Bishop Zarama: Make Music with Joy, Part 3

I had the opportunity to speak with our bishop, Luis Rafael Zarama, on the subject of music. In this three-part series, I share our conversation and conclude with a few of my own reflections. - JR 

JR: What has been your experience of how congregations in the Diocese of Raleigh interact with the music at Mass?

Bishop Zarama: I was impressed when I came here for the dedication of the Cathedral and installed as the bishop. It was not just the choir that was singing but most of the people in the congregation. It is beautiful to see when the people sing, as opposed to other places where they sit and are quiet. But here the communities are alive and take part in the music. This is especially important for the psalm. Sometimes the person leading the congregation in the responsorial psalm does so in a way that makes it impossible for the congregation to respond. It is important for the choir to know that the psalm is for the congregation to respond and should be easy for the congregation to sing together.

JR: How important is the quality of the music making and musical leadership to helping the congregation participate better by singing?

Bishop Zarama: The key for me is not only how professional the musicians are but how they are living their faith, because that makes a big difference. To sing only to be professional-sounding is nothing. But if your singing is rooted in your faith, and part of your faith, then there is a different taste to the music. Being professional for me is sometimes singing without heart. Singing with faith is putting the heart in the song, and that gives the music a different taste. It could be a small choir in a small parish, but when the people love what they do, and they sing because they have faith, and it's an expression of faith, it's beautiful.

JR: How can leaders best support our volunteer music ministers, especially new ministers?

Bishop Zarama: First of all, how we prepare the choir to accept new members. It can be difficult for new members to feel they are welcome. When the new people arrive, we need to be prepared to welcome them and make them feel comfortable and, from the beginning, helping them to feel that they are home. Maybe having a lunch or dinner before, where everyone can relax. Another thing is how the director of the choir or the choir itself prepares spiritually before singing, before rehearsal and Mass -- how you meditate on the responsorial psalms and how the songs chosen relate to the readings. How does the choir make that part of meditation and prayer? And how is the choir part of the whole celebration? But I think the spiritual part is the key because many people are giving their time as volunteers, and making that rehearsal time as prayer time as well as rehearsal time.

JR: How can pastors or music directors encourage the assembly to sing and explain why it is important for them to take part in the music?

Bishop Zarama: Very often at the end of the Mass, I thank the people for being there and thanking them because we celebrate together the Eucharist. I preside, but all of us celebrate. And that is the same thing we need to educate our people about. We are not simply spectators seated there in the church filling an obligation. We can help them understand we need to be involved in the celebration with prayers, with songs, with everything. Another thing is if the choir sings with soul, with faith, in prayer, it will be easier for the people to follow them there. And that is the tough and great mission of the choir and director, to choose songs that the people will be able to follow, to sing. It's an education process for the choir to be able to live their faith as they sing, and the invite the people to sing with them.

JR: We have people from many different nationalities and cultural background in our parishes. Do you think it's important to be able to find music that people from different backgrounds recognize as part of their own tradition?

Bishop Zarama: I think it is a way to make the people feel like they are home, when they recognize music from their home. I say there are two things you always do in your maternal language. One is that you always pray with your maternal language. And the other is math! You can learn another language, but once you start doing math, you go back to your maternal language! But, yes, having music that one recognizes, maybe even incorporating your maternal language, can make you feel at home.

Reflections on Interviewing Bishop Zarama about Music

By Jeff Rice, Pastoral Associate for Liturgy & Music

Over the past three weeks, I've shared the interview I conducted with Bishop Zarama on the subject of music. If you missed any of the articles, you can find them above and at the links at the bottom of this page. It was also published on the St. Raphael Parish Source and Summit blog.

As many of you know, in July,  the Diocese of Raleigh hosted the annual convention of the National Association of Pastoral Musicians (NPM), which included the celebration of Mass at Holy Name of Jesus Cathedral with Bishop Zarama and about 1500 pastoral musicians. The presence of the Holy Spirit at that Mass, especially in everyone's singing together, was powerful to experience, something Bishop Zarama noted in his homily. Hearing him speak about music at that Mass made me curious to learn more. I thought others might be interested, so I contacted his office, and he graciously agreed to an interview.

My goal was twofold: 1) Get to know the person who is our bishop better and share it with others, especially his personal experience with music, and 2) learn and share what our bishop, who is our shepherd and spiritual leader as Catholics in eastern North Carolina, desires for music ministry.

I have a few reflections on this experience, both as a member of the diocese and a pastoral musician working in ministry in the church.

First, as has been the experience of everyone else I know of, I found Bishop Zarama to be warm and very easy to speak with. He listens carefully and then very clearly and directly tells you what he thinks. Besides faithfulness, I think these two characteristics, empathy and clarity, are probably the most important for serving as a bishop.

Second, I found Bishop Zarama's memories of church music from growing up in Colombia very interesting. As we observe in many parts of the world, even in cultures that place a high level of import on music-making and have strong musical traditions, often music has not found its way into worship, for many different historical and social reasons. I think especially of Ireland, which has such a great tradition of secular song but where, for the most part no, one sings at Mass, if there is any music at all. Contrast that with a typical Mass in Uganda where almost nothing happens without music and dancing. It is worthwhile to understand the differences and the "why" of the status quo in different cultures before developing strategies for moving assemblies to embrace the way that the church now sees music as being integral to worship.

Third, I especially appreciated Bishop Zarama's focus on the engagement and participation of the entire assembly. As the Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy makes clear in paragraph 14, "In the restoration and promotion of the sacred liturgy, this full and active participation by all the people is the aim to be considered before all else." At St. Raphael, this remains at the forefront of all discussions we have when preparing our liturgies. Our communal worship is not just one in a list of things we do as Catholics. As the title of the (St. Raphael) bulletin column, "Source and Summit" suggests, the liturgy is where/what/who we come from and where/what/who we return to. Engagement in the music is a vital element in the pursuit of full and active participation.

Finally, I was touched by the exchange about culture and language. I have long had an intellectual understanding that one's first language usually remains the language of prayer. However, Bishop Zarama elevated my thinking on the matter. He called the first language we learn our "mother tongue," which is the language we were first immersed in, that we learned not through taking classes but absorbed as a child from our families and friends. Except for the few who are truly multilingual (who can actually think internally in different languages), this remains the language through which we dialogue with God. It is how we can express ourselves and God to us, without the filter of a translation. Our mother tongue is the language of our hearts, and I believe God speaks to us most powerfully through our hearts.

Some of us who are musicians might be alarmed by Bishop Zarama's focus more on the spirituality of the minister over the quality of the music-making. I think some of the difference in focus is just coming from a different cultural perspective, but more importantly, for me he is trying to set our priorities as ministers in the correct order. We all know that it is easy to become focused on getting a specific task done, forgetting the context in which we are working, and the good of the people we are working with. I think Bishop Zarama's call is to focus first on God and the people we serve, and then on the job at hand, and I'm grateful for that reminder.