What Does the Church Really Say about Music in Mass?

 Since the close of the Second Vatican Council, church music has been at the center of a lot of controversy. In many places liturgy has become mere entertainment or an emotional pep rally. Music has become the very center of a crisis which has profoundly affected the Catholic Mass.

In This Article…
What Is Sacred Music?
A Treasure of Inestimable Value
The Structures Needed to Support Sacred Music

What Is Sacred Music?

For anyone who is interested in the proper implementation of the liturgical reform envisioned by the Second Vatican Council, there are documents on the subject of liturgical music which need to be read and studied. For the centenary of the Motu Propio "Tra le Sollecitudini" of Pope St. Pius X (1835-1914) who did much work for liturgical reform, Pope John Paul the Great published an important document on sacred music. In his document we find words that will help us answer our question.

    In continuity with the teachings of St. Pius X and the Second Vatican Council, it is necessary first of all to emphasize that music destined for sacred rites must have holiness as its reference point: indeed, "sacred music increases in holiness to the degree that it is intimately linked with liturgical action." For this very reason, "not all without distinction that is outside the temple (profanum) is fit to cross its threshold," my venerable predecessor Paul VI wisely said, commenting on a Decree of the Council of Trent. And he explained that "if music – instrumental and vocal – does not possess at the same time the sense of prayer, dignity and beauty, it precludes the entry into the sphere of the sacred and the religious." Today, moreover, the meaning of the category "sacred music" has been broadened to include repertoires that cannot be part of the celebration without violating the spirit and norms of the Liturgy itself. (Chirograph of the Supreme Pontiff John Paul II for the Centenary of the Motu Propio, 4)

From this text, we can deduce that not all music is appropriate for the Catholic Mass. In fact, the post-conciliar document Musicam Sacram (March 5, 1967), gives us a precise definition of sacred music when it states:

    By sacred music is understood that which, being created for the celebration of divine worship, is endowed with a certain holy sincerity of form. The following come under the title of sacred music: Gregorian chant, sacred polyphony in its various forms both ancient and modern, sacred music for the organ and other approved instruments, and sacred popular music, be it liturgical or simply religious.

A Treasure of Inestimable Value

Sacred music has a very important function within the liturgy of the Catholic Church. In the Vatican II document Sacrosanctum Concilium we find these words:

    The musical tradition of the universal Church is a treasure of inestimable value, greater even than that of any other art. The main reason for this pre-eminence is that, as sacred song united to the words, it forms a necessary or integral part of the solemn liturgy. (112)

The same text goes on to tell us the very purpose of the sacred music: i.e., the glory of God and the sanctification of the faithful.

In light of what we have seen thus far, we can now ask the question, What is appropriate music for the Catholic liturgy? The documents on sacred music already give us an answer to this question. Let us look at Pope John Paul's Motu Propio:

    Among the musical expressions that correspond best with the qualities demanded by the notion of sacred music, especially liturgical music, Gregorian chant has a special place. The Second Vatican Council recognized "that being specially suited to the Roman Liturgy" it should be given, other things being equal, pride of place in liturgical services sung in Latin. St. Pius X pointed out that the Church had "inherited it from the Fathers of the Church," that she has "jealously guarded [it] for centuries in her liturgical codices" and still "proposes it to the faithful" as her own, considering it "the supreme model of sacred music." Thus, Gregorian chant continues also today to be an element of unity in the Roman Liturgy. (7)

Secondly, after Gregorian Chant, the Church considers polyphony as another important part of its patrimony of sacred music. "But other kinds of sacred music, especially polyphony, are by no means excluded from liturgical celebrations, so long as they accord with the spirit of the liturgical action, as laid down in Art. 30" (Sacrosanctum Concilium, 116).

After Gregorian chant and polyphony, other forms of sacred music, choral music and the congregational singing of hymns are also very important as well.

We can already see that the Catholic Church has never done away with its beautiful music of the past. Moreover, all of the documents of the Church on the subject of music encourage its use.

The Structures Needed to Support Sacred Music

Again, let us look at John Paul's Motu Propio, where he writes:

    The importance of preserving and increasing the centuries-old patrimony of the Church spurs us to take into particular consideration a specific exhortation of the Constitution Sacrosanctum Concilium: "Choirs must be assiduously developed, especially in cathedral churches." In turn, the Instruction Musicam Sacram explains the ministerial task of the choir: "Because of the liturgical ministry it exercises, the choir (cappella musicale or schola cantorum) should be mentioned here explicitly. The conciliar norms regarding the reform of the Liturgy have given the choir's function greater prominence and importance. The choir is responsible for the correct performance of its part, according to the differing types of song, to help the faithful to take an active part in the singing. Therefore,… choirs are to be developed with great care, especially in cathedrals and other major churches, in seminaries and in religious houses of study." The schola cantorum's task has not disappeared: indeed, it plays a role of guidance and support in the assembly and, at certain moments in the Liturgy, has a specific role of its own. (8)

From the Church documents cited thus far, not only do we see what is appropriate liturgical music, we can also conclude what is inappropriate for the Catholic Mass. Jazz, rock, mariachi, and polka are not genres of sacred music. What happens, however, when such popular forms are all that people know? What happens is that this treasure of inestimable value is in danger of being lost to future generations of Catholic after having been carefully preserved by the Church for centuries. But worse, worship itself suffers as we no longer bring before God the best, which is what He deserves.

Pope Benedict XVI once wrote:

    A Church which only makes use of "utility" music has fallen for what is, in fact, useless. She too becomes ineffectual. For her mission is a far higher one. As the Old Testament speaks of the Temple, the Church is to be the place of "glory," and as such, too, the place where mankind's cry of distress is brought to the ear of God. The Church must not settle down with what is merely comfortable and serviceable at the parish level; she must arouse the voice of the cosmos and, by glorifying the Creator, elicit the glory of the cosmos itself, making it also glorious, beautiful, habitable and beloved. Next to the saints, the art which the Church has produced is the only real "apologia" for her history. It is this glory which witnesses to the Lord, not theology's clever explanations for the terrible things which, lamentably, fill the pages of her history. The Church is to transform, improve, "humanize" the world – but how can she do that if at the same time she turns her back on beauty, which is so closely allied to love? For together, beauty and love form the true consolation in the world, bringing it as near as possible to the world of the resurrection. The Church must maintain high standards; she must be a place where beauty can be at home; she must lead the struggle for that "spiritualization" without which the world becomes the "first circle of hell." Thus to ask what is "suitable" must always be the same as asking what is "worthy"; it must constantly challenge us to see what is "worthy" of the Church's worship. (Feast of Faith, 124-125)

Aside from the outright rejection of anything that took place in the Catholic Church prior to the Second Vatican Council, which of course is an outright rebellion, even revolution, perhaps one of the reasons that has caused the liturgical music crisis is a misunderstanding of the concept of active participation. Does the active participation promoted by the Vatican II document on the sacred liturgy mean that the people have to sing every piece of music within the liturgy? If this is the case, then the use of polyphony and choral music will be impossible, and liturgical music will be reduced to the singing of simple hymns only. In most parishes, this is exactly what has happened.

So, what does "active participation" mean and not mean? Pope Benedict gives us an answer to this important question when he writes:

    Wherever an exaggerated concept of "community" predominates, a concept which is (as we have already seen) completely unrealistic precisely in a highly mobile society such as ours, there only the priest and the congregation can be acknowledged as legitimate executors or performers of liturgical song. Today, practically everyone can see through the primitive activism and the insipid pedagogic rationalism of such a position which is why it is now asserted so seldom. The fact that the schola and the choir can also contribute to the whole picture, is scarcely denied any more, even among those who erroneously interpret the council's phrase about "active participation" as meaning external activism. ("In the Presence of the Angels," Adoremus Bulletin, Vol. 2, Nos. 6-8, Oct-Dec. 1996)

From the words of Pope Benedict XVI, together with all of the Church documents on sacred music since the Second Vatican Council, we can deduce that there should be a musical balance within the Catholic Mass. Although it is the mind of the Council that the people need to participate actively by singing, this does not remove the possibility that some musical parts of the Mass could encompass musical pieces that are not sung by the congregation and are in fact traditional Latin pieces which may be Gregorian Chant, polyphony, or traditional choral music.

This brief discussion by no means exhausts the subject of sacred music. However, perhaps this reflection will spark an interest in reading the Church documents on the subject of sacred music. It is my hope that such a renewed interest will help parishes implement the true teachings of the Second Vatican Council.

© Copyright 2006 Catholic Exchange

Father James Farfaglia is Pastor of St. Helena of the True Cross of Jesus Catholic Church in Corpus Christi, Texas. Originally from Ridgefield, CT, Father has founded and developed apostolates for the Catholic Church in Spain, Italy, Mexico, Canada and throughout the United States. He may be reached by email at [email protected].

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