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Music in Sacred Liturgy

Music in Sacred Liturgy

By Marco Melendez, Director of Music

Realities of Vatican II

Over the course of the past 50+ years, there has been great uncertainty and unrest in the Church with regards to the liturgy and especially sacred music. In my experience, nothing brings greater divide amongst congregations than the type of music that “should” be used in the sacred liturgy. Some say that there is no place for contemporary music while others say there is no longer a place for Latin chant as the listener surely can’t understand the words. Some say that “the organ is too loud” while others say “the piano is more welcoming.”

As Roman Catholics, we are given the Catechism of the Church so that we might be able to understand and live out the teachings of the Church in our daily lives. But what about sacred music? Does the Church give her priests and musicians guidance so that we are not left to figure it out ourselves? Does the Church, like in her moral teachings through the Magisterium, give us one or more documents so that we can be in union with the Church universal with regards to sacred music? The answer: Yes!

Since 1903, nearly every pontiff of the Roman Catholic Church has had something to say about music and its use within the sacred liturgy. Due to the great abuses occurring within the liturgy during his time, Pope St. Pius X wrote a Motu Proprio entitled: Tre Le Sollecitudini: Instruction on Sacred Music. Pope St. Pius X begins his instructions by stating the following general principles:

  1. Sacred music, being a complementary part of the solemn liturgy, participates in the general scope of the liturgy, which is the glory of God and the sanctification and edification of the faithful. It contributes to the decorum and the splendor of the ecclesiastical ceremonies, and since its principal office 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, in order that through it the faithful may be the more easily moved to devotion and better disposed for the reception of the fruits of grace belonging to the celebration of the most holy mysteries.
  2. Sacred music should consequently possess, in the highest degree, the qualities proper to the liturgy, and in particular sanctity and goodness of form, which will spontaneously produce the final quality of universality.
  3. It must be holy, and must, therefore, exclude all profanity not only in itself, but in the manner in which it is presented by those who execute it.
  4. It must be true art, for otherwise it will be impossible for it to exercise on the minds of those who listen to it that efficacy which the Church aims at obtaining in admitting into her liturgy the art of musical sounds
  5. But it must, at the same time, be universal in the sense that while every nation is permitted to admit into its ecclesiastical compositions those special forms which may be said to constitute its native music, still these forms must be subordinated in such a manner to the general characteristics of sacred music that nobody of any nation may receive an impression other than good on hearing them.

Now, you may wonder why it is that we should pay any attention to the writings of a pontiff who predates Vatican II. This is because, in order to understand Vatican II and the church’s teachings on sacred music, we must know what decrees were previously in place. In fact, much of the teachings on music in the sacred liturgy in the Vatican II documents and post conciliar documents (documents written after the Second Vatican Council by subcommittees of the Council in order to bring further understanding and clarity the Council’s teachings on any particular topic) are based on Pope St. Pius X’s Tre Le Sollecitudini. In order to understand Church documents and teachings, it is important to note that each church document is built upon one another. While some changes were definitively made when the declarations and teachings of the Second Vatican Council were implemented, that which was declared in previous pontifical writings and that which may not be addressed in subsequent church documents, still remain the teaching of the Church. Therefore, one must begin with the writings of Pope St. Pius X in order to understand the fullness of how sacred music is utilized within the liturgical action of the Roman Catholic Church in a post Vatican II world.

In order to gain a real understanding of the Church’s teachings with regards to music in the sacred liturgy, one must familiarize themselves with the following documents:

  • Tra Le Sollecitudini: Instruction on Sacred Music
    A Moto Proprio promulgated by Pope Pius X
    November 22, 1903
  • Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy: Sacrosanctum Concilium
    Promulgated by Pope Paul VI
    December 4, 1963
  • Musicam Sacram: Instruction on Music in the Liturgy
    Sacred Vatican Ecumentical Council
    March 5, 1967
  • Sing to the Lord: Music in Divine Worship
    United States Catholic Conference of Bishops
    November 14, 2007

While the final document, Sing to the Lord: Music in Divine Worship, is not one that was prescribed by the Vatican, nor is it considered a post conciliar document, it has been prescribed to us in the United States by our ecclesiastical authority, the United States Catholic Conference of Bishops (USCCB). As a document given to us by the USCCB, and not by the Vatican, it can only be used to give us further clarification on that which was stated in the conciliar and post conciliar documents. In no way however, can this document substitute or alter a declaration or teaching already given to the Church by the Vatican.

Please stay tuned (no pun intended) for updates as they are made available on the St. Maria Goretti Catholic Church weekly bulletin. Each week, I will be addressing at least one specific topic that is mentioned in each Church document. Topics will include, but are not limited to: the purpose of sacred music, Gregorian chant, modern music, text, compositions, singers/choirs, organ and other instruments, congregational singing and participation, and music in Catholic schools.

Together, we will identify and learn what the Church and Vatican II really said about music in the sacred liturgy.

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