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“Music and Instruments in the Liturgy”

October 15, 2011

“One of the ongoing controversies in parishes is what kind of music and
instruments are  appropriate in the Mass. Fortunately, the experimentation
of the past, when there were Rock Masses, Jazz Masses and even Polka Masses,
seems for the most part over. Naturally, where there is no regard for the
nature of the liturgy or the norms of the Church anything is still possible.
      Such “liturgies” (if they can be called that) are sometimes justified
as what “Vatican II” was about, opening the windows, trying new things,
using worldly forms. Nothing could be further from the truth. The Council
insistently called for the preservation of the traditions of the Latin Rite
and the harmonization of any universal or local adaptations to that
tradition and the nature of the sacred liturgy.


      Second Vatican Council. The Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy
Sacrosanctum Concilium makes clear the nature of authentic liturgical
reform. Excerpting, and highlighting, what applies to our subject it states,

        22. 1. Regulation of the sacred liturgy depends solely on the
authority of the Church, that is, on the Apostolic See and, as laws may
determine, on the bishop.
        2. In virtue of power conceded by the law, the regulation of the
liturgy within certain defined limits belongs also to various kinds of
competent territorial bodies of bishops legitimately established.
        3. Therefore no other person, even if he be a priest, may add,
remove, or change anything in the liturgy on his own authority.

        23. That sound tradition may be retained, and yet the way remain
open to legitimate progress. Careful investigation is always to be made into
each part of the liturgy which is to be revised. This investigation should
be theological, historical, and pastoral. Also the general laws governing
the structure and meaning of the liturgy must be studied in conjunction with
the experience derived from recent liturgical reforms and from the indults
conceded to various places. Finally, there must be no innovations unless the
good of the Church genuinely and certainly requires them; and care must be
taken that any new forms adopted should in some way grow organically from
forms already existing.

        26. Liturgical services are not private functions, but are
celebrations of the Church, which is the “sacrament of unity,” namely, the
holy people united and ordered under their bishops.

        29. Servers, lectors commentators, and members of the choir also
exercise a genuine liturgical function. They ought, therefore, to discharge
their office with the sincere piety and decorum demanded by so exalted a
ministry and rightly expected of them by God’s people. Consequently they
must all be deeply imbued with the spirit of the liturgy, each in his own
measure, and they must be trained to perform their functions in a correct
and orderly manner.

        37. Even in the liturgy, the Church has no wish to impose a rigid
uniformity in matters which do not implicate the faith or the good of the
whole community; rather does she respect and foster the genius and talents
of the various races and peoples. Anything in these peoples’ way of life
which is not indissolubly bound up with superstition and error she 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.

        39. Within the limits set by the typical editions of the liturgical
books, it shall be for the competent territorial ecclesiastical authority
mentioned in Art. 22, 2, to specify adaptations, especially in the case of
the administration of the sacraments, the sacramentals, processions,
liturgical language, sacred music, and the arts, but according to the
fundamental norms laid down in this Constitution.

        112. The musical tradition of the universal Church is a treasure of
inestimable value, greater even than that of any other art. The main reason
for this pre-eminence is that, as sacred song united to the words, it forms
a necessary or integral part of the solemn liturgy. …

        Therefore sacred music is to be considered the more holy in
proportion as it is more closely connected with the liturgical action,
whether it adds delight to prayer, fosters unity of minds, or confers
greater solemnity upon the sacred rites. But the Church approves of all
forms of true art having the needed qualities, and admits them into divine

        114. The treasure of sacred music is to be preserved and fostered
with great care. Choirs must be diligently promoted, especially in cathedral
churches; but bishops and other pastors of souls must be at pains to ensure
that, whenever the sacred action is to be celebrated with song, the whole
body of the faithful may be able to contribute that active participation
which is rightly theirs, as laid down in Art. 28 and 30.

        116. 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. But other kinds of sacred music,
especially polyphony, are by no means excluded from liturgical celebrations,
so long as they accord with the spirit of the liturgical action, as laid
down in Art. 30.

        119. In certain parts of the world, especially mission lands, there
are peoples who have their own musical traditions, and these play a great
part in their religious and social life. For this reason due importance is
to be attached to their music, and a suitable place is to be given to it,
not only in forming their attitude toward religion, but also in adapting
worship to their native genius, as indicated in Art. 39 and 40.

        120. In the Latin Church the pipe organ is to be held in 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.

        But other instruments also may be admitted for use in divine
worship, with the knowledge and consent of the competent territorial
authority, as laid down in Art. 22, 52, 37, and 40. This may be done,
however, only 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.

        121. Composers, filled with the Christian spirit, should feel that
their vocation is to cultivate sacred music and increase its store of
treasures. Let them produce compositions which have the qualities proper to
genuine sacred music, not confining themselves to works which can be sung
only by large choirs, but providing also for the needs of small choirs and
for the active participation of the entire assembly of the faithful.

        The texts intended to be sung must always be in conformity with
Catholic doctrine; indeed they should be drawn chiefly from holy scripture
and from liturgical sources.


      Musican Sacram. After the Council it fell to the Sacred Congregation
of Rites (today called Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments)
to apply the norms of Sacrosanctum Concilium in implementing documents
touching on all the various areas of liturgical reform. In the area of
liturgical music the implementing document is called Musicam sacram (Sacred
Music). It establishes what can be called sacred music.

        4. It is to be hoped that pastors of souls, musicians and the
faithful will gladly accept these norms and put them into practice, uniting
their efforts to attain the true purpose of sacred music, “which is the
glory of God and the sanctification of the faithful.” [SC 112]

        (a) By sacred music is understood that which,

          being created for the celebration of divine worship,

          is endowed with a certain holy sincerity of form.

        (b) The following come under the title of sacred music here:

          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.

      Thus, popular liturgical, or simply religious, music can be sacred if:

        1) it is created for worship, and

        2) it is endowed with a certain holy sincerity of form.

      This suggests that adapted secular tunes do not belong in the Mass,
but that modern creations that have the described character can be used.

      As for instruments, the same guiding document states,

        62. Musical instruments can be very useful in sacred celebrations,
whether they accompany the singing or whether they are played as solo

        The pipe organ is to be held in high esteem in the Latin Church,
since it is its traditional instrument, the sound of which can add a
wonderful splendor to the Church’s ceremonies and powerfully lift up men’s
minds to God and higher things.

        “The use of other instruments may also be admitted in divine
worship, given the decision and consent of the competent territorial
authority, provided that the instruments are suitable for sacred use, or can
be adapted to it, that they are in keeping with the dignity of the temple,
and truly contribute to the edification of the faithful.

        63. In permitting and using musical instruments, the culture and
traditions of individual peoples must be taken into account. However, those
instruments which are, by common opinion and use, suitable for secular music
only, are to be altogether prohibited from every liturgical celebration and
from popular devotions.

        Any musical instrument permitted in divine worship should be used in
such a way that it meets the needs of the liturgical celebration, and is in
the interests both of the beauty of worship and the edification of the

      As you can see, an instrument that can get the approval of the
“territorial authority” (read “bishops’ conference”) can be used in the

      GIRM. The General Instruction of the Roman Missal (2002) states the

        20 The celebration of the Eucharist, like the entire liturgy,
involves the use of outward signs that foster, strengthen, and express
faith. There must be the utmost care therefore to choose and to make wise
use of those forms and elements provided by the Church which, in view of the
circumstances of the people and the place, will best foster active and full
participation and properly serve the spiritual well-being of the faithful.

        24 For the most part, these adaptations consist in the choice of
certain rites or texts, that is, of liturgical songs, readings, prayers,
introductory comments and gestures which may respond better to the needs,
degree of preparation and mentality of the participants. Such choices are
entrusted to the priest celebrant. Nevertheless, the priest must remember
that he is the servant of the sacred Liturgy, and that he himself is not
permitted, on his own initiative, to add, remove or to change anything in
the celebration of Mass. [SC 22]

        39 The faithful who gather together to await the Lord’s coming are
instructed by the Apostle Paul to sing together psalms, hymns, and inspired
liturgical songs (see Colossians 3:16). Liturgical song is the sign of the
heart’s joy (see Acts 2:46). Thus Saint Augustine says rightly: “To sing
belongs to lovers.” There is also the ancient proverb: “One who sings well
prays twice.”

        41 All things being equal, Gregorian chant should hold a privileged
place, as being more proper to the Roman liturgy. Other kinds of sacred
music, polyphony in particular, are not in any way to be excluded, provided
that they correspond with the spirit of the liturgical action and that they
foster the participation of all the faithful.

        Since the faithful from different countries come together ever more
frequently, it is desirable that they know how to sing at least some parts
of the Ordinary of the Mass in Latin, especially the profession of faith and
the Lord’s Prayer, set to simple melodies.

        42 The gestures and posture of the priest, deacon and the ministers,
as well as of the people should allow the whole celebration to shine with
dignity and noble simplicity, demonstrating the full and true meaning of
each of their diverse parts, while fostering the participation of all.
Therefore, greater attention needs to be paid to what is laid down by
liturgical law and by the traditional practice of the Roman Rite, for the
sake of the common spiritual good of the people of God rather than to
personal inclination or arbitrary choice.

      Thus, it should be clear from the general norms, as well as from the
norms governing specific parts of the Mass, that while there is obviously an
element of judgment on the part of bishops and priests as to what music and
instruments to allow within the Mass, that this license does not extend to
music and instruments of a purely secular nature which are not adaptable to
the liturgy and its sacred character.”


      Answered by Colin B. Donovan, STL

One Comment leave one →
  1. November 5, 2011 1:59 pm

    Great! thanks for the share!

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