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Ever Ancient—Ever New: Implementing Musicam Sacram Today

Part I: Renewal of Sacred Music in Continuity with the Past

On March 5th, 2017 the universal Church will commemorate the 50th anniversary of Musicam Sacram, the post-conciliar Instruction on Music in the Liturgy issued by the Holy See in the Spring of 1967. As Susan Benofy shows in the September 2016 edition of the Adoremus Bulletin,1 the Vatican sacred music instruction largely went unimplemented in the United States following its release, and today it continues to be largely unknown to liturgical musicians and clergy alike. The post-conciliar instruction, however, remains authoritative and has lost nothing of its value. Just as the Church has been undertaking a process of mature reflection upon the fruits of the implementation of the Second Vatican Council in recent years at the distance of a half century, it also seems opportune to undertake a re-reading of Musicam Sacram and to implement its timeless principles in our parishes today.

The Instruction on Music in the Liturgy has already begun to see something of a resurgence over the past decade. The implementation of the Roman Missal, Third Edition, in addition to the publication of a number of new liturgical and musical resources, have helped parishes of even the most humble means begin singing the Mass in the way that Musicam Sacram describes. Efforts in education and practical training have also been on the rise. Most recently, the Diocese of Lincoln, NE, held its first annual “Sacred Music Clinic” this past August where over 230 parish liturgical musicians from around the diocese were offered formation in the principles enumerated by Musicam Sacram. Though most participants were volunteers with modest abilities and varying levels of experience, everyone participated in both a fully sung Morning Prayer and concluding Mass, and were equipped with knowledge of the Church’s principles on sacred music and the liturgy as well as with the skills and resources to help make it a reality, bit by bit, in their parishes. Having been involved in this conference, along with dozens more like it in parishes and dioceses around the country over the past several years, I am convinced that the Church in America is ready and hungering for a deeper renewal of sacred music, and that a faithful implementation of the principles and directives of Musicam Sacram will be the key to this renewal.

Renewal in Continuity with the Past

Musicam Sacram was released by the Concilium that was established to implement the Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy of the Second Vatican Council. The Instruction describes itself as a “continuation and complement of the preceding Instruction…for the correct implementation of the Liturgy Constitution” (MS 3) of 1964, Inter Oecumenici.2 Musicam Sacram “expound[s] more fully certain relevant principles of the Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy” (MS 3), particularly those contained in its sixth chapter which is fully dedicated to sacred music. Musicam Sacram, then, not only bears magisterial weight and authority, but also is part of the Church’s formal effort to ensure a right implementation of the Council’s teaching on the sacred liturgy. It remains today the Church’s official instruction on sacred music.

The liturgy constitution’s chapter on sacred music is relatively brief, being comprised of only nine articles. In the first article of chapter six, the constitution praises the musical tradition of the Church, calling it a “treasure of inestimable value, greater even than that of any other art” (SC 112). The document places itself within the context of the Church’s living tradition, recalling the recent Roman pontiffs—particularly Pope St. Pius X—who further developed the Church’s understanding of sacred music in the twentieth century. Before proceeding with its decrees on sacred music, the liturgy constitution states that what follows is “keeping to the norms and precepts of ecclesiastical tradition and discipline” (SC 112). It then proceeds to synthesize the Church’s teaching on sacred music as it developed from Pius X up through the Council,3 and enshrines it permanently in a constitution of an ecumenical council. The extent of this continuity is vividly shown in the footnotes included in the working drafts of the document during the Council.4

Similarly, Musicam Sacram states at the outset that it “does not… gather together all the legislation on sacred music” (MS 3). It does not claim to be a “juridical code of sacred music” as Tra le Sollecitudini of Pius X does (TLS par. 3), or to “put together…all the main points on sacred liturgy, sacred music and the pastoral advantages of both” as De Musica Sacra et Sacra Liturgia does (DMSSL 3). It is clear in both the liturgy constitution and Musicam Sacram that this work has already been done, and neither document attempts to replicate or abrogate it. The Instruction on Music in the Liturgy instead only “establishes the principal norms which seem most necessary for our day” (MS 3), in relation to what the Church has already taught and previously expressed. It must be read, then, in light of the Church’s continuous teaching on the subject.

The principles elaborated by Musicam Sacram are as relevant to our day as they were in 1967, and they are just as necessary. A full understanding of these principles requires not only that we take into account the Church’s continuous teaching, but also that we understand their role within the context of our contemporary situation. Central to the Second Vatican Council’s teaching is the conviction that the liturgy is the source and summit of the whole of the Church’s life and missionary activity.5 Since sacred music is not merely a decorative or incidental part of the liturgical celebration, but “forms a necessary or integral part of the solemn liturgy” (SC 112), the implementation of Musicam Sacram today is a critical task in our efforts for a new evangelization.

What is Sacred Music?

At the outset, Musicam Sacram states the principal purpose of sacred music, which is “the glory of God and the sanctification of the faithful” (MS 4). This definition comes from the Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy (See SC 112) which took the definition directly from Pope St. Pius X’s 1903 Motu Proprio, Tra le Sollecitudini.6 The purpose of sacred music, according to Pius X, is the same as the purpose of the liturgy itself. The liturgy gives glory to God because it is Christ’s perfect prayer to the Father, “performed by the Mystical Body of Christ, that is, by the Head and His members…, an exercise of the priestly office of Jesus Christ” (SC 7). When the faithful fully and actively participate in this prayer of Christ that glorifies God, they are in turn sanctified and filled with heavenly grace. Sacred music, according to Musicam Sacram, has no other purpose than to deeply engage the Church in the prayer of Christ that glorifies the Father and that in turn sanctifies the Mystical Body of Christ.

Both Musicam Sacram and Sacrosanctum Concilium rely upon the 1903 Motu Proprio in many ways, especially when both documents speak of sacred music’s needed qualities. While the liturgy constitution states that the Church admits “all forms of true art having the needed qualities” (SC 112) into divine worship, it doesn’t in fact list what these qualities are. The reason for this omission is that these qualities have already been defined by Pius X and were well known and understood at the time of the Council. Tra le sollecitudini states: “Sacred music should consequently possess, in the highest degree, 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). These three qualities proper to sacred music—holiness, goodness of form (i.e., beauty), and universality—are reiterated by Musicam Sacram, which says, “By sacred music is understood that which, being created for the celebration of divine worship, is endowed with a certain holy sincerity of form” (MS 4a).

The quality of universality is not mentioned explicitly by Musicam Sacram, but this is not necessary since it is already established that universality is spontaneously produced by holiness and sincerity of form. Sacrosanctum Concilium also states positively that the category of holiness requires music not only to be free of profane7 influence in its composition or execution, but that it be intimately connected to the liturgical action,8 echoing once again St. Pius X.9

In summary, sacred music—as expressed by Musicam Sacram in continuity with the Church’s continuous teaching—is:

  1. Sacred song united to the words [of the liturgy] that forms a necessary or integral part of the solemn liturgy (SC 112).
  2. For the purpose of the glory of God and the sanctification of the faithful, which is the same purpose as the liturgy itself (See TLS 1, SC 112, MS 4).
  3. Endowed with a holiness that excludes the profane and is instead intimately connected with the liturgical action (See TLS 2, SC 112).
  4. True art that possesses a goodness or sincerity of form—that is beautiful (See TLS 3, SC 112, MS 4).
  5. Universal, meaning that while “the Church approves of all forms of true art having the needed qualities, and admits them into divine worship,” (SC 112; See TLS 2) “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 on hearing them” (TLS 2).

The purpose and qualities of sacred music as articulated and upheld within Musicam Sacram can guide our efforts of liturgical and musical renewal today. Before choosing the music that is sung in the liturgy, we should ask ourselves: Is it integral to the liturgy and the liturgical action, or is it vague, merely functional or superfluous to it? Does it contribute to the glory of God and are the faithful of my parish growing in holiness as a result of it? Is it holy and free of references to the profane and secular? Is it truly beautiful, or is it merely utility music? Is it universal to the extent that any other culture will see it as good and holy? Is the music that is sung in the liturgy truly sacred music?

Kinds of Sacred Music

Musicam Sacram defines what kinds of music come under the title of sacred music. It provides the following list: (See MS 4)

  1. Gregorian chant
  2. Sacred polyphony in its various forms both ancient and modern
  3. Sacred music for the organ and other approved instruments
  4. Sacred popular music, be it liturgical or simply religious

The footnote following this list refers the reader to a document released nine years earlier, and only four years before the opening of the Council: the Instruction De Musica Sacra et Sacra Liturgia. This document also produces such a list, but additionally provides further commentary on the use of these different kinds of music (DMSSL 4-10) which should be referenced when reading Musicam Sacram.

The first kind of music mentioned is Gregorian chant. The liturgy constitution states that “The Church acknowledges Gregorian chant as specially suited to the Roman liturgy: therefore, other things being equal, it should be given the main place in liturgical services.” 10 Musicam Sacram reiterates the primacy of Gregorian chant as expressed by the Council and as codified by the General Instruction of the Roman Missal. Though the Instruction incidentally places this conciliar directive under the heading “in sung liturgical services celebrated in Latin,” the Constitution and GIRM make no such requirement, just as Musicam Sacram itself states that “[t]here is nothing to prevent different parts in one and the same celebration being sung in different languages” (MS 51). At a bare minimum, the Instruction reiterates the Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy’s requirement that “[p]astors of souls should take care that besides the vernacular ‘the faithful may also be able to say or sing together in Latin those parts of the Ordinary of the Mass which pertain to them’” (MS 47).

Many of our parishes today have made progress in this area, learning to sing at least the Kyrie, Sanctus and Agnus Dei—and in many places much more—in the simplest Gregorian chant settings,11 just as scholas and choirs in parishes and cathedrals alike have increased their use of the more elaborate Gregorian chant propers found in the Church’s choir book, the Graduale Romanum. The primacy of Gregorian chant was strongly asserted by Tra le sollecitudini, which called it “the chant proper to the Roman Church…which she directly proposes to the faithful as her own…,” as well as “the supreme model for sacred music” (TLS 3). Sacrosanctum Concilium, Musicam Sacram, and the GIRM have upheld this primacy and a renewal of sacred music in our day must take Gregorian chant as its starting point and center of gravity.

The second kind of music mentioned by Musicam Sacram is sacred polyphony, both ancient and modern, which is also specifically mentioned by the liturgy constitution as being second to Gregorian chant in the category of sacred music (SC 116). The 1958 instruction on which Musicam Sacram relies defines polyphony as “measured music which arose from the tradition of Gregorian chant. It is choral music written in many voice-parts, and sung without instrumental accompaniment. It began to flourish in the Latin Church in the Middle Ages, and reached its height in the art of Giovanni Pierluigi Palestrina (1524-1594) in the latter half of the sixteenth century; distinguished musicians of our time still cultivate this art…. When [polyphony] is composed specifically for liturgical use it must be animated by a spirit of devotion and piety; only on this condition can it be admitted as suitable accompaniment for these services” (DMSSL 6-7).

Adam Bartlett directs the choir during Lincoln’s recent Sacred Music Clinic.
Adam Bartlett directs the choir during Lincoln’s recent Sacred Music Clinic.

Tra le sollecitudini also says that classic polyphony “agrees admirably with Gregorian Chant, the supreme model of all sacred music” and that “it has been found worthy of a place side by side with Gregorian Chant…” (TLS 4). In our own efforts of liturgical renewal today, the polyphonic tradition certainly has much to offer, both in its own right and as a model for new musical composition. It demonstrates one of the most excellent ways that the sacred music tradition has organically developed new musical forms out of those already existing, namely Gregorian chant.

Next, Musicam Sacram lists sacred music for the organ and other approved instruments, echoing Sacrosanctum Concilium 120. The primacy of the organ is constant in the Church’s teaching on sacred music, whether as a solo instrument or for the accompaniment of singing. Pope Pius X reminds us, however, that fundamentally “the music proper to the Church is purely vocal music” (TLS 15), and the primary liturgical instrument, therefore, is the human voice. As Musicam Sacram states, however, other instruments may also be used in the liturgy, of which the organ is the first. The organ is primary because it mirrors the anatomy and process of human vocal production, which produces sound through breath. The renewal of sacred music in our day should give prominence to the organ as the model of instrumental music and accompaniment in the liturgy.

The fourth and final kind of music listed by Musicam Sacram is sacred popular music, be it liturgical or simply religious. Once again, the Instruction relies upon previous definitions provided by the Church in order to understand this category of sacred music. Firstly, it should be understood that the term “popular” does not connote secular “pop” music as we define it today, or music that is culturally “popular” in the sense of being fashionable. The sense of “popular” music in Musicam Sacram is music that is sung by the people, as opposed to by the ministers or choir alone.

The term “liturgical” music used by Musicam Sacram, strictly speaking, refers to music that sets the liturgical text to music (See TLS 7-9), as it is given in the Church’s liturgical books, whether it is the text of the Order of Mass, the Ordinary of the Mass, or the antiphons and Psalms of the Proper of the Mass. The Roman Missal and Graduale Romanum provide musical settings for all of the texts of the liturgy that are meant to be sung, as found in their normative Gregorian chant settings.

Music that is “simply religious” refers to a kind of popular music that is essentially non-liturgical in its purpose. Religious music is “any music which, either by the intention of the composer or by the subject or purpose of the composition, serves to arouse devotion and religious sentiments” (DMSSL 10). Such music “is an effective aid to religion” (ibid.) according to the definition of the 1958 instruction. This kind of sacred music is “very effective in fostering the devotion of the faithful in celebrations of the word of God, and in popular devotions,” (MS 46) according to Musicam Sacram. This support for religious music echoes the liturgy constitution’s statement that “[p]opular devotions of the Christian people are to be highly commended” (SC 13) in order to deepen and foster faith, and in order to help “the faithful come to [the liturgy] with proper dispositions” (SC 11). Strictly speaking, religious music “is not to be used during liturgical ceremonies” (DMSSL 10) but is more suited to devotional use.

Hymns lie on the boundary between liturgical popular music and religious music. The hymn has a deep history in the sacred liturgy as a constitutive part of the Liturgy of the Hours; however, the use of the hymn during Mass is relatively recent. Musicam Sacram allows for the modern custom of replacing the texts of the Mass at the Entrance, Offertory, and Communion to continue according to the judgment of the competent territorial authority (MS 32), yet the same Concilium that composed Musicam Sacram clarified in a dubium response in 1969 that the “rule [permitting vernacular hymns] has been superseded. What must be sung is the Mass, its Ordinary and Proper, not ‘something,’ no matter how consistent, that is imposed on the Mass…. To continue to replace the texts of the Mass…is to cheat the people…. Thus texts must be those of the Mass, not others, and singing means singing the Mass not just singing during Mass.”12 The GIRM, however, does allow for hymns to be sung at certain moments, such as following the distribution of Communion (See GIRM 88). Similarly, GIRM 48, 74 and 87 allow for the singing of another liturgical chant in place of the proper antiphon, which in common custom has often taken the form of a hymn, along with a hymn at the conclusion of Mass. But this custom—a holdover from the recited low Mass prior to the Council—does not appear to be the hope of the Council Fathers or Musicam Sacram, as evidenced in the Concilium’s dubium response.

The music of the liturgy sacramentalizes the hosts of angels and saints in heaven who ceaselessly sing praise and adoration to God and to the Lamb, as depicted here by Hans Memling (d.1494).
The music of the liturgy sacramentalizes the hosts of angels and saints in heaven who ceaselessly sing praise and adoration to God and to the Lamb, as depicted here by Hans Memling (d.1494).

An implementation of Musicam Sacram today will involve an increase in singing the texts of the liturgy as the Church appoints them in the liturgical books, both by the people and, at times, by the choir alone. It also will involve fostering the singing of hymns and other religious songs in their proper places within the Liturgy of the Hours and in the devotional life, as a preparation for participation in the liturgy.

Why Sing the Liturgy?

Musicam Sacram offers a beautiful reflection on various reasons why the liturgy should be sung, recalling the Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy’s teaching that “[l]iturgical worship is given a more noble form when it is celebrated in song…” (MS 5; Cf. SC 113) and elaborating upon it. The Instruction offers five concrete reasons why the sung liturgy is the preferred form of celebration.

First, “through [the sung liturgy], prayer is expressed in a more attractive way…” (MS 5). Beauty, according to St. Thomas, is the veritatis splendor—the splendor of the truth, or the truth’s attractive power. When the liturgy is sung, it is made more beautiful and it more easily attracts souls toward participation in the reality that the liturgy expresses.

Second, “the mystery of the liturgy, with its hierarchical and community nature, is more openly shown…” when sung (MS 5). Every part of the Mystical Body of Christ has a liturgical role proper to it, and the manner and style of each sung part is distinct. This distinction is lost when the texts of the liturgy are merely spoken. The mystery of the liturgy is more clearly revealed by the layer of musical commentary that the melodies of the liturgy place upon the liturgical text.

Third, “the unity of hearts is more profoundly achieved by the union of voices…” (MS 5). The chant of the liturgy is fundamentally music that is sung in unison. The unity of sound in the sung liturgy is both a symbol of and an aid to the unity of hearts and minds that the liturgy requires. In the liturgy it is Christ who prays to the Father in the unity of the Holy Spirit. The unity of voices in song more clearly expresses this reality and more deeply enables participation in it.

Fourth, “minds are more easily raised to heavenly things by the beauty of the sacred rites…” (MS 5). Once again, Musicam Sacram reiterates the importance of beauty in the liturgy. Beauty is not mere decoration in the liturgy but is an active agent that helps the faithful transcend the cares and concerns of the world and directs them toward the things of heaven, in which they give glory to God and are filled with heavenly grace.

Fifth, “the whole celebration more clearly prefigures that heavenly liturgy which is enacted in the holy city of Jerusalem” (MS 5). The music of the liturgy sacramentalizes the hosts of angels and saints in heaven who ceaselessly sing praise and adoration to God and to the Lamb. Through liturgical chant, fallen human speech—the effect of Babel—is restored and made a symbol of the heavenly perfection toward which the pilgrim Church is journeying.

It is for these reasons that Musicam Sacram recommends the sung form of the liturgy as its normal form of celebration, and states that “[p]astors of souls will therefore do all they can to achieve this form of celebration” (MS 5).

The second part of this series on implementing Musicam Sacram today will explore the principle of Progressive Solemnity: Musicam Sacram’s plan for sung liturgy in every parish.


Adam Bartlett is a composer and conductor of Catholic sacred music and serves as President and Editor of Illuminare Publications. He is composer and editor of Simple English Propers, and editor of the Lumen Christi Missal, Lumen Christi Simple Gradual, and Lumen Christi Hymnal. Active as a speaker, teacher, writer and clinician, Adam speaks and presents on topics of liturgy, music, and the new evangelization throughout the United States and English-speaking world. He resides in Denver, CO, with his wife and two daughters.


  1. Susan Benofy, “The Instruction Musicam Sacram after Fifty Years: Rediscovering the Principles of Sacred Music,” Adoremus Bulletin, pp. 1, 4-5, September 2016.
  2. Four more “instructions for the right implementation of Sacrosanctum Concilium” after Inter Oecumenici were released in the following decades by the same congregation, the latest of which was Liturgiam Authenticam, promulgated in 2001, on principles of liturgical translation.
  3. Most notably: Tra le Sollecitudini (1903), Divini Cultus (1928), Mediator Dei (1947), Musicae Sacrae Disciplina (1955), and De Musica Sacra et Sacra Liturgia (1958).
  4. See “Footnotes for a Hermeneutic of Continuity: Sacrosanctum Concilium’s Vanishing Citations”, Adoremus Bulletin Vol. XXI, No. 1, pp. 8-9, https://www.adoremus.org/AdoremusSpring2015.pdf. The online edition also includes the whole of Sacrosanctum Concilium with the citations including full texts of the sources that were included in the Council’s working drafts of the document. The sixth chapter on sacred music, with pertinent passages from the early 20th century liturgy and music documents, can be found on pages 26-31.
  5. See Sacrosanctum Concilium, art. 10; Cf. Sacramentum Caritatis, art. 84
  6. Tra le Sollecitudini, art. 1: “Sacred music, being a complementary part of the solemn liturgy, participates in the general scope of the liturgy, which is the glory of God and the sanctification and edification of the faithful.”
  7. In the sense of the Latin word “profanus,” meaning “outside the temple,” pro (meaning “before”) + fanum (meaning “temple”).
  8. Sacrosanctum Concilium, art. 112: “Therefore sacred music is to be considered the more holy in proportion as it is more closely connected with the liturgical action, whether it adds delight to prayer, fosters unity of minds, or confers greater solemnity upon the sacred rites.
  9. Tra le Sollecitudini, art. 1: “[Sacred music] contributes to the decorum and the splendor of the ecclesiastical ceremonies, and since its principal office is to clothe with suitable melody the liturgical text proposed for the understanding of the faithful, its proper aim is to add greater efficacy to the text, in order that through it the faithful may be the more easily moved to devotion and better disposed for the reception of the fruits of grace belonging to the celebration of the most holy mysteries.”
  10. See SC 116. Emphasis added. The translation used here reflects the translation of the words “principem locum obtineat” given in the 2011 edition of the General Instruction of the Roman Missal, which reads: “The main place should be given, all things being equal, to Gregorian chant, as being proper to the Roman Liturgy” (GIRM 41). This translation, updated according to the principles of Liturgiam Authenticam, is more literally faithful to the Latin text of Sacrosanctum Concilium. The Latin phrase “principem locum”, meaning, literally, “first place” has been commonly rendered as “pride of place” in the years preceding the most recent GIRM, which tends to weaken its significance.
  11. These settings can be found in the booklet Iubilate Deo, issued in 1974 by Pope Paul VI to the bishops of the world as a personal gift. It contains a “minimum repertoire of Gregorian chant” in response to the request of the Council in Sacrosanctum Concilium art. 54. The entire booklet can be downloaded in PDF form at http://www.ceciliaschola.org/pdf/jubilateb.pdf.
  12. Notitiae 5 [1969] 406; Cf. BCL Newsletter, Volume XXIX, August-Sept 1993, paragraph 9-11.
Adam Bartlett

Adam Bartlett

Adam Bartlett is a composer, conductor and teacher of Catholic sacred music and editor of liturgical and musical resources, and serves as President and Editor of Illuminare Publications. He received his B.A. degree in Music from Arizona State University, studied Gregorian chant as an apprentice to Dom Columba Kelly, OSB, of St. Meinrad Archabbey, and received his M.A. degree in Liturgical Studies from the Liturgical Institute of the University of St. Mary of the Lake. He is the composer and editor of Simple English Propers (CMAA, 2011), and is the editor of the Lumen Christi Series (Illuminare Publications, 2012-2016).