‘May almighty God bless you, the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit.’
‘Amen’, I reply, and bow after the blessing from the Priest. It’s the regular English mass at Cua Bac (North Gate) Church in Hanoi but the sunlight seems dazzlingly magical through the stained glass windows and the preaching of Father Hung is surprisingly beautiful. Perhaps it’s the excitement of a newly-baptised Christian allowed to sing the responsorial psalm for the first time. Or maybe because Christmas is just around the corner, meaning we, the choir, have lots of work (and joy) ahead in preparing our Christmas songs.
For Vietnamese Christians, singing hymns plays a crucial role in families and at mass. It’s an honourable and sacred thing to do and parents often encourage their children to join the church choir to express their love of God and other people and to have a good moral foundation. People love singing and know many songs, so when Christmas comes the choir is an indispensable part of the mass for it also represents the spirit of the season.
It seems like yesterday, not a year ago, that I followed my half-Spanish friend Tung, a veteran member, to join the Emmanuel choir out of curiosity and a love of singing. The choir has over 30 young Vietnamese as well as some foreigners from the Philippines, Japan and the US. Initially formed in 1999 by Tung’s uncle, a Singaporean expat in Hanoi, the choir has developed through generations, accompanying mass on different occasions. We now sing at Cua Bac Church’s 10.30am mass on Sundays and practice every Wednesday at 8pm. Everyone is welcome.
Being a newbie, I was assigned to ‘sit with the sopranos’ as Tung pointed to the women on the right. ‘They sing high notes,’ he explained. Later I learned that the other women are altos, whose voices are lower-pitched. ‘We are divided into four groups’, Tung explained. ‘I’m a bass, and these guys are tenors.’ Practice began as we followed our conductor through a song with all pitch types mixed beautifully in harmony. Miracles suddenly came to life and melted my soul away. With the melodic sounds of the piano, the organ, the trumpet and the flute played by talented choir members (some of whom graduated from the Vietnam National Academy of Music), we practiced and sang five hymns for the coming mass. It was then I realised the wonderfully enormous world of chorales that help enhance the solemnity of the mass in a colourful way.
The new experience was, in fact, so overwhelming that I forgot I was a layman who still found religious rituals and prayers strange and hard to remember. It wasn’t until six months later, in a catechism class of Father Kieu, did I understand more about the meaning. Singing hymns is a way of devotion to God, in praise of Him. For Christians, praying is a daily necessity, to gain blessings of goodwill, and singing chorales is even more valuable, for ‘He who sings prays twice’, as a saying of Saint Augustine has it. ‘It’s a journey of transformation in spirit and soul, through lyrics and music for a better self,’ said Father Kieu.
Christmas is the busiest time of the year, as we need two months of practicing our Christmas songs. Before I joined the choir I didn’t pay much attention to this ‘Western event’, since it’s not a traditional holiday in Vietnam. Last Christmas, though, changed my perspective. Singing about Christ drew me closer to the stories of Jesus, how He was born in a poor but loving family. Although He had the power to heal wounds and wake the dead with love and worship from his people, the King of life still chose to live simply as a human being. Working and realising daily happiness is something we often fail to appreciate. With that I fell in love with the lyrics and melodies. We were immersed in hours of singing over and over with drying throats through hunger and exhaustion. Yet the tears from laughter always kept our spirits up and all the hard work paid off in the end.
There were 15 songs we had to sing before and after Christmas night, at hotels and churches. If this year is anything like last year, our real ‘event’ will kick off with a two-hour performance at the Hilton Hanoi Opera at the beginning of December. The payment collected will go to a charity for the poor. Then, on Christmas Eve, December 24, we will go from hotels to St. Joseph’s Cathedral and finally the Sainte Marie Monastery for a Christmas mass. It’s tiring but fun, rushing from place to place, dragging along our vestments, Christmas song folders, water and sandwiches. ‘Like celebrities in show business,’ Tung grins. ‘Once there were two places that were far from one another, and we didn’t eat at all.’ In the week after Christmas there are more masses than usual at our home church, Cua Bac, to celebrate the birth of Jesus. The church will sparkle with lights from beautiful Christmas trees and grottoes.
‘Is the mass in Singapore the same as ours?’ I asked Tung after he’d returned from a trip there. ‘The ritual ceremony is the same, except for the choir’, he replied. ‘They aren’t as good. Some are even out of tune and they don’t sing evenly.’ Brother Rufino, a Deacon from OCP (Oregon Catholic Press) in America came to visit us before Christmas. ‘I travel all around the world to help choirs with their mass settings and Vietnam is a frequent destination,’ he said as we sat and listened. ‘I’ve been to the north and south of Vietnam and your choir is one of the best. You sing so well and have such professional people - your conductor and the musicians. I have no concerns that this Christmas is going to be great.’
This Christmas will surely be sweet, memorable and meaningful. I will keep my voice at its best to sing the responsorial psalm again - maybe on the special Christmas Eve.