Why Catholic Schools Should be Communities of Sacred Song
Interview with Dr. Andrew Seeley
Dr. Seeley is co-founder and director of advanced formation for the Institute for Catholic Liberal Education. For more than two decades, he has been a tutor at Thomas Aquinas College. He is co-editor of Classic Hymns for Catholic Schools and author of Golden Treasures: Comments on Classic Hymns for Catholic Schools.
Why do children need music? Why do Catholic children need Catholic hymns?
We are musical beings. Music is as natural to us as laughter and tears. A child needs to hear her mother singing as much as she needs to see her smile. This is why mothers can hardly help singing to their infants. Toddlers spontaneously respond to lively music with bouncing joy. The formative effect of music on the young can hardly be overestimated. Children need to hear music that will help them feel and express the whole range of human emotion in creative and healthy ways.
But not only to hear! Making music is as natural to us as hearing it. God has built instruments into our body—our feet and hands to make rhythm, our voices to make melody and harmony. Children are naturally apt to sing and to be trained to sing. They have a ready memory for sung lyrics. The music they carry with them in their hearts will stay with them throughout the various circumstances of their lives. St. Maximilian Kolbe strengthened his fellow victims by singing hymns as they were starved to death by their amazed captors.
Adults often underestimate what children are capable of. Singing is difficult for us because we missed our opportunity for learning to sing easily. Continual immersion in professionally performed music intimidates us with unrealistic expectations of what enjoyable singing demands. Children need to be trained to sing naturally and confidently before they reach the age of embarrassment.
Catholics need to learn to sing classic hymns so that the rich poetic expressions of Catholic doctrine, imagery, and passion in simple but beautiful melody and harmony will become a part of them, and provide them with a lifetime of spiritual joy and consolation. They need to feel how natural it is for a congregation to “sing psalms, hymns and spiritual songs with thankfulness in your hearts to God,” as St. Paul exhorts us. They need to be ready as adults to contribute to and pass on the Church’s amazing traditions of music in parish and cloister.
Why did you compile Classic Hymns for Catholic School and write the Golden Treasures commentary?
My wife and I were blessed to become part of a fellowship of classic hymnody, that consisted of a number of families, including that of my co-editor, Kathleen Goodrich. Our friends began inviting us over after Sunday Mass for brunch, conversation, and an hour or so of hymn singing. They were converted Episcopalians and shared with us their rich tradition of English hymnody. It was there I learned to sing for the first time, and it wasn’t easy!
Though I had always liked to sing by myself, and I liked some of the hymns I learned as a young Catholic, I had never been taught to sing or read music. I had the hardest time learning to sing a tenor part on my own. But I loved every minute of it. Not only would we sing the hymns, but we also talked a lot about the meaning and beauty of their lyrics, about their lyricists and composers, about their historical and cultural significance. I learned for example that “Nearer, My God, to Thee” was reportedly played by the orchestra as the Titanic sank into the seas (I never saw the movie) and is an incredibly moving, five verse presentation of the famous scene of Jacob’s Ladder from Genesis. I learned that each hymn has a story and is a complete story or prayer.
I began using an early version of the hymnal from the very beginning of our Institute for Catholic Liberal Education teacher formation programs. I hoped to inspire and equip Catholic schools to give their students the beautiful experience of hymn singing I almost completely missed. Even teachers will find working in a community of spiritual song uplifting. I also have a dream that this generation of Catholic school children will have in their hearts a small but powerful collection of hymnody that they can share as adults with one another and the Church.
What has been the response to these resources?
Participants have always loved the hymn singing during our program Masses and Divine Office prayers. It contributes to making them feel as much like retreats as professional development. We shook the rafters at last summer’s National Conference! A number of schools have begun using the hymnals, and I hope we will soon develop workshops to help schools use them effectively. Early comments on the commentary volume have been very complimentary. The Catholic Response concluded its favorable review by saying, “The [hymnal] should be in the hands of every Catholic school student in the country; the [commentary] in the hands of teachers. What a welcome gift; Christmas has come early!”
Do you have a favorite hymn?
Oh, so many! But if I have to identify one, I will pick “Abide With Me,” a hymn written by Henry F. Lyte as he was dying in 1847. The lyrics remind us of the fleetingness of life as he expresses his need for God’s presence in his growing physical darkness. The verses move toward greater and greater hope, culminating in St. Paul’s rallying cry of “Where is death’s sting? Where, Grave, thy victory?” and an exhortation to find comfort in the Cross of Jesus. We had a custom of ending all our Sunday brunches with this hymn. My family sang it spontaneously as we laid my father in his grave. I hope my children will do the same for me.
How can Catholic schools use the resources you developed to immerse students in sacred songs?
We selected 50 hymns for the collection, small yet broad enough to provide songs for most seasons and feasts; we even included liturgical suggestions for Masses through the academic year. A school can build up a culture of hymn singing by using them not only for school Masses, but also for daily assemblies and special events. They are ideal for use in conjunction with Magnificat Morning and Evening Prayer.
We strongly recommend working through all the verses of a hymn over time, since each hymn is a complete prayer, a complete reflection. Singing in unison is the way to begin. We strongly encourage schools to take the time to begin teaching every student to sing in harmony. As little as 20 minutes three times a week can accomplish much. We also made sure that the hymnals are inexpensive, so that each student can own their copy, and families who would like to sing together can also afford them.
I think every teacher would benefit from Golden Treasures. They will come to understand deeply the hymns that are becoming a part of their students’ lives, and I believe will find many opportunities to make connections with subjects inside and life outside of the classroom.
What encouragement can you provide to Catholic school leaders who are interested in renewing their music programs?
Schools that have invested in developing a common culture of choral singing have been deeply blessed. It takes commitment, but the rewards are great. Besides our Institute, excellent opportunities to form both students and teachers are available through organizations like Pueri Cantores, the Sacred Music Colloquium, the Music Association of America, the Ward Method at Catholic University, among others.
Musical formation is not an option. The young will be formed by music; the only question is whether that formation will come exclusively in the form of popular secular music, cartoons, movies, and advertisements. Once I was asked what to say to a principal who already feels there is not enough time in the school day. The answer that came to me was, “Not being able to sing is like being deprived of one of your senses. If I told you that 20 minutes a day can make your deaf students hear, would you do it?”