Sep 15, 2001

Sacred Music and the 20th Century Liturgical Reform

Online Edition

– Vol. VII, No. 6: September 2001

Buried Treasure
Can the Church recover her musical heritage?

Part I, Part II, Part III, Part IV, Part V

Download: PDF version of all 5 parts

by Susan Benofy

Editor’s note:

This is the concluding section in a unique series of essays by Susan Benofy, research editor for the Adoremus Bulletin. Dr. Benofy surveys the rise and decline of sacred music during the 20th century liturgical reform.

Part V comments on the most recent documents affecting music for Mass both for the US and the universal Church.


Part V
Sacred Music and the 20th Century Liturgical Reform

General Instruction of the Roman Missal – 1969
American Adaptations to GIRM
Functionalism and flexibility
Missing Chant the pope ignored
ICEL More revisions proposed
New Missal and IGMR
New Instruction for Implementation of Council’s Liturgy Constitution
American Adaptations 2001
Art, Beauty and Truth

Sweeping changes in the music sung at Mass occurred with alarming speed in the years immediately following the Second Vatican Council.

Even before the final revised texts for Mass became official in 1969, the functionalist (or utilitarian) view — that the liturgy must conform to the contemporary culture in order to "speak to" worshippers in their own idiom — effectively supplanted decades of efforts to restore the patrimony of Catholic music. Thus Gregorian chant and polyphonic choral music, recovered in the 19th century and actively promoted by the liturgical movement, nearly all 20th century popes, and the Second Vatican Council’s Constitution on the Liturgy, vanished almost overnight.

General Instruction of the Roman Missal – 1969
The rubrics (or directions) for celebrating the new Order of Mass were contained in the General Instruction of the Roman Missal (GIRM). The GIRM also provided for adaptations by the national conferences of bishops so that variations in local customs and traditions could be maintained. These included postures and gestures, materials for ceremonial vessels, vestments and furnishings, and musical styles, instruments and texts.

The GIRM’s directions concerning the sung parts of the Mass, like the Constitution on the Liturgy and the 1967 document Musicam Sacram (MS), more closely resembled practices advocated by the earlier twentieth century popes than what had actually developed in Church music immediately following the Council.

The levels of importance of sung music at Mass found in Musicam Sacram 1 appeared in GIRM §19. These directives said that the most important parts to sing are those sung by the priest or ministers with the people responding, or those sung by the priest and people together. The GIRM mentioned singing for all parts of what had been known as the Proper (texts that change with the day or feast) and the Ordinary (unchanging texts) of the Mass. It urged that the faithful should know how to chant at least parts of the Ordinary in Latin, especially the Creed and the Lord’s Prayer.

In contrast to the pre-conciliar practice, the GIRM permitted substitutes for the prescribed text of the Proper of the Mass if it was to be sung. For example,

The entrance song is sung alternately either by the choir and the congregation or by the cantor and the congregation; or it is sung entirely by the congregation or by the choir alone. The antiphon and Psalm of the Graduale Romanum or the Simple Gradual may be used, or another song that is suited to this part of the Mass, the day, or the seasons and that has a text approved by the Conference of bishops (GIRM §26 emphasis added).

The GIRM uses almost identical wording about the Offertory (§50) and Communion (§56i) songs.

Even before the Council an entrance hymn was sometimes sung at Mass, although it did not eliminate the Introit, which would still be recited. But according to GIRM §26, an "entrance song" replaces the Introit, so that this hymn becomes, in effect, part of the Proper of Mass. It also suggests that whatever is sung as part of the Proper of the Mass will have specific prescribed texts: if not from the Graduale Romanum (Gregorian settings of Latin texts) or the Simple Gradual, then one approved by the bishops’ Conference.

This is not the first reference in a liturgical document to substitutes for the texts of the Proper. Musicam Sacram had said:

The custom legitimately in use in certain places and widely confirmed by indults, of substituting other songs for the songs given in the Graduale for the Entrance, Offertory and Communion, can be retained according to the judgment of the competent territorial authority, as long as songs of this sort are in keeping with the parts of the Mass, with the feast or with the liturgical season. It is for the same territorial authority to approve the texts of these songs. (MS §32 emphasis added)

American Adaptations to GIRM
In November 1967 the US Bishops’ Conference expressly proposed substituting other hymns or sacred songs for the Introit, Offertory and Communion chants. The Holy See’s approval, however, was deferred because: "A decision for the universal Church is being awaited, given the discussion of this matter in the Synod of Bishops"2 held a few weeks earlier.

It is not clear that this proposal was specifically approved, but one of the items the US Conference voted for the following year seems essentially equivalent to it. These 1968 "action items" included acceptance of a translation of the Simple Gradual 3 , in addition to approval of

other collections of Psalms and antiphons in English … as supplements to the Simple Gradual, for liturgical use in the dioceses of the United States, including Psalms arranged in responsorial form, metrical and similar versions of Psalms, provided they are used in accordance with the principles of the Simple Gradual and are selected in harmony with the liturgical season, feast, or occasion.4

The next year, the Conference approved the first set of American Adaptations to the GIRM. The BCL [Bishops’ Committee on the Liturgy] Newsletter reported that at the November 1969 meeting the NCCB

made various decisions concerning liturgical matters which had been specified in the new liturgical rites as within the competence of episcopal conferences. Other decisions not reported here, have been submitted to the Holy See for its action, and the approval of English translations also awaits confirmation from the Holy See. (BCL Newsletter, December 1969.)

This account lists proposals that were announced at the end of the November 1969 meeting, but it is not clear whether these proposals were submitted to the Holy See for approval, or only the "other decisions not reported here".

Several of the bishops’ 1969 proposals concern musical parts of the Mass, specifically, "criteria for the approbation of substitute texts for the processional chants, in accord with no. 26, 50, 56 of the General Instruction". For example,

The entrance rite should create an atmosphere of celebration. It serves the function of putting the assembly in the proper frame of mind for listening to the word of God. It helps people to become conscious of themselves as a worshipping community. The choice of texts for the entrance song should not conflict with these purposes.5 (Emphasis added.)

The purpose of the entrance song had already been given in GIRM §25:

The purpose of this song is to open the celebration, intensify the unity of the gathered people, lead their thoughts to the mystery of the season or feast, and accompany the procession of priest and ministers.

What was the objective of adding different criteria in the "American Adaptation" of GIRM §26?

Functionalism and flexibility
While GIRM §25 gives straightforward liturgical purposes for the entrance song, the American Adaptation speaks of "function", introducing the nebulous goals of creating atmosphere, inducing a "frame of mind" and self-consciousness in the gathering.

The Adaptation of GIRM §26 is a functionalist reinterpretation of the purpose of the entrance song in GIRM §25. It is taken verbatim from an earlier document written by the Music Advisory Board of the BCL in 1967, The Place of Music in Eucharistic Celebrations (PMEC).6

The official adaptations in the GIRM Appendix for the Dioceses of the United States combined the 1968 and 1969 proposals. "Other collections" of antiphons and songs were permitted (1968 proposal), but no texts were approved. The only guide for choosing alternates was the vague functionalist criteria in the description of the Introit (1969), and that alternates were to be "used in accordance with the Principles of the Simple Gradual". (1968)

But what are these principles?

The Simple Gradual was intended to provide simple, authentic chant settings for the Proper antiphons of the Mass.7 The original version used Latin texts. When the texts were translated into English, however, new music was composed to suit the texts. Thus the original purpose of making chant accessible was subverted.

Commenting on the Simple Gradual even before it was published, Monsignor Frederick McManus, director of the BCL secretariat, said that its primary significance was that "the first alternative to the proper chants of the Roman gradual is officially provided, and the door thus opened to greater diversity and adaptation".8 (Emphasis added.) He views the "principles of the Simple Gradual" as allowing almost any alternative to chant.

In 1969, Monsignor McManus, writing in American Ecclesiastical Review, interpreted the GIRM as even more permissive. He said of GIRM §26:

The most important development in the Introit is the canonization of what has already become common practice, namely, the substitution of a popular hymn or other sacred song for the assigned Introit antiphon and Psalm of the Roman missal as well as for the other processional chants….

The reference in the revised order to "other song" opens the door as wide as may be and creates the first of many instances where priests, consulting with others, are responsible for sound choices of texts suited for Mass.9

Elsewhere in the same commentary Monsignor McManus explains why he thinks such alternatives are important. The "present rigidity of the Roman liturgy", he says, must be overcome:

The real official inflexibility lies in the texts themselves, in the official language, in the demand that, with few exceptions like the prayer of the faithful, an appointed text be adhered to. 10

What texts, then, are suitable alternatives? McManus urged the study of PMEC for guidance in choosing music for the Mass, observing pointedly that "it is hard to recommend" Musicam Sacram.

Monsignor McManus had been a peritus (expert) on liturgy at the Council, a founding member of the International Commission on English in the Liturgy [ICEL] and director of the US bishops’ liturgy secretariat from its founding in 1965 until 1975. He was a prime influence on compiling the American Adaptations proposed for the GIRM as well as for interpreting and implementing them.

Given his views about the "rigidity" of the texts of the Roman Rite, the result is not surprising. In practice, virtually any song could replace the prescribed texts of the Proper. The music texts were never scrutinized by the bishops conference or by any other authoritative body.

The prescribed texts in the approved liturgical books were abandoned. Musicians could compose almost anything in any style and hear it at Mass the next Sunday or as soon as it was published in a disposable "missalette". As a consequence, much of what has become "Catholic music" is both theologically and musically dubious (or worse).

Arguably, more than three decades of singing words like "we come to tell our story" and "you and I are the Bread of Life" contributed greatly to the loss of understanding, revealed in recent surveys, of the Real Presence and of the Mass as a Sacrifice. The loss of hymns with texts expressing sound Catholic theology undoubtedly compounded this effect. The American Adaptation to GIRM §56i, on the Communion song, states quite bluntly that:

Most Benediction hymns, by reason of their concentration on adoration rather than on Communion, are not acceptable, as indicated in the Instruction on music in the liturgy, no. 36.

The Instruction is Musicam Sacram. But MS §36 does not say that hymns expressing adoration are unsuitable as Communion hymns. It says only that other songs may sometimes be substituted for the Proper chants at the entrance, Offertory and Communion:

It is not sufficient, however, that these songs be merely "Eucharistic" they must be in keeping with the parts of the Mass, with the feast, or with the liturgical season. (MS §36 – Emphasis added.)

It does not say that hymns may not be Eucharistic, only that this is not the sole criteria for selection.

The restriction in the American Adaptation, then, does not come from Musicam Sacram at all, but from PMEC (section IV b 2c 3).

The Psalm between the readings (the Responsorial Psalm or Gradual) is treated differently from the processional chants. For this, GIRM §36 specifies that a cantor sing the verses of the Psalm, while the people listen. "As a rule" the people sing the response. It further specifies:

The Psalm when sung may be either the Psalm assigned in the Lectionary or the gradual from the Graduale Romanum or the responsorial Psalm or the Psalm with Alleluia as the response from the Simple Gradual in the form they have in those books.

No provision is made here for substitute texts. Nevertheless, the US bishops’ Conference added an Adaptation for GIRM §36 as well, which allowed the use of other collections of Psalms and antiphons in English as supplements to the Simple Gradual. In practice, this provision led to the use of songs "based on" a Psalm often very loosely.

One translation of the Psalms approved for liturgical use in the US is the 1963 version of the "Grail Psalter". An "inclusive language" revision of the original version was proposed to the bishops in 1983, but it failed to get the requisite two-thirds vote.

In his commentary on the rejection of revised Grail Psalter, however, Monsignor McManus said that, even if it could not be read during the liturgy, it could still be used:

the new version may well be used at the Eucharistic celebration as a substitute for the appointed texts of the entrance and communion processions along with hymns and various responsorial songs, which are rather freely chosen.11

He said that if the Responsorial Psalm is sung, other collections of Psalms may be used, and that this is "a qualification clearly satisfied by the Grail Psalter in revised as well as unrevised versions".12

Thus, according to McManus, arguably the most influential liturgist in the world, even texts specifically rejected for use in the Liturgy may be used in the Liturgy. As long as the words are sung, anything goes.

Missing chant — the pope ignored
Though substitutes for the Proper are allowed, neither the 1969 GIRM nor the American Adaptations mention alternatives to the chants for the Ordinary of the Mass. While liturgists generally emphasized that the Sanctus and Agnus Dei should be sung (in English) they discouraged singing the Kyrie, the Gloria and the Credo. (The opening rite of Mass that includes both the Kyrie and Gloria was referred to as "our cluttered vestibule".)

Latin, considered hopelessly irrelevant by those who directed the liturgical reform following the Council, disappeared almost instantly.

As a result, few Catholics would be able to fulfill the Council’s intent that "the faithful are able to say or chant together in Latin those parts of the Ordinary of the Mass which pertain to them". (SC §54)

Pope Paul VI was so concerned about this deficiency that in 1974 he sent to every bishop in the world a copy of Jubilate Deo, a booklet of the simplest settings of Gregorian chants of the Mass. The booklet was accompanied by the following request:

Would you therefore, in collaboration with the competent diocesan and national agencies for the liturgy, sacred music and catechetics, decide on the best ways of teaching the faithful the Latin chants of Jubilate Deo and of having them sing them, and also of promoting the preservation and execution of Gregorian chant in the communities mentioned above. You will thus be performing a new service for the Church in the domain of liturgical renewal.13

Despite this explicit request from the Holy Father to the bishops, these chants are still unknown to most Catholics. Influential liturgists evidently hoped this "buried treasure" of sacred music would stay buried.

 ICEL — More revisions proposed
The International Commission on English in the Liturgy’s controversial 1994 revision of the Roman Missal (Sacramentary) proposed radical restructuring of the entrance rites and other changes that would further diminish the importance of the ancient chants of the Ordinary of the Mass. Six different options were given for the entrance rite four of which eliminated the Kyrie and Gloria entirely. The Nicene Creed (Credo) would be replaced on some occasions by the Apostles’ Creed. New texts were proposed as optional replacements for the Agnus Dei.

Most liturgists did not conceal their desire to eliminate the chants of the Ordinary of the Mass entirely. For example, Father Edward Foley, OFM Cap., and Sister Mary McGann, RSCJ, declared:

Currently, Mass settings usually include such standard elements as the "Lord, have mercy", the "Glory to God" and in some cases even a lengthy creed. This continuation of the medieval practice of composing an "ordinary of the Mass" needs to come to an end.14

New Missal and IGMR
The Holy See does not share this view. Although most of ICEL’s proposals were eventually approved by the member conferences and submitted to the Vatican in 1997, they have not yet received the required approval. Recent Vatican documents still favor historic Church music and traditional practices.

The revised Institutio Generalis Missalis Romani (IGMR), released during the Jubilee Year (July 2000), and forming part of the new Roman Missal, changes very little from the original 1969 edition of the GIRM. (At this writing, the new Missal has not been released.)

In its sections on music, the IGMR 2000 retains provisions reminiscent of the 1903 Motu Proprio of Saint Pius X. For example, §41 prescribes:

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.

The Kyrie must be said or sung in all Masses, unless it is explicitly incorporated into the penitential rite. (§52) The Gloria is prescribed for all Sundays outside Advent and Lent, for solemnities and feasts, as well as other solemn celebrations; furthermore, "the text of this hymn is not to be replaced by any other". (§53)

The purpose of the Psalm is "to promote meditation on the Word of God" and is to be taken from the Lectionary, Graduale, or Simple Gradual. No alternatives are mentioned. (§61)

Texts of the liturgical songs accompanying the entrance and Communion processions are to have the proper texts from the Graduale Romanum or the Simple Gradual or another text approved by the conference of bishops. (§§ 48, 87)

A new chapter of the IGMR lists adaptations that the national conferences may "define for introduction into the Missal itself" — including "the text of the chants at the entry, at the preparation of the gifts and at Communion. (see nos. 48, 74, 87)". (§390) Apparently, any substitutes for the Proper chants that may be approved by the national conferences are to be actual liturgical texts.

In the section on the choice of the entrance song is a reference to the recent encyclical on the liturgy, Dies Domini §50, which says, in part:

It is important to devote attention to the songs used by the assembly, since singing is a particularly apt way to express a joyful heart, accentuating the solemnity of the celebration and fostering the sense of a common faith and a shared love. Care must be taken to ensure the quality, both of the texts and of the melodies, so that what is proposed today as new and creative will conform to liturgical requirements and be worthy of the Church’s tradition which, in the field of sacred music, boasts a priceless heritage.

Release of the new edition of the Roman Missal, originally scheduled for 2000, has been repeatedly postponed. The American Adaptations to the new Institutio Generalis Missalis Romani, approved by the US bishops in June, await approval by the Holy See.

 New Instruction for Implementation of Council’s Liturgy Constitution
A major document, released in May 2001, Liturgiam Authenticam, the "Fifth Instruction for the Correct Implementation of the Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy of the Second Vatican Council", deals primarily with translation of the Latin texts of the liturgy into vernacular languages. It is also concerned with liturgical music. For example, it suggests:

Consideration should also be given to including in the vernacular editions at least some texts in the Latin language, especially those from the priceless treasury of Gregorian chant, which the Church recognizes as proper to the Roman liturgy, and which, all other things being equal, is to be given pride of place in liturgical celebrations. Such chant, indeed, has great power to lift the human spirit to heavenly realities. (Liturgiam Authenticam, §28).

In the years following the Council, the justification for substituting texts for parts of the Mass that are sung — even paraphrasing them — was that this freedom was needed in order to set texts to music. Because of this free-wheeling approach, many official texts of the Mass were rarely heard.

Liturgiam Authenticam makes it very clear that, although texts should be translated so as to facilitate their being set to music:

Still, in preparing the musical accompaniment, full account must be taken of the authority of the text itself.… Whether it be a question of the texts of Sacred Scripture or of those taken from the liturgy and already duly confirmed, paraphrases are not to be substituted with the intention of making them more easily set to music, nor may hymns considered generically equivalent be employed in their place. (Liturgiam Authenticam, §60 — Emphasis added.)

…Hymns and canticles contained in the modern editiones typicae constitute a minimal part of the historic treasury of the Latin, and it is especially advantageous that they be preserved in the printed vernacular editions…. The texts for singing that are composed originally in the vernacular language would best be drawn from Sacred Scripture or from the liturgical patrimony. (Liturgiam Authenticam, §61)

One provision, though a departure from recent practice, seems to be a further clarification of IGMR §390 as it applies to texts for the processional chants:

Sung texts and liturgical hymns have a particular importance and efficacy. Especially on Sunday, the "Day of the Lord", the singing of the faithful gathered for the celebration of Holy Mass, no less than the prayers, the readings and the homily, express in an authentic way the message of the Liturgy while fostering a sense of common faith and communion in charity. If they are used widely by the faithful, they should remain relatively fixed so that confusion among the people may be avoided. Within five years from the publication of this Instruction, the Conferences of Bishops, necessarily in collaboration with the national and diocesan Commissions and with other experts, shall provide for the publication of a directory or repertory of texts intended for liturgical singing. This document shall be transmitted for the necessary recognitio to the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments. (Liturgiam Authenticam, §108)

Any "repertory of texts intended for liturgical singing" would presumably include all that are meant to replace the prescribed texts for Proper of the Mass. (IGMR §390 specifies that such texts are to be introduced "into the Missal itself".) If all such texts must go through the same approval process as the other liturgical texts, it would insure that all the sung texts will also follow the translation norms of Liturgiam Authenticam. It would eliminate "inclusivising" hymns and improvising changes, and would assure that sacred words will be restored to sacred music. And this will confirm that music is a truly integral part of the liturgy — and that, since the liturgy is the prayer of the Church, all our liturgical prayers, whether they are recited or sung, must express the faith of the Church.

American Adaptations 2001
Adaptations to IGMR 2000 were discussed and voted upon at the American bishops’ June 2001 meeting. The proposals for the musical portions of the Mass would be an improvement over the 1969-75 Adaptations, principally because of what has been removed. For example, the section on the Introit, or Opening Song, says:

There are four options for the opening song:

1. the antiphon and Psalm from the Roman Missal as set to music by the Roman Gradual or in another musical setting;

2. the seasonal antiphon and Psalm of the Simple Gradual;

3. a song from another collection of the psalms and antiphons, including psalms arranged in responsorial or metrical forms;

4. a suitable liturgical song chosen in accordance with [IGMR], no. 48.

The redefinition of the purpose of this part of the Mass, contained in the 1969 Adaptations, has disappeared. Wording for the other processional chants is similar. The "unsuitablility" of adoration texts for the Communion hymn has been removed. However, the criteria for choices of substitute texts for the Propers are still extremely vague, and no explicit provision for approval of texts to be sung is mentioned.

But the question of appropriate music texts did come up in the bishops’ discussion of Liturgiam Authenticam during the June meeting. One bishop asked whether the requirement of Liturgiam Authenticam that a repertory of songs be submitted to the Holy See within five years referred only to translated texts, or to all texts. The Chairman of the BCL, Archbishop Oscar Lipscomb of Mobile, replied

It certainly concerns translations, but the production of translations and hymnals will fall under the purview of the conference of bishops. And the Bishops’ Committee on the Liturgy recently formed a subcommittee on music, precisely to deal with this issue, to present to the body of bishops in time.

He added that the Committee was at an early stage of dealing with the matter and that it was still under study.

Neither the GIRM nor Liturgiam Authenticam seems to require review of musical settings of substitutes for the Proper. Only the texts are mentioned. Texts in a traditional style and employing sacral vocabulary lend themselves more readily to a sacred style of music, however. A set of texts that remain "relatively fixed" would allow for the gradual development (or restoration) of a repertoire of sacred music in a variety of styles. This is, after all, how the treasury of sacred music developed in the first place. Texts remained fixed for centuries, but each age contributed its own musical settings.

 Art, Beauty and Truth
Much of the argument about liturgical music after the Council seems to be caused by the conflict between two very different views of the meaning of the Second Vatican Council and its intent for the Liturgy, of the role of music in the Liturgy, and the related question of the meaning of "active participation" (actuosa participatio) of the people at Mass.

One view holds that in order for participation in the Mass to be "active", the people must sing at least part of all the music of the liturgy. This narrow view of "active participation" has led to the suppression of most great Church music. Since most Gregorian chant and polyphonic music was deemed too difficult for people to sing, its use for Mass was decried as art for art’s sake, depriving the people of their right to participate in the liturgy.

It has now become a truism that much contemporary Catholic music is far more difficult for most people to sing than traditional hymnody. Yet the fact that Catholics don’t sing it is dismissed as rejection of Vatican II. With no sense of irony, a choir singing the ancient chants of the Church from a choir loft is derided as "performing" for a passive audience, while a contemporary ensemble occupying the center of attention (and often of the Sanctuary) is praised for "enabling" the sung prayer of the community.

An early and influential defense of the functionalist interpretation of the Council’s intention for liturgical music was offered in 1966 by Archabbot Rembert Weakland, OSB, then chairman of the Music Advisory Board of the Liturgy Committee. He said that "the treasury of music we are asked to preserve … were the products of a relationship between liturgy and music that is hard to reconcile with the basic premises of the Constitution itself".15 He insists "there is no music of a liturgical golden age to which we can turn, because the treasures we have are the product of ages that do not represent an ideal of theological thinking in relationship to liturgy".16

This applies to Gregorian chant, despite what the Council said, because, according to the Archabbot, "the period when Gregorian chant reached its apogee, although filled with intense Christian faith, is no liturgical model for our days".17

Such a view, however, is "hard to reconcile" with the Council’s premise that the liturgy is the "font and summit" of the Catholic faith. How could an age that had an inadequate theology of liturgy (and, presumably, a faulty liturgical practice flowing from it) have been "filled with intense Christian faith"? Might this strong faith have been fostered by a particularly excellent theory and practice of liturgy that might also have led to great works of liturgical art, such as Gregorian chant?

Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger sees such a connection. In a recent reflection on the liturgy, he observes,

As a matter of fact, one cannot speak of liturgy without talking about the music of worship. Where liturgy deteriorates, the musica sacra also deteriorates, and where liturgy is correctly understood and lived, there good Church music also grows. 18

The view that the liturgy has no place for art for its own sake is often interpreted to mean simply that the liturgy has no need for transcendent beauty. This would be an error. The Catechism of the Catholic Church treats sacred art mainly in the section on liturgy; but there is an important comment in the chapter on the eighth commandment, §§2500-2503:

Sacred art is true and beautiful when its form corresponds to its particular vocation: evoking and glorifying, in faith and adoration, the transcendent mystery of God –the surpassing invisible beauty of truth and love visible in Christ…. This spiritual beauty of God is reflected in the most holy Virgin Mother of God, the angels, and saints. Genuine sacred art draws man to adoration, to prayer, and to the love of God, Creator and Savior, the Holy One and Sanctifier.

It is this vocation of sacred music that is overlooked by advocates of "ritual music", so preoccupied with the supposed function of individual parts of the liturgy that they ignore the fundamental purpose of sacred music. The Catechism strongly recalls the view of Pope Saint Pius X, who said in Tra le Sollecitudini that the purpose of sacred music was "the glory of God and the sanctification and edification of the faithful". (TLS §1)19

It has been almost a century since Pope Saint Pius X’s encyclical on the reform of sacred music. During that time there have been other papal documents on the subject, the early liturgical movement, and most important, the Second Vatican Council and the liturgical reform that followed. But has the state of sacred music actually improved since the time of Saint Pius X?

The cultural status of the treasury of sacred music itself has certainly improved. During the past century, the monks of Solesmes have restored books of Gregorian chant, and many new editions of the sacred polyphony of the sixteenth century have been published.

Recordings of both are now widely available — and appreciated by many thousands, young and old, Catholic and non-Catholic. One recording of Gregorian chant even reached the top of the "pop charts" few years ago — to the surprise of everyone and the amazement of Catholic music publishers. Chant, sacred polyphony and Mass settings are frequent features on the programs of major symphony orchestras and choruses. New secular scholae are formed regularly, "early music" societies abound, and Protestant choirs offer concert performances of historic Catholic music.

So the treasure that remained buried at the beginning of the century has been unearthed, refurbished and beautifully displayed — but not in ordinary Catholic parishes.

In the Italy of Pope Saint Pius X’s day, operatic-style performances impeded the sense of transcendence — of the sacred — in the music at Mass. The combination of show tunes, pop, pseudo-folk, rock and even cocktail lounge style music that pervades our Masses today is hardly an improvement.

For Saint Pius X, the popes who followed him, and the liturgical movement they inspired and fostered, the point of the recovery of this treasure was to restore it to its proper setting — to the Mass, and to Catholics everywhere. Though their efforts brought forth some briefly brilliant fruits through the labors of Father Virgil Michel, Monsignor Martin Hellrigel, Justine Ward, and others, their careful plantings, which promised to be nurtured by the Council, were soon uprooted by the inhospitable liturgical winds that followed.

Gregorian chant has not been restored to Catholic people — yet. And the great works of polyphony, sadly, are rarely heard in the liturgical setting for which they were composed. But, as the Catechism reminds us, the Church needs beauty for the sake of truth. The truths of the Catholic faith — set to beautiful music by all those throughout the ages whose work was inspired by that truth — have made the sacred music of the Roman rite "a treasure of inestimable value" — as the Council’s Constitution on the Liturgy affirmed.20

The Council fathers, like the popes both before them and since, intended to praise this treasure, not to bury it. Pope John Paul II, himself a father of the Second Vatican Council, recently told a Vatican conference on the implementation of Vatican II:

[T]he genuine intention of the Council Fathers must not be lost: indeed, it must be recovered by overcoming biased and partial interpretations…. To interpret the Council on the supposition that it marks a break with the past, when in reality it stands in continuity with the faith of all times, is a definite mistake.21

Pope John Paul II finds this continuity also in the Church’s liturgy and sacred music. He stressed this in his address to the Pontifical Institute of Sacred Music in January 2001.22 The Institute, founded by Saint Pius X, was the most important result of his 1903 directive on Church music, Tra le Sollecitudini.

In his address to the musicians, Pope John Paul II spoke of the Second Vatican Council as "continuing the rich liturgical tradition of previous centuries". The Council, he said, affirmed the necessity of beauty:

The criterion that must inspire every composition and performance of songs and sacred music is the beauty that invites prayer…. "Singing in the liturgy" must flow from "sentire cum Ecclesia".23 Only in this way do union with God and artistic ability blend in a happy synthesis in which the two elements — song and praise — pervade the entire liturgy.

Far from rejecting the heritage of Catholic music, the Holy Father believes it must be recovered, revitalized. In order to recover this great treasure of the Church, he told the musicians,

You, teachers and students, are asked to make the most of your artistic gifts, maintaining and furthering the study and practice of music and song in the forms and with the instruments privileged by the Second Vatican Council: Gregorian chant, sacred polyphony and the organ. Only in this way will liturgical music worthily fulfill its function during the celebration of the sacraments and, especially, of Holy Mass.

Amen. Let us begin.

Part I, Part II, Part III, Part IV



1 See Buried Treasure Part II (AB April 2001) for a more detailed discussion of Musicam Sacram, an Instruction on music for Mass dated March 5, 1967, issued by the Sacred Congregation for Rites (now the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments).

2 Quoted in Bishops’ Committee on the Liturgy Newsletter March 1968 (not paginated).

3 The translation was provided by the International Commission on English in the Liturgy.

4 BCL Newsletter, February 1969 (not paginated).

5 BCL Newsletter, December 1969 (not paginated).

6 For a detailed discussion of this document see Buried Treasure Part III (AB May 2001). "The Place of Music in Eucharistic Celebrations" [PMEC] was issued by the BCL in 1967, a few months after Musicam Sacram.

7 See Buried Treasure Part II (AB April 2001).

8 Monsignor Frederick McManus, "Sacred Music in the Teaching of the Church" in Crisis in Church Music?, (Washington, DC: The Liturgical Conference, 1967) p. 20.

9 McManus, "The New Order of Mass" in American Ecclesiastical Review vol. 161. Part I: September 1969, pp. 192-203; Part II: December 1969, pp. 396-409. (Later referenced as: McManus, AER.)

10 McManus, AER, p. 400.

11 Thirty Years of Liturgical Renewal, edited with an introduction and commentaries by Frederick R. McManus (Washington, DC: Secretariat Bishops’ Committee on the Liturgy, NCCB, 1987) p. 248.

12 McManus, Thirty Years of Liturgical Renewal, p. 248. Ten years later, another proposal to approve the Grail Psalter (Inclusive Language Version) for liturgical use in the dioceses of the United States again failed to receive the necessary two-thirds vote of the bishops. An "inclusive language" version of the Psalter and Canticles produced by ICEL in 1994 was forbidden for use in the liturgy by the Holy See in 1996, and its imprimatur was removed in 1998. Because it was still being used for liturgy in some communities, in early 2000 the Congregation for Divine Worship ordered it withdrawn from distribution.

13 Pope Paul VI, Voluntati Obsequens, April 14, 1974.

14 Edward Foley and Mary McGann, Music and the Eucharistic Prayer, American Essays in Liturgy (Collegeville, MN: The Liturgical Press, 1988) p. 47. Father Foley teaches liturgy at the Chicago Theological Union; Sister Mary McGann served on the editorial board for the ICEL Psalter.

15 Rembert Weakland, OSB, "Music as Art in Liturgy", an address to a meeting on Church music in Kansas City on November 29, 1966, Worship 41 (1967), p. 6

16 Weakland, p. 6.

17 Weakland, p. 9.

18 Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, A New Song for the Lord: Faith in Christ and Liturgy Today, Translated by Martha M. Matisich. (New York: Crossroad Publishing Company, 1996) p. 137.

19 Tra le sollecitudini is available on the Adoremus web site (, Church Documents section.

20 Sacrosanctum Concilium, §112.

21 "Vatican II Was Spirit’s Gift To The Church" Address of Pope John Paul II to a Vatican conference on the implementation of Vatican II, February 27, 2000. L’Osservatore Romano (English Edition) March 8, 2000, p. 4.

22 "Sacred Music Is Integral Part of Liturgy", address of January 19, 2001, to professors and students of the Pontifical Institute of Sacred Music for the celebration of the Institute’s 90th anniversary. L’Osservatore Romano February 7, 2001. All the following quotations are from this address.

23 trans. feeling or experiencing with the Church.



Susan Benofy

Susan Benofy received her doctorate in physics from Saint Louis University. She was formerly Research Editor of Adoremus Bulletin.