One of the challenges associated with writing on the topic of sacred music is that it’s not really given to “bullet point” presentations. It takes considerable effort to discern the “mind of the Church” in the matter of music in the liturgy – a picture that begins to come into focus only after one explores multiple magisterial documents; carefully considering each in context with the great liturgical tradition of the Church as a whole.
That said, the following Q & A (edited for clarity), which is largely taken from an email exchange that I had with a kind reader who is active in parish music ministry, may provide a good overview of this very important topic. At its conclusion are links for suggested reading.
Since the Psalms often command us to praise God with horns, strings and drums, why are these instruments not necessarily acceptable in the Mass?
Human beings absolutely can praise God in a variety of musical styles with a wide selection of instruments, and doing so can be a fitting way for creative human beings to express the diversity of their gifts (and tastes) in worship. Properly understood, however, the liturgy is not a venue for such individual expression.
We must remember that it is Christ who is acting in the liturgy; it is He who is offering the Sacrifice, the praise and the worship. We, both priest and Baptized, are invited to participate in this Divine action according to our own particular state, but not simply as we wish.
The Council tells us that the sacred signs at Holy Mass (including the music) come from Christ or from the sacred Magisterium as it teaches in His name. This is a far cry from our experiences of the last 40 years in which the desires and tastes of a limited number of individuals (the pastor, the parish music director, the liturgy committee, etc.) has dictated the kinds of music used in the Mass.
As for the instruments themselves, the Council Fathers singled out the pipe organ as deserving of “high esteem, for it is the traditional musical instrument which adds a wonderful splendor to the Church's ceremonies and powerfully lifts up man's mind to God and to higher things” (SC 120).
While they did open the door for the possible use of “other instruments,” they did so “only on condition that the instruments are suitable, or can be made suitable, for sacred use, [are in] accord with the dignity of the temple, and truly contribute to the edification of the faithful” (ibid).
This is not intended to serve as an invitation for the aforementioned list of individuals to apply their personal judgment freely in determining if the conditions have been so met; rather, it should be understood that “suitable for sacred use” is a concept properly defined only in context with the mind of the Church as expressed throughout the centuries.
Is “modern music” an acceptable tool of evangelization?
Indeed it can be, but this does not mean that music of this kind is de facto acceptable for use in the liturgy.
Holy Mass is not primarily best considered “a tool of evangelization,” a view that I believe stems from the overall “Protestantization” of the Mass which has led many to imagine that it is simply the Catholic version of any number of other Christian praise and worship services. This mindset is unfortunately common, and it creates a constant desire to see the perceptible signs used in the rite (including of course the music) tweaked in such way as to attract, engage and dare I say entertain the congregation.
This question raises another key point; sacred music is not simply "old music." Every generation can add to the treasury of sacred music, including the composers of today. Interestingly, the Holy Father pointed out in his wonderful book, The Spirit of the Liturgy (which he wrote in 2000 as Cardinal Ratzinger – Ignatius Press), our current generation has not contributed as others have – a situation that is related to the fact that we’ve largely lost sight of what the liturgy truly is.
I know of two young men from our parish that entered the seminary, both of whom were “un-churched” until invited to a Life Teen Mass "to hear the great music."
The fact that these young men were called to a vocation at the Life Teen Mass is a testament to the Lord’s goodness; not the goodness of the music. The challenge here is to recognize that God's grace abounds such that He often draws people to Himself even in spite of the unfortunate situations in which we place ourselves. If we were to use the fact that God so blesses and calls us as the standard for discerning what is acceptable in the liturgy, we would ultimately be tempted to conclude that just about anything goes.
Does this form of evangelization fall within SC 119 regarding music for particular populations? I consider un-churched teens in America a mission field and I believe that reaching out to them with the kinds of music that might attract them is important. In fact, that's exactly the motivation behind the Life Teen music for Mass.
In SC 119, the Council Fathers refer back to articles 39-40, but we need to place the discussion in further context with SC 37 where we find, "Anything in these peoples' way of life which is not indissolubly bound up with superstition and error she [Holy Mother Church] studies with sympathy and, if possible, preserves intact. Sometimes in fact she admits such things into the liturgy itself, so long as they harmonize with its true and authentic spirit."
Even though it has not been our experience in recent decades, we should get a sense from this that admitting things from various cultures into the liturgy is not a matter undertaken lightly by the Church, and then never on a purely local level. The Council is not suggesting that certain types of music should be admitted simply because a particular local group may benefit in the estimation of some individual pastor, music director or even bishop.
I would agree that un-churched teens are something of a “mission land” unto themselves, but this challenge is not going to be best met by "regularizing" the Mass and its music. Sacred sings are "sacred" specifically because they transcend the things of the ordinary secular world! Bringing contemporary music into the Mass simply because it may attract the teens that know it and enjoy it is essentially bringing the sacred mysteries "down to earth." In reality, our goal should be elevating these earthly individuals to heaven through truly sacred signs as this is the only approach that is in keeping with the essence of the liturgy itself; something sacred music does by its nature.
Can we agree that there are some guitar Masses which are aesthetically pleasing, and some organ Masses poorly done?
Well, yes, but again, the challenge we face lies in recognizing that our personal opinions regarding what is pleasing and what is not are not really relevant. That said, it is no coincidence that sacred music as the Church understands it is incredibly beautiful and very pleasing, and universally so at that!
What makes music sacred if not the lyrics?
The whole work, the words and the music together, must be the highest achievement of artistic expression in order to be considered “sacred art.”
According to whom? The Council states very clearly that “the Church has, with good reason, always reserved to herself the right to pass judgment upon the arts, deciding which of the works of artists are in accordance with faith, piety, and cherished traditional laws, and thereby fitted for sacred use” (SC 122).
Regarding the lyrics of sacred music, Pope St. Pius X identifies their source for us in the document, Tra Le Sollecitudini, (linked below) when he says, “The principal office of sacred music is to clothe with suitable melody the liturgical text proposed for the understanding of the faithful, its proper aim is to add greater efficacy to the text...”
Principally speaking, the “lyrics” are the liturgical texts themselves; the prayers, the antiphons, the propers and the ordinary of Holy Mass itself. This is what we should be singing at Holy Mass, not “a new church into being!”
The Council tells us in SC 121 that the text of sacred music “should be drawn chiefly from holy scripture and from liturgical sources,” and just to make sure there’s no confusion, the Council Fathers state the obvious – at least it should be obvious - the text of sacred music “must always be in conformity with Catholic doctrine.” How often we fail to uphold even this minimum expectation!
That said, sacred music as the Church has always understood it is not just a matter of combining a suitable text with a catchy tune; rather it must be such that it “confers greater solemnity upon the sacred rites” (cf SC 112).
What does it mean for sacred music to confer “greater solemnity” upon the liturgical rites? It means to enhance the solemn character of the Liturgy. When we say that Holy Mass is “solemn,” we mean to say by definition that it is awe-inspiring, sacred, set apart from the secular and the ordinary; it is marked by holiness and permeated with the sense of mystery that rightly inundates those who enter into the Divine Presence.
How much of the music we hear at Holy Mass to day fits this description? I dare say very little.
I personally find it extremely difficult to worship when polyphonic choirs are singing, but given sacred lyrics in a musical setting that I can sing helps me stay focused on Jesus, the Mass and His Sacrifice. I'm not saying this is good, but it is my reality.
I'm sure you're not alone in this. The Church encourages singing for exactly this reason; it is a powerful means of drawing the people into the liturgy, but that said it is not the only means, and not even necessarily the most effective one. The Church also stresses the importance of silence and contemplation in the liturgy, and the great polyphonic Mass settings are an invitation to exactly this.
Pope John Paul II spoke of the "active passivity of silence." What an excellent phrase! I think many of us have lost sight of the fact that participation in the liturgy often requires effort on our part, sometimes even great effort.
The Church gives us a variety of musical offerings that are truly sacred, some may demand more conscious effort on our part than others, but if the sacred signs really do come from Christ and His Church, we can be confident that the Lord will give us the grace we need to enter deeply into His divine action and that the effort itself is good for us.
Some excellent resources for continued exploration follow:
Tra Le Sollecitudini of Pope St. Pius X
Musicae Sacrae of Pius XII
Instruction on Sacred Music - Sacred Congregation of Rites, 1958
Musicam Sacram - Sacred Congregation of Rites, 1967
What is sacred music? - An article by Msgr. Richard Shuler
Author and speaker Louie Verrecchio was a columnist for Catholic News Agency from April 2009 to 2013. His work, which includes Year of Faith resources like the Harvesting the Fruit of Vatican II Faith Formation Series, has been endorsed by Cardinal George Pell of Sydney, Australia; Bishop Emeritus Patrick O’Donoghue of Lancaster, England; Bishop R. Walker Nickless of Sioux City, IA, USA and others. For more information please visit: www.harvestingthefruit.com