by Catherine Maresca
On Palm Sunday in 1987 I came to the basement liturgy of St. Aloysius Catholic Church in Washington DC for the first time. This Jesuit community had a Gospel choir that healed my soul, fed my spirit, and gave me a way to express my deeply held faith. For our first five years there my children grew used to me singing (or trying to sing) with tears running down my face. I could hardly articulate how this music touched me, but I knew it was important. Jesus was with us in the unique mix of preaching and liturgy and people, but most of all I met him in the Gospel music. Like our materials in the atrium, the music was neither perfect nor professional, but it created a meeting place for me with God, invited me to participate fully, and gave me a way to hold that presence with me always. This is the power of music.
Not long after that first Sunday at St. Aloysius, someone in a course I was leading asked me about the role of music in the atrium. I went through several years of notes on the responses of children and found a treasure there. Sharing a song with good theology, understandable lyrics, and engaging music is like offering a material to the children to take home to continue their hands-on meditation on a theme offered in the atrium. I heard my own children singing in the car, on the swing set, at the table while coloring, and behind the bathroom door. One five-year-old boy stood in the midst of a seated circle of friends in the atrium and belted out “all shall be well again” every week during the year of his parents’ divorce. Later, following 9/11, an elementary class chose “On the Wings of a Dove” every week for the whole year (from a wide selection of familiar songs). “Amen” from the Lilies of the Field burst out during the closing of a First Communion retreat one year. “Joy to the World” was the perfect response of two three-year-olds to the announcement of the resurrection with the Women at the Tomb. A seven-year-old girl used to choose singing as her work, stacking a selection of songs and singing them over a group of working children. Older children have chosen “The Spirit of the Lord is Upon Me” and “May the Long Time Sun Shine on You” for their graduation liturgies.
And now adults who are working with elderly people are finding that beloved songs still have the ability to bring them into the presence of God, offering comfort.
At the international retreat for catechists in Assisi in 1997, we struggled painfully with the reality of the Roman Catholic rule against shared communion with other denominations. We were all formed in the Eucharistic theology of CGS, but Catholics were not permitted to invite their sisters in faith to join their table, and discouraged from taking communion at the Episcopal table. After a couple of days of this stilted and somewhat unsatisfying “communion,” I began to sing “Bright Morning Star Arising” in the quiet moment just after the liturgy ended. The catechists who knew it picked it up immediately. Spanish singing catechists joyfully alternated with English singing catechists for an hour or more before we left the chapel. Music offered us communion in a way our denominations could not. Sofia spoke happily to me later about the spontaneous burst of joy present in that hour.
Sometime after Assisi, Gerard Pottebaum of Treehaus Communications began to call members of CGSUSA to ask them what kind of printed resources were needed for our work. Puzzled by the request, some of the catechists at the beginning of the alphabet called me about this. When Gerard got to me I was ready: we need good music for children that we can share legally in our courses and atriums. We need lyrics, notes, chords, and a recording of a selection of songs that support the themes of CGS for children of all levels. I had a list of songs I had been compiling for years that I knew children would sing and understand. Gerard was willing to do the legal research, seek permissions, and pay the fees to use these songs. In Nashville, Beverly Sanders had a clear idea of how the recording should sound AND a children’s choir at Christ Church Cathedral able to produce that sound. Sing with Joyfor the 3-6 atrium was published, followed by Songs of Lovefor the 6-12 atrium.
Using this and other carefully chosen music is an important part of CGS. I don’t think the music of the Italian atriums crossed the ocean with the materials well, in part because of the language, and in part because Sofia herself didn’t lead music in English courses. But songs offer children a way to reflect their faith in a culturally appropriate way, build communion among the group, pray aloud comfortably before they are ready to do so with words, and continue to hold the gifts of their faith when they leave the atrium. Please sing with your children. Start with a song to learn each other’s names at the beginning of the year. Take a few minutes at the end of a session as work is being put away. If you can’t sing invite a parent who can to teach a song. Then invite the five-year-olds to be your song leaders.
Bless your children with music this year, a universal gift that does not need a ride, a prayer table, a priest, or money to create, and bring joy.