How the Choir Converted the World: Through Hymns, with Hymns, and in Hymns

How the Choir Converted the World:
Through Hymns, with Hymns, and in Hymns

by Mike Aquilina
(Emmaus Road Publishing, 2016)

Back in the 80s, when people were talking about back-masking and I was listening to a lot of “charismatic” music, I never bothered to learn about the Church’s experience with or teaching about music. It is only so many years later that this book has come my way now and finally, the real meaning of “Christian music” is beginning to come together in my mind.

The “choir converted the world” because music was a weapon that strengthened the faithful, protected and disseminated the faith and fended off the faithless.

As with many other elements of our Church, it all began with the way the Jews used music.

The Musical Tradition of the Israelites
Music was very much a part of Jewish life and worship and the Israelites’ musical tradition was known and appreciated even by their neighbours and captors, as we can see from the example of the Babylonians demanding that the Israelites sing for them (Psalm 137:1-4).

Some interesting points about the Jewish musical tradition:

Connection between music and prophecy
The Hebrew word for “make music” also means “prophecy”, and this music involved using musical instruments such as the tambourine and dancing, as in the examples of Miriam (Ex 15:20-21)and Deborah (Judges 5:12).

Commemoration of important events with music
Music and song were significant in major life events, such as in Hannah’s prayer (1 Samuel 2:1-10) and some of David’s psalms.

Role of David, king composer
David’s psalms ranged from personal prayers to songs for public worship. With him, all musical instruments were suitable for praising God and his psalms became the foundational model for songs of worship.

Musical instruments
The first record of liturgy starts with the sounding of the trumpet in the exodus. In the Old Testament, the trumpet signifies God’s presence and is also used in war and sacrifice. Other instruments recorded include the harp, tambourine, flute and lyre, all of which are connected with prophesying.

The Israelites’ Apprehension about Music as Used by the Pagans
Although music was so entrenched in Jewish life and worship, the Israelites were well aware that it was also an important part of worship in the pagan temples. Isaiah, for example, warned about being trapped in this potent mix of music, wine and food (Is 5:11-12).

Early Christians’ Apprehension about Music as Used by the Pagans
This suspicion about music carried over into the early Church as music was also a significant element of pagan worship of the time. The Greek and Roman empires had rich traditions of music, which, like their other forms of art, were rooted in religion, and music was strongly associated with worship practices such as those relating to their gods or to evil spirits, and their wild revelry, orgies and rites of human sacrifice.

Thus, early Christians kept their distance from music. It just had too many heinous associations and they also saw that it had a direct effect on a person’s “moral behaviour”. Commenting on this point, Aquilina adds a reminder that modern popular music does also link to the “worst behaviour”.

Music in the Early Church
Nevertheless, music was used in the early Church, one of the obvious ways being in the musical traditions inherited from Jewish practice. Songs were commonly used in private and public worship. As the early generations of Christians continued to worship in the Temple and synagogues, they would have sung the psalms that Jesus and His disciples, and generations of Israelites before them, would have sung. The New Testament records the use of music in the early Church, such as in St. Paul’s Letter to the Colossians (3:16-17). Bible scholars recognise hymns within some epistles, such as Ephesians 5:14, 1 Timothy 3:16 and 2 Timothy 2:11-13. Revelation records a number of singing scenes.

Early Christian Music
The earliest evidence of Christian music was a hymn written with its notation on a piece of papyrus, just before year 300. By then, Christians were using psalms as well as some music based on Greek and Roman music styles although, on the whole, they tended to exclude dancing and musical instruments due to their pagan associations. There were Christians who argued that since people enjoyed music, it could be used to attract them to God. However, many early Christians felt that converts were not searching for what they used to have as pagans and so there was no need to adopt pagan styles of music. Eventually, early Christians developed “simple and vocal singing”, and here, we see the role of specific musical saints.

For example, St. Ignatius of Antioch introduced “antiphonal” singing, in which the congregation sang responses in “one voice”. This style of music was an expression of being in union with the whole congregation as well as with the whole of creation, in praise of God.

Music in the Battle against Heresy
Some leaps in the development of early Christian music arose out of staving off heretics. Some heretics gained a lot of success partly with “catchy tunes” to attract converts, resulting in some Christians distancing themselves even more from music. Others, on the other hand, took on the heretics at the music arena and turned it into a Christian victory of sorts.

By then, “private psalms” were written and sung, and Arius used this genre to promote his brand of beliefs, together with his set of “catchy melodies”. Other heretics such as Marcion, Valentius, Bardaisan and his son Harmonious wrote their own psalms. Some heretical psalms are also found in the “acts” of several Apostles; these were mostly the work of heretical sects.

In response, the Church specified that only psalms from Scripture could be used. St. Ephrem of Syria adapted Harmonious’ method of hymn-writing (Harmonious had developed a form of poetry by modifying Greek rules of metre and music for the Syriac language), established and trained female choirs (Bardaisan method) and wrote hymns that were theologically and spiritually sound and yet easy for people to comprehend and memorise. Some of his hymns specifically targeted the false teachings of Arius and Bardaisan.

Another saint who played his musical part was St. Ambrose, a prominent figure in the battle against Arius. He developed the Ambrosian Rite, a form of the chant with antiphonal singing of short lines and catchy rhythms. Many of his hymns end with a verse of doxology in praise of the Trinity. With his grounding in classical poetry, his musical work also engaged the “intellectual elite”. Most Church music composed in Latin during the Middle Ages continued to use his 8-syllable verse metre.

Elsewhere, much work went into preserving the faith, such as in a long poem composed to disprove the Marcionite heresy and in the new western style of hymns developed by musicians such as St. Hilary of Poitiers.

Thus, in some way, it was Christian music that beat the heretics at their game.

Theology of Christian music
The next stage was the development of a sound understanding of the role of Christian music. St. Augustine was among those who were cautious about indulging in the pleasure of music. Importantly, his conversion began with his hearing a child sing. Eventually, he developed the explanation that if music is used correctly, it should lead us to the “higher things on which we should be focused”. Thus, the Christian musician is responsible for ensuring that the music leads the faithful “upward”. With music understood in this light, it became legitimately part of Christian liturgy.

In time, the role of music in the liturgy developed and “cantor” became an office of the Church. Years down the road, the Gregorian chant was developed and more years further down, after Guido of Arezzo’s invention of the musical staff, Church music grew to include more singers, voices, choruses and orchestras, blossoming with the many inspired Mass settings and religious music that came from the pens of various composers.

Te Deum: Our “Catholic Fight Song”
In the tradition of drowning out the attractions of pagan and heretical music and ideas, the Te Deum is a typical Catholic hymn filled with spirituality and theology, such that some see it as “the Creed set to music”. It has inspired many composers to write the music for its words and Holy God, We Praise Thy Name is the English form by which many of us know it.

Looking at these centuries of musical history, we can see that music was a gift from God that man in return could use to glorify Him. At the same time, it was a source of strength and, when used correctly with the correct spiritual substance, it gave Christians the power to preserve the right teachings, and right worship of the right God. Hence, it can be said that it was Christian music that helped defend Christianity against all sorts of attacks.

May our songs and music continue to defend our faith and to convert the world.

♫ Definitely time to sing Holy God, We Praise Thy Name




The Mass of the Early Christians


The Mass of the Early Christians
by Mike Aquilina
(Our Sunday Visitor, 2007)

“They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers.” (Acts 2:42)

As Christianity spread throughout the Roman Empire, Christians “everywhere” were known by their unity and love, and “the breaking of bread and the prayers”. For the earliest Christians, this celebration was “inseparable from the mystery of the Passover”, and when they recognised Jesus in the “breaking of bread”, it was for them the fulfilment of the Jewish rites they had known. In all its glory, this was the new Covenant the Lord sealed with His blood.

Not surprisingly, then, many elements were “transferred” from Jewish practice to Christian worship. Prayers and songs from Jewish liturgy and tradition became part of the Mass, such as the Sanctus from Isaiah 6:3, used in the Sabbath service, the Alleluia from the Hallel Psalms, and various “common refrains”. What was different was that the first Christian liturgies infused Christological and Trinitarian references into the Mass texts.

Meanwhile, the Christian clergy also emerged from Jewish tradition. The “dignity” of the Jewish priesthood, beginning from the time of Moses, was carried over, and early descriptions report how the bishop presided at Mass, assisted by priests.

Records show that wherever there was Mass, the theology, understanding of the Eucharist, liturgical practices and attention to ritual were the same “everywhere”. The Eucharist was always referred to as the Body and Blood of Christ, and it was in the Mass that early Christians “encountered the Scriptures”.

What was it called?
The Mass of the early Christians was known by these terms, which Catholics everywhere now would be familiar with:
the breaking of the bread, the sacrifice, the offering, the oblation, the liturgy (Greek leitourgia – “public service”), the sacrament, the mysteries, the table of the Lord, the Lord’s supper, the chalice, the altar, the passion of the Lord, the presence, the communion, the Eucharist (Greek eucharistia – “thanksgiving”).

“Mass” is from medieval English, derived from the Latin “missa” of the words of dismissal, “Ite, missa est” (“Go, it is ended”).

Mass was first celebrated in secret, due to active persecution of Christians. After Christianity was legally accepted by the Roman Empire (in 313), the Church was finally able to use and own buildings, many of the early ones provided by wealthy families that had converted. Reverence for everything connected to Mass was preserved, from the words of the liturgy to the altar, chalices, and so on.

Part II of the book, The Testimony of Witnesses, comprises chapters featuring the “witness” from the writings and teachings of the early Christians, including the relevant New Testament texts, teachings from the Didache and the Council of Nicea, sermons and reflections from specific “witnesses”, excerpts of early liturgical texts, as well as reports of pagan rumours about the Mass and “apocryphal and heretical texts”!

Here is a small selection from the section.

The New Testament
The texts quoted here are: The Last Supper (Luke 22:14-20), The Road to Emmaus (Luke 24:25-35), the Bread of Life discourse (John 6:1-14, 22, 25-69), the Eucharist at Corinth (1 Cor 10:1-22, 11:17-34), the Breaking of the Bread (Acts 2:41-47), the Heavenly Jerusalem (Heb 12:18-29), the Liturgy of Heaven (Rev 4:6-11), the Marriage Supper of the Lamb (Rev19:4-9).

The Didache (Greek – “teaching”)
The Didache, The Teaching of the Lord Through the Twelve Apostles to the Gentiles in full, very likely the oldest Christian record besides Scripture, has three chapters on the liturgy. These include prayers as well as advice on preparation and participation of the faithful in the liturgy. There is the Eucharistic Prayer, and a post-Communion Thanksgiving Prayer, which we would recognise some of: “Remember, Lord, your Church, to deliver it from all evil and to make it perfect in your love…” (excerpt from the Thanksgiving Prayer). The Didache also explains the sacrificial nature of the Mass and the need to confess our sins: “Every Lord’s day gather yourselves together and break bread, and give thanks after having confessed your transgressions, that your sacrifice may be pure.”

St. Ignatius of Antioch (d. 107)
St. Ignatius famously referred to the Eucharist as “the medicine of immortality”, and with the Eucharist the “beating heart” of his teaching, he considered the denial of the Eucharist as “the very mark of heresy”. He is known to be the first to use the term “Catholic” for the Church, and to write about the “priest” (presbyter) as part of the clergy.

“So, clothing yourselves with meekness, be renewed in faith, that is the flesh of the Lord, and in love, that is the blood of Jesus Christ.”

St. Justin Martyr
St. Justin gives us the “most complete description” of the early Mass and he is also known as the “first great Christian apologist”. He explained the Old Testament “types” that “foreshadowed” the Mass.

“We do not receive those as common bread and drink. For Jesus Christ our Savior, made flesh by the Word of God, had both flesh and blood for our salvation.”

St. Irenaeus of Lyons
In Against Heresies, his refutation of Gnosticism, he produced the first “comprehensive, systematic theological reflection on Christian doctrine”. He explains the Eucharistic sacrifice as the fulfilment of the Old Testament offering of the “first fruits” of the earth. The Eucharist is also the “pledge of the resurrection of the body”, and the Mass is “earthly participation in the liturgy of heaven”.

“Sacrifices… do not sanctify a man, for God stands in no need of sacrifice; it is, rather, the conscience of the offerer that makes the sacrifice holy when it is pure, and thus moves God to accept the offering as from a friend”.

St. Hippolytus of Rome
From St. Hippolytus, we have what is considered the “most complete liturgy” recorded from the first two centuries. This includes the Eucharistic Prayer, and we would recognise most of it, such as this introductory part –

Bishop:           The Lord be with you.
And all shall say: And with your spirit.
Bishop:           Lift up your hearts.
All:                   We lift them up to the Lord.
Bishop:           Let us give thanks to the Lord.
All:                   It is proper and right.

Origen of Alexandria (d.254)
Origen is considered by many to be the “greatest biblical scholar” of the early Church, notably for his “spiritual interpretation of the Bible”. He was another who taught about “types”, and his writing includes explanations of the “foreshadowing” of the Eucharist in the Old Testament.

“… if someone celebrates with Jesus, he is in a great room above, in a furnished room made clean, in a furnished room adorned and prepared. And if you go up with him in order to celebrate the Passover, he gives to you the cup of the New Covenant, he gives to you the bread of blessing, he makes a gift of his body and his blood.”

St. Cyprian of Carthage (d. 222)
St. Cyprian’s works emphasise how “any tinkering with the symbolism of the sacraments will have devastating consequences—in theology and in life”. As bishop, he dealt with many who were persecuted for their faith, including the “confessors”, those who had stayed firm in their faith when tortured, as well as the “lapsi” (“fallen”), those who had survived by giving in to performing “acts of idolatry”. Some of the lapsi sought readmission to the sacraments, and he is known for his teaching on the “pastoral applications of the Church’s teaching on the sacrament”.

“When the water is mingled in the cup with wine, the people are made one with Christ… that mixture cannot any more be separated”.

St. Cyril of Jerusalem
From St. Cyril we have the first recorded explanation of the “Eucharistic species as a change in substance”: “The bread of the Eucharist, after the invocation of the Holy Spirit, is no longer merely bread, but the body of Christ.”

“… you must be clad in the garments that are truly white, shining, and spiritual…”


The Mass of the early Christians is our Mass. As Aquilina writes, “… we can share in the same table they shared with Christ; for the bread is one, not just everywhere but always; and from one chalice alone has wisdom come to man, from the time of the Fathers to our own day.”

♫ Makes me think of One Bread, One Body


The Mass


The Mass
by Cardinal Donald Wuerl & Mike Aquilina
(Image, 2013)

The book explains the importance and meaning of each part of the Mass, how the parts relate to each other and their Biblical and traditional background. The writers also give an overview of the context of the Mass, for example, the vestments and vessels used, and end the book with “ten ways to get more out of the Mass”. Why is it important that we understand the Mass well? As the writers put it:
“The Mass is what we do; and it’s what we should always be doing, not because we go often, but because the Mass, in a very real sense – and through a very real presence – defines our life.”

Written for Spotlight (July 2014)

Here are excerpts of their ten practical tips for getting more out of the Mass.

[quoted verbatim]
Ten Ways to Get More out of the Mass

  1. Rehearse the readings
    The familiarity will open your heart and mind to see a theme emerging from the Old Testament to the New—and to see clear applications for your own life.
  1. Dress up to the occasion
    God doesn’t need our reverence at all—but Lord knows we need it… Our clothes express our attitude, but they also affect our attitude.
  1. Arrive early
    This gives us time to collect all our thoughts, referring them to Our Lord as they arise.
  1. Take up your part
    The words of the Mass help to form us into the persons God wants us to be.
  1. Open your heart
    We can also approach the altar and offer a heart filled with love. After all, we are participating in the great manifestation of God’s love for us.
  1. Invest your intentions
    When you do this, you place a personal stake in the Mass.
  1. Take one thought home
    While you’re listening to the readings, try to discern a “word” that God intends especially for you.
  1. Say thanks
    … thank God for the gift of the Mass. There is no greater gift. You have received a foretaste of heaven.
  1. Make a good confession
    … good dispositions do make a difference in our understanding, our emotional engagement, and the quality of our prayer.
  1. Forgive someone
    Jesus said: “Therefore, if you bring your gift to the altar, and there recall that your brother has anything against you, leave your gift there at the altar, go first and be reconciled with your brother, and then come and offer your gift” (Matthew 5:23-24).

♫ Makes me want to listen to Supper of the Lord