Nov 15, 2006

Vatican II and Musicam Sacram

Online Edition – November 2006

Vol. XII, No. 8

Vatican II and Musicam Sacram

by Edward Schaefer

Editor’s Note: Edward Schaefer is director of the choral and liturgical music program at Gonzaga University, where he has taught since 1986. He received his doctorate in Liturgical Music from Catholic University of America. Dr. Schaefer has published several works related to Gregorian chant and the Liturgy, and two recordings of chants for the Mass. A book, The Music of the Catholic Church: the Search for Acceptable Sacrifice, will be published by Hillenbrand books in the Spring of 2007. Dr. Schaefer was among the participants in the October 9 consultation on music sponsored by the Bishops’ Committee on the Liturgy. This essay is a revised version of “Renewal Revisited: Vatican II & Musicam Sacram”, published in AIM [formerly Aids in Ministry] Spring 2006.


I have been a church musician for more than 35 years. I have done it all: played the organ in just about every mainstream denomination, tuned twelve-string guitars, conducted choirs from elementary-age to youth groups to adults, run summer choir camps, developed music curricula for CCD programs, assembled parish hymnals, and more. I even once plastered my 1959 VW bug with “Sing for Joy” bumper stickers and parked it on the front lawn of the parish where I was working — all as part of the ever-consuming task of a church musician to encourage congregational participation.

Then about ten years ago, I made a visit to the Benedictine monastery at Solesmes — and I found Jesus! Let me tell you about the monks of Solesmes. First, they are just ordinary guys! They sing chant — ok. It’s not bad; it’s not good enough to put them on the stage of Carnegie Hall. The monastery does not hold vocal auditions for men who want to join. They are just monks who come to together to form their lives in Christ through prayer and work.

Yet it is the prayer that is such a powerful experience there. To pray the Mass — or any of the Offices — with them is an amazingly peace-filled moment. There is nothing of — is the organ too loud; is the congregation singing; do they like this music?!! The monks just come together, and they sing the liturgies with music that is profoundly beautiful — and that they have passed from generation to generation for a very long time — and that is not an end in itself, but simply a vehicle for their prayer. It is a prayer that not only expresses who they are, but that also forms them into who they become. There is no doubt that when they pray, Christ is present. It is a truly profound experience.

I can also remember my thoughts after the first Mass I attended there. (It is a “novus ordo” Mass, sung in Latin, but for the readings and the intercessions.) I left the abbey church thinking that this was probably a whole lot closer to what the Council fathers of the Second Vatican Council had in mind than what has actually transpired over the last several decades.

During the Second Vatican Council, the Council fathers, moved by the Spirit, unleashed something new, something boldly different from the way the Church had approached her liturgy for over a millennium, and something for which they were not fully prepared. They faced the future — somewhat like the apostles after Pentecost — in faith, but without a lot of knowledge as to where that faith would take them.

The Council fathers’ courageous steps into an unknown future have resulted in unprecedented changes in the Church, particularly with regard to her liturgical practice and the music of the liturgy. In general, the Church has embraced what is called a freedom and flexibility with regard to liturgical practice and a revised thinking with regard to musical priorities in the liturgy, neither of which had existed for at least the previous fifteen hundred years — or perhaps ever — in Christian liturgical practice, all in an attempt to embrace what is considered to be the “spirit” or will of the Council.

However, there are some clear indications that the direction traveled in the liturgical renewal of the last half-century is, in truth, not what the Council willed at all. First of all, the flexibility that was advocated by the Council has not really happened. We have, for the most part, simply replaced one rigid set of practices with another. Present-day liturgical practice does not really embrace the breadth of richness that was advocated by the Council. For the most part, American Catholic liturgical practice follows a very similar pattern throughout the country, one that is infused mostly with contemporary popular music.1

Second, and perhaps more important, the pattern of liturgical practice today — at least with regard to music — falls far short of implementing the charges that were actually given by the Council. If we study the new General Instruction of the Roman Missal (GIRM),2 we see quickly that its discussion of music in the Mass is based on various mandates given in Musicam Sacram,3 (MS) an instruction published by the Sacred Congregation of Rites shortly after the Second Vatican Council as a means to give some clarity to the broad charges for musical reform given by the Council itself.4

However, when MS was published, the musical reform had already taken on a life of its own, one that was developing in a very different direction, that is, the direction that was eventually codified in Music in Catholic Worship, (MCW) a document published by the United States bishops in 1972.5 Thus, MS was, for the most part, ignored. However, it contains a wealth of wisdom, and it is particularly valuable in exploring any alternate paradigm to the narrow parameters that dominate contemporary liturgical/musical practice and any paradigm that might follow more closely the actual desires of the Council.

A detailed comparison of MS and MCW is beyond the scope of this article.6 However, a few general comments can demonstrate the disparity of thought between the two documents and also serve as a basis for considering some new paradigms in the ongoing liturgical renewal.

Solemnity of the Sung Mass — Musicam Sacram’s “degrees”

Perhaps the most important contribution of MS is that it specifically retains the distinction between “solemn, sung and read Mass”,7 and, additionally, it notes that “especially on Sundays and feast days, a form of the sung Mass (Missa in cantu) is to be preferred as much as possible.”8 MCW, on the other hand, considers the distinction between High Mass and Low Mass to be “outdated”.9 This difference shapes the entirety of both documents.

Second, MS develops three levels of hierarchy for singing various parts of the Mass. Level one focuses on the dialogues and responses to the prayers of the priest, the chants in the Eucharistic Prayer, and the Our Father; level two focuses primarily on the Ordinary of the Mass (Kyrie, Gloria, Credo, Agnus Dei); and level three focuses primarily on the Proper of the Mass (Introit, Gradual, Alleluia, Offertory, Communion). This hierarchy is based partly on the desire to maintain an organic link between innovations and tradition, in which the heritage of the sung Mass is respected and upheld, partly on pastoral reasoning, placing some of the easiest parts to sing in the first level, and partly on profound theological reasoning, placing elements of the Mass that promote the deepest level of participation in the first level.

Examining this first level of participation briefly, if we believe that it is Christ who offers the sacrifice in the Mass, then when the priest, who is acting in persona Christi, says “The Lord be with you,” is it not Christ with whom we are speaking? When the prayers are offered, do we not join ourselves to Christ, praying through Him? How more deeply a way is there to participate in the Mass than to dialogue with Christ Himself and to add our “Amen” to His intercession for us to the Father? Similarly, in the Eucharistic Prayer, it is Christ who makes the offering. Our participation in the Eucharistic Prayer is participating in the very heart of the Mass, intimately joining our voices to that of Christ as He offers Himself to the Father. The Our Father is the very words of Christ, traditionally a sacerdotal prayer. By our joining this prayer, we are participating in a very real way in the priesthood of Christ (not in an ordained way, but, nonetheless in a very real way). Indeed, the items in the first degree of Musicam Sacram are not just the easiest chants of the Mass, they are the most profound ways in which we can externally participate in the Mass.

In fact, throughout, MS focuses on singing the Mass itself, rather than singing various songs at Mass that are not actually intrinsic to the Mass. For another example, it also respects the Proper chants of the Mass, and does not assume that they will be summarily replaced by other music.

MCW, because it rejects the tradition of the sung Mass, cannot use a hierarchy that organically links the old with the new. Rather, it develops an entirely new hierarchy with regard to the relative importance of singing various parts of the Mass. This hierarchy lists in order: Acclamations, Processional Songs, the Responsorial Psalm, the Ordinary, Supplemental Songs, and Litanies. Such a hierarchy is a complete innovation with only a superficial link to any previous practice in the Church. MCW also focuses significantly on music that has no intrinsic relationship to the Mass. For example, it assumes that all of the Proper chants of the Mass will be replaced by hymns or songs.

Third, MS uses as its point of departure the sung Mass, respecting it as the pristine model of the liturgy. MCW uses the “Low Mass” as its point of departure and creates a hierarchy for determining which parts of the Mass should be sung in the context of a low, or spoken, Mass.

The unfortunate result of MCW’s divergence from MS in these three areas is that, for the most part, American liturgies are spoken liturgies with varying amounts of music inserted into them. In addition, some of this inserted music is based on texts that are not actually part of the Mass. The overall effect is often one of a liturgy that is occasionally stopped for the insertion of musical moments and not one of a liturgy with the full, active and conscious participation envisioned by the Council Fathers.

Reviewing Musicam Sacram — Signs of Liturgical Renewal
Perhaps it is time to revisit MS, to rethink its role in shaping the role of music in the liturgy, and to consider some new paradigms for the liturgical renewal, specifically ones that give preeminence to the sung liturgy and to chant as the primary vehicle for the sung liturgy. MS offers us at least two significant principles that can positively support these paradigms.

The first is that the sung liturgy itself is our highest form of liturgical prayer. Singing the liturgy, which is distinguished from singing music at the liturgy, takes us out of our increasingly secularized, hedonistic world and accompanies us into the world of prayer, in this case, our highest form of prayer, in which heaven is opened and we are lifted, through the saving grace of Christ’s sacrifice on the cross, to stand in the presence of God and angels.10

The second principle that MS offers us is that chant is truly the music most integral to the liturgy. Chant is a musical idiom that is uniquely bound to the liturgy, for musical as well as historical reasons. It exists only within the context of the liturgy: its texts are uniquely liturgical, and its melodies are intimately bound to its texts. They do not exist in their own right, but only as vehicles for the Word.11 No other music has these qualities. No other music can adorn the liturgy as chant can, that is, completely void of the slightest association with anything else. It is the music that is truly “integral” to the liturgy, and when the Mass is clothed in this most natural garment, the ordered “harmony and rhythm” of chant, it most imitates the “spiritual harmony” of the heavenly liturgy.12

There are certainly signs that this rethinking of MS’s role in shaping the liturgy is already beginning to happen. Aside from the GIRM’s instructions being based on MS, the new Missale Romanum,13 itself, has notated most of the chants of the Mass. Further, these notated chants are not in an appendix. Rather, they are the principle form given for texts of the Order of Mass. All of this reflects the importance of the sung Mass in the life of the Church. Early indications hold promise that the new English translation of the Missale Romanum will follow this format.

In addition, there is a refreshing renewal of interest in chant and its potential for elevating the prayer of the liturgy. There are a few places where there are regularly celebrated, fully sung liturgies, for example, at Stanford University (St. Thomas Aquinas Church in Palo Alto, CA), and at St. Aloysius Church on the campus of Gonzaga University in Spokane, Washington. There is an increasing interest in the study of chant with courses at St. John’s University in Collegeville and Duquesne University in Pittsburgh, and workshops at the Catholic University of America in Washington, DC, Mundelein Seminary in Chicago, and St. Joseph’s College in Rensselaer, Indiana, to mention but a few. Recently the National Association of Pastoral Musicians has also begun to gather together parish musicians interested in chant.

My own experience — from the abbey walls of Solesmes to the weekly Gregorian liturgies that we have celebrated at Gonzaga University for the last eight years — has been both a personal blessing and a source of great hope in the continuing liturgical renewal. I have been blessed to watch develop around this sung liturgy a small community whose members truly understand the depth of union they have in the Eucharist, both with Christ and with each other. In addition — without even so much as a word of encouragement from me about singing — they are the most vocally participative congregation with which I have ever worked. Their external participation is a natural expression of their interior disposition.

The magnitude of change we have undergone since the 1960s is unprecedented in the history of the Church. It will take a long time for these changes to realize fully the dreams of the Council fathers. However, there is great promise in the current developments of significant progress toward the fulfillment of those dreams: toward the fuller experience of the heavenly liturgy in our — most especially sung –earthly liturgies.


1 M. Francis Mannion cites six “models” of liturgical/musical practice in Masterworks of God: Essays in Liturgical Theory and Practice (Chicago/Mundelein, IL: Hillenbrand Books, 2004), 116-143. However, he make no effort to quantify any of the six paradigms. While there may be many faces to American Catholic liturgical practice, the one described here is, by far, the dominant one.

2 Committee on the Liturgy, General Instruction of the Roman Missal (GIRM) (Washington, DC: United States Catholic Conference, 2003).

3 Sacred Congregation of Rites, Instruction on Music in the Liturgy, Musicam Sacram (MS) (March 5, 1967).

4 Most especially the Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy, Sacrosanctum Concilium (December 4, 1963).

5 Music in Catholic Worship (MCW) (Washington, DC: United States Catholic Conference, 1972).

6 See my The Music of the Catholic Church: the Search for an Acceptable Offering (Mundelein, IL: Hillenbrand Books, forthcoming) for a more detailed discussion.

7 MS 28.

8 MS 27.

9 MCW 52.

10 See Saint Benedict, The Rule for Monasteries, trans. Leonard J. Doyle (Collegeville: Liturgical Press, 1948), Chapter 19; and Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, “‘In the Presence of the Angels I Will Sing Your Praise’: The Regensburg Tradition and the Reform of the Liturgy” in A New Song for the Lord: Faith in Christ and Liturgy Today, trans. Martha Matesich (New York: Crossroads Publishing, 1997) 128-146.

11 The hymn repertoire may be the one possible exception to this norm in that the hymn melodies have a certain sense of independence that is not found in the rest of the repertoire. Even so, the melodies of the hymns are still intimately tied to the singing of liturgical texts and not to any other function.

12 See Plato, Ion, 534 D, in The Dialogues of Plato, 4 vols., 4th ed., trans. B. Jowett (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1954), I:108, and F.C. Lehner, “Music (Philosophy)”, in The New Catholic Encyclopedia, 1967 ed.

13 The Missale Romanum, editio typical tertia (Rome: Typis Vaticanis Polyglottis, 2002).



Edward Schaefer