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Church music hits right note in Bangladesh

Catholic bishops' commission for liturgy and prayer conducts training to make sure musicians are on song

Catholic singers and choir leaders attend national training in liturgy and church music at Holy Spirit National Major Seminary in Bangladesh's capital Dhaka

Catholic singers and choir leaders attend national training in liturgy and church music at Holy Spirit National Major Seminary in Bangladesh's capital Dhaka. (Photo supplied)

Published: June 17, 2022 05:10 AM GMT

Updated: June 17, 2022 06:09 AM GMT

For more than three decades, Ruma Brizita Biswas had sung several popular liturgical and devotional songs with incorrect notations and lyrics because nobody taught her the correct versions.

“One of my favorite songs is Jishu ghrinar rajjye enechho tomar prem (Jesus, you brought your love to the kingdom of hatred), but I had been singing it incorrectly all my life as ‘Jesus brought love to your kingdom of hatred.’ The same happened to other songs as well,” Biswas, a Bengali Catholic, told UCA News.

The 40-year-old is choir leader of St. Joseph’s Cathedral Parish of Khulna Diocese in southern Bangladesh. The parish has about 5,000 Catholics.

A church-sponsored music training program in national capital Dhaka has helped her correct her wrong lyrics, she said. 

Biswas was one of 50 participants in the national training on liturgy and church music by the Catholic bishops’ commission for liturgy and prayer at Holy Spirit Major Seminary from June 3-9. They included two priests, 11 nuns and laypeople representing eight Catholic dioceses of Bangladesh.

Participants learned basic concepts related to liturgy, devotion and the importance of liturgical music. They practiced correct notations of songs provided by trainers. They were also trained to select appropriate songs for occasions such as baptisms, weddings, funerals and feasts.

“We have seen that the meaning and purpose of songs change if words are used incorrectly. Musical instruments should help liturgical music"

“I never knew that specific songs should be selected for specific liturgy and for different parts of Holy Mass. This was valuable learning for me from the training,” she said.

The national training is a yearly program held since the 1970s aiming to make the liturgy more participatory and harmonious,  said commission secretary Father Peter Chanel Gomes.

He said their attempt was to bring discipline to liturgy and church music in Bangladesh in line with the teaching of the Second Vatican Council.

This year’s program was held after two years of hiatus due to the coronavirus pandemic.

“Problems exist in liturgy and music at diocesan and parish levels. Use of incorrect lyrics, tunes and overusing musical instruments, improper selection of songs, particularly during Mass, are major issues," Father Gomes told UCA News.

The Second Vatican Council allowed inculturation of liturgy and music "but we need to ensure everything is disciplined,” the priest said.

“For example, St. Anthony is a popular saint, but he is not more important than Jesus. So, when we sing songs for the saint during Mass, it belittles our faith"

He said teams from dioceses have been trained and will train choir groups in parishes.

Father Patrick Gomes, a Bible expert and prominent Catholic musician, was a trainer. He insisted that correct music is needed to help the sacredness of the liturgies. 

“We have seen that the meaning and purpose of songs change if words are used incorrectly. Musical instruments should help liturgical music" and should not disturb and distract people, he said.

Sometimes, when songs meant for communion distribution are sung for the offertory, "it destroys the significance” of the songs, said the musician priest, pointing to a common problem. 

Father Gomes, from Rajshahi Diocese in northern Bangladesh, noted that due to popular devotion to some saints there is a tendency among Catholics to sing songs dedicated to the saints instead of Jesus during Mass on feast days.

“For example, St. Anthony is a popular saint, but he is not more important than Jesus. So, when we sing songs for the saint during Mass, it belittles our faith," the priest said, adding that the lyrics of some songs are also not in harmony with the Bible.

Father Gomes was referring to devotion to St. Anthony of Padua, the Portuguese saint famed for his miraculous power. There are several shrines in Bangladesh dedicated to the saint that draw tens of thousands of Christians and non-Christians every year. 

“I think such training programs will have a real impact if conducted at diocesan level regularly for parish choir members. This will help in making liturgy and church music more participatory"

Bangladesh has about 400,000 Catholics in a population of more than 160 million in the Muslim-majority nation.

“I think each diocese should have two or more trained people who can handle liturgical music. They will be responsible for the proper selection and singing of songs. Seminary curriculums should include a course on liturgical music,” Father Gomes added.

Rinku Biswas, 40, an ethnic Paharia Catholic and choir leader from Queen Assumed into Heaven Parish in Rajshahi Diocese, said all parishes have choir groups but most singers are untrained. They learned singing from their seniors without having any training, he said.

“It is necessary to have such training for at least one month in a year. There is so much to learn and correct. In the five-day program we have at least learned something that will improve church music in my parish,” Biswas told UCA News.

He said that he learned music when he was a school student in a church-run hostel and only once had brief training on music in his diocese.

“I now realize that training is important for a creative art like music, and when it comes to church music, we need to be more cautious because it impacts the devotion of people attending liturgy. I have learned a bit but I need to learn more,” he added

Both Ruma and Rinku insisted that church authorities at diocesan levels should arrange regular training to improve church music locally.

“I think such training programs will have a real impact if conducted at diocesan level regularly for parish choir members. This will help in making liturgy and church music more participatory,” Ruma Biswas said.

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