HENRIETTA — Even when talented musicians play hymns flawlessly, spiritual enhancement is not a given.
Rather, Curtis Stephan stressed that the top priority for liturgical musicians should be to elicit full, conscious, active participation, as called for by the Second Vatican Council.
“It’s not my song, it’s our song,” he said, adding that musicians should avoid the temptation to be “‘performing’ music that doesn’t really appeal to people.”
Stephan, a nationally acclaimed singer and songwriter from Texas, imparted this advice during a series of workshops he led Oct. 21 at Church of the Good Shepherd. The 33-year-old’s appearance also included a Friday-evening concert with his band, as well as their joining in the weekend liturgies.
Stephan discussed the relationship between music and vibrant worship during a Saturday-morning session for parish musicians, liturgists, pastoral leaders, youth-ministry leaders and evangelization-team members. He noted the growing acceptance of contemporary music in liturgy, as well as the application of nuanced rhythm to standard hymns.
“What we’re trying to do is bring out all that Vatican II was asking,” he said, quipping that before the 1960s, “The church kind of discouraged rhythm because people were going to move their body and that was going to lead them into sin. Then the spirit revealed that maybe it really wouldn’t be that bad.”
Along with the onus on musicians to enhance participation, Stephan stressed the congregation’s obligation to sing. He observed that many people who clam up at Mass will readily join in on “Take Me Out to the Ballgame” and “Happy Birthday.” Of the latter song, he said, “It’s not because we’re talented singers, right? We’re overflowing with joy and connecting it to the person we’re singing about.”
He said that same principle should apply in church — with God being the recipient of this joyous singing.
“If this is the highest form of praise, then we should treat it that way, right?” Stephan remarked. “This is the moment we should really try to do our best.” He added that on a personal level, singing is his way of expressing his love for God in a more impassioned manner than prayer recitation allows.
Yet many congregants don’t share his exuberance, leaving him to dub such folks “the chosen frozen.” One way of breaking the ice, so to speak, is to engage them in “call and response,” in which the congregation repeats the musicians’ lines. For example, Stephan cited the song “You Are Worthy of My Praise”: “I will worship (I will worship)/with all of my heart (with all of my heart)/I will praise you (I will praise you)/with all of my strength (with all of my strength).”
Creating a spark among church-goers may or may not involve clapping.
“You have to use good judgment,” he said, adding that in helping the congregation find its voice, “we can’t force anything.” He suggested having musicians sit in the pews, imagining themselves as congregants and the personal situations they may be facing such as divorce, having a baby and drug addiction: “Who are we singing to?”
Stephan said not all pastoral leaders will see eye-to-eye with musicians on what’s appropriate, but that it’s important to keep communication going and attend liturgy-planning meetings. In addition, he said the music should be grounded in Catholic roots.
Stephan serves as music director at St. Ann Church, a large parish near Dallas, where he oversees a morning choir as well as music for a youth Mass. For those who seek to begin their own youth liturgy or contemporary young-adult ensemble, his motto is “simple, scriptural and singable,” meaning the music should be easy to remember and contain a good message.
“It’s that ‘less is more’ thing,” he said. “Focus on what you know, and really try to do it well.”
Father Doug Della Pietra, pastor of Good Shepherd, was tuned in to Stephan’s message because his parish has its own contemporary Christian band, and also because he is an accomplished musician in his own right. The priest said he hopes Stephan’s influence will serve “to maybe open up people’s hearts and minds, to see what might be possible, to give a picture of what could be — taking that model and building on it.”