

    A very well written, documented and reseached article supporting your position as it relates to the mind of the Church. Please consider submitting this paper to “Sacred Music” the quarterly journal of the Church Music Association of America.

  6. Mr. Brown, it didn’t occur to me to submit this elsewhere; I will check with HPR to learn its policy on this. Thank you for the suggestion and encouragement. :)

  7. Guy McClung says:

    For funerals, please check out music that refers to praying for the repose of the soul of the dead person, i.e. that perhaps they are not a saint yet, especially the very real probability that that person is not at the time of the funeral in Heaven. I earnestly want this type of song and prayer said for me at my funeral and thereafter. I know more often than not now everyone is canonized a saint at their funerals, but I am going to insure that friends and family assume that I died imperfect and I am in need of their prayers. Guy McClung, San Antonio