One of the hardest things to get used to during this past year of lockdown and restrictions, has been the ban on congregational singing. It seems a natural thing to want to sing when you hear a familiar hymn, and I’ve not felt comfortable saying to people at a funeral, or at a Mass where were having a bit of singing from a cantor, to please not sing. The latest instruction from Government is that from next Monday more than one person may be permitted to sing at religious services, but as yet, we do not yet have any detail about what that might involve, or what precautions might still be needed. But congregational singing is not allowed, as the Government has said it’s too soon; although, I think sneaky singing happens beneath masks.
From when I was young, I have always loved singing. I think I take it from my mother’s side of the family. I have no memory of my father singing, although he died when we were young, but I do know that my mother was a lovely singer and often appeared on the programme of concerts at the Partick Burgh Hall, which were put on by my grand-uncle Tony, who was a bit of an impresario. My mother had two sisters, no brothers. Her older sister had a daughter who became a reasonably well- known jazz singer. Her younger sister had a son who was an excellent guitarist and singer, and played with a popular pop group on the dance hall circuit. I, myself, was more into contemporary and traditional folk music, and played with a couple of groups that worked the folk club circuit in the late 1960’s and early 1970’s. Although I was also the double bass player, of very limited talent, it was really the singing I loved most.
When I got involved with the Passionists at our Retreat House at Coodham in Ayrshire, long since closed, I became heavily involved in the music for the liturgy. It was an experimental time in the wake of Vatican II, and some of the new music wasn’t great, but some of it was, and has stood the test of time. I was, by then, a reasonably competent guitarist, and when I joined the Passionists in 1975, I was asked to put together a folk group to sing at Masses at the Graan in Enniskillen. When I moved on to Mount Argus in Dublin, I was asked to do the same. I also became involved with Charismatic Renewal for a few years, playing guitar, and leading the singing, at prayer groups all over Ireland. When I later returned to Mount Argus as parish priest and rector, 20 years ago this year, I found myself getting involved with the folk group again, still containing a remnant of the group I had started 25 years previously.
I’m no purist when it comes to music, even liturgical music. I appreciate beautiful music, but I also believe that everyone has a right to raise their voice to God in song and that, much more important than the sound that comes out of the mouth, is the praise that comes out of the heart, and I much prefer to hear a congregation singing their hearts out, than sitting back like an audience at a concert to just listen. Of course, there are reflective moments when it is appropriate to just sit and listen, and let the music take you deeper, but not all the time, and I have a feeling that God would appreciate the heartfelt efforts of even the most discordant voices, if they were genuine and sincere. So, here's hoping that congregational singing will return very soon, and we can all pray twice by singing.
I think where I am missing the singing, Father Gareth is missing the hugging. It was always a feature of post-Mass greetings in St. Mungo’s to see Father Gareth extending a huge hug of friendship to all and sundry. He is so big that he could wrap his arms around four people at one time. Sadly, for him, that while the news has been making much of the ability to hug each other again, or at least shake hands, from next Monday also, this only applies in private dwellings, or in gardens between close family and friends. It doesn’t mean that we can begin to shake hands at the sign of peace, or give big hugs as people enter or leave the church. So, we will need to wait a bit longer for that as well. Father Anthony is well, having just had his first Covid jab; and Father Justinian is now the oldest man in our Province at age 90. So, as ever, protect yourselves, protect your loved ones and others, and protect Christ in your lives.