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St. Cecilia playing organ

Singing with Wisdom: Music in Roman Catholic Worship—Part 3

July 10, 2024


Following from the first two parts of this series, I would like to suggest that a reading of the documents from the Second Vatican Council shows that the council intended something other than what our most common experience has been with music in the liturgy since the 1960s when the revised liturgy was rolled out to parishes. 

The topic of music in Roman Catholic worship is too big to address comprehensively here, but to attempt to draw this discussion to a close, we should focus again on this principle of “organic development” mentioned in article 23 of Sacrosanctum Concilium and apply it to a reading of the documents of the liturgical revision. 

Pius X provided a concrete definition of organic development in music in Tra le sollecitudini. He wrote that “the more closely a Church composition approaches Gregorian chant in movement, inspiration, and feeling, the more holy and liturgical it becomes; and the more it deviates from this supreme model, the less worthy it is of the temple” (TLS 3). In Sacrosanctum Concilium, the Council Fathers wrote that “the Church acknowledges Gregorian chant as specially suited to the Roman liturgy: therefore, other things being equal, it should be given pride of place in liturgical services” (SC 116). 

This and other Church statements on music in the liturgy since Vatican II have tended to be somewhat opaque, open to wide interpretation but with no clear guidance from the Church. For example, what does Sacrosanctum Concilium suggest when it later says that “the Church approves of all forms of true art having the needed qualities, and admits them into divine worship (SC 112) or, after stating that “the pipe organ is to be held in high esteem,” it states that “other instruments also may be admitted for use in divine worship . . . on condition that the instruments are suitable, or can be made suitable, for sacred use, accord with the dignity of the temple, and truly contribute to the edification of the faithful” (SC 120)? “Pride of place,” “high esteem,” “made suitable,” “true art” with “needed qualities.” 

The Sacred Congregation of Rites promulgated the instruction Musicam Sacram on March 5, 1967, with the approval of Pope Paul VI. Its purpose was to guide how sacred music was to be used in the liturgy of the reform. The Congregation defined sacred music as “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” (MS 4b). Some of those categories are specific, but what is “sacred popular music” and “simply religious” music? We seem to have terms without definitions.

The more music becomes like entertainment, the less it is acceptable for use in the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass. 

The term “popular music” is defined in De musica sacra et sacra liturgia, the 1958 instruction of the Sacred Congregation of Rites, which devotes a section to “Popular Religious Song” (DMSSL 51 ff). Prior to the changes to the liturgy following Vatican II, the congregation had been allowed to sing vernacular hymns at certain moments in the liturgy—for example, during the recitation of the gradual, introit, offertory, and communion (see DMSSL 14). This is the context of what “popular music” is understood to be in the 1967 document. Prior to Vatican II, these hymns were not considered a part of the liturgy but were to be sung after the texts of the liturgy had been recited at the altar. In a real sense, they were extra-liturgical.

De musica sacra states the requirements for these hymns to be acceptable. They had to “conform to the doctrine of the Catholic Church, plainly stating, and explaining it. The vocabulary should be simple, and free of dramatic, and meaningless verbiage. [And their] tunes, however brief, and easy, should evince a religious dignity and propriety” (DMSSL 52). Following upon this 1958 instruction, Musican sacram (1967) allowed for the first time for these “popular hymns” to replace the proper texts of the liturgy at the gradual (the Psalm sung after the first reading), introit, offertory, and communion (MS 32); however, allowing “religious music” at Mass (also defined in the 1958 document) was an innovation that was excluded from the liturgy prior to 1967 (see DMSSL 54ff). In that section of the 1958 document, you will read that religious music is “the type of music which inspires its hearers with religious sentiments, and even devotion, [but], because of its special character [it] cannot be used in liturgical functions” (DMSSL 54). The document said that its proper place was concert halls, theaters, or auditoriums, but under special circumstances it could be performed in churches (not liturgically) with the bishop’s permission and with the Blessed Sacrament removed from the church (DMSSL 54, 55). I’ll be bold to say that most of the music sung in our liturgies today would fall into this category.

So, how are we to read and interpret the more general, and sometimes seemingly contradictory, statements on sacred music after the Second Vatican Council? Musicam sacram provides the key. In section 59, it states that

musicians will enter on this new work with the desire to continue that tradition which has furnished the Church, in her divine worship, with a truly abundant heritage. Let them examine the works of the past, their types and characteristics, but let them also pay careful attention to the new laws and requirements of the liturgy, so that ‘new forms may in some way grow organically from forms that already exist,’ [so that] the new work will form a new part in the musical heritage of the Church, not unworthy of its past.

There is that reference to “organic development” again. To discern (or create) what is an organic development you must know the “works of the past, their types and characteristics.” This is essentially the same way that theology is done, and the only way that doctrinal orthodoxy can possibly be preserved. Remember, Lex orandi, lex credendi. If we change the way we pray, over time, belief will change too. 

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It should be evident that, contrary to some opinions, Vatican II did not authorize a radical change in the nature and ethos of Roman Catholic worship. Any vagaries in the documents can be clarified and understood in their context by coming to know the Tradition. 

It is also important to note that personal preference or taste has never been a consideration in the development of music determined worthy for use at Holy Mass. Cultural adaptations, certainly, but within the same parameters of propriety so that the reverence for the sacrifice of Calvary remains clearly at the core of our worship is not compromised. 

I will conclude with two final points. 

In Tracey Rowland’s essay from The New Ressourcement referenced in part 2 of this series of articles, she writes that if logos and ethos are inverted—that is, if action comes to precede Word—then what results is a “bourgeoise Christianity.” The term implies a Christianity by consensus, or a dumbing down of belief, vapid and unchallenging, but nonetheless consoling.

The warm fuzziness of a spiritual atmosphere enhanced by rhapsodic piano music, strumming guitars, and sappy hymns doesn’t communicate the harsh, beautiful, frightening reality of what we believe we participate in at Holy Mass. We can see from the level of disaffiliation from the Church and denial that Jesus is truly present in the Holy Eucharist how fragile our belief is. It must be presented richly to the senses in the liturgical action, the environment of the Church, the manner of celebration, and perhaps most especially in the music we sing. 

In our current Spotify culture, we only know music as entertainment and not as ritual. This orients our appreciation or lack of appreciation for the music that is sung at Mass. Entertainment has never been music’s purpose in the sacred liturgy. To paraphrase Pope St. Pius X and his comment about Gregorian chant, the more music becomes like entertainment, the less it is acceptable for use in the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass. 

There is little disagreement that the liturgy as we have it was not the vision of the Council Fathers.

My last point is again drawn from Pope St. Pius X. He wrote, “The Church has always recognized and favored the progress of the arts, admitting to the service of religion everything good and beautiful discovered by genius in the course of ages,” but also warns that “modern music has risen mainly to serve profane uses, [so] greater care must be taken with regard to it, in order that the musical compositions of modern style which are admitted in the Church may contain nothing profane, be free from reminiscences of motifs adopted in the theaters, and be not fashioned even in their external forms after the manner of profane pieces” (TLS 5).

Remember the quote that began the article from the Associated Press: “It was the music that changed first.” That comment was made by someone in a parish in Wisconsin complaining about the changes initiated by their new pastor. They said that “contemporary hymns were replaced by music rooted in medieval Europe.” Rewind to the late 1960s, and those parishioners had a reverse experience. Well-meaning music ministers who were scrambling to find music to support a revised liturgy in the vernacular tossed out the Latin hymns and chants, broke out the guitars, and started singing “Morning Has Broken” and “Sunshine on My Shoulder.” For some, it might have been desperation to find music to support a vernacular liturgy. For others, perhaps it was a belief they had been freed from past restrictions. Whichever the case, organic development doesn’t happen overnight. They did the best they could. 

With almost sixty years having passed since the liturgical changes, we should now be able to step back and honestly assess the impact of those changes on the Church. There is little disagreement that the liturgy as we have it was not the vision of the Council Fathers. A cursory reading of Sacrosantum Concilium makes that obvious. Reflection on article 23 would be an excellent place to evaluate the success of the reform: “There must be no innovations unless the good of the Church genuinely and certainly requires them.”

Bishop Barron often says when asked about the success of the Second Vatican Council: it hasn’t yet been tried. He has called for a robust and enthusiastic reappropriation of the texts of Vatican II and, in my opinion, there is no area in the life of the Church where that is more important than in a careful reading of the Constitution on the Liturgy. Where the Council Fathers called for a revitalized liturgy cultivating a vibrant Catholic culture that will draw the world to itself, we have instead only 28% of Catholics saying they attend Mass weekly (17% of adults in another survey) and many that lack a correct understanding of the central reality of our worship—Jesus Christ, priest and victim, really and truly with us in the Most Blessed Sacrament. 

It would be naïve to suggest that other cultural changes haven’t played their part in undermining our faith, but it would be equally naïve to assume the liturgical and musical changes, as they have been carried out, have had no effect either. 

So, what went wrong? To answer that question, we have to become deaf and blind to the liturgy wars, study our past, and retrace our steps back to the ancient liturgy of the Church, and then move forward once again with a purified vision of what the Council called for. 

The sacrifice of praise shall glorify me:
And there is the way by which I will shew him the
Salvation of God.

—Ps 49:23