Oct 15, 2003

Musicians in Catholic Worship ­ III Bells and Whistles, Guitars and Tambourines


– Vol. IX, No. 7: October 2003

Musicians in Catholic Worship – III

Bells and Whistles, Guitars and Tambourines

by Lucy Carroll

Editor’s Note:

This is the third of a three-part series by Dr. Carroll on Musicians in Catholic Worship. Part I, "Banish the Soloists – Let the People Sing" appeared in the July-August Adoremus Bulletin and Part II, "Where Have All the Organists Gone?" appeared in the September issue.

"Banish the Soloists" looked at the cantor as soloist, a position not envisioned by the Second Vatican Council, and counter-productive to good congregational singing. "Where Have All the Organists Gone?" examined the pipe organ and its value in leading music in Catholic worship. This last segment looks at "other instruments" and their suitability or unsuitability at the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass.


Musicians fulfill an important and necessary function in the sacred Liturgy. But whether fully trained professionals or ardent amateurs (i.e., those who do it for love), all must remember that the purpose of the music is to implement the Liturgy, not to entertain the faithful or glorify themselves. The motto of all ought to be: Non nobis Domine, sed nomini tuo da gloriam! (Not to us, Lord, but to your Name be all glory!) — The Author

When Saint Juan Diego of Guadalupe was canonized recently, the cathedral in Mexico City utilized a fine choir and full orchestra. Added to the orchestra, to show the relationship to the native population of whom Diego was a part, were historic instruments: conch shells, rattles, flutes. The instruments were fitted into the whole with expert craftsmanship. Around the same time, in the cathedral in Philadelphia, a mariachi band played. Were both suitable?

This is a thorny question, but it needs to be examined. Catholic parishes today are homes to rock bands and back-up groups that sound no different from those at the local bar or supper club. While they may be entertaining, are they truly suitable for the celebration of the Eucharist?

Recall that when Judaism lost the Temple of Jerusalem and services were held only in local synagogues, no musical instruments were permitted [see Part II of this series]. The only exception to this was the symbolic shofar, or ram’s horn, used at Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur.

Early Christianity, wishing to differ from the Temple services (and also to be quieter by virtue of being in hiding), did not allow any instruments. Early services used chanting derivative of Hebraic chants and cantillations. Many types of chant thus evolved: Mozarabic, Ambrosian, and Gregorian, to name three.

Eventually, Pope Gregory codified and unified the chants, and Gregorian chants were used almost universally. True Gregorian chant is best sung unaccompanied. It is, by definition, a single-line melody. However, as congregations grew, as ever-larger churches were built, and as harmony crept into the music of the Church, some instrumental help was needed. In the Western Church, the pipe organ was admitted as the perfect leader of song, an instrument that could play more than one melodic line, could be heard throughout the church, and which was a good equivalent to the tone production in the human voice.

For centuries, the pipe organ continued to be the one approved instrument for Catholic worship. Other instruments were used in music for concerts, music dramas, prayer services, feast day events, and the like. But for the Mass, only the organ was deemed sacred enough in nature.

In the sixteenth century, wind and brass instruments, and some strings, were added for festive services, as in the example of Venice’s St. Mark’s Cathedral and the composer Giovanni Gabrielli. For most churches, however, the organ sufficed.

Pope Pius X reaffirmed this in his Instruction on Sacred Music, Tra le Sollecitudini, issued on Saint Cecilia’s Day, November 22, 1903.

Of course, all through history, abuses crept in. In the liturgical reform at the beginning of the twentieth century, the pipe organ was once again re-affirmed as being the instrument most suitable for the Mass. Orchestral instruments — woodwinds, brass, strings — could be used, with the bishop’s permission, for special occasions.

Did the Second Vatican Council change this? Not really. Here is what we find in 1963’s Constitution on the Liturgy, Sacrosanctum Concilium:

other instruments may be admitted for use in divine worship. This may be done, however, only on condition that the instruments are suitable, or can be made suitable, for sacred use; that they accord with the dignity of the temple, and that they truly contribute to the edification of the faithful. (120)

The clear presumption here is that there are sacred and non-sacred instruments and usages.

At our monastery, we often include instruments on special occasions. A brass quartet joined our pipe organ and choir for centenary celebrations in 2002. A professional violist and a violinist volunteer their services at Christmas, Novena and Triduum. A trumpeter colleague joins us on occasion. These instruments fit well with the chant and traditional music we do at the monastery, and help to enhance and encourage the congregation.

So why do we find rock bands, mariachi bands, salsa bands, guitar groups, bells and whistles in our parishes? There is a passage in Sacrosanctum Concilium that has been widely misinterpreted. The Council Fathers wrote:

in mission lands there are people who have their own musical tradition, and this plays a great part in their religious and social life. For this reason their music should be held in proper esteem and a suitable place is to be given to it. (119)

The obvious intent here was to permit "mission lands" — that hadn’t even plumbing or electricity — to use what was available to them. And "a suitable place" doesn’t mean to throw out the universal tradition! America is hardly such a mission land. This was not a wholesale license to use every possible style of music. Indeed, the intent was quite the contrary. In the very next paragraph, the document tells of the important place of the pipe organ in worship, a goal to be reached by everyone.

Pope Saint Pius X had something to say about this in 1903. In speaking of adding "native music" elements, he wrote, "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 [here meaning, sacred in nature] on hearing them" (Tra le Sollecitudini 2). They must be subordinated to the general characteristics of sacred music. This is a powerful mandate!

So, the natural instruments of the indigenous peoples used at the canonization of Juan Diego, fitted into the mélange of choir, organ, and orchestra, were eminently suitable. But if a mariachi band sounds exactly as it does at a fiesta where the guests are swigging margaritas, or a rock band sounds as it does at a local teen dance, then they are not suitable for Mass. Whether they can be made suitable or sacred in nature as the Church requires is highly questionable.

A few months ago, Pope John Paul II called the Church to "an examination of conscience so that the beauty of music and song will return increasingly to the Liturgy". He said that "It is necessary to purify worship of deformations, of careless forms of expression of ill-prepared music and texts which are not suited to the grandeur of the act being celebrated". (Wednesday audience message, February 26, 2002 – in AB March 2003, p 12.)

Music that is entertaining is, by its nature and style, appealing and popular; but it is not sacred music. Mariachi bands, kazoo groups, rock bands, and the like are definitely not "suited to the grandeur of the act being celebrated".

What about Guitars?

In my own parish, a guitarist is hired for one of the weekend Masses. He sits in the sanctuary and plays his guitar as he sings. The gentleman has a nice singing voice, but the congregation, usually a good singing congregation, muffles itself when he performs. They try not to out-sing the soloist, or drown out the guitar.

The guitar can be a beautiful solo instrument. It can blend nicely into an accompaniment ensemble behind a soloist or choir. But is is not a good instrument for leading congregational singing, as most musicians observe: "What is it with you Catholics and guitars?" an Episcopalian friend asked. And a Methodist colleague added, "we only bring in the guitar for the children’s group. It just doesn’t work for a congregation". Indeed!

Lest I be accused of being anti-guitar, I have a large collection of recordings of Paco Peña, Carlos Montoya, Andrés Segovia. To me, this is guitar. But most people who play the guitar in our churches today are not well trained musicians. So we get nothing but a rhythmic strum-strum-strum (and not always in tune). When the untrained lead the untrained, how can we present the best to God? How can we give God — the source of all truth, beauty, and goodness — music that is true, beautiful, and good?

Musical Styles

Forty years ago, the Constitution on the Liturgy stressed that Catholic music is "a treasure of inestimable value":

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 a combination of sacred music and words, it forms a necessary or integral part of the solemn Liturgy. (SC 112)

Greater than any other art! Integral part of the solemn Liturgy! And more so, "The treasury of sacred music is to be preserved and cultivated with great care" (SC 114). Yet in many parishes, one will find little music written before 1960. This may be good for the music publishers, but it eliminates the treasure of music that the Council told us we were to keep and continue. If we are not using traditional music of the Catholic Church, and only buying the hot-off-the-press hymn-of-the-month-club stuff, then we are not obeying the Fathers of the Second Vatican Council.

The phrases in Chapter VI of Sacrosanctum Concilium are very telling: "sacred music is more holy", "conferring greater solemnity". The word "solemn" appears many times in connection with music that is suited to the Mass. It is hard to equate the rock bands found in many parishes with "solemnity".

The Council Fathers wrote, "The Church recognizes Gregorian chant as being specially suited to the Roman Liturgy. Therefore … it should be given pride of place in liturgical services" (SC 116). This is reaffirmed in the 2002 General Instruction of the Roman Missal (GIRM):

Gregorian chant holds pride of place because it is proper to the Roman Liturgy. Other types of music, in particular polyphony, are in no way excluded, provided that they correspond to the spirit of the liturgical action. Since faithful from different countries come together ever more frequently, it is fitting that they know how to sing together parts of the Ordinary of the Mass in Latin, especially the Creed and the Lord’s Prayer. (GIRM 41)

If chant and the traditional music of the Church, Latin-chanted Credos and Pater Noster, are to hold "pride of place" in our Roman rite, then the instruments used must be suitable for that music. Clearly this would immediately eliminate much of what we find in parishes today.

Pope Saint Pius X wrote in his Instruction on music one hundred years ago that nothing should "diminish the piety … give scandal … offend the decorum and sanctity of the sacred functions".

He wrote, "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" (TLS 2).

The word profanity here means non-sacred; i.e., music that is secular in nature. Pius X was quite specific about instruments: "the employment of the piano is forbidden in church, as is also that of noisy or frivolous instruments such as drums, cymbals, bells, and the like" (TLS 19).

The preference for Gregorian chant, polyphony, Latin, and the pipe organ appear both in Sacrosanctum Concilium and Musicam Sacram (1967 Instruction on Music in the Liturgy), and are repeated in in the 2002 GIRM.

In the GIRM (US version), we still read, "While the organ is to be accorded pride of place, other wind, stringed, or percussion instruments may be used in liturgical services in the dioceses of the United States of America, according to longstanding local usage, provided they are truly apt for sacred use or can be rendered apt" (393).

So there it is, folks. Sacred. Dignified. Decorum. Piety. Traditional. Suitable. Not profane or secular.

While some liturgists may try to tell us that music becomes sacred by being used for worship, the notion that function (or use) creates form (or meaning) is hardly self-evident. Most musicians, musicologists and music therapists would strongly disagree — not to mention Cardinal Ratzinger, the popes, and Vatican directives! The nature of the thing will determine its use, not vice versa.

So what does this mean?

If it sounds like a Broadway ballad, it belongs on Broadway, not the altar. If it sounds like a "golden oldie", sing it at home. If it stirs feelings of a non-sacred nature, it does not belong in a sacred place. If sounds like a rock group or a mariachi band, then it may be fine for entertainment at the parish picnic or in the gym, but not at Mass, and not in the temple wherein the Sacrifice of Calvary is re-presented.

If the instruments used to accompany congregational singing do not lead the faithful into fuller participation in the Sacrifice of the Mass, or a deeper sense of the sacred; if instead they entertain us, or bring our hearts and minds into the world — the mundane, secular, and sensual — then how can they be suitable (or "made apt") for the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass?

Exactly a century ago, Pope Saint Pius X’s Instruction on liturgical music observed that "there is a general tendency to deviate from the right rule" that erodes a sense of the sacred at Mass. He succinctly described his objective concerning Church music:

We deem it necessary to provide before anything else for the sanctity and dignity of the temple, in which the faithful assemble for no other object than that of acquiring this spirit from its foremost and indispensable fount, which is the active participation in the most holy mysteries and in the public and solemn prayer of the Church. (TLS introduction)

In our churches in 2003, no less than in 1903, we need to banish whatever is unsuitable — whether instruments, or styles — and work to restore the sacred sound of music in our churches, so that we may experience the full truth and beauty of the sacred Liturgy.


Lucy E. Carroll, D.M.A., is organist and music director at the public chapel of the Carmelite monastery in Philadelphia, and is adjunct associate professor at Westminster Choir College, Princeton. Her "Churchmouse Squeaks" cartoons appear regularly in the Adoremus Bulletin. This essay is the third in a series on Church musicians.

Musicians in Catholic Worship: Part I Banish the Soloists — Let the People Singby Lucy E. Carroll [July-August 2003]

Musicians in Catholic Worship: Part II Where Have All the Organists Gone?by Lucy E. Carroll [September 2003]

Lucy E. Carroll

Lucy Carroll, organist and choir director at the Carmelite monastery in Philadelphia, teaches at the Westminster Choir College in Princeton. She frequently contributes essays on Catholic music to AB, and is the creator of the “Churchmouse Squeaks” cartoons regularly featured in these pages. In Memoriam: Dr. Lucy E. Carroll, DMA