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The Instruction Musicam Sacram After Fifty Years: Rediscovering the Principles of Sacred Music

“We must sing the liturgy, rejoicing in the treasury of sacred music …, most especially … Gregorian chant. We must sing sacred liturgical music not merely religious music, or worse, profane songs.”1

These remarks by Cardinal Robert Sarah, Prefect of the Congregation for Divine Worship and Discipline of the Sacraments, express what the Church has taught for centuries, and what recent popes and the Second Vatican Council have explicitly commanded.

The reform of sacred music is the particular concern of a series of Vatican documents from the 1903 “motu proprio” letter Tra le sollecitudini (TLS) of St. Pius X through the Instruction Musica sacra et sacra liturgia in 1958.

All these documents agree on certain fundamental principles of sacred music enunciated by TLS:

– Purpose: “Sacred music… participates in the general scope of the liturgy, which is the glory of God and the sanctification and edification of the faithful. … [I]ts principal office is to clothe with suitable melody the liturgical text” (TLS 1).

– Qualities: “Sacred music should consequently possess … the qualities proper to the liturgy, and in particular sanctity and goodness of form, which will spontaneously produce the final quality of universality” (TLS 2).

– Gregorian Chant: “These qualities are to be found, in the highest degree, in Gregorian chant, which is, consequently the chant proper to the Roman Church” (TLS 3). “The above-mentioned qualities are also possessed in an excellent degree by classic polyphony … hence it has been found worthy of a place side by side with Gregorian chant” (TLS 4).

– Organic development: “Gregorian chant has always been regarded as the supreme model for sacred music, so that … the more closely a composition for church approaches in its move ment, inspiration and savor the Gregorian form, the more sacred and liturgical it becomes” (TLS 3). “The different parts of the Mass and the Office must retain, even musically, that particular concept and form which ecclesiastical tradition has assigned to them, and which is admirably brought out by Gregorian chant” (TLS 10).

The Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy, Sacrosanctum concilium (SC), of the Second Vatican Council devotes its Chapter VI to sacred music, basing it on these same principles and stating that its decrees were made “keeping to the norms and precepts of ecclesiastical tradition and discipline” (SC112).

Practical details of the liturgical reform called for by SC are given in a series of Instructions drafted by a group of bishops and liturgical experts called the Consilium, and promulgated by the Congregation of Rites. Among these is the 1967 Instruction Musicam sacram (MS), which explains the role of music in the reformed liturgy by “expounding more fully certain relevant principles of the Constitution on the Liturgy” (MS 2).

The principles of the Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy, like those of the earlier documents, promote the singing of Gregorian chant and sacred polyphony and preservation of the treasury of sacred music. Yet since the Council chant has been heard infrequently at Mass, and polyphony almost never. So again today the Prefect of the CDW finds it necessary to urge adoption of what the Vatican Council called for more than fifty years ago. Clearly SC Chapter VI and MS have not been adequately implemented. Why not?

The lack of implementation of MS has its roots in a conflict over how best to implement the participation asked for by TLS which developed in the decades before the Council. At that time there was a clear difference between two types of Masses. The Missa lecta, in which all texts were spoken, was the more frequently used form before the Council. The less common Missa in cantu, required that prescribed texts be sung. All liturgical texts, said or sung, were in Latin.

TLS favors a sung Mass, urging that the people participate by singing their parts in Gregorian chant. Some liturgists, however, viewed chant as ideal in theory, but pastorally impractical. They advocated singing vernacular hymns as the most suitable form of participation in ordinary parishes. They thus favored the read Mass, where devotional hymns in the vernacular were permitted.

Some who took this latter position eventually rejected chant even as an ideal, believing that Latin and the difficulty of chant were obstacles to people’s participation. This group stressed a congregation-centered approach, believing that the needs of the particular congregation, not the rite, determined the type of music to be used and the “ritual function” of each sung item. Thus they gave no special status to Gregorian chant or the traditional repertoire. We will refer to them as the “ritual-music” group. Those who accept the principles of TLS and emphasized the primacy of chant we will call the “sacred-music” group.

The best known treatment of the ritual-music position was published shortly before the Council by Joseph Gelineau. He asserted: “The celebration of worship is thus necessarily bound up with those who celebrate it. Its signs must be their signs, its modes of expression must be theirs.”2 Gelineau and others eventually formed an organization called Universa Laus which promotes the ritual-music position.

The two groups gave conflicting interpretations of the Council: the sacred-music group saw SC as in continuity with the earlier documents, but the ritual-music group interpreted SC as departing from previous principles and introducing a new “functional” definition of holiness.3 So controversy was to be expected when members of both groups served on the Consilium, drafting its instruction on music.

Work of the Consilium began in January 1965, and by April 26, 1966, ten drafts had been produced, none satisfactory to all. At this point Pope Paul VI intervened. Taking a draft acceptable to the ritual-music group and a revision acceptable to the sacred-music group, he produced a new text, using parts from both versions. The Pope’s revisions were incorporated into the final document, called Musicam sacram (Sacred Music), from its first two words in Latin, and promulgated on March 5, 1967.4

Supporters of the sacred-music position were generally happy with the final version. Monsignor Iginio Anglès, rector of the Pontifical Institute of Sacred Music in Rome said: “The Holy Father showed much personal interest in this instruction. Sometimes he accepted an article composed by the liturgists, though we were against it. But in spite of this, the fundamental principles of church music were preserved.”5

Musicam sacram in its final form is clearly, as it says, an explication of the Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy and, thus, of the principles of sacred music. Throughout the document, SC is cited repeatedly—32 times in all— including citations of eight of the 10 paragraphs of its Chapter VI on music. And it interprets SC in continuity with earlier documents.

The newer document repeats the purpose of sacred music as given in the Constitution as “the glory of God and the sanctification of the faithful”6 (MS 4). It reiterates the necessary characteristics of sacred music from TLS: “holiness and excellence of form” (MS 4a). It specifies that sacred music includes Gregorian chant, ancient and modern sacred polyphony, sacred music for the organ and sacred music of the people (MS 4b). It emphasizes the sung Mass, a proper arrangement of which “demands that the meaning and proper nature of each part and of each chant be carefully observed” (MS 6). Furthermore, “… in selecting the parts which are to be sung, one should start with those that are by their nature of greater importance, and especially those which are to be sung by the priest or by the ministers, with the people replying, or those which are to be sung by the priest and people together” (MS 7).

Musicam Sacram prescribes that the distinct types of Mass defined in the 1958 Instruction §3 are to be maintained (MS 28). These are the Missa lecta and two types of Missa in cantu: the Missa soelmnis in which the priest is assisted by a deacon and subdeacon, and the Missa cantata celebrated without the assisting ministers. And MS specifies: “For the celebration of the Eucharist with the people, especially on Sundays and feast days, sung Mass (Missa in cantu) is to be preferred as much as possible, even several times on the same day” (MS 27).

Recognizing that this would require a change from the common practice of the time, in which read Masses predominated, Musicam Sacram defines three degrees of participation for the particular case of the Missa cantata. The degrees are intended to make it “easier to make the celebration of Mass more beautiful by singing” (MS 28). Instead of requiring, as formerly, that all the parts that call for singing must be sung, the degrees allow for a gradual approach from a Missa lecta to a full Missa cantata.

The first degree includes the priest’s parts (greetings, dialogues, presidential prayers, etc.), the people’s responses, acclamations and the Sanctus. Kyrie, Gloria, Credo, Agnus Dei and the prayer of the faithful constitute degree two. Degree three includes the processional chants (Introit, Offertory, and Communion), and the chants between the readings. The second and third degrees may be used only in combination with the first. Note that only liturgical texts are included in the three degrees. Hymns are not mentioned.

However, hymns were permitted during a Missa lecta according to the 1958 Instruction 14b. MS allows this, but with an added provision that some parts of the Ordinary or Proper could be sung as well (MS 36). So the distinction between a read Mass and a sung Mass was somewhat blurred, and many people were not aware that there was a distinction between them.

The Instruction was to come into effect on May 14, 1967 (MS 69), and implementing it in the U.S. was the responsibility of what was then called the National Conference of Catholic Bishops (NCCB—now the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB)). There is no record of any formal decision about the implementation of MS by the NCCB.

However, in 1965 a Music Advisory Board had been appointed as consulters to the Bishops’ Committee on Liturgy (BCL), and in late 1966 they began to draft a document on music. The Music Advisory Board approved the completed document in November 1967. The seven-member BCL then approved the text, and published it in its Newsletter as “The Place of Music in Eucharistic Celebrations” (PMEC).7

Although it was published soon after MS, PMEC was not an official implementation of MS. For one thing, authority for implementation is given only to the full conference of bishops. Any legally binding decision requires a favorable vote of 2/3 of the full conference by secret ballot.8 But PMEC was never submitted to the full body of bishops, so it is not legislative, but simply a statement of the BCL. In fact PMEC itself says that “statements such as this must take the form of recommendations and attempts at guidance” (p. 115).

Furthermore, even a bishops’ conference has limitations on its authority. MS §12 defined the following limit on regulation of music: “It belongs to the Holy See alone to determine the more important general principles which are, as it were, the basis of sacred music, according to the norms handed down, but especially according to the Constitution on the Liturgy.”

An examination of the principles on which PMEC is based shows they do not correspond to the “norms handed down.” PMEC never speaks of “sacred music,” but simply of “music,” and it replaces the traditional sacred-music principles provided by Pope St. Pius X summarized above with the following:

– Purpose: “Music, more than any other resource, makes a celebration of the liturgy an attractive human experience” (p.117);

– Qualities: “Music in worship is a functional sign.… There are three judgments to be made about music in worship: musical, liturgical and pastoral” (p.117);

– Gregorian chant: Gregorian chant has no special status. Any piece of music, including each particular chant, must be judged by whether it enables “people to express their faith in this place, in this age, in this culture.” (p.118);

– Organic development: “[T]he customary distinction between the ordinary and proper parts of the Mass with regard to musical settings … is irrelevant. For this reason the musical settings of the past are usually not helpful models for composing truly contemporary pieces.” (p.117).

In addition, PMEC assumes a read Mass with “places to sing.” It never considers a Missa cantata or the degrees in MS, and has completely different priorities for most important things to sing.

These principles contrast strongly with those of Tra le Sollecitudini, Sacrosanctum Concilium, and Musicam Sacram, especially on the very purpose of music. In fact “The Place of Music in Eucharistic Celebrations” follows closely the congregation-centered principles of ritual music promoted by the musicians of Universa Laus. This is especially true of the musical, liturgical, and pastoral judgments, which are essentially taken from Gelineau and replace the judgment of holiness and goodness of form stressed in earlier documents.9

In this view PMEC reflects the opinions of the leaders of the project: Archbishop John Dearden of Detroit, Chairman of the BCL; Archabbot Rembert Weakland, OSB, Chairman of the Advisory Board; and Father Eugene Walsh of St. Mary’s Seminary in Baltimore, primary author. In his history of the US documents on music Father Edward Foley, Professor of Liturgy at Catholic Theological Union in Chicago, points out, “Dearden had aligned himself with a more progressive musical-liturgical view…reflected in the organization Universa Laus ….”10 And, Foley says, ArchabbotWeakland “recalls how close his thinking and that of other leaders in the United States was to that of Joseph Gelineau….”11 Father Walsh’s writings reflect the same principles. For example, he rejected the heritage of choral and instrumental Church music as “not suited to a worship that focuses on the celebrating community as the center of worship, a worship that sees the role of music primarily as service to the celebrating community rather than as service to the text.”12

Despite its status as merely providing “recommendations and attempts at guidance,” it was PMEC, not the more official MS, that was the chief influence on developments in US liturgical music after the Council. In fact Father Foley calls PMEC a “groundbreaking statement on music”13 and Monsignor Frederick McManus, Director of the BCL Secretariat at the time PMEC was written, said: “Probably no statement of the BCL has had the impact of this one….”14

These claims may be rather surprising since PMEC is no better known than MS today. But although the document itself is little-known, its principles remain prominent, primarily because a revised version, “Music in Catholic Worship” (MCW), was published in 1972. It had the same status as PMEC: “Revised by the committee on music of the Federation of Diocesan Liturgical Commissions and adopted by the Bishops’ Committee on the Liturgy, it is presented as background and guidelines for the proper role of music within the liturgy”15 (Emphasis mine).

MCW expanded on the earlier document and incorporated changes due to the new Missal and Lectionary. According to Father Foley, MCW was widely available, and was cited frequently in journals, but: “It was especially the mushrooming of training days, workshops, and certificate programs for so many volunteer liturgists and musicians in the 1970s that contributed to that document’s deep entrenchment in the pastoral musician’s psyche.”16 It seems MS was not presented. So volunteers, who usually had little or no training in sacred music, would know—and implement—only the ritual-music principles they learned in these workshops.

When MCW was published, revised liturgical books and directives were still being issued. So by 1979 the BCL had started the process of updating and expanding MCW to deal with recent liturgical developments. Eventually it was decided to simply issue a supplemental document, “Liturgical Music Today” (LMT), which was published in 1982. It shared the principles of its predecessors and stressed knowing the function of each “song” in the liturgy. It also took a negative stance on chant and polyphony, claiming that since the Council there had been “a massive change in the theory and practice of church music, a shift already detailed in Music in Catholic Worship” (49).

But Church musicians who valued true sacred music continued to point out the problems with “The Place of Music in Eucharistic Celebrations,” “Music in Catholic Worship,” and “Liturgical Music Today.” Therefore these documents were controversial from their publication, and grew increasingly so as the teachings of the Council were clarified during the papacy of St. John Paul II.

In an attempt to end the controversy the USCCB eventually decided to revise MCW, and present the new version for a vote by full Conference. The revision procedure included a consultation which brought together composers, publishers and representatives of organizations for liturgical music. Both traditional sacred-music and ritualmusic principles were represented, though ritual-music advocates were in the majority. Since the project was conceived as a revision of MCW, that document’s underlying ritual-music principles were apparently taken for granted, and the format did not really allow for a serious re-examinations of these principles.

The consultation clearly had some effect on the contents of the new document, published in 2007, “Sing to the Lord” (STL),17 which recommended more sacred-music practices than its predecessors had. It advocated singing Gregorian chant, chanting of the priest’s part and singing the Propers. But these recommendations were embedded in a document whose principles are entirely those of ritual music, which do not really support these practices.

The original plan was to submit STL to the Holy See for recognitio, which is now necessary for a document intended to be particular law for the US. But this idea was dropped before the vote was taken. Consequently the document was approved by the bishops’ conference simply as “non-binding guidelines.”18 So STL’s authority is no greater than that of its predecessors.

Father Anthony Ruff, OSB, who served on the committee entrusted with the writing of STL, observed that “STL has eased the fears of progressives” since it “clearly preserves the best insights of liturgical scholars and previous US documents.”19 Similarly, Father Foley notes STL “appears to be anything but a change in direction and truly emerges as an organic development from its predecessors.”20

So advocates of ritual music are satisfied, but sacred-music advocates are more critical. Helen Hitchcock, writing in Adoremus Bulletin21 noted that the guidelines were “inherently contradictory.” Thus, while the document offered “helpful suggestions toward a serious look at the heritage of sacred music,” it left intact “problematic elements from the old documents.” Consider, for example, the treatment of Latin in the document. It says that “care should be taken to foster the role of Latin in the Liturgy, particularly in liturgical song” (61). In particular at multicultural gatherings “it is most appropriate to celebrate the Liturgy in Latin” (62). It even says that all ages and all ethnic groups should learn certain specified Gregorian chants (75). And yet these strong recommendations are seriously weakened by the warning: “Whenever the Latin language poses an obstacle to singers…, it would be more prudent to employ a vernacular language in the Liturgy.”

William Mahrt, President of the Church Music Association of America, writing in that organization’s journal, Sacred Music, made similar points. He also noted that the most pervasive problem “is the anthropocentric focus upon the action of the congregation and its external participation, rather than being in balance with a theocentric focus upon giving glory to God.”22

Essentially these commentators agree that STL is based on the congregationcentered ritual-music principles of the earlier documents which have, for 50 years, eclipsed the sacred-music principles that Musicam sacram specified and were to guide the liturgical reform.

It is true, of course, as the earlier documents acknowledge, that the people’s capabilities must be considered when choosing music for a particular congregation. But the individual pieces of music chosen must already have been judged to have the characteristics of holiness and goodness of form. Unfortunately, too many Catholics, even those responsible for music in parishes, do not make this primary judgment because they have never been taught the traditional principles of sacred music.

As St. Pius X recognized over a century ago, a proper formation in the correct principles is the necessary foundation for a restoration of true sacred music in the liturgy. “When the clergy and their choirmasters clearly realize these principles, good Church music at once begins to flourish spontaneously…; on the other hand, when the principles are neglected, neither prayers …nor threats of canonical punishment succeed in improving matters; so easy it is…to elude the will of the Church and to continue year after year in the same regrettable manner.”23

As Cardinal Sarah said in the address quoted at the beginning of this article: “I wish to underline a very important fact here: God, not man is at the center of Catholic liturgy. We come to worship Him.”24

God must, therefore, be at the center of our liturgical music. Half a century ago the document Musicam sacram expounded the sacred-music principles which would lead to the necessary God-centered music. As the 50th anniversary of MS approaches, musicians, liturgy committees and pastors must rediscover this document and put into practice the principles of sacred music that it sets out. Only then will liturgical music serve its true purpose: the glory of God.

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


1. Cardinal Robert Sarah, “Towards an Authentic Implementation of Sacrosanctum Concilium,” Address to the Sacra Liturgia Conference, London, July 5, 2016, p. 22. https://drive.google.com/ file/d/0B8CZzED2HiWJNzdaOE9ycVI4ekU/ view?pref=2&pli=1 (Accessed August 10, 2016)

2. Joseph Gelineau, SJ, Voices and Instruments in Christian Worship: Laws, Principles, Applications Translated by Clifford Howell, SJ. (Collegeville, MN: The Liturgical Press, 1964) p. 128. (Originally published in French in 1962.)

3. For more on this interpretation see Susan Benofy, “What is Really Behind the Music ‘Style Wars’?” Adoremus Bulletin April 2013.

4. Annibale Bugnini, The Reform of the Liturgy 1949– 1975 Translated by Matthew J. O’Connell (Collegeville, MN: The Liturgical Press, 1990) pp. 898–914.

5. Monsignor Iginio Anglès, quoted in Monsignor Richard Schuler “A Chronicle of Reform” in Cum Angelis Canere (Catholic Church Music Associates, 1990) p. 376.

6. The translation of MS used in this article appeared in Sacred Music Vol. 94 #1 (Spring 1967), pp. 7–21.

7. Thirty-Five Years of the BCL Newsletter 1965–2000 (Washington, DC: United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, 2004) pp. 115–121. Page references to PMEC in the text refer to this volume.

8. See Inter oecumenici, Instruction on implementing liturgical norms, §10, §28.

9. Gelineau, who calls the three judgments aesthetic, ritual and pastoral. See Voices and Instruments, p. 192.

10. Edward Foley, A Lyrical Vision: The Music Documents of the US Bishops (Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 2009) p. 15.

11. Foley, Lyrical Vision, p. 40

12. Eugene Walsh, Practical Suggestion for Celebrating Sunday Mass (Glendale, AZ: Pastoral Arts Associates, 1978) pp. 62-63. See also his The Theology of Celebration, (Glendale, AZ: Pastoral Arts Associates, 1977).

13. Foley, Lyrical Vision, p. 22.

14. Frederick McManus, Thirty Years of Liturgical Renewal: Statements of the Bishops’ Committee on the Liturgy (Washington, DC: National Conference of Catholic Bishops, 1987), p. 92.

15. 35 Years of the BCL Newsletter, p. 337. (Emphasis added).

16. Foley, Lyrical Vision, p. 37

17. Sing to the Lord: Music in Divine Worship (Washington, DC: USCCB Publishing, 2008).

18. Newsletter of the Bishops’ Committee on Divine Worship August-September 2012, p. 29. (The BCL had been renamed Bishops’ Committee on Divine Worship in 2007.)

19. Anthony Ruff, USB, “Sing to the Lord: Gifts and Challenges”, in Perspectives on Sing to the Lord: Essays in Honor of Robert Hovda (Silver Spring, MD: NPM Publications, 2010), p. 3.

20. Foley, Lyrical Vision, p. 57.

21. Helen Hitchcock, “USCCB November Meeting — Bishops Approve Three Liturgy Items at Busy Baltimore Meeting” in Adoremus Bulletin Volume 13, #9 (December 2007–January 2008).

22. William Mahrt, “Sing to the Lord” in Sacred Music Volume 135, #1 (Spring 2008), p. 49.

23. Pope Pius X, Letter to Cardinal Respighi, 1903 in Robert Hayburn, Papal Legislation on Sacred Music 95 AD to 1977 AD (Harrison, NY: Roman Catholic Books) p. 232.

24. Sarah, p. 22.