LET ME BEGIN BY CALLING the attention of the reader to a sharp contrast.  It is the contrast between a society where entertainment has become a religion, and a society where religion has become entertainment.  In societies of the  global north, entertainment has become a religion.  In our own African societies, religion has become entertainment. 

By way of explanation, if, on a Sunday morning, you go to Mass in a typical African parish, you will find a large crowd of people singing and dancing at Mass.  But the same cannot be said of parishes in countries of the global north, in Europe or in North America.   In countries of the global north, Mass attendance has become very low, only a few of the few people at Mass sing, and no one dances. But if you shift your attention from the Church to places of entertainment, the story is quite different.  Whereas the football premier league in England, or La Liga in Spain or the Bundesliga in Germany or the Serie A in Italy draw thousands of spectators to stadia, very few Nigerians pay attention to the Nigerian Premier League.  So, there in the global north, Churches are empty while stadia are filled, here in Africa Churches are full while stadia are empty.

The marginalization of Christianity in the global north created a vacuum which has been filled by another religion.  It is the religion of entertainment, the religion of the pleasure industry.  The human being is, by nature, religious.  In him or her, there is an infinite desire for the infinite-an infinite quest for truth and for goodness, an infinite desire to love and to be loved.  In the western world, with the vacuum created by the marginalization of Christianity filled by the religion of the entertainment and pleasure industry, one would find more people in the stadium than one would find in the Church.  The few you would find at Mass may not sing.  But the crowds you find in the stadium sing away with religious devotion while cheering their favourite teams or footballers.  The football stadium, the lawn tennis court, the movie house, or any place of entertainment, has become a shrine of some sorts, parishes of today's average westerner. 

Here in our own part of the world, we rarely go to the stadium, even though many of us are ardent soccer fans.  We rarely go to movies.  But we go to Church in large numbers.  We rarely frequent places of entertainment, but we have, for the most part, made religion into entertainment.  Here in Nigeria, there is very little or no difference between worship and entertainment, and that reflects in the kind of music we use in our liturgy.  We go to Church to be entertained.  Whether we go to Church to pray is another question.  And, since we go to Church to entertain and to be entertained, our singing and dancing are meant to entertain.  But there must be a difference between sacred music and any other kind of music. The reader may ask: what then is sacred music?

A thing is said to be sacred when it is set apart for a particular purpose.  In this case, sacred music is music set apart for a particular purpose, and that purpose is worship.  It is not the same as music set apart for entertainment.  The purpose of music in the liturgy is to lift our whole being to enter into an intimate relationship with God.  It is different from music for the limited purpose of pleasing the senses.  But in contemporary Nigerian Christianity, even in our Catholic Churches, under the strong influence of Pentecostalism, the distinction between sacred music and music for entertainment has become blurred, if not altogether removed.

In order to understand what sacred music is and why it is important in the liturgy, we need to understand the importance of art in the liturgy, because music is art.  Art is the use of symbols to communicate what is in the depths of the human heart, things which would have been difficult, sometimes impossible to communicate, without such symbols.  Music is composed and performed by a set of symbols.  George Handel used the music of his Messiah to tell the story of salvation.  Johann Sebastian Bach used music to act the passion narrative.  Fela Anikulapo Kuti used his brand of music as social and political commentary.  In Yoruba culture, and indeed in the culture of many African nationalities, we have songs that communicate thoughts and feelings on different occasions, e.g. birth, marriage, warfare, a quarrel  (orin owe),  victory,  death etc.  What  you  sing  in  a shrine is not what you sing on the way to the market.  Music always  communicates a message.  If it does not  communicate a message it is not music, it is noise.

Liturgical music is sacred because it is the type of music that is performed, not for entertainment, but "for the glory of God and the sanctification of the faithful" (Sacrosanctum Concilium, 117; Musicam Sacram, 4). We are made holy when we are in communion with God. Sacred music enables us to commune with God in order to be sanctified. In other words, if it does not facilitate our communion with God, if it does not enable us to pray, it is not sacred music.  By bringing us into union with God, sacred music brings joy and peace. Liturgical music unveils our hearts before the mystery of God and takes our  whole being into the heart of the mystery of  God.  If it does not do that, it is just music for entertainment.

Note that a hymn is not sacred simply because it mentions the name of God. It must be saying something to God or about God or about us to God.  It must communicate a religious appreciation of the liturgy.  Sacred music is not primarily directed at pleasing us but at pleasing God, and it is by pleasing God that we are pleased.  If not, we are just entertaining ourselves.  But we may be entertaining ourselves without praising God.  We make ourselves feel good, but we are not worshipping God.  This, then, is the question we should be asking ourselves as we sing and dance in the liturgy: are we singing and dancing to worship God or are we singing and dancing  to  please our senses and to service our vanity?

The Apostle Paul instructed the Christians who come together to worship to sing together Psalms, hymns, and spiritual canticles (cf. Col 3: 16). Singing is the sign of the heart's joy (cf. Acts 2: 46). St. Augustine adds his voice to that of St Paul by saying, "Singing is for one who loves."  An ancient proverb, sometimes attributed to St Augustine has it that "Whoever sings well prays twice over."

Sacred music is "created for the celebration of divine worship, is endowed with a certain holy sincerity of form" (St. Pius X, Motu Proprio "Tra le sollecitudini", 2). That which is sacred is holy because it is set aside for a holy purpose.  That holy purpose in this instance is the worship of the one true God.

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