My earliest memory from church is singing the simple hymn “Jesus Loves Me” with my brother and sister. We were raised in my grandparents’ Methodist church, where my grandmother was the Sunday School teacher. Each Christmas featured the children’s pageant, and I remember standing there with my siblings, staring at the floor, mumbling the words.
To me, church was singing, and most of the songs have stayed with me. Even today, whenever the Gospel reading tells the story about Jesus commanding Simon to put down his net and go fishing for men, I have to stop myself from pantomiming the motion of casting a fishing rod as my brain sings “I will make you fishers of men, fishers of men, if you follow me, if you follow me, glory hallelujah.”
I came to Catholicism after I met my husband. I went to Mass with him on my first visit to his parents’ home. I sat between Jack and his brother, Pete, following their lead on when to kneel and when to stand. The first hymn I did not recognize, so I snuggled on Jack’s arm and kept quiet. The closing hymn I did know. I sang the first little bit, then noticed that my voice sounded oddly shrill. Elbowing me in the ribs, Jack gave me a signal to hush, which I did. But I didn’t get it—I wasn’t any louder than normal. In fact, I was quite shy about singing in public and tended to mumble. When the next verse came, I paused a bit, listening. Nobody else was singing.
“Everybody knows this hymn,” I whispered to Peter. “Why doesn’t anybody sing?”
“Nobody sings in church,” Pete told me. The way he rolled his eyes, he obviously thought I was nuts to even consider it.
Thus began my era of silence. I joined the church, but Catholicism was still foreign to me. I spent most of Mass copying what other people did. Jack and his family always stood, mouths shut, when the music played. So I did as well.
“Don’t you ever want to sing?” I once asked my sister-in-law.
“None of us can carry a tune,” she admitted. “So why bother?”
My mother-in-law confirmed this. “Our family can’t sing,” she said to me. “That’s the way it is.” By this time I knew my mother-in-law well enough to understand her implication. None of us sings; therefore, you don’t sing either.
Eventually Jack and I moved away from his relatives. In our new church we sat in the back row, while I wondered if I’d ever reach a point where I felt totally comfortable with Mass. The hymns in this church were so pretty. But when the music started, Jack folded his arms across his chest and held his lips together. Unsure of what I should do, I followed his example.
About a month after my grandmother had passed away, we were waiting for our turn in the communion line when I heard the familiar swell of “How Great Thou Art.” It was one of my grandmother’s favorite hymns, and in the back of my mind I could hear her voice: “Then sings my soul, my savior God to thee.” I couldn’t help myself. I didn’t need to find the hymn in the songbook. I knew it. I hummed the verse, and at the refrain I sang, softly, under my breath, as hot tears rolled down my cheeks. No one else around me sang. I didn’t care. I did notice that Jack was staring at me. Afterward I asked, “Were you mad that I sang?”
“No, why would I be?” he said.
“Nobody else does,” I said. “You don’t. I’m never sure it’s okay.”
“If you want to sing, I’m not going to stop you,” he said.
From then on, I mumbled in tune while Jack folded his arms across his chest. Nobody around us did that much. Maybe they sing in the front pews, I said one day, so we began sitting in the front. People up there do sing . . . a little.
Sitting up front, I discovered that our church had a choir. The choir sang. Much of what the choir sang didn’t seem to want to include the rest of the congregation. I wondered if the choir was an exclusive club of beautiful voices. Still, I listened to them with envy in my heart. I missed singing so freely in church. By this time, I had been Catholic long enough to realize that voices weren’t going to rise in the pews. I loved being Catholic. I had no doubt that my conversion was the right decision for me. But I missed having the church filled with voices raised in praise, voices belting out the old familiar hymns.
One Sunday, the new music director came to the front to recruit members for choir. He held up his forefinger. The entire congregation followed his lead and held up a forefinger. I absently hummed “this little light of mine, I’m gonna let it shine,” an old song from my Sunday school days. All of a sudden, I realized what had happened. God smacked me upside the head. He, not the choir director, had invited me to join the choir. The next day I called the choir director. I told him what went through my mind when he raised his finger into the air. He laughed. “I grew up Methodist,” he said. “I almost started singing that little song myself.”
I knew joining the choir was the right decision.
On non-choir Sundays, when I sat with my family, I began to sing out without care or concern, whether or not anyone around me was singing. My little boy began singing with me, his sweet child soprano swelling against my voice. Even Jack started to mouth the words. Sometimes I got funny stares from the parishioners around us, but that didn’t matter. Finally, I felt whole in church, my voice and spirit rising together in prayer and worship.
After I had spent a few years in choir, God nudged me to cantor, to be a singing leader for the congregation. That hasn’t been easy. I’ve never felt comfortable singing solo. My sister never had any fear of showing off her voice, but I always preferred to be part of the crowd, hidden in the back rows. But I heard a whisper in my ear that said, “If you want people to lift their voices, you need to show them how.” So I battle the fear. Sometimes the congregation sings with me. Sometimes they don’t.
People from church began to recognize me as “the lady who sings the late Mass.” The recognition makes me uncomfortable. Probably for that reason, I don’t talk about my cantoring or choir membership with my extended family.
When my father-in-law was killed in a car accident, Jack said to me, “I’d like you to sing at his funeral Mass. Please.” How do you say no to that? When he told his mother, she looked at me curiously.
“We don’t sing,” she said.
“Yes,” said Jack, “we do.”
On the day of the funeral, I met the organist and went over the music quickly. I had picked out the Psalm, something I could have sung in my sleep. The organist shrugged his shoulders and said he’d follow my lead. That done, I walked around the church, waiting for the funeral procession to arrive from the funeral home. Had 16 years really passed since the first time I’d been in that church, that Christmas when I sat between Jack and Pete and wondered why no one else sang? I closed my eyes. I could see them all, the whole family, filling up a pew, standing silently during the processional.
I sat next to Jack on this day. As our daughter went forward to do the first reading and our son sat next to the priest as the lone altar server, Jack held my hand until it was time for me to go forward. He kissed my forehead as I stood. I looked at the faces of his family, ashen, tear-stained. I sighed deeply and blew a strand of hair out of my eyes.
_ The Lord is my shepherd; there is nothing I shall want_.
I lifted my arm for the response. I heard three soft voices answer mine: the child soprano of my son, the off-key mumbling of my daughter, and Jack’s spoken rejoinder. My sister-in-law’s voice joined them on the next refrain, and then an aunt, a cousin, a couple of family friends, finally my mother-in-law.
We can sing. It’s simply a matter of the spirit filling the heart and one brave soul leading the way.
Sue Marquette Poremba is a freelance writer from central Pennsylvania.