Tuesday, February 22, 2011

The State of Sacred Music Part 1 - We're Just Getting Started Here

I’ve been reading a lot on leadership lately, and one of the things I’ve come to realize is that a leader has to be a person who articulates a vision instead of simply putting down the stuff that isn’t working. Putting down the stuff that isn’t working is fun when everyone in on the joke understands the intent and the reasons, but it isn’t so much fun when people are looking for guidance and a way OUT of a problem.

I’ll be posting more about this as we continue on here but my main “motto” or “solution” to the struggles we face as a Church is one that Pope Benedict (in the encyclical Spe Salvi) and others have quoted from the novelist Fyodor Dostoevsky – “Beauty will save the world.” There are many things in that statement that need to be unpacked, and I’d like to look at one aspect today – sacred music.

The Church is very clear on sacred music (but then again the Church is also clear on abortion/contraception/going to Mass on Sundays and holy days etc.). Most of us are unaware that the Second Vatican Council actually has a lot to say about sacred music. The major document is titled Musicam Sacram (On Sacred Music) and contains a wealth of helpful information.

There are two essential things to note about sacred music from the document – the Church holds as the ideal setting for music to be A) Gregorian Chant and B) the instrumentation to be done by an organ.

Here are the excerpts on this topic from the document:

Paragraph 50: Gregorian chant, as proper to the Roman liturgy, should be given pride of place
Paragraphs 62-63: 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 faithful.
In addition to these excerpts, the document also challenges us to know the parts of the Mass that we typically sing as the people should be AT LEAST known in Latin. How many of us know the “Lamb of God” the “Holy, Holy, Holy” the “Our Father” the “Creed,” or the “Christ has died, Christ has risen…” in Latin? The 2nd Vatican Council says we are supposed to – or rather that priests are supposed to make sure their people know these things.

A couple of questions arise here. What about the people in mission territory that obviously lack an organ? The folks in mission territories get special mention in the documents of the Church on liturgy. "Enculturation" is a buzz word among liturgists and it basically means that aspects of song and worship style can be adapted to those places where the Mass is coming for the first time. Exactly how long, though, that grace period should last is debated. It was never a problem in the past because the Jesuits were militantly faithful to Rome, so any changes that were made in the short term Rome seemed to trust that the Jesuits were doing out of the best interest of the universal Church. Now, though, people in mission territory seem to be less faithful, so the length of time that "enculturation" should be tolerated is up for debate among Vaticanistas, but clearly the Mass is meant to transcend culture, so to pretend that the Mass is supposed to continually languish in a form that feels more local than universal is highly problematic.

When I celebrate Mass at Holy Rosary, almost all of the music is without any instrumentation or the organ, and it is the most beautiful stuff I've ever heard. Sometimes the organ is used to intone a piece, but then goes silent, such as the Gloria. The Kyrie, the Creed, the Alleluia, the Sanctus (holy holy holy) etc. are all done there a capella some of the time, and it isn't hard because at least half the choir there is little kids – chant can be taught easily. I taught the kids at Ritter a Latin Sanctus, and a) they love singing it, and b) picked it up after hearing it three times. The Sanctus needs no instruments, and parents visiting at one of our Masses, when they hear our kids chant it, usually cry. We’re going to be implementing the “Christ has died” in Latin next – brick by brick!

Contrary to the common opinion here, to put a Mass together with guitars, pianos, and the music that typically goes along with all of that in the typical parish today is actually a TON MORE work. People hear Gregorian Chant and think, “Oh wow, that is surely not possible in most parishes.” In actuality, a parish that does what the 2nd Vatican Council asks only has a couple of pieces to prepare for – a) MAYBE an opening song (although the documents also allow that to be done solely on the organ) and b) MAYBE a song to sing while the people come forward for Communion and c) MAYBE a closing song, although again that can be just organ.

If a parish is deciding to take the tambourine and guitar approach to music then they have the following “set list”
Opening song
Psalm response
Preparation of the gifts
Holy, Holy, Holy
Christ Has Died…
Great Amen
Lamb of God
Communion song (or two)
Closing Song

Trust me, I’ve seen it from both perspectives, and doing music as the Church asks is a LOT easier and more beautiful.

The other myth here is that “Peter Paul and Mary-ish” Church songs are easier to learn, and will get the people to sing more. However, the success of such changes is non-existent in the lived experience of the Church. Most of the pieces performed by parish “bands” are MORE difficult to sing and seem to turn people off more than the simple yet more prayerful chant.

Some people raise the following – “Why can’t music at Mass be happy and sing-songy, or what is wrong with guitars/tambourines/drums etc.?” Some point to the Psalms, especially Psalm 150 which talks about how we are to praise the Lord with cymbals and the lute and dance etc. The Church would say to Psalm 150 "Yes, when you praise the Lord, bang on cymbals, guitars, dance, however, that type of praise does not need to be done during the Mass." I think of the rock concert we went to on the March 4 Life which was held AFTER Mass, and the kids were jumping up and down, singing along with Matt Maher, dancing, etc. It was a great opportunity to praise the Lord. During adoration it is possible to sing praise and worship songs if a group so chooses (although some people prefer silence), the Church would say "gather together in groups, worship and sing and praise the Lord." At St. Meinrad there was a group of guys who met every Sunday for praise and worship songs. I listen to Matt Maher driving around - there is a lot of great stuff out there, Catholic and non-Catholic. The problem is, in the Church's eyes, when we mix praise and worship with the Mass. Psalm 150 of course references the return of the Ark to Jerusalem with David leading the way dancing and praising God. However, when the Ark was brought in to the temple for worship and the offering of ritualistic sacrifices and so forth, there were no cymbals, guitars, or praise and worship going on in the temple. In fact, I would imagine that one would have been thrown out of the temple if they were playing instruments or dancing around while the sacrifices were being offered by the priest. But how many people today even know that the Mass is directly linked to the temple sacrifices of the Jewish people? The idea that most have is that the Mass is supposed to conjure up good feelings for me, which St. John of the Cross of course says sets ourselves up for potential spiritual disaster.

Some here would say – “Who cares about music at Mass?” However, if the Mass is the most important thing we do as people, we need to be able to look at what we engage in during the Mass, and one of the biggest aspects of the Mass is the music we sing there. I really believe that if someone walked into the average Catholic parish today, and listened to the music going on there, they would not guess that we as Catholics hold the Mass to be the most important thing in our lives. So if everything we do flows from the Mass, then we MUST put our best effort forward at the Mass and those parts of the Mass that we have influence on as the human participants.

Also, as Pope Benedict notes - "The liturgy must be more. It must become clear that a dimension of existence opens up here that we are all secretly seeking: the presence of that which cannot be made" (Sing a New Song for the Lord, 94). Pope Benedict makes this point all over the place - we secretly want to run into something in the Mass that points UPWARD and that points BEYOND me and music is the way we either achieve this pointing or not; what we sing either brings us face to face with something we have not created but has been given to us by the universal Church, or it brings us face to face with campfire music.

Sacred Music is an important discussion that needs to be carried out CIVILLY. The temptation that I’ve seen is for those who understand what the Church is saying about music to quickly become frustrated with those who don’t know what the Church says about music. I think the approach must be taken by those who see the whole picture – “Hate the music, love the musician!” So many people in the parishes in our country don’t have any idea that the Church treats music during Mass so seriously, but as we broaden our horizons and get beyond our personal tastes, and start to experience the Mass in places where it is celebrated as the Church has asked we need to help educate those around us, not sulk about the state liturgical music is currently in. Light a candle – don’t curse the darkness!

I’ll end this post with my favorite piece of Gergorian Chant – Allegri’s Miserere. This is more complex (obviously) and is more of a piece to be performed by a skilled choir, but parish choirs, with a surprisingly small amount of training can pull off stuff that sounds like this. May we lift up our voices and gifts to the Lord!

BONUS: Pope Benedict on sacred music -

"Where liturgy deteriorates, the musica sacra also deteriorates, and where liturgy is correctly understood and lived, there good church music also grows."
Sing a New Song for the Lord, 174

"If we do not succeed in overcoming these ideas affectively, succeed in seeing the Church differently again from the heart, then the liturgy is not being renewed; on the contrary, the dead are burying the dead and calling it reform."
Sing a New Song for the Lord, 148 (WOW that is NOT ambiguous!)

"(the Mass) will come off badly if it wants to enter the competition of show business. A pastor is not an emcee, and the liturgy is not a variety show. It will also come off badly if it wants to be a sort of engaging circle of friends."
Sing A New Song for the Lord, 94

"In this [NOT GOOD] way of looking at things the experience of togetherness and the fostering of the village community rank higher than the gift of the sacrament…so it seems reasonable to switch from the objectivity of the Eucharist to the the subjectivity of experience...but the results of placing the experience of community above the sacramental reality in such a way are momentous. The congregation is now celebrating itself." (Very St. John of the Cross-ish)
Sing A New Song for the Lord, 91

"To an increasing degree people are seeing through the banality and the childish rationalism of the pathetic home-made liturgies with their artificial theatrics; it is becoming obvious how trivial they are."
Sing A New Song for the Lord, 39


  1. Wonderful post, Father.

    Are you familiar with Jubilate Deo? It was prepared by the Sacred Congregation for Divine Worship at the request of Pope Paul VI and contains a "minimum repertoire of Gregorian chant".

  2. well said, as always. i made the mistake of sharing the tribute to the Gather hymnal with one of my senior classes. they were not "in" on the joke and it backfired.

  3. As a musician and former student of a Catholic pipe organist, I will always appreciate the beauty of a pipe organ and the songs associated with its immense sound. Unfortunately, the presence of pipe organs in modern churches is as rare as finding musicians who are talented and well versed enough to play them.

  4. Thank you Father.
    I've always LOVED Gregorian Chant!!! This is embarrassing to ask... how do I learn how to pronounce the words? I really struggle with this and I've always just been too embarrassed to ask someone. :-)

  5. Agena,

    I think one good way is to start going on occasion to a Mass in Latin. You can follow along with the priest, and that is how I started to first pick it up.

  6. I'm not familiar with Jubilate Deo, but am looking for ways to bring sacred music back so I'll check it out. I've been in some good discussions with a fella from Bloomington who is in the doctoral program at IU's School of Music about what to do in the average parish today. Obviously, you can't just walk in and say "Okay, next weekend we are chanting all the Mass parts and no more guitars." At the same time, you have to be leading people TO somewhere. Anyways, I'll look into the Jubilate; thanks for the tip!

  7. Mr. Basso,

    I had some questions from people on here about the Gather tribute as well, and backfire is probably a good word to describe my experience. Out of that confusion, though, I decided to make this post.

  8. Pipe organs are rare, but regular organs are a nice substitute, and seem to me to be much more similar to the piano, and so thus easier to play? Is this true or not? While pipe organs are expensive, other types of organs seem to be fairly inexpensive as far as these things go.

  9. Hi Father:
    I am a church musician and teach in a Catholic School K-8. I have been using chant for some time. May I suggest that you check with Jeffrey Tucker at CMAA and obtain or download a copy of the Parish Book of Chant. It is a wealth of information. Jubilate Deo Mass can be found in OCP and JPaluch Missal publications. These musical settings were the ones used in Rome when we attended Mass with the Holy Father. If it doesn't show up as Jubilate Deo, check under "Chant"

    I have switched from the piano to the organ and now am making the move to more a capella music, especially at the parish level. As I teach the music I also teach history and talk a lot about "pride of place". I have had almost next to any negative comments.

    The organ is its own instrument, electronic or pipe. You have to use a different technique when playing the organ and the piano.

    Glad I ran across your blog. Keep it up.

  10. Excellent post, Father. In my (English) parish we have a forward-looking priest who is implementing the Benedictine reforms and sees 2011 as a turning point; he told the congregation that everyone - priests and people alike - need to unlearn the bad habits of the past 40 years. I recently arrived in the parish with a background in Gregorian Chant and was asked to set up and run a schola; since we reintroduced Latin and Chant the feedback has been positive and attendance has increased.

    I see you are reading Waugh's Sword of Honour.I read it back in the 1970s when I was a Territorial Army officer (Royal Artillery). The British Army he describes hadn't changed, but the Catholic Church had changed beyond all recognition. EW acknowledged this ruefully in 1964 when he said he had inadvertently written an obituary for the Catholic Church in England: "All the rites and most of the opinions are now obsolete."

  11. I wish I had read and posted a response earlier than now to you Fr. John on the difference between organ and piano in terms of playing and technical skills. Whether a pipe organ or a modern transistor based organ, the theory and technical ability to play them is the same. And unfortunately the methodology is significantly different than piano. With the organ there are three parts (with pedals) that split your brain 3 ways. The organ also requires a different technique in holding phrases and chords in ways much different than the piano style of playing. In general, a pipe organ and modern organ are played exactly the same. But the modern church organs can not blast you to the rafters like a pipe organ does when they play Holy God We Praise Thy Name at the end of Mass either. :)

  12. Good post! I downloaded Jubilate Deo from this site: http://www.ceciliaschola.org/notes/jubilatedeo.html

    Back in October I had a "conversion" of sorts to Gregorian chant. I've been doing "contemporary" and "Praise & Worship" music for the last 24 years or so. As I read more about sacred music, particularly "Tra le sollecitudini" and "Musicam Sacram" (as well as "Sacrosanctum concilium"), I felt like someone who has been in an illicit relationship and has suddenly discovered its illicitness.

    It's heartening to read your post and see you coming to terms with the issue of sacred music! Keep up the good work!