Sacred music is “integral” to the Catholic Church's liturgy, Bishop Alexander K. Sample said in a Feb. 13 pastoral letter to the people of the Diocese of Marquette.
“In any discussion of the...'art of celebrating' as it relates to the Holy Mass, perhaps nothing is more important or has a greater impact than the place of sacred music,” wrote the archbishop, who was recently appointed to lead the Diocese of Portland in Oregon.
“The beauty, dignity and prayerfulness of the Mass depend to a large extent on the music that accompanies the liturgical action. The Holy Mass must be truly beautiful.”
In a document titled “Rejoice in the Lord Always” dated Jan. 21, Bishop Sample reminded the priests, musicians, and faithful of Michigan's upper peninsula that sacred music is not a subjective matter of taste, but that it is defined by “objective principles.”
He assured church musicians that the diocese will provide “education and formation” to provide “all the support, encouragement and assistance it can to musicians in implementing the Church’s vision and norms for sacred music.”
The letter makes frequent reference to the documents of the Second Vatican Council and subsequent teaching, including the writings of Pope Benedict and of John Paul II.
Sacred music, the bishop explained, is meant to glorify God and to sanctify the faithful. This twofold purpose must “direct and inform” everything about the music used at Mass.
“Church teaching emphasizes that the music proper to the Sacred Liturgy possesses three qualities: sanctity, beauty, and universality,” the bishop stated.
He pointed out that these qualities are not arbitrary or subjective, but “objectively flow from the essential nature and purpose of sacred music itself.”
Bishop Sample explained that “universality” means that sacred music, while it can reflect a particular culture, must “still be easily recognized as having a sacred character” and be able to transcend cultures.
On this point, he said that “Not every form or style of music is capable of being rendered suitable for the Mass.” Not only the text makes a song sacred, but the actual style of the music matters. He gave the examples of polka and rock music as styles that cannot be sacred music, because they do not have all three qualities of sacred music.
Bishop Sample wrote that the treasury of sacred music foremost includes Gregorian chant, while also allowing room for polyphony, hymnody, psalmody, and the musical traditions of non-European cultures.
That “one rarely if ever hears Gregorian chant” in the liturgy is “a situation which must be rectified,” said the bishop.
“It will require great effort and serious catechesis for the clergy and faithful, but Gregorian chant must be introduced more widely as a normal part of the Mass.”
Bishop Sample reminded his readers that there is an “objective difference” between sacred and secular music. He re-iterated that it takes more than religious lyrics to make a song sacred. To think that “the music is exempt from any liturgical criteria and may be of any style” is an “erroneous idea,” he said.
While welcoming new compositions of sacred music for Mass, he said these must meet the criteria of sanctity, beauty, and universality.
The rest of Bishop Sample's letter laid down directives meant to “guide the development of a deeper understanding of the place of sacred music with the liturgy of the Mass and to implement the fundamental principles” in the letter.
He wrote that the directives will help to move the Marquette diocese “in the right direction...as we seek to renew the Mass in a way that respects, fosters and promotes the true nature of the Mass itself.”
“Although the implementation of these directives may take some time and catechesis, these directives are to be considered normative within the Diocese of Marquette under the authority of the diocesan Bishop, to whom is entrusted the responsibility to moderate, promote and guard the entire liturgical life of the diocesan Church.”
Bishop Sample acknowledged that his vision requires “time and patience,” though he wrote that it “must be done” in order to achieve the beauty that the Mass deserves.
The general standards expected by Bishop Sample include the fostering of active participation, which includes “prayerful silent reflection”; ongoing formation and “just compensation” for music directors; knowledge of the Church's documents on sacred music.
The bishop made an important distinction between planning and preparing for Mass. There is no need to “plan” the music for Mass, he said, because “the Church has already provided us with a plan...found in the liturgical calendar and the official liturgical books: the Ordo, the Missal, the Lectionary and the Graduale. Our celebrations should carry out the Church’s plan as far as we are able.”
He noted that rather than singing at Mass, we should sing the Mass. It is important, he said, to use the texts provided by the Church for the entrance, offertory and communion chants, instead of using hymns at these times.
“The hymns and songs commonly sung at Mass every week at the Entrance, Preparation of the Gifts and Communion are not identified in the Missal. It is important to recognize that when we sing hymns at these moments during Mass, it is because we are omitting some of the Mass chants,” he noted.
Bishop Sample concluded by noting his hope that the letter will be “well received” in Marquette “ for the sake of an authentic renewal of the Sacred Liturgy according to the teaching of the Second Vatican Council and the mind of the Church.”
“I am especially counting on our wonderful and dedicated Church musicians to answer this call for renewal. May the renewal and reform of sacred music in the Diocese of Marquette lead us together to a beautiful and worthy celebration of the sacred mysteries of the Holy Mass, for the glory of God and the sanctification of all the faithful.”