Liturgical Music, Dialogue and Integral Human Development


I have been leading liturgical music at Mass for more than fifty years. How I think about liturgy has changed over time.

In the 1950s, my initial religious education taught me that I am a sinner who needs to worship God, repent of my sins and maintain myself in a state of grace so that when the bus runs me over, I won’t go to hell. I attended Mass – watching what I couldn’t see, listening to what I couldn’t understand.


Vatican II happened while I was in high school. At the same time, I started to play guitar and to sing folk songs. And while the formal religious education was … forgotten, I joined the Sodality, a religious club which encouraged us young members to make our faith meaningful to ourselves and to add action to belief.

And suddenly, the Mass changed: we could understand what was said, we saw what the priest was doing. Goodbye attend, hello participate: the reforms of Vatican II allowed the community to engage in the Mass. And I was part of that, by choosing and leading music at Mass in an idiom that felt familiar to the congregation.


Jump ahead to the mid-70s: our family joined a parish in Ottawa, St. Basil’s, that had a strong ethic of social action. We made friendships there and found mutual support.

At some point in the 70s or early 80s, it dawned on me that my hymn choices for Mass reflected three dimensions. Mass was definitely about worship and a personal relationship with God. In addition, the worship took place in a participating community. And action was essential to faith.

Therefore, ideally, I would choose and lead music in a manner that reflected all three. If I diagram it, liturgy occurs where the three dimensions meet, like at the centre of a Venn diagram.

Source: Robert Czerny

A homily in the mid-80s led me to an added layer. Baptism of water and blood and spirit (1 John 5) corresponded somehow to my worship-community-action intersection. Spirit and blood map readily to worship and community. Water, a necessity of all life, calls for our responsible action. (I don’t propose this as a proper interpretation of 1 John 5.)

I also thought about what can happen when the focus is on a single dimension, or a pair of them. There are people who would prefer worship to be a private affair, and there are people who enjoy social clubs and people who are dedicated activists. Nothing absurd about such choices that focus on one dimension exclusively.


But what of the pairings? I am leery of the worship-community pairing: it can become smug and superior (“We are the saved and you aren’t”) and indifferent to the needs that surround us. I am wary of the worship-action pairing: it can become autocratic (“My plan for society is the right one because I have it from God”). I am less concerned about the community-action pairing – this is where secular humanists band together to do good.

A biography of Pope Francis[1] relates how, in his native Buenos Aires, his Mass was often an occasion that brought together the people of a particular community – and sometimes members of two opposed communities – in a situation that took them beyond their familiar secular formulations of needs and positions and oppositions, to a place of dialogue.

It was a place where the lived fides of the pueblo grappled with the realities of their daily lives. That is, who we are (community) and what we need to do (action) encounter the prisms of faith, hope and love through the rituals of the Mass (worship), and this makes a difference in our lives.

Pope Francis with Cardinal Turkson, head of Promoting Integral Human Development. Source:

One of the Pope’s organizational changes at the Vatican has been the creation of a department for Promoting Integral Human Development.  To me, “Integral” means that nothing essential to being human is neglected and all essential dimensions interact; they are not compartmentalized.

Mass should be integral to our lives, not preserved somewhere separate. This guides me as a liturgical musician. I want to help the Mass to be an occasion of dialogue among the three essential dimensions of worship, community and action.


[1] Austen Ivereigh, The Great Reformer

Robert Czerny lives in Ottawa and southwest Nova Scotia. Two main interests are ethics in Canada and Catholic social teaching and action.

  • Maria Skarzynski
    Posted at 09:57h, 27 September Reply

    Have lived through the many liturgical changes and thoughts you mention. The most important to me now is to avoid the ‘stand back because we are the saved’. – which is still visible in some churches during liturgy, even when it is well meant, The Mass must be open to all – and I mean all – to take part in fully. Recently I was present when an elderly priest invited all the children to the altar. They surrounded him before the consecration – he explained what was going to happen and they stayed at the altar until communion was started. I bet these children will remember this for awhile. Thanks for a good article.

  • Peter Bisson, SJ
    Posted at 00:56h, 28 September Reply

    Thank you, Robert!

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