Catholics don’t sing. It’s a common refrain, but I’m not sure I believe it. Catholics will belt out a ballad while in the shower, they’ll sing along in the car (except at red lights of course), heck, I’ve even witnessed the most hardened men sing rapturous odes to their footy teams after a win. Music is a natural and unique facet of human culture. It expresses a connection to a common identity that can only be truly understood from the inside. As one of my philosophy professors explained, 'nobody but an Australian can fully appreciate the nuance in the lyrics of Waltzing Matilda.'
The Catholic Church is no exception to this rule; two thousand years of Tradition has left us with a huge repertoire to choose from, whether for use in liturgies or simply for personal appreciation. One of the joys I have as a cantor at my local parish is to shake the dust of some of the beautiful hymns that connect us to our ancestors in faith. From the ancient Veni Creator Spiritus to the beautiful lyrics of Australian poet James MacAuley’s Jesus in Your Heart we Find, these hymns strengthen our own identity as Catholics and remind us that we are part of a great communion of saints, whose members have received and passed on the same faith for over two thousand years.
Someone who understands this very well is Catholic singer/songwriter Audrey Assad. Speaking on her conversion she said, 'as I got older and started reading a lot of theology and exploring the faith of Christianity, I found myself enamoured with the oldness more than anything.' Her new album Inheritance is a fantastic blend of old and new, bringing out hymns from the storehouse of our common heritage and breathing new life into them with her own haunting vocals.
With the dawn of the internet, more Catholic artists than ever before are contributing to the wealth of our common heritage, sometimes in very unique ways. Texan singer songwriter Harrison Lemke’s latest album Fertile Crescent Blues is a fascinating examination of life immediately following the fall, blending an acoustic folk vibe with themes of sorrow, repentance and existential horror assuaged only by the faint hope that God keeps his promises. For we who are living in the fulfillment of that promise, these tunes are an opportunity for us to reflect on the joy of the Gospel, to remember what makes the Good News ‘good news’.
Ultimately, Christian music expresses our identity in Christ. As a young man Blessed Pier Giorgio Frassati was known to sing consistently off key, but would sing for love of God and his great desire to hold on to his Catholic heritage during the rise of fascism in Italy. Perhaps in this secular age, when identification with Jesus places us further outside of the norm, we will rediscover the solidarity that music provides. After all, in the words of one of Audrey Assad’s rediscovered hymns, 'since love is Lord of heaven and Earth, how can I keep from singing?'
Mark O’Shea is a primary school teacher and editorial assistant living in Melbourne.