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The Church gives us an amazing analogy to help us understand the place of the liturgy in the life of the Church: it is the “summit toward which the activity of the Church is directed” and at the same time it is the “font from which all her power flows” (Sacrosanctum Concilium 10).

This analogy, if we pause to ponder it, gives us a vivid picture of the whole of the Church’s life and mission. And it shows us how all things — flowing from the liturgy and leading back to it — can work together for the glory of God, the sanctification of the faithful, and the transfiguration of the world with the Light of Christ.

Elevating the liturgy in our parishes means placing the liturgy, and our participation in it, in its rightful place upon the heights — at the summit of all that we do. 

Set apart and placed on the mountaintop, the liturgy can become the life-giving font of everything else that we do — serving the poor, engaging with the culture, evangelization, catechesis, private prayer and devotion, asceticism, etc. — and serve as the goal of it all. 

Let’s have a closer look at this wonderful analogy and consider how working to elevate the liturgy in our parishes can help put all of the parts of the Christian life in their proper place, and at the same time energize and direct them toward their proper end. 

The Journey from Source to Summit

To begin, we see the image of a mountain. The liturgy is celebrated at the summit, at the mountain peak. Here we climb, week after week and day after day, with Moses and Elijah, and with Peter, James, and John, to seek the face of God. When we arrive, we stand upon the heights and turn our gaze to heaven. We behold Christ who becomes transfigured before us with heavenly light, and we seek to be transfigured with him and to be made pleasing in the Father’s sight. We are drawn into Christ’s perfect act of worship that is offered to the Father and receive a foretaste of and an actual participation in the wedding feast of the Lamb that lies above: the liturgy of heaven. We are filled with grace and are illuminated with the Light of Christ so that we can share it with everyone we encounter down below.

We also see that the liturgy, situated at the mountain summit, is also a font. The waters from this font flow out of the right side of the temple that is set upon the mountain peak, and pour constantly down the mountainside. These waters are you and me — those who participate in the liturgy, who are made into the image of Christ, and are poured forth on mission to proclaim the gospel to the world. We are poured out of the liturgy and down the mountain that we might flow into the culture at large to transfigure the world through the radiant lives that we craft, the families and relationships that we cultivate, the work that we do, and the beautiful things that we create. 

This water that streams down from the mountaintop must flow into every river and tributary below, bringing life and refreshment to the farthest ends of the earth. It cannot be dammed up and stored in a reservoir on the mountainside as a reserve only for ourselves. Its very nature is missionary. It must be shared with all. 

We offer this water to others through the intentional effort of evangelization. We walk with them, and we show them the mountain of God. They begin to turn their lives toward the mountain and they come to lift their gaze up to the summit. Together, we begin the arduous climb to the heights. 

In our journey back to the mountaintop, we undertake the work of discipleship. Here, the Church undertakes the task of initiation, formation, and catechesis. In faith, we seek understanding, and we work to conform our lives to Christ. We build lives of devotion and respond to Christ’s call to pray at all times. We take up our crosses and we follow Christ to Calvary. We deny ourselves, we confess our sins, and then we finally arrive once more at the summit with hearts and minds prepared to join in Christ’s perfect prayer to the Father yet again.

This journey from source to summit can be a model for our lives, and for our parishes. The journey passes through every realm of the Church’s life and mission along the way: from worship, into the culture at large, into the task of evangelization, and into discipleship, catechesis and formation, through the life of devotion and of self-denial, and finally back to the liturgy where we are reconciled as children of God back to the Father. Nothing is neglected, and everything that we do is ordered to the glory of God and the Christification of the world. 

"This journey from source to summit can be a model for our lives, and for our parishes."

All too often in our parishes, though, these different realms of the Church’s life can be confused and put in competition with each other. Worse still, the liturgy is sometimes pulled down from the mountaintop and utilized for some other purpose, however well intentioned it may be. The liturgy might be used as a platform for devotional prayer in various forms, for teaching and instruction in the faith, as a venue to draw in and evangelize others, or even as an event for the expression of the cultures of the world. 

There is a growing awareness and desire today for our parishes simply to let the Mass be the Mass, and to put the other essential parts of the Church’s work each in their proper place. In this way, perhaps our parish celebrations of the liturgy can truly become both the radiant and life-giving source, as well as the final destination, of everything else that we do outside the church walls. In light of the many trials and challenges that we are facing today, this task is becoming more and more urgent.

Four Realms of the Catholic Journey

The journey from source to summit passes through four general realms of the Church’s life. These realms can be seen as a series of four concentric circles:

  1. The largest circle is the realm of culture at large
  2. Within this we find the realm of evangelization
  3. And then the realm of discipleship and devotion
  4. And finally, at the very center, we find liturgy and worship
(Concentric Circles of the Church's Life and Mission)

If we look at the image of the mountain from above, we can see these realms cascading down across the mountainside, from its peak to its base and beyond:

(The Church's Journey from Source to Summit)

Each of these four realms are essential parts of the Church’s life and mission. Liturgy and worship must flow out and down the mountain, into the culture at large; our work in the world must lead to evangelization; evangelization must lead to discipleship, formation, and devotion; and our life of faith must prepare us once again to enter back into that which transcends them all: the sacred liturgy at the mountain summit.

Completing every step of the journey from source to summit — to and from the mountain peak — is also essential. And it requires that each of us pass through every realm along the way. The Church’s life and mission would be devastated if any of us with vocations in the active life chose to stay in just one of these realms while neglecting the rest. Worse still, if we confuse or put any of these realms in competition with or at odds with the other, the journey from source to summit could be obstructed and the Church’s life and mission could be compromised.

Music and the Purpose of Each Realm of the Church’s Life

Each realm of the Church’s life has a particular character and purpose. And so, what we do within each realm on the journey from source to summit should be informed by what the realm is, and be directed toward its purpose. In this way, we can be most successful and fruitful in our task there. Music — which is such a powerful expression and integral part of our lives — has an important role to play in each of these realms. The music that we use in each realm, then, should be distinctive. And its style and character should be aimed at accomplishing the realm’s particular purpose in the Church’s life and mission. 

Let’s have a look at the purpose of each realm, and the music that best serves that purpose.

1. In Culture at Large

We are poured out into the culture at large for the purpose of illuminating it with the Light of Christ in all that we do. In our ordinary, day-to-day lives, we elevate the culture that surrounds us by the beautiful lives that we live in Christ, and by the things that we cultivate, enlightened by grace. We become like leaven in our families, friendships, and communities; we become like light that radiates the beauty of Christ in our work and in our leisure; and we make the world around us more into the image of Christ through the work of our hands and the beautiful things that we create.

The role of music in this realm, in particular, is both to engage with the music of the culture and, at the same time, to imbue and elevate it with the Light of Christ. Catholic musicians in this realm need not hide from the world, but engage with it, cultivate their craft as excellently as they can, and work to take center stage in the world, forming the culture with the beauty that comes from God. And so, the kind and style of the music in this realm of the Catholic journey is conversant with the music of the culture, but it always seeks to elevate and Christify it with the grace received in the liturgy and sacraments.

2. In Evangelization

The purpose of the realm of evangelization is to proclaim the gospel to all nations and to draw all people into a life of faith and relationship with Jesus Christ. Because of this purpose, it is essential in this realm for us to be able to speak the language of the world, to enter into conversation and friendship with those around us, and to give witness to the love of God and to salvation in Christ.

Music that is aimed toward the purpose of evangelization, as a result, tends both to be based in the music of the culture in some way, and also seeks somehow to present a powerful encounter with Christ and the gospel through it. Many of us have been evangelized and impacted by music in this way, and we can easily see how effective it can be in the task of evangelization. And so, the style and kind of the music that is used in this realm should be familiar and attractive to the culture, so that it might open a door to God’s saving power and love in some way for its hearers.

"Many of us have been evangelized and impacted by music... and we can easily see how effective it can be in the task of evangelization."

3. In Discipleship and Devotion

The purpose of the realm of discipleship and devotion is different still. As we climb up the mountain toward our goal, we enter into the Church’s life ad intra, or what is sometimes called the realm of the “pastoral care of the faithful”. The purpose of this realm is for followers of Christ to grow in their faith and in their love of God and neighbor. Here we read and study, we catechize and are catechized, we do the work of discipleship, we enter into private and devotional prayer, and we fast and deny ourselves as we seek to grow in holiness. 

Music in this realm also has a great power to help us along on our journey. Music has been an effective tool for formation and instruction since the early centuries of the Church. St. Ambrose wrote hymns in the fourth century specifically to help impart sound doctrine to Christians, and catechetical hymns and songs like this have been sung in every age to hand on the faith and to present it beautifully and attractively to the next generation. 

Music also has a great power in this realm to build up the devotional life and to nurture both personal and communal prayer, which are essential to the Catholic journey. Devotional music is similar to the music of evangelization in the way that it is connected to the music of the culture in some way. This kind of music usually comes from our experience, and because of our closeness to it, it can help us pour out ourselves and our hearts to God. And because the musical styles of the culture vary greatly from time to time, place to place, and especially from one generation to the next, the various styles of devotional music often change over time as well. 

"Music also has a great power in the devotional realm to build up the devotional life and to nurture both personal and communal prayer, which are essential to the Catholic journey."

This is part of the character of devotional music, and it is directly related to its aim and purpose. We have the freedom to choose the devotional music that helps us express our inner selves, our thoughts and feelings, our hopes and our sorrows, to God who meets us where we are at, in the here and now, and he loves us right where we are. This is a part of the essence of the devotional life.

4. In the Liturgy

The realm of discipleship and devotion, however, is not the end of the Christian journey. It is an intense preparation for something even greater that follows it and brings it to completion: an actual participation in the very life and saving action of Christ himself at the mountaintop of the Church’s life — at the point where heaven and earth unite: in the prayer of the sacred liturgy. 

The purpose of the liturgy both transcends and fulfills the purposes of all of the realms that come before it. The liturgy is the goal and the point of arrival in the Christian journey because, here, it is no longer us that is doing the work — it is Christ himself who acts, who prays, and who invites us to participate in his perfect song of love to the Father. It is here that the “work of redemption is accomplished” and that our fallen world is restored and once again reconciled to the Father. And it is here that Christ himself draws us into an actual participation in the final destination of our earthly journey, in the liturgy that lies above the mountain peak: the liturgy of the Heavenly Jerusalem.

Because of its exalted purpose, and because of what the liturgy is, what we do in the liturgy is different from what we do in all of the other realms of the Church’s life. 

In these other realms, the things that we did, the words that we spoke, the actions that we made, the songs that we sang, came from inside of us, from our experience, and from our inner thoughts and emotions, and we expressed them to others and to God

In the liturgy, though, something different happens: the words, actions, and even the songs do not come from within us, but they exist outside of us — they are given to us by the Church, and they become the very words, actions, and the song of Christ himself, who sings to the Father through his Mystical Body both on earth and in heaven. 

As Pope Benedict XVI taught us, “God has given us the Word and the sacred liturgy offers us words; we must enter into the words, into their meaning and receive them within us, we must attune ourselves to these words; in this way we become children of God, we become like God” (General Audience, September 26, 2012).

The music of the liturgy is set apart from the music used in the other realms of the Catholic journey because it sets the words of the liturgy itself to music. These words mostly come from scripture, forming the dialogues and responses, the parts of the Ordinary, the readings and prayers, and the antiphons and psalms of the Mass. The Church tells us that all of the words of the liturgy — every one of them — are meant to be sung, and that “liturgical worship is given a more noble form when it is celebrated in song” (Musicam Sacram 5). And the Church’s inestimable heritage has handed on to us melodies and models for singing the liturgy, even in our own language, and in every parish no matter its resources.

"The music of the liturgy is set apart from the music used in the other realms of the Catholic journey because it sets the words of the liturgy itself to music."

It also needs to be said that the outer boundaries between the different realms of the Church’s life are not distinctly clear-cut and rigid, but they flow seamlessly into each other. This must be the case because the journey from source to summit must be fluid, and we must be able to flow from one realm into the next. As a result, we have a custom of singing some music from the devotional realm within the Mass — music that comes from outside the liturgy and not from within it. And this music has taken various forms and styles, as devotional music always does, especially in recent decades. There are clearly appropriate times to sing devotional songs during the Mass. But this sort of devotional prayer during the Mass ultimately should lead us toward a deeper participation in the prayer of the liturgy itself, through its words, and through the music that brings these words to life in song.

The supreme model that the Church offers us for singing the liturgy is Gregorian chant, not because it is the Church’s favorite musical style, but because it is a musical form and model that puts music entirely at the service of the words of the liturgy. Other musical forms can be used, but chant has a special ability to wrap the words of the liturgy in song, and to lift them up to the heights of heaven, bringing us who sing and unite ourselves to these words along with them to God’s throne in heaven.

Elevate the Liturgy in Your Parish

Today, there is both a great opportunity and a tremendous need to elevate the liturgy in our parishes. At the time of this writing, the world is in the throes of a pandemic that has shaken many institutions out of their stable status quo and into a mode of mission and adaptation. The Church, especially, is in a place of great vulnerability in which the status quo will no longer carry us forward. Perhaps it is also a time for great hope. Right now there is an opportunity for deep and lasting renewal that begins with each of us working together to elevate the liturgy in our parishes and in our lives.

The liturgy is the goal toward which all things are directed, and is the font from which all her power flows. Through it, God transforms us, and through us he transforms the world. Elevating the liturgy in your parish is possible, and Source & Summit is here to help you achieve it for the glory of God and the Christification of the world. 

Adam Bartlett
August 18, 2020

Liturgy, Music, and the Church's Journey from Source to Summit

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