Ever Ancient—Ever New: Implementing <i>Musicam Sacram</i> Today: Part II
Jan 12, 2017

Ever Ancient—Ever New: Implementing Musicam Sacram Today: Part II

Part II: Progressive Solemnity, Musicam Sacram’s Plan for Sung Liturgy in Every Parish

Editor’s Note: The first part of this series appeared in the November issue of Adoremus Bulletin, entitled “Ever Ancient–Ever New: Implementing Musicam Sacram Today: Renewal of Sacred Music in Continuity with the Past.

Prior to the 1967 Instruction Musicam Sacram, liturgical norms maintained a clear distinction between two basic forms of celebration of the Mass: “the sung Mass (Missa in cantu), and the read Mass (Missa lecta), commonly called low Mass.”1 According to these norms, the sung Mass requires that all the words of the Mass be sung—including its Order, Ordinary, and Proper—while the read Mass requires that all the words of the Mass be spoken and not sung. Musicam Sacram maintains this distinction as it is defined in the 1958 Instruction (De Musica Sacra et Sacra Liturgia), but it also allows for varying degrees of singing the liturgy between these two strict forms of celebration in order that “it may become easier [for parishes] to make the celebration of Mass more beautiful by singing, according to the capabilities of each congregation” (MS 28).

The principle of progressive solemnity thus enters the Church’s official liturgical documentation for the first time through Musicam Sacram, though the concept has a deep history in the liturgical tradition. This principle is first articulated at the Instruction’s outset, saying: “Between the solemn, fuller form of liturgical celebration, in which everything that demands singing is in fact sung, and the simplest form, in which singing is not used, there can be various degrees according to the greater or lesser place allotted to singing” (MS 7). This principle is foundational for Musicam Sacram and is applied variously throughout the document. Progressive solemnity, as put forth by the sacred music instruction, is a pastoral and practical tool that seeks to enable every parish—no matter its size, resources, capabilities or present pastoral realities—to begin singing the liturgy with integrity and to establish the sung liturgy universally as its normal form of celebration.

The Meaning of Progressive Solemnity

Progressive solemnity is commonly understood today as a coordination of the quantity and complexity of the music sung in the liturgy with the rank or degree of the solemnity of the liturgy itself. While this definition is not necessarily incorrect, it is most certainly incomplete from the vantage point of Musicam Sacram. On the one hand, the document states, “celebrations which are singled out by the liturgy in the course of the liturgical year as being of special importance, may be solemnized by singing” (MS 44). It instructs that the more solemn or privileged celebrations and seasons, especially Holy Week, should be “given due solemnity” (ibid.) by the use of sacred music in order to reflect the degree of solemnity held by the liturgical rites themselves. On the other hand, however, Musicam Sacram also states that “[i]t should be borne in mind that the true solemnity of liturgical worship depends less on a more ornate form of singing and a more magnificent ceremonial than on its worthy and religious celebration, which takes into account the integrity of the liturgical celebration itself, and the performance of each of its parts according to their own particular nature” (MS 11, emphasis added).

The first sense of the meaning of solemnity, then, corresponds to the level of festivity or importance given to a particular liturgical celebration, and also to the sophistication and magnificence of the music and ceremonial that accompanies it. Musicam Sacram affirms this sense of solemnity, saying that “to have a more ornate form of singing and a more magnificent ceremonial is at times desirable when there are the resources available to carry them out properly” (MS 11). Historically, the resources needed to carry out the more ornate and solemn forms of sacred music that the Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy calls “a treasure of inestimable value, greater even than that of any other art” (SC 112) have been mostly found in basilicas, cathedrals, monasteries and other major churches, and it was here primarily that the sacred music tradition thrived and developed. This solemn form of celebration sets the full text of the liturgy to song in the most ornate forms of Gregorian chant, polyphony, and other forms of choral music. These repertoires—however beautiful—usually require highly trained professionals in order to execute them well. Musicam Sacram upholds this tradition, in accord with Sacrosanctum Concilium, and affirms it, stating that large choirs “which have in the course of centuries earned for themselves high renown by preserving and developing a musical heritage of inestimable value, should be retained for sacred celebrations of a more elaborate kind, according to their own traditional norms…” (MS 20). This form of solemn celebration of the liturgy is proposed as a kind of model form of celebration, perhaps because it sacramentally shows forth more clearly the hidden reality of what the liturgy is: an actual participation in and a foretaste of “that heavenly liturgy which is celebrated in the holy city of Jerusalem toward which we journey as pilgrims, where Christ is sitting at the right hand of God, a minister of the holies and of the true tabernacle…” (SC 8). The more solemn, ornate form of celebration, then, has served—and ought to continue to serve—as an ideal form of liturgical celebration: a model upheld in larger churches and basilicas, and in cathedral churches centered around the liturgical celebrations of the bishop, especially on the more solemn feasts of the liturgical year.

The Church in her wisdom understands, however, that this more solemn form of celebration is not—and historically has not always been—achievable in smaller churches where fewer resources are available to carry it out. It is in this spirit that Musicam Sacram illustrates a second sense of the word solemnity, which more broadly applies to every liturgical celebration that the Church carries out, whether in an urban cathedral or a country parish—whether in a prison compound or an airport chapel. It states that “true solemnity of liturgical worship depends less on a more ornate form of singing and a more magnificent ceremonial than on its worthy and religious celebration, which takes into account the integrity of the liturgical celebration itself, and the performance of each of its parts according to their own particular nature” (MS 11). This “integrity” of liturgical celebration hearkens to St. Thomas’ three qualities of beauty, which are integritas, claritas, and consonantia. A truly beautiful celebration of the liturgy, Musicam Sacram seems to suggest, relies not so much on the ornateness of its celebration—all things being equal—as it does on the integrity of the celebration as a whole (integritas), to the balance and relationship between its different parts (consonantia), and to its ability to clearly reveal the realities that the liturgy expresses and communicates through sacramental signs (claritas). Seen in this way, parishes with modest means can celebrate the liturgy solemnly in song, even in a simplified manner that is appropriate to their abilities and capacities. They can prioritize their musical resources according to the liturgical priorities of the liturgical year, focusing greater resources on more privileged feasts and seasons, and lessening them on less solemn celebrations. Musicam Sacram offers parishes pastoral tools to celebrate the liturgy with true solemnity, in the second sense of the word—with an integrity that preserves and ensures worthy celebration, and that allows a sung form of the liturgy to be carried out in every parish “as much as possible, even several times on the same day” (MS 27).

The word progressive also has significant meaning that is often misunderstood today. A dictionary definition of the word is “happening or developing gradually or in stages.”2 In one sense of the word progressive, Musicam Sacram allows for parishes to begin progressively singing the various parts of the Mass in stages, beginning with the most important parts and leading into the more complex. Yet it also suggests a pastoral sense of the word progressive, which allows parishes to grow and further develop its musical life progressively over the course of time. As the document states, “through suitable instruction and practices, the people should be gradually led to a fuller—indeed, to a complete—participation in those parts of the singing which pertain to them” (MS 16). It is here that the true nature of “pastoral music” can be discerned. While pastoral practice requires taking into account “capabilities of each congregation” at the present time (see MS 28, 45 and 47), it cannot be allowed to simply remain there: pastoral practice also requires that the congregation be led, gradually, to a fuller or even complete participation in the sung liturgy as the Church envisions it. The nature of a shepherd is one who leads his flock. The pastoral nature of music that Musicam Sacram presents shows forth a musical and liturgical ideal toward which every parish should strive, and yet equips each with the tools needed to celebrate the liturgy with integrity where it is while striving toward and taking its bearings from that ideal. Even more, Musicam Sacram assists parishes in the pastoral work of deepening its musical celebration over the course of time with the help of progressive solemnity.

Priorities in Choosing the Parts to be Sung

Musicam Sacram presents a pastoral tool of great value to parishes through an illustration of three degrees of importance in the celebration of the sung liturgy.3 This schema and model for the introduction of the sung Mass can help pastors facilitate a gradual implementation of the sung liturgy, with pastoral sensitivity, over time. Beyond this, these degrees of participation demonstrate the Eucharistic liturgy’s musical priorities. As Musicam Sacram states, and as the General Instruction of the Roman Missal reiterates, “in selecting the parts which are to be sung, one should start with those that are by their nature of greater importance.”4 The GIRM does not elaborate much further on what these degrees of importance actually are. In order to find them, one must turn to Musicam Sacram. This sacred music instruction states that these three degrees “are so arranged that the first may be used even by itself, but the second and third, wholly or partially, may never be used without the first. In this way the faithful will be continually led towards an ever greater participation in the singing” (MS 28).5

The first degree, essentially, contains the parts of the Order of Mass, which consist of the dialogues and responses between the priest, ministers and the people, in addition to the orations of the priest (the Collect, Prayer over the Offerings, and Prayer after Communion). It also includes the Sanctus, which while traditionally grouped with the elements of the second degree, is placed by Musicam Sacram in the first degree because of its supreme importance. The musical settings of the Order of Mass, in addition to the proper tones for the orations, are contained within the Roman Missal. The Roman Missal, Third Edition, fully notates every part of the Order of Mass including its many Prefaces, reiterating the primacy of the sung Order of Mass as the foundational song of the liturgy. In our own day, the Church continues to stress the importance of singing this unchanging framework of the Mass, a framework which is set in the simplest musical forms, and is well within the capabilities of any priest and congregation.

The second degree contains the parts of the Ordinary of the Mass (excepting the Sanctus which is elevated to the first degree), consisting of the Kyrie, Gloria, Creed, (Sanctus) and Agnus Dei. This degree also includes the Prayer of the Faithful. As with the Order of Mass, the Church provides numerous musical settings of the Mass Ordinary in the liturgical books themselves.6 The majority of these chant settings can be sung easily by congregations, especially those found in the post-conciliar Kyriale Simplex.7 Musicam Sacram allows for the Ordinary of the Mass to be sung in “musical settings written for several voices” by the choir alone “as long as the people are not completely excluded from taking part in the singing” (MS 33). The Mass Ordinary can also be sung in different musical settings, and composers through the last several hundred years have set these texts to music. However, Musicam Sacram upholds Gregorian chant as being the proper music of the Roman liturgy (MS 50), and affirms the Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy’s requirement that the faithful should “also be able to say or sing together in Latin those parts of the Ordinary of the Mass which pertain to them” (MS 47).

The third degree contains what Musicam Sacram and the liturgical books call the Proper of the Mass,8 which consists of the chants at the Entrance, Offertory, and Communion processions, and the Responsorial Psalm (Gradual) and Alleluia with its Verse. This degree also includes the readings of Sacred Scripture for which the liturgical books also provide musical tones, although they may equally be suited to proclamation without singing. The Proper of the Mass is comprised of scriptural antiphons and responsories that are sung in alternation with verses from the Psalms and other books from scripture. The Proper falls in the third category of Musicam Sacram’s three degrees of importance, perhaps, because it is the most diverse and complex part of the sung liturgy, with “proper” (i.e., unique) texts being appointed for virtually every day of the liturgical year. In contrast with the first degree (in which the same words and melodies are sung from day to day) and the second degree (where the words are always the same yet musical settings tend to vary), the third degree is an immense repertoire, and for this reason it has been historically sung by the highly trained schola cantorum.

The Church, therefore, places the Proper in the final degree of importance for the sung liturgy, but this does not imply that the Mass Proper is unimportant. The degrees established by Musicam Sacram are primarily directed toward fostering congregational singing. The Proper, then, is the last part of the Mass which should be sung by the congregation, after it can sing the Order and Ordinary of the Mass successfully. In this way, the schola cantorum can exercise its role, a part of which is to “ensure the proper performance of the parts which belong to it, according to the different kinds of music sung” (MS 19). This role and these parts are found principally in the Proper of the Mass, and are contained in the post-conciliar liturgical book the Graduale Romanum.9 Despite this, Musicam Sacram states that “it is desirable that the assembly of the faithful should participate in the songs of the Proper as much as possible, especially through simple responses and other suitable settings” (MS 33). This participation, ideally, takes place after the assembly sings the other parts of the Mass well. Still, with this directive, the Instruction provides parishes with yet another pastoral tool. Since some parishes—in fact most parishes—often find themselves without the resources to sing the full Mass Proper as it is found in the Graduale Romanum, the ability to sing the proper antiphons of the Mass in other—and perhaps also simpler—musical settings is a tremendous gift to parishes and a substantial aid in the task of bringing about a sung liturgy in every parish. Further, Musicam Sacram suggests that “simple responses” might follow the singing of the full appointed antiphons sung by the schola cantorum or cantor. Such responses might set to music an excerpt from the proper antiphon, or from its Psalm, or even a seasonal antiphon that all of the faithful can repeat often throughout the year and easily sing from memory. This tool can be of great help to parishes with few resources in the task of singing the liturgy. In our own day, these tools are assisting many parishes in beginning to sing the Mass as Musicam Sacram and Sacrosanctum Concilium so desire.

Future Development

Undoubtedly there are tensions within Musicam Sacram that require creative solutions. One of these tensions is the task of preserving and fostering the treasure of sacred music with great care (See SC 114) while also assisting the introduction of vernacular languages into liturgical celebrations. The music instruction therefore has much to say about the composition of new music for vernacular liturgical texts. This creativity, however, must be conditioned by the Second Vatican Council’s explicit instruction that “care must be taken that any new forms adopted should in some way grow organically from forms already existing” (SC 23). Such organic development of the liturgy has always occurred within the Church’s history.

The task of the liturgical composer in service of fostering the sung liturgy in every parish is thus stated clearly by Musicam Sacram: “Musicians will enter on this new work with the desire to continue that tradition which has furnished the Church, in her divine worship, with a truly abundant heritage. Let them examine the works of the past, their types and characteristics, but let them also pay careful attention to the new laws and requirements of the liturgy…” (MS 59). In order for composers and musicians to be prepared for such work, the Instruction on Music in the Liturgy suggests that “the study and practice of Gregorian chant is to be promoted, because, with its special characteristics, it is a basis of great importance for the development of sacred music” (MS 52). While it also asks competent territorial authorities to “decide whether certain vernacular texts set to music which have been handed down from former times can in fact be used” (MS 55) and stresses that in new composition “[t]he nature and laws of each language must be respected, and the features and special characteristics of each people must be taken into consideration” (MS 54), Musicam Sacram holds firm to the principle of organic development, desiring that “new forms may in some way grow organically from forms that already exist, and the new work will form a new part in the musical heritage of the Church, not unworthy of its past” (MS 59).

Tasks for Today

As we approach the 50th anniversary of the Church’s official Instruction on Music in the Liturgy, we might pause to reflect on what progress we have made in implementing the Second Vatican Council’s vision for sacred music and on what efforts of renewal still remain before us. As we look around at many of our parishes today, we will find that Musicam Sacram’s plan for achieving the sung liturgy in every parish—beginning with the Order of Mass, followed by the Ordinary and Proper—remains unfulfilled. A possible reason for this state is that following the Council, the immediately pre-conciliar norm of a spoken Mass (Missa lecta)—with devotional, vernacular hymns at the Entrance, Offertory, Communion and at the conclusion of the Mass—became the foundation upon which the renewal of sacred music was built, rather than taking the sung Mass (Missa in cantu) as the model, with a gradual and progressive implementation of the different sung parts of the liturgy over time. As a result, the typical suburban Sunday morning liturgy in this country tends to see a spoken Order of Mass exchanged between the priest celebrant and the liturgical assembly sandwiched between hymns and songs that do not set the liturgical texts. While this model is permitted by Musicam Sacram10 and the GIRM, it seems not to be this Instruction’s goal, as it states clearly that “for the celebration of the Eucharist with the people, especially on Sundays and feast days, a form of sung Mass (Missa in cantu) is to be preferred as much as possible, even several times on the same day” (MS 27).

A task for our day, then, is to make the sung Mass the normal form of celebration in our parishes. The Church has given to us, through Musicam Sacram, the tools and resources to achieve this in every parish, and has outlined a plan to help every pastor and congregation to slowly and patiently learn how to sing and pray the liturgy in its sung form. Additionally, over the past decade or more, various liturgical resources have been developed, taking up Musicam Sacram’s challenges and tasks, that are aimed at assisting parishes of even the most modest means sing the liturgy with integrity and solemnity.11 With the help of the Roman Missal, Third Edition, hundreds of parishes have established the sung Order of Mass as a norm, fulfilling the sung liturgy’s first degree of importance. Cathedrals and Basilicas around the country have established choirs and music programs that preserve and foster the sacred music tradition, singing the Gregorian chant that is proper to the liturgy as well as polyphony, providing a model for smaller churches to experience and strive for. There is much work yet to be done, but as we labor together let us always carry out our efforts of liturgical and musical renewal for no reason other than the “glory of God and the sanctification of the faithful” (MS 4) which is the true and ultimate purpose of the Church’s sung prayer.


Adam Bartlett

Adam Bartlett is the founder and CEO of Source & Summit. He is the composer and editor of Simple English Propers (CMAA, 2011), editor of the Lumen Christi series (Illuminare Publications, 2012-2016), and is the editor and publisher of the Source & Summit Missal and Digital Platform. He formerly served as a parish and cathedral music director, as a faculty member for the Liturgical Institute and Mundelein Seminary of the University of St. Mary of the Lake, as an adjunct faculty member for the Augustine Institute, and as a sacred music consultant for FOCUS. He lives in Grand Rapids, MI, with his wife and three children.


  1. See DMSSL art. 3.
  2. As found in the New Oxford American Dictionary (American English).
  3. See MS 28-31.
  4. See MS 7; Cf. GIRM 40.
  5. It should be understood that the parts of the Mass contained within each degree reference the missal in use in 1967, which was the Missal of Pope John XXIII from 1962, although this missal had already been through three years of reform due to the application of Sacrosanctum Concilium. Because the Instruction preceded the implementation of the Missal of Pope Paul VI in 1969, some parts of the Mass that are able to be sung in the present Ordinary Form of the Roman Rite (such as the Eucharistic Prayer) are not explicitly mentioned by Musicam Sacram. Common sense can place those parts of the Ordinary Form not explicitly mentioned by MS in their proper degree of importance.
  6. Such as the Kyriale (Graduale) Romanum, Kyriale (Graduale) Simplex, and the Roman Missal.
  7. The Mass Ordinaries of the Kyriale Simplex, in addition to a number of Ordinaries found in the Kyriale Romanum, can be found in the Lumen Christi Missal (Illuminare Publications, 2012), as well as the English Mass Ordinary found in the Roman Missal and various newly composed chant settings of the Mass Ordinary.
  8. See MS 16, 33 and 36.
  9. The Graduale Romanum of 1908 was revised following the Second Vatican Council in order to conform to the revised liturgical calendar. This schema is officially published in the Ordo Cantus Missae of 1972/88.
  10. MS 36 states: “There is no reason why some of the Proper or Ordinary should not be sung in said Masses. Moreover, some other song can also, on occasions, be sung at the beginning, at the Offertory, at the Communion and at the end of Mass. 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.”
  11. My own contribution to this effort can be found in the Lumen Christi Series, published by Illuminare Publications (www.IlluminarePublications.com).