What Shawshank Redemption Can Teach Us About the Liturgy

There’s a great scene in the film Shawshank Redemption, one of the best prison movies of all time, in which a prisoner, Andy Dufresne (Tim Robbins), plays “Duettino – Sull’aria” from the opera “The Marriage of Figaro” over the prison P.A. system.  You can watch the clip from the movie here, or just listen to the song below:

What I found so striking was actually the voiceover by the narrator, Morgan Freeman, who played Andy’s friend “Red.”  He said of the song, and its effects on the prisoners hearing it:

I have no idea to this day what those two Italian ladies were singing about. Truth is, I don’t want to know. Some things are best left unsaid. I’d like to think they were singing about something so beautiful, it can’t be expressed in words, and makes your heart ache because of it. I tell you, those voices soared higher and farther than anybody in a gray place dares to dream. It was like some beautiful bird flapped into our drab little cage and made those walls dissolve away, and for the briefest of moments, every last man in Shawshank felt free.

That’s all that needs to be said of the Liturgy.  It’s the reason that it matters what the music’s like at Mass.  We want — we need, even — to foster the kind of music that doesn’t just lift men out of their physical prisons, but out of their spiritual prisons; the music which soars all the way to Heaven. As Dostoyevsky once promised, “Beauty will save the world.”


  1. I can’t agree with the application of this quote to the Mass. There is an aesthetic aspect to the Mass, but the aesthetics are far from the most important part.

    Frankly, as a convert from the Southern Baptists, I’ll say that the typical Baptist hymns are of better quality than the hymns sung in the typical Catholic parish — so much for today. As for the past, the rather lacy vestures preferred by some clerics present a rather effeminate picture of the priesthood. Each may have their reasons, but they are reasons — not mere visceral reactions of the type Morgan Freeman mentions.

    No; it really matters what is being said in the liturgy. It’s too easy for a serious Catholic, aware of the inadequacies of the current ICEL translation of the Mass, to overlook the power that the words of the Mass still retain.

    If you want mere ethereal beauty, you can always have “Music from the Hearts of Space”. Give me a spoken Mass with no music at all instead of that!

  2. Music has a way of touching us when words often go by without serious reflection. I grew up protestant, but was exposed to Catholic teaching through friends and a brief enrollment at a Catholic grade school. From personal reading (I got hooked on reading biographies of the Saints, thank you Sister!) and having witnessed the Catholic mass I became convinced of the truth of the Real Presence. But I was a protestant, and just a kid, and after a time I pretty much forgot about it. Years later, I was a student at Southwestern Adventist College in Keene Texas, and I took choir as an elective. The college choir often provided music for the Keene SDA church. For the quarterly communion service, our director chose “Adoro Te Devote”, a Eucharistic hymn by Thomas Aquinas. Beautiful Latin, with verses translated into English as well.

    I loved singing that hymn! I looked forward every day to rehearsal. One day, the director instructed us to take out our pencils, as he wanted to arrange the piece for the upcoming church service. We would not be singing the Latin. Disappointing, but understandable for an Adventist church. He then proceeded to do a hatchet job on the English verses.

    The original:

    O Godhead hid, devoutly I adore Thee,
    Who truly art within the forms before me;
    To Thee my heart I bow with bended knee,
    As failing quite in contemplating Thee.

    Sight, touch, and taste in Thee are each deceived;
    The ear alone most safely is believed:
    I believe all the Son of God has spoken,
    Than Truth’s own word there is no truer token. ”

    All that became something like:

    O Jesus we adore thee, who at thy sacrament are pleased to be,

    Precious symbol of our Risen Lord..


    It was just wrong… not just wrong, but clumsily offensively wrong.

    My head was Adventist, but my heart wanted what Thomas Aquinas so devoutly believed. A year later, almost to the day, I was confirmed into the Catholic Church.

    Its been 30 years since then. God is Good.

  3. Howard,

    I agree with the core of what I think you’re saying: that even at its worst, the Mass retains an inherent beauty by virtue of the actual prayers we’re offering, and the supernatural realities which are taking place. In the same way, no matter how ugly the Ark of the Covenant was, it’d retain a specific beauty, due to its housing the Glory of the LORD.

    But it’s precisely because of the Divine realities occurring in the Mass that we should celebrate the Mass in a way which inspires awe. I think that a well-done Liturgy does two things: (1) it creates an atmosphere for receiving the word of God, and (2) it delivers a message, teaching us about our relationship with God, and how to approach Him.

    For (1), there’s a reason that certain songs are good ones to work out to, and certain ones aren’t. It mentally prepares you for what you’re doing. And it’s not for nothing that Hollywood goes to the trouble of carefully choosing music for the score and soundtrack of movies: good music piques the viewer’s attention, and makes them more aware of what’s being said onscreen.

    For (2), there’s a reason Scripture includes the Psalms: proper music is a vital part of Christianity, and has actual content (as MarysRoses’ example showed).

    So what matters are both the lyrics and the form of the music.
    As St. Augustine said, “Singing is praying twice.” A Mass in which the music is reverent (both in terms of what’s said, and how it’s said) is likely to inspire reverence. Conversely, a Mass in which the music is instrumentally and lyrically self-centered — songs like Marty Haugen’s “Gather Us In,” in which we literally sing, “WE have been sung throughout all of history, called to be light to the whole human race” — make it harder for the priest to turn people away from themselves and towards God.

    Since both of you shared your personal accounts, I’ll do the same. I grew up in a parish that preferred new things to old ones — there was a lot of Marty Haugen, a lot of David Haas, and outside of the Christmas season, virtually nothing written prior to the 1960s. Some of the hymns were pleasant, and a few were even good: Haas’ “Holy is Your Name,” set to an old Irish folk song, is how I remember the words of the Magnificat.

    But at the end of the day, the songs were not particular beautiful, and were theologically shallow. As you said, Protestant hymns are vastly superior to modern Catholic hymns in almost every way.

    But Catholicism has a rich musical history, just one which is being ignored in many parts of the world. I remember being blown away the first time I heard St. Thomas Aquinas’ Pange Lingua, by the sheer beauty of the song. I’d just never heard anything like it. It turns out that there was a time in which Catholics were able to write hymns which were beautiful and rich in orthodox theology. The quote from Augustine about song being prayer twice only makes sense once you’ve experienced well-done Catholic music.

    So it’s true that even a shoddy Ark will house the Glory of the LORD, but we should still strive to make the most beautiful Ark we can. And on that front, I think most churches have a long way to go. In Christ,


    P.S. Mary’s Roses, your conversion story was beautiful. The Eucharist is truly a magnet for the Church.

  4. Hey great post. Just one correction in one of your comments, Joe. St Augustine said “cantare amantis est” – “singing is what a lover does” (lover in the sense of one who loves). This therefore gives an even better reason as to why there should be good singing. Striving for beauty in song (that is, both aesthetically and in truth) is an act of love of God and so is therefore more closely bound with what is happening on the altar. Even our Lord recited Psalms on the cross. If the propers were chanted (as they ought to be) instead of having hymns all the time then we would also end up singing more of the psalms as well. Singing, insofar as it is offered to God in worship and in response to God’s love, is important for Mass.

  5. “Frankly, as a convert from the Southern Baptists, I’ll say that the typical Baptist hymns are of better quality than the hymns sung in the typical Catholic parish”

    And so they are! However, the “hymns” that perhaps the author had in mind are Gregorian chant, which really is “music which soars all the way to Heaven.”

    Given the insipid garbage that passes for the typical modern Catholic hymn, I totally agree with you: “Give me a spoken Mass with no music at all instead of that!”

    Maybe what you need, which also is of surpassing beauty, despite having no music, is a Low Mass in the Extraordinary Form.

    Sean P. Dailey
    Gilbert Magazine

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