Tuesday, December 26, 2017


by Justin Soutar

(NOTE: This article originally appeared in the November 2017 edition of The Shamrock, the quarterly newsletter of Saint Patrick Catholic Church in Lexington, Virginia.)

“’Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace to people of good will’” (Lk. 2:14). This joyful proclamation of the Angels on the night of Christ’s birth more than two thousand years ago has continued to resound uninterruptedly through the ages in the Church’s liturgical tradition, in the pages of Sacred Scripture and in the hearts and voices of countless believers. Early in the Church’s history, this biblical text was developed into the great liturgical hymn of adoration, thanksgiving and petition known as the Gloria. Our current English Mass translation accurately reflects the centuries-old original Latin: “Gloria in excelsis Deo et in terra pax hominibus bonae voluntatis.” As Latin Rite Catholics, we sing or recite the Gloria not only during the Christmas season, but also on most Sundays and all solemnities and feasts of the liturgical year when the Church summons us to full-throated praise of the triune God.

The angelic Christmas carol hints at the twofold purpose of the sacred liturgy, which is to glorify God and to sanctify ourselves. From ancient times to the present, liturgical music—always sung and often accompanied by musical instruments—has played an essential role in achieving this dual purpose. Sacred music has the power to elevate the mind and heart to God and to express thoughts and prayers in ways that the spoken word simply cannot. As then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger put it in The Spirit of the Liturgy: “When man comes into contact with God, mere speech is not enough. Areas of his existence are awakened that spontaneously turn into song.” This comes into clear focus when we look at the Old Testament Book of Psalms, the great musical prayer book of ancient Israel which has shaped much of the Church’s liturgical and musical tradition. Intensely personal and written for specific situations, while also universal and timeless, the Psalms are classic expressions of adoration, thanksgiving, contrition, and petition representing the full range of human experiences in relation to God.

The Second Vatican Council underscored the essential link between church music and the words and actions of the liturgy, referring to the former as “a sacred chant wedded to words” that “constitutes a necessary and integral part of solemn liturgy.” In other words, music is not something extraneous added on to the liturgy like icing onto a cake; rather, it’s a key ingredient of the liturgy itself, and “the more intimately church music is linked with the liturgical action the holier it will be.” Following Vatican II, the Church identified three specific degrees of music within the liturgy. The first and highest degree is sung dialogue, with the priest’s greeting or prayer followed by the people’s reply (e.g. “The Lord be with you,” “And with your spirit”). Gregorian chant, which “should have the chief place in liturgical functions” according to the Council, is our mainstay for liturgical music of the first degree. The second degree includes the remaining prayers of the Mass, and the third and lowest degree is hymns and songs. According to the Instruction on Music in the Liturgy issued by the Sacred Congregation of Rites in 1967, the second and third degrees may not be used unless the first is in place.

A distinctive element of Catholic worship is the belief, and the fact, that during Mass we unite our voices to those of all the Angels of heaven, participating for a few brief moments in their endless hymn of praise to the Lord of all creation. Our solemn liturgical celebrations of the Nativity of the Lord at Christmas and the Resurrection of the Lord at Easter are moments when the Gloria rings out anew with intense joy and gladness, as accompanied by the organ, bells and other musical instruments, we join with the hosts of heaven in singing the celestial music that penetrated our sad and weary world on that holy night more than two millennia ago. May this year’s celebration of Christ’s birth renew our gratitude to God our Father for the priceless gift of His Only-Begotten Son and for all of the blessings, graces, and good things He has given us through Him and in the Holy Spirit.

Copyright © 2017 Justin D. Soutar.


[1] Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, The Spirit of the Liturgy (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2000), p. 136.
[2] Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy, Sacrosanctum concilium, Chapter VI: Church Music, no. 112. From The Second Vatican Council: The Four Constitutions (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2013), p. 50.
[3] Ibid.
[4] Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy, Sacrosanctum concilium, Chapter VI: Church Music, no. 116. From The Second Vatican Council: The Four Constitutions (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2013), p. 51.
[5] Marguerite Mullee Duncan, “High Notes in Hymnals,” Crisis, April 1998, p. 22.

Thursday, December 7, 2017

Advent Reflections

Last Sunday we Catholics began a new liturgical year, entering once again into the season of Advent, which is a period of preparation for the celebration of Christ's birthday. In our increasingly secularized neo-pagan society, which now kicks off its own celebration of the Christmas holiday right after Halloween, Advent generally functions as a sentimental preview of Christmas and a time of frenzied preparations characterized by seemingly endless shopping, decorating of homes and schools and offices, greeting card writing and exchanging, gift wrapping and giving, holiday music and concerts, cooking and baking of meals and treats, partying and entertaining. By the time Christmas Day actually arrives, millions of people have had their fill (or more) of the Christmas season as secular society celebrates it, have entirely missed the real (that is, the sacred) purpose of the holiday, and are ready to return to normal everyday living again, often with feelings of exhaustion and emptiness. That's a shame!

While none of the above mentioned cultural aspects of the holiday are bad or wrong in and of themselves, the problem is that our secularized society's whole approach to Christmas is backwards. Our dominant culture has no interest in, or reverence for, the true meaning of Christmas, which is the birthday of the Christ Child, the Eternal Son of God who became man in order to liberate us from the shackles of sin through His Passion and Resurrection. On the contrary, through the encouragement of rampant consumerism and hedonism, its chief aim is to make the big retailers as much money as possible. The essential religious and spiritual nature of Christmas has been completely gutted, replaced by the superficial material and commercial aspects.

Our secular culture did not used to be this way. Eighty years ago when my grandparents were growing up, it would be unthinkable for any shops or grocery or department stores to be open on Christmas Day. Today, this is not only commonplace, it is widely accepted and even expected. Christ is no longer part of civil society's Christmas celebration; thus, it's not surprising that even the word "Christmas" and the traditional greeting "Merry Christmas" are now used less and less frequently in public, replaced by generic terms such as "holiday season" or "Happy Holidays," as this devolves increasingly into a "multicultural" celebration of all of the religious and secular holidays that happen to coincide with Christmas but have little or nothing whatsoever to do with it. Our post-Christian secular society has fallen into idolatry, replacing the worship of the Christ Child with the worship of money and material things. Hence the incessant clamor and the frenzied pace of the "Christmas season" that is in full swing from November 1 to December 25--part of what Cardinal Robert Sarah has termed the "dictatorship of noise."

By contrast, the Catholic Church's liturgical season of Advent is a sacred time for prayer and quiet reflection as we prepare to celebrate Christ's birth. In fact, during this holy season, the Church calls us to reflect on three different ways in which Christ comes to us: in history, majesty, and mystery. The four Sundays of Advent symbolize the four thousand years humanity in general, and the Chosen People in particular, waited for the coming of our Savior and Redeemer following the Original Sin of our first parents in the Garden of Eden. During Advent, we recall and re-live to some extent these long ages of waiting, waiting for liberation from sin and looking forward to the Lord's coming into our fallen world. And yes, at the conclusion of the Advent season, we will celebrate the miraculous virginal birth of Christ in a shepherd's cave near Bethlehem more than two thousand years ago, which forever changed the course of human history.

However, there is more to Advent than simply recalling and re-living Christ's humble and hidden coming in the distant past. During this season, we also anticipate and look towards Christ's glorious and public future coming, His Second Coming as Judge of the world at the end of time. While we know for certain that Christ will come again, we don't know exactly when this Second Coming will take place (although Christ Himself has revealed to us certain signs that will precede the Day of Judgment). Just like the ancient peoples who were awaiting the promised Messiah's first coming, but weren't sure exactly when it would happen, we are now awaiting Christ's promised return. Therefore, we are summoned to live in a state of vigilant preparedness by rejecting sinful ways, growing in our relationship with the Lord, and faithfully fulfilling our obligations to God and to one another. For many centuries, Christian believers expressed this interior attitude of vigilant anticipation of Christ's return by facing east toward the rising sun during the celebration of Mass.

But in addition to his past and future comings, there is a third, less visible, but no less important, coming of Christ for which we must prepare during Advent: his coming into our hearts and our lives right here in this present time. If we don't allow Christ to be born in our hearts through grace, filling us with peace and joy and empowering us to grow in genuine love for God and for each other, then our celebration of Christ's historic birth loses its meaning--and furthermore, we will not be prepared to meet Christ our Judge at the end of our lives or at the end of the world. During this season of Advent, we can prepare a fitting place for Christ within our hearts through prayer and reflection, the reading of Scripture, the worthy reception of the Sacraments of Penance and the Holy Eucharist, and practicing the corporal and spiritual works of mercy.

Surrounded by our secularized culture's pervasive anti-Christian parody of Christmas, it may take some real effort to get ourselves mentally and spiritually immersed into the true spirit of Advent and to live this season in a truly meaningful way. In contrast to the noise and frenzied pace of "the holiday season," Advent is a time of watching and waiting, a time of hopeful anticipation, a time of yearning for the Lord to come and free us from our sins. Certainly, living Advent properly does not exclude material preparations for Christmas such as shopping, decorating, gift giving and the like within reasonable limits, but these external things should be done within the context of our spiritual preparation for the three comings of Christ.

Since the true spirit of Advent is obviously incompatible with the secular spirit of the holiday season, it's not enough simply to make a little room for Jesus in our lives while allowing the attitudes and dictates of secularized society to guide our Christmas preparations. As Catholics, we should be explicitly countercultural, rejecting the profanation of the sacred feast of Christ's birthday while planting the seeds of a vibrant new Christian culture for future generations. Keeping an Advent wreath on the kitchen table or an Advent calendar on the refrigerator, listening to a CD or MP3 of Advent music, erecting a Nativity scene in our house or front yard, waiting until closer to Christmas to set up the tree, and preparing within our hearts a personal birthday gift for Jesus are small but significant things we can and should do to prepare our hearts and minds for a spiritually profitable celebration of the Solemnity of the Nativity of the Lord. When Christ comes, may he truly find us awake and ready to meet Him.

I wish you a blessed and grace-filled Advent season!

Wednesday, September 13, 2017

Quote of the Day

"We should not bear it with bad grace if the answer to our prayer is long delayed. Rather let us because of this show great patience and resignation. For He delays for this reason: that we may offer Him a fitting occasion of honoring us through His divine providence."

--Saint John Chrysostom

Wednesday, August 2, 2017

Quote of the Day

"The joy of the Gospel fills the heart and whole life of those that encounter Jesus. Those who let themselves be saved by Him are freed from sin, from sadness, from interior emptiness, from isolation. Joy is ever born and reborn with Jesus Christ (Cf. Evangelii Gaudium, n 1). Today we are exhorted to contemplate the joy of the farmer and of the merchant of the parables. It is the joy of every one of us when we discover the closeness and consoling presence of Jesus in our life — a presence that transforms the heart and opens us to the needs and the reception of brothers, especially the weakest."

--Pope Francis, Angelus Address, July 30, 2017

Tuesday, July 4, 2017

Quote of the Day

"Our time is now. If we carry the day and turn the tide, we can hope that as long as men speak of freedom and those who have protected it, they will remember us, and they will say, 'Here were the brave and here their place of honor.'"

--Ronald Reagan

Thursday, June 29, 2017

Reflection on the Solemnity of Saints Peter and Paul

"I would also like to highlight another aspect of Peter’s attitude in prison. In fact, we note that while the Christian community is praying earnestly from him, Peter 'was sleeping' (Acts 12:6). In a critical situation of serious danger, it is an attitude that might seem strange, but instead denotes tranquility and faith. He trusts God. He knows he is surrounded by the solidarity and prayers of his own people and completely abandons himself into the hands of the Lord. So it must be with our prayer, assiduous, in solidarity with others, fully trusting that God knows us in our depths and takes care of us to the point that Jesus says 'even the hairs of your head are all numbered. Fear not, therefore' (Mt 10:30-31). Peter lives through that night of imprisonment and release from prison as a moment of his discipleship with the Lord who overcomes the darkness of night and frees him from the chains of slavery and the threat of death. His is a miraculous release, marked by various accurately described steps, guided by the Angel, despite the monitoring of the guards, through the first and second guard posts, up to the iron doors to exit to the city, with the door opening by itself in front of them (cf. Acts 12:10). Peter and the Angel of the Lord make their way together down a stretch of the street until, coming back to himself, the Apostle realizes that the Lord really freed him and, after having reflected on the matter, went to the house of Mary the mother of Mark where many disciples were gathered in prayer. Once again the community’s response to difficulty and danger is to trust in God, strengthening the relationship with Him."

--Benedict XVI, General Audience, May 9, 2012

Thursday, June 1, 2017

Quote of the Day

"The Day of the Sun is the day on which we all gather in a common meeting, because it is the first day, the day on which God, changing darkness and matter, created the world; and it is the day on which Jesus Christ our Savior rose from the dead. For he was crucified on the day before that of Saturn; and on the day after that of Saturn, which is the Day of the Sun, He appeared to his Apostles and disciples, and taught them these things which we have also submitted to you for your consideration."

--Saint Justin, First Apology, ca. A.D. 155

Sunday, May 28, 2017

Reflection on the Ascension of the Lord

"The old manner of human companionship and encounter is over. From now on we can touch Jesus only 'with the Father'. Now we can touch him only by ascending. From the Father's perspective, in his communion with the Father, he is accessible and close to us in a new way.

"This new accessibility presupposes a newness on our part as well. Through Baptism, our life is already hidden with Christ in God--in our current existence we are already 'raised' with him at the Father's right hand (cf. Col. 3:1-3). If we enter fully into the essence of our Christian life, then we really do touch the risen Lord, then we really do become fully ourselves. Touching Christ and ascending belong together. And let us not forget that for John the place of Christ's 'exaltation' is his Cross and that our own ever-necessary 'ascension', our 'going up on high' in order to touch him, has to be traveled in company with the crucified Jesus.

"Christ, at the Father's right hand, is not far away from us. At most we are far from him, but the path that joins us to one another is open. And this path is not a matter of space travel of a cosmic-geographical nature: it is the 'space travel' of the heart, from the dimension of self-enclosed isolation to the new dimension of world-embracing divine love."

--Benedict XVI, Jesus of Nazareth: Holy Week: From the Entrance into Jerusalem to the Resurrection (Ignatius Press, 2011), p. 286

Wednesday, May 24, 2017

Quote of the Day

"Jesus is not one who adapts Himself to the world, tolerating that in it death, sadness, hatred, the moral destruction of persons should endure … Our God is not inert, But our God – I permit myself the word – is a dreamer: He dreams of the transformation of the world, and He realized it in the mystery of the Resurrection."

--Pope Francis, General Audience, May 17, 2017

Monday, April 17, 2017

Easter Reflection

"This week is the week of joy: we celebrate the Resurrection of Jesus. It is a true, profound joy, based on the certainty that the Risen Christ dies no more, but is alive and working in the Church and in the world. This certainty has dwelt in the heart of believers since that Easter morning, when the women went to Jesus’ sepulcher and the Angels said to them: 'Why do you seek the living among the dead?' (Luke 24:5). 'Why do you seek the living among the dead?' These words are as a milestone in history, but also an 'obstacle stone' if we do not open ourselves to the Good News, if we think that a dead Jesus bothers us less than a living Jesus! Instead, how many times in our daily journey do we need to hear said: “Why are you seeking the living among the dead?” How many times do we seek life among dead things, among things that cannot give life, among things that today exist and tomorrow are no longer, things that pass … 'Why do you seek the living among the dead?'

"We are in need of this when we shut ourselves in some form of egoism or self-complacency; when we allow ourselves to be seduced by earthly powers and by the things of this world, forgetting God and our neighbor; when we put our hopes in worldly vanity, in money, in success. Then the Word of God says to us: 'Why do you seek the living among the dead?' Why are you looking there? That thing cannot give you life! Yes, perhaps it will give you the joy of a minute, a day, a week, a month … and then? 'Why do you seek the living among the dead?' This phrase must enter our heart and we must repeat it...Today, when we go home, we will say it from our heart, in silence, and we will ask ourselves this question: why do I in life seek the living among the dead? It will do us good."

--Pope Francis, General Audience, April 23, 2014

Monday, April 10, 2017

Reflection for Holy Week

"Jesus reaches complete humiliation with his 'death on the cross.' It is the worst death -- that reserved for slaves and criminals. Jesus was considered a prophet, but he died as a criminal. Looking at Jesus in his Passion, we see as in a mirror the sufferings of humanity and we find the divine answer to the mystery of evil, of grief and of death. So often we perceive the horror of the evil and pain that surrounds us and we ask: “Why does God allow it?” It is a profound wound for us to see suffering and death, especially that of the innocent! When we see children suffering, it is a wound to the heart: it is the mystery of evil. And Jesus takes upon himself all this evil, all this suffering. It will do us all good this week to look at the crucifix, to kiss Jesus’ wounds, to kiss him on the cross. He took upon himself all human suffering, he clothed himself in this suffering.

"We expect God, in His omnipotence, to defeat injustice, evil, sin and suffering with a triumphant divine victory. Instead, God shows us a humble victory which humanly seems a failure. We can say that God conquers in failure! In fact, the Son of God appears on the cross as a defeated man: he suffers, is betrayed, is despised and finally dies. However, Jesus allows evil to rage on him and he takes it upon himself to defeat it. His Passion is not an incident; his death – that death – was 'written.' Truly, we do not find many explanations. It is a disconcerting mystery, the mystery of God’s great humility: 'For God so loved the world that He gave His only Son' (John 3:16). We think so much of Jesus’ grief this week and we say to ourselves: this is for me. Even if I were the only person in the world, he would have done it. He did it for me. We kiss the crucifix and we say: for me, thank you Jesus, for me."

--Pope Francis, General Audience, April 16, 2014

Sunday, March 19, 2017

Reflection for the Third Sunday of Lent

"The Lord promises the Samaritan woman water that becomes in the one who drinks it a source springing up into eternal life (cf. Jn. 4:14), so that whoever drinks it will never be thirsty again. In this scene, the symbolism of the well is associated with Israel's salvation history. Earlier, at the calling of Nathanael, Jesus had already revealed himself as the new and greater Jacob. In a nocturnal vision Jacob had seen the angels of God ascending and descending above the stone he was using for a pillow. Jesus prophesies to Nathanael that his disciples will see heaven open and the angels of God ascending and descending above him (cf. Jn. 1:51). Here, at Jacob's well, we encounter Jacob as the great patriarch who by means of this well had provided water, the basic element of life. But there is a greater thirst in man--it extends beyond the water from the well, because it seeks a life that reaches out beyond the biological sphere...

"John distinguishes between bios and zoe--between biological life (bios) and the fullness of life (zoe) that is itself a source and so is not subject to the dying and becoming that mark the whole of creation. In the conversation with the Samaritan woman, then, water once again--though now in a different way--functions as the symbol of the Pneuma, the real life-force, which quenches man's deeper thirst and gives him plenitude of life, for which he is waiting without knowing it."

--Benedict XVI, Jesus of Nazareth--Part One: From the Baptism in the Jordan to the Transfiguration (New York: Doubleday, 2007), pp. 240-241

Saturday, March 18, 2017

Quote of the Day

"Cleanse your vessel that you may receive grace more abundantly; for although the remission of sins is given to all equally, the communion of the Holy Spirit is bestowed in proportion to the faith of each. If you have labored little, you will receive little; but if your labor has been great, great will be your reward."

--Saint Cyril of Jerusalem, Catechetical Lectures, 1, 5

Wednesday, February 22, 2017

Quote of the Day

"If the Lord finds in our hearts a faith, I do not say perfect, but sincere, genuine, then He also sees in us the living stones with which he can build his community. Of this community, the fundamental rock is Christ, the only cornerstone. On his part, Peter is a rock, as a visible foundation of the unity of the Church; but each baptized person is called to offer to Jesus their own faith, poor but sincere, so that He can continue to build his Church, today, in every part of the world."

--Pope Francis, Angelus Address, August 24, 2014