In interviews that took place in Rome in 2013 shortly after he was elected, Pope Francis described the church as a field hospital after battle.[1]

The thing the church needs most today is the ability to heal wounds and to warm the hearts of the faithful; it needs nearness, proximity. I see the church as a field hospital after battle. It is useless to ask a seriously injured person if he has high cholesterol and about the level of his blood sugars! You have to heal his wounds. Then we can talk about everything else. Heal the wounds, heal the wounds. . . . And you have to start from the ground up.

As a member of the human family, each of us is weak, wounded, sick, and sore in so many different ways. As followers of Jesus Christ, our journey from wounded and sick to wholeness and holiness is a journey of becoming each day more and more the Body of Christ.

Come, you sinners, poor and needy,
Weak and wounded, sick and sore,
Jesus, Son of God, will save you,
Full of pity, love, and pow’r.
I will arise and go to Jesus,
He will embrace me in his arms;
In the arms of my dear Savior,
Oh, there are ten thousand charms.[2]

Each of us has been invited into the embrace of Jesus who will heal us and transform us into himself. This is our vocation—individually and communally. This is what it means to live the Gospel life. This is what is means to become Christ. This “coming to Jesus” is a journey begun at Baptism. Our entire life is a journey of coming to the wholeness or holiness that is our Christian identity.

There is a balm in Gilead, to make the wounded whole;
There is a balm in Gilead, to heal the sin-sick soul.[3]

The very first national convention of the National Association of Pastoral Musicians I attended was the second one; it took place in Chicago in 1979. Its theme was Prayer: Performance and Participation. Sometimes the word “performance” is misunderstood to mean “entertainment” or “showing off one’s talent.” However, whenever we celebrate liturgy we are engaged in ritual or ritual performance. And that is a good thing. Vatican II called it “active participation.”

Singing within the liturgical ritual we call worship engages the whole person—body, mind, heart, and spirit—when it is performed fully and consciously. Because it has “performative” power, this liturgical singing can be transformative. In other words, such activity—this singing that we are about—has an important role in transforming us individually and as a community—into Christ.

Performative Language Theory

Theologians and philosophers who work with performative language theory can help us understand and appreciate more deeply what we are actually doing when we gather for worship. They have concluded that in liturgical activity, when we speak or sing our prayer, we are accomplishing something.[4] Here’s a simple example. When we shout: “Look out!” we are  warning someone of impending danger. The power to effect or accomplish this something, according to John Searle, is produced not simply by words or word order, but by deep syntactic structure, stress and intonation contour.[5] So what is intonation contour anyway? Well, we don’t whisper sweetly “look out” when someone is in danger. We shout LOOK OUT! Performative language includes syntactic structure, stress, and intonation contour. Sounds like music to me.

A musical setting in combination with the text heightens the power of the words to do something or accomplish something in the singing of a hymn because of the presence of melody or pitch, rhythm and meter. In liturgy, the performative and theological meaning is potentially enhanced when music and text are joined. I can simply say “O Healing River send down your water.” Or we can sing it using rhythm and intonation contour:

O healing river, send down your waters,
Send down your waters upon this land.
O healing river, send down your waters,
And wash the blood from off the sand.[6]

Another characteristic of performative speech is that it can be repeated in new situations. Repetition can be a good thing! For Christmas and Easter and other liturgical events, we are happy singing the classic hymns and Mass settings again and again. These texts are not sung to provide us with information. Rather, they are sung to perform our faith, to express wonder and praise. Singing the hymn texts expresses, and actually helps to create a situation or facilitates the recognition of a situation. That situation may be praising God, asking for mercy, rejoicing that Christ has conquered sin and death or expressing our need for forgiveness.

Jean Ladrière points to another important aspect of the performativity of liturgical language. He claims that a performative activity, such as singing, awakens in the person singing a certain affective disposition that opens up existence to a specific field of reality.[7] An effect is produced. We speak an attitude.

O, Lord, hear my prayer. O Lord hear my prayer.
When I call answer me.
O Lord hear my prayer. O Lord hear my prayer.
Come and listen to me.[8]

This attitude of petition opens us up to prayer. We speak the attitude of pleading. An effect is produced: we accomplish the act of petitioning or asking.

Of course, sometimes when we go to liturgy, we may not personally feel the attitudes of a particular hymn or song. On any particular day, we may not be feeling grateful or joyful or forgiving. Nevertheless, like the small child who is repeatedly reminded by her parents to “say thank you,” Christian dispositions such as praise, love, contrition, gratitude, are learned over time, until they become our own fundamental Christian dispositions or affections.

But liturgical singing not only disposes individuals. It also constitutes a community. According to the General Instruction of the Roman Missal (GIRM 2002), this is one of the intended goals of the gathering and communion processionals. Article 47 states that the purpose of the entrance chant or opening hymn “is to open the celebration, foster the unity of those who have been gathered, introduce their thoughts to the mystery of the liturgical season or festivity, and accompany the procession of priests and ministers.”[9] Article 86 states that the purpose of the communion chant or hymn “is to express the communicants’ union in spirit by means of the unity of their voices, to show joy of heart, and to highlight more clearly the ‘communitarian’ (emphasis added) nature of the procession to receive Communion.”[10] In other words, one of the underlying ideas of both articles 47 and 86 is that the singing itself aids in situating the assembly in an experience of unity during the entrance and communion processions. (Instrumental music during the communion procession doesn’t do this, unless everyone in the assembly is playing an instrument!)

An experience of singing together is not only spiritual or mental. Rather, it is in a palpable way also physical. Through the participation of our bodies, whether singing, listening, moving to the rhythms of the hymns, we have a concrete, that is physical and real (mental or spiritual), experience of unity. Both the gathering and communion processionals are meant to bring the assembly together in a common sentiment, whether that be praise, petition, contrition, or thanksgiving. We are looking at language here, not as an object, but as an activity.

Why is unity so much to be desired in these liturgical experiences? Because we are all moving throughout life from the experience of fragmentation and isolation to becoming more and more, day by day, the one Body of Christ. This happens as we become more and more united with Christ. But our union with Christ also is meant to unite us with our sisters and brothers so that we can be the presence of Christ in our world. Hymn singing has the potential to assist in this transformation through the very act of singing.

In the Eucharistic prayer, the presider (on our behalf) calls the Holy Spirit to come down upon the bread and wine so that it may become the body and blood of Christ. But that is only half the story. The presider (on our behalf) also calls the Holy Spirit to come down upon the gathered assembly so that we may become one in Christ and with each other. Our singing situates us in that space where it is possible to experience that unity—however fleeting and fragile it may be—so that we might believe in the Lord’s call to unity and live in hope of its final realization.

Ubi caritas, est vera, est vera:
Deus ibi est, Deus ibi est.

In true communion let us gather.
May all divisions cease
And in their place be Christ the Lord,
Our risen Prince of Peace.

May we who gather at this table
To share the bread of life
Become a sacrament of love,
Your healing touch, O Christ.[11]

Yes, may all divisions cease as we become united with Christ and with each other. That is the true communion that we celebrate. In receiving the Eucharist, we become the sacrament of Christ, that is, we become Christ’s presence for each other in our wounded, sin-sick world.

Phenomenology: Disclosure

One of the contemporary philosophical disciplines that can help us grasp some of these ideas is phenomenology. Having a phenomenological attitude means that we look at things in their truth and in their evidencing. By evidencing we mean “allowing a thing to manifest itself to us.”[12] We have this experience all the time. For example, we can say that when the assembly gathers, it manifests the presence of Christ. At the same time, the assembly and each individual in it also receives that manifestation of Christ’s presence. Furthermore, the singing assembly can manifest the presence of Christ through the particulars of a hymn while also receiving a manifestation of Christ by means of the hymn singing.

Consider the first three stanzas of an ancient Christmas hymn.

Of the Father’s love begotten
Ere the worlds began to be,
He is Alpha and Omega,
He the source, the ending he
Of the things that are, that have been,
And that future years shall see,
Evermore and evermore!

O that birth forever blessed,
When the Virgin, full of grace,
Overshadowed by the Spirit,
Bore the Savior of our race;
And the babe, the world’s redeemer,
First revealed his sacred face,
Evermore and evermore!

This is he whom seers and sages
Sang of old with one accord,
Whom the voices of the prophets
Promised in their faithful word;
Now he shines, the long-expected;
Let creation praise its Lord
Evermore and evermore![13]

One of the keys to the theological meaning of this text is the repetition of the phrase “evermore and evermore.” It highlights the notion of time and eternity that are part of the focus of the hymn. As singers and listeners, we stand in awe and wonder at what is disclosed to us: God the Father’s love, existing from the very beginning and forever. The image of the first and last letter of the Greek alphabet, the alpha and omega, capture this expanse. God’s love is the source and ending of everything that exists. In stanza two, God’s love is disclosed in the mystery of the Incarnation. The face of God’s love is revealed in the face of a baby. God’s love is disclosed so that we can experience it in our own human flesh. The third stanza reminds us that this disclosure of God’s love in human flesh was foretold and sung by prophets from of old. All creation responds with praise at the disclosure of this birth.

When a singing assembly is engaged in sung prayer, many truths may disclose themselves to the group and to individuals through the songs sung or listened to. In fact, the singing itself may be performing or articulating a state of affairs. So, for example, the truth of God’s mercy, or glory, or goodness may be manifested or disclosed. When we worship within a singing assembly, various aspects of our Christian faith are celebrated and made available to our hearts, minds, and our entire beings. This experience is part of the transformative power of liturgical music making.

Symbolizing Activity

As we all know, the liturgy consists of an interplay of many symbols that interact with each other to express or mediate theological meaning. This interplay includes sacred objects such as the altar and crucifix, bread and wine; gestures such as kneeling and standing; colors and fabric, art and architecture, sound and silence. Liturgical singing is one of those symbols. As symbol, ritual song opens up to us levels of reality that might otherwise be closed to us. It invites participation and points beyond itself. By shifting our center of awareness, symbols can change our values. This shifting can occur when a symbol invites us to look at ourselves or some aspect of reality in a new or deeper or broader way. This is what gives ritual song the potential to be transformative. This dynamic is constantly in process as the symbols of the liturgy offer us new opportunities to make sense of our world and to find our identity within it. As we are integrated or assimilated into the world of the hymns, we open up to the possibility of intentional self-transcendence: we can become different persons if we allow ourselves to be carried away by new faith meanings and orient ourselves in new ways within our faith world. By engaging with symbols, we build ourselves by building our world. This “building” of ourselves is the process of change that is involved in transformation.[14]

I began my doctoral studies at The Catholic University of America in the same month that Bill Clinton was inaugurated President for his first term. A few days before the Inauguration, tents were set up on the National Mall where we could hear a great variety of the music that is performed in the United States. Wynton Marsalis was playing in one tent, bluegrass musicians in another, and polka bands and other groups could be found further down. The folk singers Peter, Paul, and Mary were beginning their performance as I managed to find my way into their tent. As I listened, I discovered that their songs had been part of the very fabric of my life. I felt that they were, in fact, singing my life as I had experienced it until that moment and now especially in that moment. For their final song, they invited us to sing along with them, but only if we sang the song like a prayer. The song was “We Shall Overcome.”

We shall overcome. We shall overcome.
We shall overcome someday.
O deep in my heart, I do believe, that we shall overcome someday.[15]

The power of that civil rights hymn and the great crowd of ordinary Americans like me singing it, the place in our nation’s capital, the moment in time just before the Inauguration, and the history of the singing of that song in our country was overwhelming. While everyone else sang full-throated, I stood there incapable of singing, as tears welled up in my eyes. All of these songs—but especially the civil rights hymn—sang not only my life, but our life, our world, our dreams, and our very being as Americans in that moment. As symbolizing activity, the singing “carried me away,” inviting participation, transforming and deepening my awareness, and further building my world.

Perhaps you have had a similar experience with other songs or hymns. By pointing beyond itself to a world where God’s justice flourishes, liturgical singing can challenge an assembly to live more just lives. By shifting our center of awareness, singing, as symbolic activity, can change our values.  This happens because music making, as ritual symbol, can form the imagination and the affections of the worshiping community. The worshiping assembly appropriates the symbol—in this case the hymn—and “dwells in” its meaning. The assembly is invited to inhabit the world of the hymn. When we engage in singing, playing, listening, or moving with the rhythms of the music, the song can mediate participatory knowledge, a living into the music that allows our bodies and our spirits to breathe with its rhythms and phrases in such a way that they reveal the saving presence of God and our communion with the entire assembly.

My heart shall sing of the day you bring.
Let the fires of your justice burn.
Wipe away all tears, for the dawn draws near,
And the world is about to turn.[16]

When we sing this refrain to each stanza of “The Canticle of the Turning,” we inhabit the world of the hymn and dwell in its meaning. This is how singing together can potentially invite a worshiping assembly to deep conversion and transformation. Over many seasons and years, such hymn singing has the potential to transform us into just people: people who do justice.

Singing in the liturgy has the potential to transform us into more faithful followers of the Gospel of Jesus Christ, not only when we sing about justice and peace, but all the time. The dialogic call-and-response dynamic of the Gospel is ritualized in the liturgy and then lived out in daily life. We listen to the Word of God and we respond—often or usually in song. Our Christian agenda—if we can call it that—is to live the life of Christ who showed us how to respond to the poor and to instances of injustice. Christ’s life is the model for our discipleship. Luke 4:18–19 (echoing Isaiah 61:1–4) records Jesus saying: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” Needless to say, our concern about justice cannot be focused only on the texts we sing. We also need to pay attention to how the community is ordered to worship and how it acts justly.

Why Sing?

Back in the 1960s, Victor Zuckerkandl posed the question: Why do people engage in singing? (On Sunday morning we might sometimes be tempted to ask why they don’t sing, as Thomas Day did several decades ago.) Zuckerkandl observed that people sing when they abandon themselves fully to whatever they are doing.  This abandonment, Zuckerkandl pointed out, is not for its own sake, that is, not to simply forget self. Rather, this abandonment is meant to be an enlargement of the self, an enhancement of the self that at the same time is an experience of breaking down barriers.[17] (The singing that occurs at Taizé is a good example of this.) In theological language, we might talk about this abandonment as an emptying of the self in order to be open to God or filled with God. In addition, this breaking down of barriers allows us to be open, not only to the OTHER (that is, God), but also the other, that is, a fellow human being. By being drawn into the activity of singing, we are carried out of ourselves. The result is that separation is overcome and transformed into togetherness. In the specific case of hymn singing, such an experience of transcendence (being carried out of ourselves) may allow for the possibility of an experience of the sacred or of God’s presence. We have all had these experiences. They have touched us so that we remember them long after they happened.

I have had the opportunity to visit the pilgrimage site in Taizé, France, twice. By means of short, simple, repetitive chants, the singing draws the pilgrims in, enabling them to participate. Since Taizé attracts international visitors who speak in a great variety of languages and come from many different countries, cultures, and political, social, and economic settings, the music of Taizé serves to break down barriers and overcome differences. This allows participants to experience a sense of unity and belonging. In a very real way, the group’s music-making becomes a type of “situating” speech. The symbolizing activity, that is, singing, invites each worshiper to participate and inhabit its world.

When we are willing and intentional in our singing or listening, the ability of music-making to break down barriers is particularly striking. Many years ago, I attended the funeral of the father of a good friend. This friend and his brother were both accomplished church musicians and wished to provide the best music possible for their father’s Funeral Mass. The local cathedral organist was also a friend and so they engaged him to play the Mass. After spending several minutes attempting to figure out how to turn on the organ and delaying the funeral, the brothers abandoned all hope of having organ music. The congregation was invited to sing a cappella (without accompaniment), except for some places where one of the sons accompanied the assembly on his violin with melody or descants. The voices carried the day. The singing was intentional and glorious in its simplicity. That ad hoc group of worshipers and music makers sang their hearts out in the most beautiful and inspiring way because they paid attention and deliberately intended to participate.

The theologian and musician, Don Saliers, points out that ritual music has the power of transformation by forming, over time, the imagination and affectivity (affections) of the assembly. It does this by “forming and expressing those emotions which constitute the very Christian life itself.”[18] Saliers is not talking about passing, superficial feelings, but complex, permanent attitudes and deep emotions. In other words, when we sing songs of praise or thanksgiving, contrition or forgiveness, we are being formed in these Christian affections. By exhibiting (or performing) these Christian attitudes, we participate—through our music making—in the process of being shaped or formed in these very attitudes. Over time, for good or for ill, assemblies will be shaped by their musical choices. The emotional range of their worship music will either enhance or inhibit their ability to enter into those praisings, repentings, lamentings, hopings, longings, rejoicings, and thankings that are peculiar to the heart of Christian worship.

Hymn singing by itself does not guarantee transformation or conversion or healing. Rather, it provides the possibility whereby hearts and minds are touched so that they might be open to the workings of Christ’s Spirit within the assembly. The one guarantee that we do have is the promise that Christ’s Spirit is present when we gather for worship.

We need to work at the craft of our music. It is one of the vehicles through which God’s grace works in our midst. Furthermore, the assembly’s dynamic engagement with the process of transformation is essential. This occurs over time when individuals and communities give themselves over regularly to worship. Such dynamic engagement is encouraged when the language and music are authentic and life-giving. The ultimate goal is the transformation of the individual and the assembly into the one Body of Christ. That is the healing for which we long and for which we labor.

Liturgical singing is not simply some pleasant extra that makes our worship more enjoyable—although its beauty and appropriateness are highly valued. No, liturgical singing is an essential part of our lifelong quest to transform the individual and the assembly into the Body of Christ. Announcing the Good News and building a just world are not optional goals for the church. Neither should our ongoing efforts to enhance and enliven the song of each liturgical assembly be optional.  The goals are the same for both. When in our music God is glorified, we can go forth into the world with Christ’s message of Good News. This is what disciples do in the field hospital we affectionately call “our world.”


Judith Marie Kubicki, Ph.D., is a Felician Franciscan Sister from Buffalo, New York and Associate Professor in the Department of Theology at Fordham University. Sr. Judith has published three books, including  The Song of the Singing Assembly: A Theology of Christian Hymnody (GIA, 2017), and her articles and reviews have appeared in academic and pastoral journals, including Worship, Studia Liturgica, Theological Studies, GIA Quarterly, The Hymn, Pastoral Music, Aim, and Pastoral Liturgy. She is a past President of the North American Academy of Liturgy and a former Chair of the Board of Directors of the National Association of Pastoral Musicians. This summer, NPM awarded Dr. Kubicki their most prestigious award, the Jubilate Deo award.

 

[1] Antonio Spadaro, “A Big Heart Open to God: An Interview with Pope Francis. America (September 30, 2013). This article is a summary of three interviews that Spadaro held with Pope Francis in Rome in August 2013.

[2] “Come, You Sinners, Poor and Needy,” Text of the verses, Joseph Hart, 1712–1768, Hymns Composed on Various Subjects, 1759, alt.; refrain anonymous. [Editor’s note: This and all the hymn texts quoted in this essay were sung together with the whole assembly when this talk was first delivered.]

[3] “There Is a Balm in Gilead,” Text: Jeremiah 8:22; Tune BALM IN GILEAD; African American Spiritual.

[4] John Langshaw Austin, How to Do Things with Words (Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 1962), 5.

[5] John R. Searle, “Austin on Locutionary and Illocutionary Acts,” Essays on J.L. Austin, ed. Isaiah Berlin, et al. (London: Oxford University Press, 1973), 151.

[6] “Healing River,” Text: Fran Minkoff.

[7] Jean Ladriére, “The Performativity of Liturgical Language,” in Liturgical Experience of Faith, ed. H. Schmidt and David N. Power, Concilium series, no. 82 (New York: Herder and Herder, 1973), 56–57.

[8] “O Lord, Hear My Prayer,” Text: Taizé Community, 1982.

[9] U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, General Instruction on the Roman Missal, 2002. No. 47.

[10] GIRM, 2002. No. 86.

[11] “Ubi Caritas,” Text: based on Ubi Caritas, 9th c. Tune: Bob Hurd; acc. Craig K. Kingsbury (Portland: Oregon Catholic Press, 1996, 2004).

[12] Robert Sokolowski, Introduction to Phenomenology (Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 2000), 44, 64–65, 93.  See also Judith M. Kubicki, The Presence of Christ in the Gathered Assembly (New York: Continuum, 2006), 29–30.

[13] “Of the Father’s Love Begotten,” Text: Corde natus ex Parentis; Aurelius Prudentius, 348–413; tr. by John M. Neale, 1818–1866 and Henry Baker, 1821–1877, alt.

[14] Louis-Marie Chauvet, Symbol and Sacrament: A Sacramental Reinterpretation of Christian Existence, trans. Patrick Madigan and Madeleine E. Beaumont (Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 1995, 84–85, 110–112.

[15] “We Shall Overcome,” African American Spiritual.

[16] “Canticle of the Turning,” Text: Luke 1:46–58; Rory Cooney.

[17] Victor Zuckerkandl, Sound and Symbol, vol. 2, trans. Willard R. Trask (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1969), 23.

[18] Don Saliers, “The Integrity of Sung Prayer,” Worship 55 (July 1981), 293.

Reprinted from September 2019 (volume 43:5) Pastoral Music copyright 2019 National Association of Pastoral Musicians. Used with permission. All rights reserved.

Recommended Citation: Kubicki, Judith M. (2019): “The Healing for Which We Long and Labor” The Yale ISM Review: Vol. 5: No. 1, Article 8. Available at http://ismreview.yale.edu