Creating Community through Culturally Unfamiliar Music

The most recent issue of Liturgy dealing with “Communities of Musical Practice,” guest-edited by E. Byron Anderson, offers the many ways congregations use music, learn new music, teach familiar hymns to new members, and generally tread the fine lines that allow music to work its faith nourishment in the congregation by both comforting and challenging.

What follows is an excerpt from Steven Janco’s essay describing the journey of a long-established congregation to navigate three challenges they faced in broadening their musical repertoire: 1) to work with the given order of service and texts, 2) to honor the role of music as a ministry, and 3) to monitor the theology of the hymn texts.

Here he shows how the congregation he serves as liturgy and music director has helped the diverse congregation members hear and appreciate each others’ musical traditions, beginning with introducing gospel song. –– Melinda Quivik


. . . At St. Eulalia, the preferred gospel style leans more toward a soulful feel rather than a faster beat often associated with Pentecostal worship. Early efforts to incorporate African American musical styles into the liturgy focused on spirituals and songs with repetitive texts and gospel music for choir (and soloist). Oral tradition songs with very little text were easy to teach and sing, even if their renditions at times felt a little awkward. The congregation didn’t need a hymnal in order to sing “Come and Go with Me to My Father’s House,” “I’m So Glad Jesus Lifted Me,” “This Little Light of Mine,” or “He’s Got the Whole World in His Hands.” Repetitive text also opened up the possibility of clapping while singing! The choir played an important role in introducing contemporary gospel music to the parish, as much music written in the last fifty years is written for choir or for choir and soloist.

Given the priority of congregational singing in the post-Vatican II Roman Rite, gospel music of this genre was often performed during the offering and preparation of the altar—or as a meditation after communion. . . The inclusion of even just one full-blown gospel piece performed with an experienced soloist, a proficient piano player, and percussion, could have a significant impact as a sign of recognition, validation, and an embracing of cultural gifts.

Congregational access to music of the African American tradition increased significantly with the publication of Lead Me, Guide Me in 1987. Assembled after wide consultation with African American Catholic leaders and musicians, “the African American Catholic hymnal” combined in one volume not only traditional spirituals, hymns, and some gospel songs, but new ritual music and psalmody by African American composers. Lead Me, Guide Me was . . . a ground-breaking achievement—an opportunity for “Black Catholics, who embody various religious and cultural traditions” to “share our gifts with the wider ecclesial community.”

. . . Because it is not possible or practical to incorporate music from every represented culture into the Sunday liturgy, I take advantage of other opportunities to include music representing other cultures. The half hour of caroling that precedes the Christmas Eve Mass at Night is one such opportunity. Filipinos in the choir typically sing the verses of a favorite Christmas song in Tagalog, while the choir responds with an English translation of the refrain. A former member of the choir who was born in Nigeria and grew up in a fairly traditional Catholic environment would chant the antiphon “Hodie Christus Natus Est” (“Today Christ is born”). Christmas songs in Spanish have included “Alegrıa, Alegrıa, Alegrıa” and “Vamos Todos a Belén,” while the African American tradition might be represented by two spirituals, “Behold the Star” and “Rise Up, Shepherd, and Follow,” and the song “Jesus, What a Wonderful Child.” The standard “O Holy Night” would provide something more traditional in English, while “Night of Silence” by Daniel Kantor would add something more contemporary. In a multicultural community, even a small gesture of inclusion can communicate recognition, respect, “us-ness,” and even affection.

Steven Janco’s full essay in Liturgy 33, no. 4 is available by personal subscription and through many libraries.

Steven R. Janco, liturgy and music director at St. Eulalia Parish (1986–1990 and 2009–present), is also a composer of liturgical music and from 2006 to 2017 was director of the Rensselaer Program of Church Music and Liturgy at Saint Joseph’s College, Rensselaer, Indiana.

Steven R. Janco, “A Culturally Diverse Roman Catholic Parish as a Community of Musical Practice,” Liturgy 33, no. 4 (2018): 29-36.

David Turnbloom