Music and Church in History and Mystery: A Report from Rome
May 17, 2017

Music and Church in History and Mystery: A Report from Rome

At the conference “Music and Church: Cult and Culture—50 years after Musicam Sacram, held in Rome, March 2-4, 2017, Adoremus contributor Father Fergus Ryan, OP, presented “‘Musicam sacram’: reception of the document in the historical context.” Considered the gold standard of Church documents on liturgy and music when it was first issued in 1967, Musicam Sacram remains an important guide to understanding the Church’s mind on liturgy, especially as it touches on the way it is intended—to be sung. Adoremus Bulletin asked Father Fergus about his presentation and about the other important aspects of the conference.

Adoremus Bulletin (AB): Offering a synopsis of the major points of your presentation, why did you present on the particular topic you chose?

Father Fergus Ryan (FR): While the title of the talk I was given seemed quite broad—the reception of the instruction Musicam Sacram in the historical context—I chose to focus upon the immediate historical context of the liturgical reform itself which led directly to the new liturgical books. I considered a rather specific element—the relationship between forms of celebration and the use of singing (or speaking) the liturgical texts—and how this was changing in the process of renewal at the time Musicam Sacram was issued by the Holy See.

I had considered this question in my doctoral thesis and had seen in my research how the place of singing in the Mass was changing radically in the 1960s in the documentation leading to the reformed liturgy, and a radically different role for singing was being proposed among those preparing the new liturgical books.

AB: Based on your own learning and on what you heard at the March conference, why is Musican Sacram such an important document 50 years later?

FR: Musican Sacram is important because it is both the first document after Vatican II and the last document from the Holy See to treat sacred music exclusively, in depth and in detail. By sacred music, I mean liturgical and other music intended for worship. As such, Musican Sacram presented the Church’s new emphasis in liturgical celebration on active participation of the people and more generally taking greater care of the perceived needs of the faithful with regard to sacred music in local churches. It remains the only substantial point of reference for those who wish to discuss the “how” of liturgical and devotional music with regard to repertoire and performers (including remuneration and professionalism) as well as the “why”—why we sing the liturgy and sing during the liturgy.

AB: Why, according to your presentation, is the historical context of MS’s reception so important? Why did you decide to focus on this particular aspect of the document?

FR: The historical context of Musicam Sacram is important because it was issued at a time of enormous change, of temporary measures and lack of clarity around sacred music. Musicam Sacram further blurred the distinctions between the different forms of Eucharistic celebration (which had begun in earnest in 1964 with the first instruction on the liturgical reform called Inter Oecumenici) although the music instruction claimed to be maintaining the traditional forms of Low, High, and Solemn celebrations as they are called in the United States of America (in the UK and Ireland we say Low, Sung and High Mass).

While I didn’t mention the following in my talk because it concerns Roman Catholicism largely in America, Musicam Sacram permitted great interpretation of this new flexibility with regard to the amount of singing of the liturgical texts at the Missa cantata (in the U.S, High Mass; in the U.K. and Ireland, Sung Mass) which led to a new way of preparing music for Mass. A new set of priorities for the singing of the people, without being particularly concerned with the singing of the celebrant, was proposed in 1968 by the Music Advisory Board of the U.S. Catholic Conference of Bishops’ Committee on the Liturgy in a document called “The place of music in Eucharistic Celebrations.”1

The Committee on the Liturgy subsequently adopted it as its own. It left Musicam Sacram, which was just one year old, behind and said the following: “Application of the Principles of Celebration to the Eucharist: The best places to sing are: at the ‘Holy Holy Holy,’ the Amen at the conclusion of the eucharistic prayer, the communion song, the responsorial psalm following the lessons. Other places to sing are: entrance and dismissal, ‘Lord Have Mercy,’ ‘Glory to God,’ Lord’s Prayer, offertory song.”2

This North American document is important for our consideration here because it was offered as being in continuity with Musicam Sacram but it clearly had dropped the threefold consideration of the Vatican instruction.

Four years later, after the new Roman Missal had been issued (1969-1970), the same Committee on the Liturgy prepared its own document on liturgical music whose title will be familiar to readers of Adoremus—“Music in Catholic Worship.”3 After discussing its opinion that the preparation of music and making choices for singing should no longer be informed by the old distinctions of sung Ordinary and Proper of the Mass, it stated: “In the Eucharistic celebration there are five acclamations which ought to be sung even at Masses at which little else is sung: Alleluia; ‘Holy, Holy, Holy Lord’; Memorial Acclamation; Great Amen; Doxology to the Lord’s Prayer.”4

Readers will again be familiar with an expression which seems inspired from this five-fold approach: “Eucharistic Acclamations” which count the Holy Holy Holy, Memorial Acclamation5 and Great Amen6. While one may find a certain basis for this approach in the General Instruction of the Roman Missal from 1969, it was Musicam Sacram which had continued the blurring of lines in making music choices (at non-solemn high Masses, I should add) and opened up the normality of spoken celebrations with some liturgical singing and varying use of singing in different contexts.

I should note here that these priorities of “Music in Catholic Worship,” after “The Place of Music in Eucharistic Celebrations,” do not seem to be followed a great deal outside of English-speaking dioceses. Both composers of music for the liturgy and those preparing celebrations continue to use the idea of the sung Ordinary (usually without the Credo) as an important element, leaving the texts of the people which closely follow the proclamation of priest or deacon (short responses or short acclamations such as the Amen, etc.) largely to employ the chants approved by the local conference of bishops and printed in local missals.

To summarize, the historical context of Musicam Sacram—and within the work of reform carried out for the Holy See—is important in order to understand that Musicam Sacram attempted to maintain standards for music in worship that were under threat, although considering the liturgy as it was at that point (largely the same as 1962 before Vatican II began). Yet Musicam Sacram blurred distinctions so much as to encourage greater taking of liberties. Of course, it became out of date somewhat with the new liturgical books.

AB: Given the conference’s objective to “Evaluate the weight of paradigmatic change in the understanding of music in the Church, 50 years after the Instruction Musicam Sacram (1967),” what has been the “paradigmatic change” as you see it “in the understanding of music in the Church” and how does that change influence the way(s) we should look at MS in the Church today?

FR: It seems to me that the biggest change in understanding music in worship is in the greater emphasis placed upon either eliciting emotional responses in the faithful or giving them “something to do” during the celebration (a false version of active participation). It leads to making music choices which may satisfy certain felt needs at the time, but in the long term this will prove problematic. The liturgy has its own integrity, yet it did not develop outside of pastoral concerns; so care for the needs of the liturgy does not mean laying aside pastoral concerns—the two are not opposed.

AB: What was the “takeaway” for you from Pope Francis’s talk, liturgically speaking?

FR: What struck me most about the Holy Father’s talk was his emphasis upon musical formation of those involved in the liturgy—especially (future) clergy and those specifically charged with musical matters. We tend to underestimate how much somebody with a good musical formation can bring to the celebration of the liturgy compared with somebody who struggles with rhythm, pitch, staying in tune, voice projection, accompanying skills, reading music, etc.

AB: How did the conference deepen your own understanding of the liturgy and of music and the liturgy?

FR: The presentation by Dr. Dominique Anoha Clokou (Ivory Coast, West Africa) who is a musician and musicologist reminded me of something I had realized for some time: that local adaptation or development of new sacred music needs to be done from an existing, living practice of sacred music. Expecting new, suitable music to come from local culture with only spoken texts and spoken liturgies as the starting point is unreasonable.

Dr. Dominique talked about the importing of the Roman Rite to his country but without its music and then the subsequent efforts to compose contemporary music from within the local culture in the Ivory Coast for use in the liturgy. The end result was importing poor quality contemporary music from Western cultures.

A refusal to offer the Roman liturgy’s own musical form (Gregorian chant) and other suitable liturgical music (such as the polyphony of Palestrina) to the local churches was a kind of colonialism, he said, that stymied inculturation and encouraged importation of poor alternatives.

The need to work with a living and complete liturgical culture in order to make something new is generally overlooked, yet a pre-existing and full liturgical culture is what permitted the likes of Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina or the monks of Taizé to bring about new forms for liturgical prayer.

AB: What was the general tenor of the conference—both in session and between sessions? Are there any anecdotes about the conference that embody what you hoped the conference would achieve?

FR: The conference was the first on the subject at the Pontifical Liturgical Institute at Sant’Anselmo and was organized as a series of talks. Plenary session discussion was not emphasized. It was an opportunity for those involved in sacred music from different parts of the world to meet and exchange ideas and contacts. As the congress was organized by the Pontifical Council for Culture which has no responsibility for liturgical matters within the Church, it permitted a rather wide view of sacred music and its role in the world and in evangelization, rather than congress speakers being concerned with engaging in an important yet sensitive topic (sacred music, especially liturgical music) that was of direct concern to a dicastery in its daily work.

AB: What other presentations were noteworthy?

FR: The head of music at the cathedral in Paris, France, Mr. Henri Chalet, presented the school of music, the musicians, choir and cantors of the cathedral. As France is known for its strong congregational singing since Vatican II, it was interesting to hear again how strong congregational song is complemented by high quality choral music and in a context of a dynamic and growing church.

The prior of the ecumenical community at Taizé, France, Father Alois, spoke about his community’s cooperation with professional musicians in the preparation of new music for the liturgy. His explanation was particularly interesting as an example of a living liturgical culture (Western monastic liturgy celebrated by the brothers in the village church since the 1940s) being adapted to new circumstances (young people visiting for brief periods but in very large numbers beginning in the 1970s) and the collaboration between different “experts,” since the brothers choose the texts before inviting composers to interpret them musically according to the requirements of the kinds of liturgical assemblies held at Taizé.

Father Fergus Ryan, OP

Father Fergus Ryan, OP, is an Irish Dominican and recently defended his doctoral thesis in sacred liturgy at the Pontifical Liturgical Institute in Rome, Italy.


  1. United States Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Committee on the Liturgy, “The Place of Music in Eucharistic Celebrations,” (hereafter PMEC) Newsletter—Bishops’ Committee on the Liturgy, 4/1-2 (1968) 115-121
  2. PMEC, 118.
  3. USCCB’s Committee on the Liturgy, “Music in Catholic Worship” (hereafter MCW), in The Liturgy Documents. A Parish Resource, ed. M.-A. Simcoe, Liturgy Training Publications, Chicago 1985, 217-240.
  4. MCW, n.54.
  5. Introduced in 1968 into the Roman liturgy, thus a year after Musicam Sacram.
  6. The expression “Great Amen” seems unknown and unused outside Anglophone regions.