Sacred Music

An Authentic Renewal

Major Languages of Roman Catholic Liturgy

Latin remains in use today, especially within the patrimony of Sacred music.

Sometimes in order to know where we are going, we need to know where we have been.  In our Church Liturgy, it is good to pause and remember that the Saints and our ancestors, in great majority, prayed the Mass in Greek and Latin.  The Second Vatican Council encouraged this continuity, especially by upholding the esteemed treasury of Sacred Music. 

Today we see the renaissance of the Sacred, not only with the reminder of the importance of the Extraordinary Form, but with a heartfelt desire to reconnect with ancient tradition as a whole.  The Holy Father, for example, often prays the Preface and Canon of the Mass in Latin, as we saw in his recent Apostolic Visit to the United States.  This is a beautiful sign of unity, allowing for greater participation amidst a very diverse world.  As Americans however, despite our ever more diverse culture, we sometimes fail to see the need for this unification, partly because we have witnessed a time detached from ancient tradition.

Music is the most tangible sign of this rupture with the past.  In our own country we have endured the wildest musical creativity within our Churches.  However, this was not the intention of the 2nd Vatican Council or our pontiffs.  Pope Paul VI personally witnessed this break, and took steps in an attempt to remedy the loss of the Sacred.  Subsequently in 1976, he issued a minimum repertoire of Sacred music in a small pamphlet entitled “Jubilate Deo.”  Virtually unknown today, it is uncertain why this clear directive was not utilized to any great degree.  Perhaps it was lost in the desire for novelty. 

Pope Paul VI's gift to Bishops: minimum parish music repertoire!

Pope Paul VI's gift to Bishops: minimum parish music repertoire!

However, with the 3rd Edition of the Roman Missal, we are once again called to conform to the directives of the Church.  Let us listen again to the words of Pope Paul VI:  “[Music] has nourished men's faith and has fostered their piety, while in the process achieving an artistic perfection which the Church rightly considers a patrimony of inestimable value and which the Council recognized as ‘the chant especially suited to the Roman liturgy.’"

The Council itself used the words “inestimable value” about the ancient chants and choral music of the Church, calling the congregation to sing the parts of the Mass in Latin that pertain to them.  Perhaps some believe this is outdated in our time?  Saint John Paul the Great and indeed our present Holy Father have clarified this for our personal sanctification and edification. 

In 2003, during his centenary message of Pope St. Pius X’s document on Sacred Music, Pope John Paul II stated: "The Christian community must make an examination of conscience so that the beauty of music and song will return increasingly to the liturgy."  Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI commonly spoke on the importance of continuity with tradition, rather than a break from it.

An authentic updating of sacred music can take place only in the lineage of the great tradition of the past, of Gregorian chant and sacred polyphony.
— Pope Benedict XVI

This “lineage” reminds us that Sacred music is integral to the Mass, not secondary or inserted by opinion.  On the same hand, it does not infer that everything must be sung in Latin.  Aside from language, often seen as the barrier, the text and the style of the music must be given full attention, in respect of the Holy Sacrifice on the Altar. 

You shall cross the barren desert, but you shall not die of thirst. You shall wander far in safety though you do not know the way. You shall speak your words in foreign lands and all will understand. You shall see the face of God and live.

Be not afraid. I go before you always. Come follow me, and I will give you rest.

Hail, true Body, born of the Virgin Mary, who having truly suffered, was sacrificed on the cross for mankind, whose pierced side flowed with water and blood: May it be for us a foretaste [of the Heavenly banquet] in the trial of death.

O sweet Jesus, O holy Jesus, O Jesus, son of Mary, have mercy on me. Amen.

Why does it matter, isn’t music just filler?  The quality and content of the music have full bearing on all aspects of the Catholic faith, including catechesis, interior and exterior participation, evangelization, theology, and the very human formation of our souls.

Oftentimes we can get into a "battle" over exactly which pieces of music are appropriate for Mass and which are not.  This is unnecessary. Let us think in terms of what we "can do" rather than what we "cannot."  Singing the Mass, rather than singing "at" Mass.   

It is laudable to think of Sacred music in terms of giving the best to our Lord.  There are thousands upon thousands of pieces of Sacred music composed throughout the centuries up to our very day.  They are endowed with a holy sincerity of form, and beautifully clothe the Sacred text with a solemn style, truly meant for worship.  Secular texts and styles often refer to God as "you" and focus primarily on us. The rhythm and style are grounded upon a simple chordal structure, based on rock music.  

Sacred music need not be complex.  It can be as simple as an unaccompanied unison melody.  Nonetheless, Sacred music brings us "out of ourselves" and into a holy realm, set aside for the Lord.  It does not simply remind us of our favorite song on the radio.

Similarly, Catholic Sacred music should be suitable for the temple, not taken from outside of it.  Chant and chant-like music, as well as Sacred choir pieces or “polyphony” are “endowed with a certain holy sincerity of form.”  As instructed, we need to give it the “pride of place” in our Liturgies.  

To RENEW our liturgies and its Sacred music, we must be faithful and obedient to the texts and styles passed down to us through the centuries, and in our new music, it must be embued with a holy sincerity of form.  We cannot create new music without a knowledge of the past, respect of tradition, and a universality of faith.