Music for the liturgy should be three things: holy, have good form — be good music in its own right — and, because of the first two, universal,” said Father Steven Marchand, parochial vicar of St. John Vianney Parish in South Burlington who has extensive experience in Church music.

“By holy, I mean, it should not be something you would hear every day. It is set aside for the purpose of glorifying God and edifying and sanctifying the faithful. It must therefore exclude all that is not suitable for the temple — all that is ordinary, everyday or profane, not only in itself, but also in the manner in which it is performed,” he explained. “By good form, I mean it must be of itself true art, otherwise it will be impossible for it to have the efficacy of lifting up minds to God and not other things.”

He earned a degree in vocal performance from Providence College and was music director at Our Lady of Providence Seminary and principle organist of the North American College in Rome.

For many, “good music” is integral to a vibrant parish.

Quality music brings to mind the Lord’s passion and resurrection as well as His mercy, compassion and promise of eternal life, said Donald McMahon, organist and director of music at Sacred Heart St. Francis de Sales Church in Bennington. “Such music draws the faithful into increased states of reverence and adoration. Where there is great reverence and adoration, there is joy. With this joy, there is vibrancy.” The quality of music at Mass can enhance it or completely distract from it. “This then filters down to the vibrancy of the parish,” said Dr. Kevin Parizo, organist and director of music at Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary Church in Middlebury. “If the music is good (musically and liturgically) it helps people to pray (through the vehicle of music). Music has the capacity of reaching into the inner soul of a person and have them experience emotion on a personal level. … Lousy music is a distraction, and in my opinion, it is better to have no music than bad music. If music is the handmaid of liturgy, shouldn’t music therefore enhance the solemnity of the liturgy and not distract from it?”

Father Marchand concurred. “Music, both the choice of music and its competent performance, is, I believe, the single most powerful factor in determining whether someone is able to encounter God in the Mass, whether their minds will be lifted in prayer to heaven or stuck here in the mundane and banal. The only other factor with such influence is the priest’s manner of celebrating the Mass. Music has a way of getting past all our other barriers of sense and reason. It strikes immediately to the heart.”

He offers encouragement to musicians trying to be faithful to the Church’s vision of sacred music in the liturgy. “It can sometimes be an uphill battle, but what you do helps people pray in a significant way,” he said.

Parizo is concerned about a decreasing number of trained parish musicians. “If quality parish music is important to the spiritual, liturgical and vibrant life of a parish/Diocese then the parish and Diocese must be willing to help musicians find avenues of training and education and be willing to help fund them,” he said.

For McMahon, working with the many talented parishioners of all ages is joy beyond measure. “I treasure their unique gifts. Music is truly a gift from God, and musicians are always working to fine-tune their skills,” he said. “The Lord smiles on us when we bring our very finest before Him.”

— Originally published in the Summer 2019 issue of Vermont Catholic magazine.