A choir performs church hymns after Christmas Eve Mass in Xizhimen Church in Beijing 2016. (ucanews.com photo)
China has experienced an increase in home-grown liturgical songs. Evidence of this can be seen in a new website listing different hymns across China, and a priest-singer released his own album in 2016.
Added to that was how Sanyuan Diocese in northwestern Shaanxi province and Xianxian Diocese in northern Hebei province both held sacred music festivals in late 2016 where countless choirs sang.
But sacred music experts still see challenges ahead.
"Chinese liturgical music is still in the budding stage but it is delightful that people are enthusiastic about it," said Father John Baptist Zhao from Hebei. Father Zhao was the first Chinese priest to graduate from Rome's Pontifical Institute of Sacred Music since religious activities revived in China three decades ago.
"However, the Chinese church does not have an official, unified and high-standard hymnal. There is also a lack of sacred music composers and hymns. Thus, many songs in fact do not meet liturgical requirements," Father Zhao told ucanews.com.
Father Zhao said that the Catholic Church in China should develop its own liturgical music as per the Second Vatican Council. However, most of the scared music formations in China now "do not have the correct concept of liturgical music or systematic learning," he said.
Hymn-writing needs theological knowledge
For Vansie Kwok, who won the Veritas Cup, a 2014 hymn-writing contest, the most challenging part is the content of the hymns. "The Catholic Church is very strict on this as the messages conveyed in hymns are supposed to be theologically correct," Kwok said.
"People good at music may not be good at theology or vice versa. It is not easy to find someone who is good at both and very few formations are available to link them together," she said.
Kwok felt she and her band were lucky to receive Ignatius' spiritual exercises, which she said were important for her spiritual growth.
Besides prayer and meditation, Father Zhao also stressed the need to learn church traditions and to avoid an ad hoc attitude in composing liturgical music.
Another problem for modern church music was criticism for not being solemn enough and featuring too much pop culture which degrades sacred liturgy.
Father Zhao said that some modern church music, even those composed with sacred words, is not suitable for the liturgy because they only express passion. "Of course, to compose non-liturgical music for church gatherings is still appreciated," he added.
A successful competition
In 2014, the Veritas Cup received more than 182 original hymns from mainland China, Hong Kong, Taiwan, Macau, Singapore, Malaysia, Canada, the U.S. and Europe. Now, the Chinese section of Radio Veritas Asia is organizing a second contest and is accepting entries until May 31.
"After the first contest in 2014, we received hundreds of letters asking for a second. The contest has really become a platform for church music composers to share their works," Father John, director of the RVA Chinese Section, told ucanews.com.
Vansie Kwok said the event provided a chance for people to serve God by composing hymns.
"I met many local and overseas participants at the last event and through the contest more people got to know about our Catholic band, AMDG," said Kwok who still feels thrilled. "AMDG" stands for "Ad Majorem Dei Gloriam," which means "for the greater glory of God" in Latin.
AMDG was invited to perform or compose theme songs for diocesan events in Hong Kong, such as World Youth Day 2016 and the Year of Mercy. They also released their first album.
"A parent told me that her child keeps singing my songs day and night. I was really touched that children can get closer to God through church music," Kwok added.
A problem of language
The top three winning hymns in 2014 were in Cantonese, a dialect used in Hong Kong and southern Guangdong province, and other dialects, so it was difficult to promote them to Mandarin speakers, Father John said.
Even so, he was convinced that localized church music is important as part of the inculturation movement, that seeks to adapt church teachings to local cultures. "Music can help Chinese Catholic communities better express their faith, stay close together and evangelize," he said.
While planning to enter the second Veritas Cup, Kwok said AMDG is considering composing hymns in Mandarin so they can reach Catholics in mainland China. Besides liturgical music, Kwok said that the church needs more hymns for church gatherings, faithful formations and children.
"We may have Gregorian chant or traditional sacred music. But I believe there should be a wider spectrum for people to praise the Lord," she said.