What is Sacred Music? It’s a Bit More Complex than You May Think

March 1 blog postThere was a discussion a few years ago on my Facebook page about Church music. My parish, Holy Comforter-St. Cyprian in Washington, D.C., was featured on EWTN’s nightly news (see video below); the discussion centered on that report.

Among the many forms of music we use here at my parish, gospel music is predominant at our 11:00 AM Mass. While many of the comments on the Facebook page were encouraging and supportive of this music, there were still a significant minority that spoke of gospel music as being inappropriate for Catholic liturgy and of it not being sacred. Chant, polyphony, and traditional hymns were held up as sacred, while gospel and some modern forms of music were labeled “not sacred,” and/or inappropriate for Catholic worship.

While everyone is certainly entitled to his personal preferences, is there really a definitive answer to the question, what is sacred music and how is it that some forms have come to be more widely regarded as sacred than others?

The answer to this question is a little more complex than most people realize. With the exception of chant, almost every form of music that is today regarded as sacred initially had a stormy reception in the Church before being admitted to the ranks of music commonly called “sacred.”

That music is controversial in the Church is nothing new, as we shall see in this modest survey that I make of the history of music in Catholic liturgy. Some of my sources are listed at the end of this post, but it is really the product of many years of reading and studying.

On some level, I hope to provide some perspective on the claim that is often made today that certain modern forms of music are inadmissible because they are not “sacred.” In no way do I intend to approve of all forms of modern music nor to encourage the admission of all of them into the liturgy. But it is worth appreciating that the definition of “sacred music” has changed over time. New forms have been admitted— sometimes reluctantly—to the exalted class we refer to as “sacred music.”

Here, then, is a brief look at the history of Church music in terms of what has been considered sacred and what has not.

I. The early, pre-Constantine period: Chant reigns supreme – While little if any music survives in written form from the earliest days of the Church, it seems clear (as Johannes Quasten records) that the leaders of the early Church (the Fathers and bishops) preferred monophonic music. This seems largely due to the association of harmony with the excesses of the pagan world and pagan worship.

Frankly, there was in the early Church a very persistent theme that music itself was problematic. Many ancient bishops and Fathers of the Church barely tolerated it, sought to limit its influence, and/or were deeply suspicious of any singing at all.

In his essay “On the Theological Basis of Church Music,” Cardinal Ratzinger; drawing from sources such as Pope Gregory the Great, St. Jerome, Gratian, and even as recent as St. Thomas Aquinas; describes the rather negative opinion in the early Church of any music involving instruments, harmony, or anything deemed “theatrical.” He writes,

Instrumental music, understood as a Judaizing element, simply disappeared from the early liturgy without any discussion; the instrumental music of the Jewish temple is dismissed as a mere concession to the hardness of heart and sensuality of the people at that time. What the Old Testament said about music and worship could no longer be applied directly, it had to be read by them allegorically, it had to be spiritualized (Ratzinger, “On the Theological Basis of Church Music,” quoted from Collected Works Vol XI, pp 425-432).

Summarizing the views he had received from the earlier Church, St. Thomas writes, “In the praise of God, the Church does not employ musical instruments … lest she appear to be falling back into Jewish ways” (Summa Theologica II, IIae, q. 91 a 2 ad 3).

Cardinal Ratzinger continues,

Analyzing the texts, not infrequent in the Fathers, which are critical of music or even openly hostile to it, one can clearly identify two constant and governing factors:

A. In the first place there is the one-sidedly “spiritual” understanding of the relationship between the Old and New Testaments … [So] Christian liturgy … took on a more or less Puritan form. … The idea that God can only really be praised in the heart means that no status can be accorded to music … In Christian worship … music must be relegated to a secondary level. Augustine is a splendid example of this. His sensitivity to music causes him much torment because his mind is dominated by a spiritualizing theology that ascribes the senses to the Old Testament, the old world; he is afraid of “sinning grievously” when he is “moved more by the music then by the reality to which the singing refers” … and would prefer “not to hear singing at all.” Fortunately his rigorism is dampened when he recalls the profound stirring his soul experienced when he first heard Church music in Milan. [He thus adopted a view of music later stated by St. Thomas, which held that among the reasons for Church music was that] “Thus the minds of the weak be more effectively summoned to piety.”

B. The second group of ideas that stood in the way of a positive the valuation of Church music … is put in a nutshell in Thomas’ fundamental article on the praise of God, where he says that vocal worship is necessary, not for God’s sake, but for the sake of the worshiper (Ibid).

Cardinal Ratzinger argues in the essay that this tended to lead to a utilitarian view of Church music as necessary to some degree, but somehow less than ideal. He reflects that this created a barrier to any satisfactory theology, not only of Church music, but of all prayer whatsoever.

He also adds (in a later essay) another reason for the restrictive notions about music in the early Church:

To the extent that it distanced itself from the Semitic world, the development of Christological art songs [also] threatened more and more to turn into an acute Hellenization of Christianity … The fascination of Greek music and Greek thinking [now excluded] … so that the new music rapidly became the domain of Gnosticism … For this reason [too] the Church immediately and rigorously rejected the poetical and musical innovation and reduced Church music to the psalter … This limitation of liturgical singing which gradually began asserting itself from the second century … led to a forbiddance of private song compositions and noncanonical writings in liturgical services. The singing of the psalms also came to be restricted to the choir whereas others “should not sing in church” (See canon 59 of the Synod of Laodicea 364 AD) (Ratzinger, Ibid, p. 505).

Thus music in general, given its Semitic and pagan associations, was widely resisted in the early Church and tolerated only in limited ways. Music with any harmony was altogether excluded and would not reappear until the Late Middle Ages.

Another reason that the early Church seems to have favored non-harmonic singing was somewhat rooted in the cosmology of the time, wherein there was an emphasis on the unity of all things. Whatever diversity was discovered was viewed as coming from the one hand of God. Monophonic music seemed to better express this unity, at least to the ancient Christian mind.

This cosmology of unity still finds its expression in the way that most Prefaces in the Mass are ended. The Latin text speaks of the multitude of the choirs of angels, joining with the voices of the many saints (cum Angelis, et archangelis, cum Thronis, et Domininationes … et òmnibus Sanctis). And yet despite the vast multitude of voices, at the end of the preface it says that they all sing “as with one voice saying” (una voce dicentes), “Holy, Holy, Holy, Lord God of hosts.”

And so at the earliest stage, sacredness was associated with what we today call chant. To the ancient Church, harmony was widely considered to be secular, even pagan.

II. The Church after Persecution: Chant develops – The earliest chants were quite simple and largely syllabic (one note per syllable); there were few elaborations. However, after the Edict of Constantine (321 A.D.) as the Church came out of a more hidden worship, the use of large, cavernous buildings started to influence the singing. Cantors began to elaborate on the chant, making full use of the echoes in the larger, basilica-like buildings. Vocals became increasingly melismatic (multiple notes per syllable) rather than syllabic, especially during festival seasons. Syllables (such as those in the word “Alleluia”) began to be extended longer with more and more notes.

Singers also “yielded to the spirit,” and the long melismata became a kind of ecstatic “singing in tongues.” Though at first any elaboration was resisted, certain chants did begin to develop in some areas. As these melodies became increasingly complex, they were written down and collected by Pope St. Gregory (among others), hence the modern name, “Gregorian chant.”

As these chants became more and more elaborate, their sacredness was only gradually conceded. In fact they became so complicated that the faithful in the congregation, who were already being discouraged from singing at all, had great difficulty joining in most of the chants. For this reason, special choirs called scholas were formed.

III. The High Middle Ages: Harmony enters – The next major development in Church music took place during the High Middle Ages, generally speaking in the 13th century. The first developments of harmony occurred in the musical schools in France, particularly around Paris. It was here that we saw the first widespread introduction of harmony into Church music.

Several factors influenced the introduction of harmony. First, there was the reintroduction of Greek philosophy and some of its views back into the Western world through scholasticism.

Among the Greek notions there was a cosmology that spoke of the planets orbiting the sun in perfect circles, each of them ringing out a different tone and creating a beautiful celestial harmony in the heavens as they did so. This was the “music of the spheres” and the idea of a great and beautiful harmonic sound in the heavens. Thus the association of harmony with the sacred began to seem more plausible in the minds of Christians.

The first experimentation with harmony seems to have been singing the Gregorian melodies and adding a hollow harmony of a fourth or fifth. Sometimes this involved several singers singing the words in those harmonies. Other times the harmonizers simply “droned” in the background, somewhat like bagpipe drones.

Architecture was another factor that influenced the harmonies. The soaring new cathedrals with their vaulted ceilings that began to dot the landscape of Western Europe seemed to demand more soaring music. These cathedrals were the skyscrapers of their day.

As harmony began to sound more pleasing to the ears, scholars worked to study it using, of all things, the Pythagorean Theorem to mathematically set forth the harmonic scale. Thus mathematics and music came together to quantify a kind of music theory. Gradually, as the years just prior to the 16th century ticked by, we came to have what we know of today as the 12-tone scale.

The introduction of harmony (as with most things musical) in the Church was not always without controversy. Some thought that it made the words harder to understand, a complaint that would plague polyphonic music in its early stages.

Nevertheless, as a general rule, the new harmonies from the Paris school swept through Europe to widespread acclaim. People flocked to the cathedrals to hear this splendid new music.

IV. Late Middle Ages to Renaissance: Musical revolution and growing crisis for polyphony – It is hard to describe what took place in music from the late 1300s to 1500 as anything less than revolutionary. The modern harmonic scale as we now know it came into full realization. Harmony went from two-part, to three-part, and then to four and more parts, amazing listeners everywhere.

The incredible development of music during this period paralleled the remarkable developments in painting: increasing use of shadow, light, perspective, and depth. By the early 1500s, Renaissance polyphony was in all of its glory. Composers such as Isaac, Lassus, Palestrina, Victoria, Tallis, and Byrd brought this art form to an amazing richness.

But the music was not without controversy. There were two main problems with this new style called polyphony.

The first problem was the intelligibility of the text. With multiple harmonies being sung, the Latin text, often staggered across many parts and voices, became harder and harder to understand. Clergy in particular complained of this, arguing that the sacred text was taking a backseat to musical flourishes. In addition, the “theatrical showiness” seemed secular to many.

The second troubling issue was that many of the composers of the day drew from secular melodies that were often heard in taverns, in theaters, and on the streets. They would often take these recognizable melodies and set them as a cantus firmus (musical theme or foundation) of sacred compositions, including the parts of the Mass.

Heinrich Isaac, as early as the 1400s in his Missa Carminum, drew from many of these tavern songs. But perhaps the most egregious example of this, and something that almost caused polyphony to be banned completely from the Catholic Church, was a Mass composed by Orlande de Lassus.

The Mass in question was his Missa Entre Vous Filles. The main melody of both the Kyrie and the Gloria came from a secular piece by the French composer Jacob Clemens non Papa, the words of which bordered on the pornographic. As the Mass grew widely popular (for it is a lovely melody), Church authorities discovered its source and a great uproar ensued.

This controversy took place during the years of the Council of Trent, and though some scholars are dubious of all the details, it is reported that there were Council Fathers who were serious about seeing that sacred polyphony was forever banned from the Catholic liturgy.

Among those who came to the rescue, I am happy to report, was my patron saint, St. Charles Borromeo. He assembled some increasingly dubious bishops and cardinals who were attending the sessions of the Council of Trent so that they could hear the Pope Marcellus Mass by Palestrina. This particular Mass seems to have been specifically composed to address some of the critiques about the intelligibility of the text and the secular origins of many melodies. The presentation calmed some of the fears regarding this new music and the crisis largely passed.

This incident demonstrates that what many today consider a very sacred sound (namely Renaissance polyphony) was quite controversial in its day. It was only thought of as sacred in a widespread way later on. After surviving this first crisis, polyphony became less “florid” and gave greater emphasis to the intelligibility of the text. Secular melodies were also excluded. For these reasons, later works by Palestrina are more austere than those from his earlier period.

Thus we see how the definition of what makes for sacred music had already passed through two major periods. In the first, harmonies were considered too secular; in the second, harmony was introduced but only slowly accepted as sacred in nature.

V. The Renaissance to the Baroque: New controversies, old problems – In the period of the middle Renaissance a new cosmology began to replace the idea that the planets revolved around the sun in perfect circles. Astronomy started to reveal that most of the planets revolved around the sun in elliptical orbits, some of them quite elongated. The notion of the circular orbits of the planets, symbolized by the “music of the spheres” and imitated by Renaissance polyphony, began to give way to the understanding of the mathematical progression of elliptical orbits—a kind of Bach fugue in the sky. This change in cosmology helped to usher in the rather more elaborate, yet mathematical, music of the Baroque period.

In this period we find the wonderful and mathematically precise music of Bach, Vivaldi, Handel, Mozart, Gabrieli, Schubert, Scarlatti, and many others. Perhaps the fugue best exemplifies the kind of mathematical cosmology of the time. In a fugue, mastered by Bach but not wholly unique to him, a musical theme is set forth. For example, quarter notes may announce the theme of the fugue. This theme is then repeated in the left hand and then in the feet (of the organist). It also progresses mathematically: into eighth notes, then into sixteenth and even 32nd notes. Math meets music! Other musical forms like canons emerged similarly. Symphonies also grew to have movements, which were often named for their tempo (e.g., allegro, adagio, presto).

The classical and baroque periods brought the great orchestral or “Classical” Masses, by composers such as Mozart, Schubert, Scarlatti, and many others. Even Bach and Beethoven set the Catholic Mass in great symphonic and orchestral renderings.

Much controversy accompanied these newer forms. Once again, the principle concerns was the intelligibility of the text. Another concern was the length of many of these Masses; in some, the Glorias and Credos could go on for twenty minutes or more.

Some complained that these musical settings of the Mass made it sound more like being at the opera than Church. Indeed, they often broke the sacred text into movements sprinkled with soprano or tenor solos and duets, grand choral sections, and often with a full symphonic accompaniment. It was quite a feast for the ears! These Masses were generally so elaborate that they could only be performed in the larger, well-endowed, city churches.

The controversy concerning these kinds of Masses continued for many years. Even as liturgical reforms began in the early 1900s, Pope Pius X frowned on their usage, referring to these orchestral Masses as “theatrical” (see Tra Le Sollecitudini # 6). This led to a de facto banishing of the form from the Catholic liturgy at that time. Only after the Second Vatican Council was this form rehabilitated in a small way.

Here, too, we see that what many Catholics today consider unquestionably sacred (e.g., a great Mozart Mass) had to survive much controversy and even a kind of banishment. What is thought of as sacred today has not always enjoyed that rarefied distinction!

VI. The Modern Era: New musical forms, new controversies – This leads us to the modern era. As we have seen, those who think that debates about what constitutes sacred music are new are sadly mistaken. These disputes have been quite a consist part of Church life almost from the beginning. To simply place them at the feet of the Second Vatican Council is to lack historical perspective.

It is true that two documents of the Second Vatican Council (Musicam Sacram and Sacrosanctum Concilium) opened the door to newer forms with a greater freedom toward inculturation (e.g., MS # 18, 63), but they also reasserted the special accord to be given to chant (# 50a), polyphony, and the pipe organ (# 4a).

Although debate continues about newer forms of music and whether or not they are sacred, such tensions have long existed. Some newer forms have already been tried and found wanting (e.g., Polka Masses). Other forms such as “folk” or contemporary music, with adaptions over time, have remained.

Finally, let me say a few things about gospel music, the debate about which occasioned this rather lengthy post.

  1. Simply stating that gospel music is not sacred or that it is inappropriate for Catholic liturgy does not make it true. As we have seen, the judgment about what is sacred often takes time to be worked out. The notion of what sounds or seems sacred also changes; there are forms that were once considered improper that have since been admitted to the ranks of the sacred.
  2. Gospel music, unlike many other modern forms (e.g., polka, mariachi), has sacred roots. It emerged from the spirituals and hymns of the antebellum period and the early 20th century. And while gospel music is not strictly Catholic in origin, that fact does not disallow it per se from Catholic liturgy.
  3. One virtue of gospel music is its focus on God. Too many contemporary “worship songs” speak more of us and the “gathered community” than of God. Not so gospel, which is centered almost entirely on God.
  4. Like almost any form of music, gospel can have its excesses, but this does not mean that the whole form is flawed—only that certain rational limits should be observed. This was the case with early polyphony and the Classical Masses, and it is also true of gospel.
  5. Many complain that gospel looks too “performed.” Generally, however, most “outsiders” confuse the exuberance of the congregation and the singers with performance. Clapping is also not for the performer per se but is directed to God and is in gratitude for this manifestation of the Spirit.
  6. If one does not “prefer” or even like gospel music, he is free to stay away from it. But mere preference or taste does not mean that gospel is intrinsically lacking in sacred qualities. Similar things can be said about the use of hymnody. To my mind, the use of metrical hymnody is a good way to once again engage the faithful in the singing of sacred texts in ways that are melodic, memorable, appropriate, and easily learned. But for others, the Protestant origins of this form and most of its repertoire are a sticking point. Over the years, many of these hymns have found a solid place in Catholic liturgy.

Summation: Historically, no form of music currently considered sacred achieved that status without controversy. Indeed, music itself was controversial in the early Church and was barely tolerated by many of the Church Fathers. Time ultimately proves where wisdom lies and ultimately mediates for us what is sacred in a way that transcends mere passing tastes or preferences. Music has made several revolutionary leaps during the age of the Church. Provided necessary rational limits are applied, there is no need to rush to exclude every newer form. If we were to do so, only chant would exist in the Church and we would be deprived of a great treasury of music from the era of polyphony and the classical period.

In saying this I do not mean to indicate that all music is just fine, or that all modern forms are here to stay, or that newer forms should be unquestioned. It is clear that some forms are wholly inimical to the Sacred Liturgy. Rather, I seek to remind people that what we call “sacred music” is historically quite complex. It is the result of long and vigorous discussions, refinements, and other factors as diverse as cosmology, architecture, mathematics, and culture.

We do well to let some of the conversations and controversies work themselves out, lest in too quickly ending them by judicial fiat we impoverish ourselves and block what might bless others and even our very selves.

These are just a few of my sources for the above article:

  1. Music and Worship in Pagan and Christian Antiquity (Johannes Quasten)
  2. Papal Legislation on Sacred Music (Msgr. Robert F. Hayburn)
  3. Sacred Music (a BBC four-part production)
  4. Coming of Age in the Milky Way (Timothy Ferris)
  5. Why Catholics Can’t Sing (Thomas Day)

Here are the videos that sparked the discussion on my Facebook page:

11 Replies to “What is Sacred Music? It’s a Bit More Complex than You May Think”

  1. Dear Fr. Pope:

    Greetings in the Lord Jesus Christ.

    I enjoyed reading your brief essay on the development of what is acceptable as sacred music.

    As a convert to the Church, I had experienced many forms of Christian music in my experiences as a former Pentecostal Pastor, Greek Orthodox Deacon, and now for 16 years serving as a Roman Catholic Deacon with permission to serve also in the Ukrainian Catholic Church.

    On point I wish you would have mentioned was that even in Rome, the first Masses were offered in Greek, Latin came later. Also Pppe Gregory the Great having served as a representative of Rome in the Patriarchal See of Constantinople was greatly influenced by the Greek Chant which even then had its own forms of notation, and the 8 tones. Many Scholars believe that these eight Greek Liturgical Tones influenced that 8 tones in Gregorian Chant.

    While certain kinds of music appeal to different people more than others, peaceful, calming music of beauty edifies the soul and lifts up the heart to God. Not all Gospel music does that in many churches, they often take on a performance attitude which at time is distracting especially when people are screeching into Microphones and the music is so loud that it hurts one’s ears.

    Also it is not needed that the gospel singers or any singers face the congregation, that is not needed and focuses too much on the performer. Choirs should sing from the back in the Loft of off to the side.

    Other than that many Hymns lift the soul to Christ.If they lyrics are orthodox and the music is edifying, go for it with the power of the Holy Spirit.

  2. Thank you for this commentary, Monsignor. As a convert, this was *very* interesting. My background is in the Church(es) of Christ, sometimes called “Campbellites”, although they hate that name. They are (in)famous for their strict adherence to a capella singing only — a result of a firm belief in Sola Scriptura. I have heard discussions of whether a pitch pipe could even be allowed. (Camels and gnats!)

    It is amusing to learn that some of the Early Church Fathers had reservations about the use of instruments, since I’ve also heard preachers disavow them, as well. [The reasoning being that since the Early Church Fathers often expressed opinions that sound decidedly Catholic, it “proves” that they had been “corrupted” by the “pagan” influence of “Romanism”, and had “fallen away” from the “Golden Thread” of “true” Christianity. Of course, there’s no historical or literary evidence for the Golden Thread, but that’s another Thesis.]

    The dismal state of modern music in many Parishes was a shock to me. While theologically questionable, I had learned to love the 4+ part harmony and “sacred harp” a capella singing I grew up with. The OCP hymnal at my new Parish, with recycled stuff I sang in the 1970’s in coC youth group, was discouraging.

    But then, the interior of the Nave, with bland “cedar” paneling, cushioned pews, slots for hymnals, wall to wall carpeting and fluorescent lighting, looked *exactly* like the church of Christ I attended as a youth — with the exceptions of Crucifix, kneelers, statue of the Virgin, and lack of tiny little holders for the weensy-little cups of grape juice from the “communion. Neither building even thought about stained glass, LOL.

    I sing in the choir, help lead the children’s choir, and have encouraged our director to let us sing chant, Palestrina, etc. She has reluctantly agreed, but we always have the most positive feedback – and participation! – when we sing “classically”.

  3. Please count me as one who continues to doubt the suitability of orchestral masses (such as by Bach, Mozart, and Beethoven). As one who’s MCed many orchestral masses, I am happy to endorse arguments against them as theatrical and repetitious, compromising intelligibility and taking unwarranted liberties with the liturgical text. Not to mention solo virtuosity, which also seems entirely alien to the spirit of the liturgy. My pastor loves them. I love my pastor, but about this he’s just wrong.

    Gospel is not an idiom for any liturgical texts as far as I’m aware. It’s an idiom for sacred song, which like hymnody in general can never be more than an adjunct to mass and should never predominate. In my opinion it’s well over the line into the province of “liturgi-tainment”, a distinctly protestant mode of worship. Its energetic, emotional character is at odds with that of the Roman rite which is matter of fact, rational, and recollected, without gratuitous embellishment. To the degree that gospel seeks to excite or evoke an emotional response from the hearer, I can’t see how it can be integrated into the Latin Rite.

  4. Thank you for a very well written and succinct history of the progression of music in the church and in history. While it is certainly true that different people have different tastes in music and how they view its sacredness (wouldn’t it be boring if we all thought the same?) I think some types and styles of music could be ruled out without question. I just cannot picture a heavy metal Mass.

    Also, as you noted above, forms of music other than chant seem to quickly devolve into events that are all about the choir and it’s performance collectively and/or individually.

    While I attend Mass in the Extraordinary Form, I do not attend the ‘sung’, or ‘high’ Mass. I have always been taught that the Mass is the re-presentation of the sacrifice of Calvary in an un-bloody manner. I just cannot picture our Blessed Mother, the holy women and St. John signing at such an horrible event as man’s murder of his own Creator.

    That said, chant seems to be a musical equivalent, if you will, to mourning, or weeping, which would certainly be appropriate to such an occasion.

    Just one man’s opinion.
    Thanks for listening.

  5. That’s very interesting. I could never understand why the Free Church of Scotland would never permit the use of musical instruments in their church services until recently when there were so many references to instruments being used in the Old Testament times. Now I understand why. For an article on the decision of the FCoS to allow the use of musical instruments, see
    For an example of their unaccompanied Psalm singing see:
    Are there churches in the USA which have had a similar policy to the FCoS?

  6. Woohoo! GOD is the GOD of the living! I am alive that’s why I sing my thankfulness. My heart will burst if I could not let my soul sing my little worship to give glory and praise to GOD. I see no problem. If man stays silent the very stones will cry out. The Angels were singing when the birth of The LORD was announced. What the heck is the problem? Ephesians 5:19 says, ‘addressing one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody to the Lord with all your heart.’ 1Chronicles 25:6 says ‘They were all under the direction of their father (Asaph appointed by King David) in the music in the house of the LORD (to prophesy) with cymbals, harps, and lyres for the service of the house of God.’ Even David himself danced in celebration of the exposition of the Tabernacle (there must be music playing). Remember, it was David who praised GOD with his lyre and psalms. So why not praise GOD in every manner we can, in the manner our bodies and voices (which HE gifted to us) can? Set my spirit free that I may worship THEE!

  7. The problem with gospel music, like many forms of popular religious music, is that it simply isn’t liturgical. Singing songs we like at Mass, whether they be hymns or gospel tunes can really run contrary to active participation in the liturgy, especially when they displace the liturgical text. Active participation must be based on the liturgical texts (Ordinary and Proper); otherwise, we are singing songs at Mass instead of singing the Mass itself. Gregorian chant is the liturgical music of the Roman Rite because it serves the Mass rather than constituting an addition or ornament, and it must retain first place at all sung liturgies.

    I think sparing use of gospel music might be appropriate in some contexts, especially once the proper liturgical text has been sung and there is a gap, such as during Communion. Orchestral Masses, complex polyphony, folk music, hymns, gospel songs and the like can all have a place, but this should be a decidedly secondary one. If gospel music were exactly as common as orchestral Masses, I think that would be about right.

  8. Hello, Monsignor. As a revert after 13 years “within a forest dark” I’ve come back all-in, so maybe I’m overcompensating. When I arrived all the modern music was just fine, I was just happy to have been called. But the more I scour the net to learn about our Faith and grasp at what is going on during the liturgy, I’ve found myself losing patience with the music… a lot of the music at my parish is not conducive to contemplation and worship.

    I’ve come to belong to the “1 Kings 19:12-13 school of thought”. Hymns from the liberation era, or those that use borderline Protestant styles or lyrics (or even folk styles when I go to the Spanish Mass), they just bring me down from that mountain that takes so long to climb. Some of these songs make me want to dance right there; nothing wrong with dancing but not there! You start singing the catchy tune and it stops being a hymn.

    Other times it’s more like a show being put on by the choir. The other day, right after communion, during the “meditation hymn that doesn’t let you meditate”, the lead singer belted out some serious soul, and the “audience” erupted into applause when she was done. She was very talented, and the whole thing was done very professionally… but that was not what we were there to do; this is communion time, when the Lord is within us and we contemplate his presence for the little time we have left before we leave. How can we do that if there is a 1000 Watt voice coming at us?

    My opinion is that a good guideline would be: if the music and the words would happily be at home during a Christian (rock?) music concert, using it during Mass might need to be reconsidered.

    And since we’re on the subject music, why must the ordinaries become songs rather than prayers? Your know, Glory to God in the Highest becomes the “chorus” of the song, repeated between “verses”? And why is it “bad” to actually have 15 seconds of silence before a peppy “Kyrie eleison” rushes in as we’re just bringing our sins to mind in order to prepare to celebrate the sacred mysteries? Our Catholic life is about subtle balance in all directions, and goes for music and silence too.

    Anyway, thank you so much for taking the time to put this column together; I always look forward to reading not only the latest, but the archives as well.

  9. At a time when there seems to be so much apathy or misunderstandings in the Catholic Church as to what the Mass really is and what we do there as children of God, this post confuses me more than anything. I actually thought that the question of sacred music was taken up and resolved with Pope Benedict and that it was a matter of simple obedience in 2016. Am I wrong about that?

    I really don’t know exactly how to attend Mass as children of God called to worship and be made one with many in the Mystical Body of Christ. It seems to be right to have as little distraction away from the presence of God during Holy Mass as is possible. That is why I welcomed Pope Benedict’s work to give us a Mass in which words and actions were set and the deviation of priests,choir directors or DREs away from what is written would free us sheep to know where we were and where we were going in every Mass.

    Music can be a distraction. The fact that music in the Liturgy seems to have always been a problem is an interesting fact. How do we, though many with many different temperaments and traditions worship God as one if we don’t know what is going to hit us as we walk through church doors for Liturgy?

    1. Sorry you are confused. You do not really say way except that you don’t like a lot of things. But the point is that this has always been the case in the Church. Not sure what you mean that Pope Benedict solved the matter. If you mean the TLM, they battle among themselves as much as any other group. Here in DC the low massers grumble that there is Missa Cantata or heaven forfend a Solemn high. The sung massers find low Mass less desirable etc. It seems that “how to attend mass” as you put it would involve more interiority that you seem to reference here. The externals will seldom be perfect all the time, hence interiority that is less concerned about externalities and avoids a sort of “fussy” insistence on a perfect solution (so common in our consumeristic culture) is what is needed.

      1. I’ve been thinking and praying about your response, and perfection is not what I’m looking for. I’m 63 and know that it is not in this world. And I’m not talking about the TLM. I’m addressing the following: Mass beginning with the priest’s comment on the weather or sport’s game, words added by a celebrant other than those in the book, calling newcomers to hold up their hands or stand up so the congregation can welcome them (maybe they don’t want to be recognized), having Eucharistic Ministers distribute Communion when there are only 20 people there to receive Our Lord, clapping for recognition of someone etc. It’s true, it’s obvious that there is a lot I don’t like, but maybe it shouldn’t be liked. Maybe those things just belong in another place, another time of fellowship, other than the Liturgy. At Mass God’s children worship Him, it isn’t about individuals in the pew or even the priest (but to know that Jesus is there). It’s about many being one and being lifted up into the Mystical Body of Christ. I’m not sure what the correct music is to complement that worship, but it is important that the music adds and not distracts.
        Thank you for your posts. May God’s blessings be with you.

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