Ad Te Levávi Ánimam Meam

To Thee have I lifted up my soul (Introit – 1st Sunday of Advent)

Catholic Liturgical Music

Posted by james0235 on February 23, 2008

Last Saturday evening I attended Mass at a parish that I do not typically go to. In fact I think that I had only been there once before for a Holy Day of Obligation. My experience on both occasions was nearly identical – an ugly Church, no obvious Liturgical abuses, a pretty good homily given by the pastor, and bad music performed badly.

The “Gathering Together Song” last weekend (as opposed to the “Sending Forth Song”) was Be Not Afraid. It has been my experience that most people do not like this song – or folk music in general during Mass. The few people who like Folk Music are the same people who liked it in the 90s and the 80s and the 70s.

This got me thinking about what the Church has said about Catholic Liturgical Music during and since the 2nd Vatican Council. I remember reading a lot of quotes in a lot of places. Tonight I decided to begin compiling them. This is by no means an exhaustive collection of quotes. And, it is not too difficult to find quotes supporting other styles of music. But, at the very least I think this shows that the all too typical situation of a parish never using Gregorian Chant or Sacred Polyphony in the Mass is very much contrary to the wishes of the Fathers of the 2nd Vatican Council and our current Pope.

The Church acknowledges Gregorian chant as specially suited to the Roman liturgy: therefore, other things being equal, it should be given pride of place in liturgical services.

But other kinds of sacred music, especially polyphony, are by no means excluded from liturgical celebrations, so long as they accord with the spirit of the liturgical action

(Vatican II, Sacrosanctum Concilium 116)

All other things being equal, Gregorian chant holds pride of place because it is proper to the Roman Liturgy. Other types of sacred music, in particular polyphony, are in no way excluded, provided that they correspond to the spirit of the liturgical action and that they foster the participation of all the faithful.

Since faithful from different countries come together ever more frequently, it is fitting that they know how to sing together at least some parts of the Ordinary of the Mass in Latin, especially the Creed and the Lord’s Prayer, set to the simpler melodies.

(General Instruction of the Roman Missal 41)

On the one hand, there is pop music, which is certainly no longer supported by the people in the ancient sense (populus). It is aimed at the phenomenon of the masses, is industrially produced, and ultimately has to be described as a cult of the banal. “Rock”, on the other hand, is the expression of elemental passions, and at rock festivals it assumes a cultic character, a form of worship, in fact, in opposition to Christian worship. People are, so to speak, released from themselves by the experience of being part of a crowd and by the emotional shock of rhythm, noise, and special lighting effects. However, in the ecstasy of having all their defenses torn down, the participants sink, as it were, beneath the elemental force of the universe. The music of the Holy Spirit’s sober ine­briation seems to have little chance when self has become a prison, the mind is a shackle, and breaking out from both appears as a true promise of redemption that can be tasted at least for a few moments.

(Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, The Spirit of the Liturgy, p. 148 )

Similarly, the better-known prayers of the Church’s tradition should be recited in Latin and, if possible, selections of Gregorian chant should be sung. Speaking more generally, I ask that future priests, from their time in the seminary, receive the preparation needed to understand and to celebrate Mass in Latin, and also to use Latin texts and execute Gregorian chant; nor should we forget that the faithful can be taught to recite the more common prayers in Latin, and also to sing parts of the liturgy to Gregorian chant.

(Pope Benedict XVI, Saramentum Caritatis 62)

“The Church recognizes Gregorian chant as being specially suited to the Roman Liturgy. Therefore, other things being equal, it should be given pride of place in liturgical services.” Gregorian chant is uniquely the Church’s own music. Chant is a living connection with our forebears in the faith, the traditional music of the Roman rite, a sign of communion with the universal Church, a bond of unity across cultures, a means for diverse communities to participate together in song, and a summons to contemplative participation in the Liturgy.

(United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, Sing to the Lord 72)

The Second Vatican Council directed that the faithful be able to sing parts of the Ordinary of the Mass together in Latin. In many worshiping communities in the United States, fulfilling this directive will mean introducing Latin chant to worshipers who perhaps have not sung it before. While prudence, pastoral sensitivity, and reasonable time for progress are encouraged to achieve this end, every effort in this regard is laudable and highly encouraged.

(United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, Sing to the Lord 74)

Each worshiping community in the United States, including all age groups and all ethnic groups, should, at a minimum, learn Kyrie XVI, Sanctus XVIII, and Agnus Dei XVIII, all of which are typically included in congregational worship aids. More difficult chants, such as Gloria VIII and settings of the Credo and Pater Noster, might be learned after the easier chants have been mastered.

(United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, Sing to the Lord 75)

Some articles on Liturgical Music:

“From “Tantum Ergo“to “They Will Know We Are Christians by Our Love”

The Hidden Hand Behind Bad Catholic Music

The Sad State of Liturgical Music in the Catholic Church

10 Responses to “Catholic Liturgical Music”

  1. Great Reflection!!!

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  2. Kathryne said

    Actualy, I toally disagree with your assertion that most people do not like “Folk” music during Mass. Our parish hhas someof the most professional Musis you willhear in a Catholic parish (I have never heard better). Our most popular Masses are our Folk/ Family Mass and our “Contemporary ” service. Many of the more contemporary and well loved pieces that wew sing, are, in fact, in Latin, as well. This Masses have grown, exponentially, in attendees and have drawn many Catholics to return to the Church. Our Church also has a beatiful “High Mass” with exceptional Music as well, but it is not as popular as these other two options for worship. There is a place for all types of worship in our very diverse, catholic Church.

  3. james0235 said


    Thank you for sharing your thoughts.

    Obviously I can only speak of my own experiences – which is why I said “it has been my experience…”. And it has truly been my experience that most people do not seem to like Folk music in the Mass.

    During the many, many hundreds of times that I have heard “Be Not Afraid” sung in various parishes it seemed as if almost no one in the Church was singing. But, with hymns like “Let all mortal flesh keep silence” or “Holy God we praise Thy name” it usually seems as if every soul in the Church is singing at the top of their lungs.

    I am not saying that I do not like folk music in general or even the song “Be Not Afraid” specifically. I am just saying that I do not like it in the Mass.

    My musical tastes vary widely. But, in Mass, my preferences seem to be the preferences of the Church and our Pope – Gregorian Chant and Polyphony are best suited for the Mass while not excluding the use of other types of music from use as well.

    And I am glad that you have such good music in your parish.

    Again, thank you for your comments.


  4. […] by james0235 on March 8, 2008 A couple of weeks ago I provided some quotes from various Church documents on Gregorian chant. One in particular really struck […]

  5. […] that the Church has repeatedly said that Gregorian Chant was to have “pride of place” over all other types of music in the […]

  6. Maureen said

    James0235, Thank you for your comments. I have never written in a “blog” before, but your comments resonated with me…

    As the recently appointed director of music at my Catholic Church, I find I am struggling to balance my personal bias re: the preference of “good” music with the “popular, secular, feel good” trend that permeates Catholic liturgies across the country (by the way, many protestant churches are facing these issues). I grew up with the folk Mass, but like many, as I grew up (ahem, matured) so did my musical taste and preference. At my church, there is a traditional choir; a guitar-style choir; life-teen (rock-Matt Maher, etc.) style – in other words, “something for everyone.” Unfortunately, in some areas of the country, teaching Catholic school kids “Latin” or teaching them simply the parts of the Mass in Latin has also gone out of favor….THIS, however is the gist: it will take as many years for the pendulum to swing BACK to the center (meaning more traditional music than popular) as we have been to the left (since Vatican II), and a LOT of education–not just of musicians, but the seminarians, pastors, and yes, even the bishops, etc.

    Through it all, may we always remember–not for our glory, but for His. And may He help us do what is best for His Church.


  7. Jim said

    I feel the need to weigh in on this issue as someone who was raised in a musical home and who has been involved in liturgical music almost continuously for about 15 years.

    After Jame0235’s rant, I’m glad he acknowledges that he was writing based on his “own experience.” We of course often BRING experiences upon ourselves, don’t we? As a market researcher, I am always interested in the most unbiased opinions. For example, I’m sure that the kind of person who is drawn to James0235 and share their opinion is quite different than the kind of person who speaks to me after Mass. While I play a variety of styles with the choir I work with, of the three parish musicians, I am more drawn to contemporary styles. So naturally, I hear comments such as “my son who is in his 20s almost never comes to church anymore. He says the music is always so boring [classical]. But he said he loved hearing you play piano before Mass last week!”

    My guess is James0235, because he prefers traditional music, will draw those who rave about polyphonic works written in the classical style, and who complain about more simply-written compositions like Be No Afraid.

    So, the real question is, what do MOST Catholic people prefer? I know of a survey done in the Archdiocese of New York clearly indicated the preference is for contemporary styles. Of course, there is also the ethic dimension: more Catholic families in NY are of Latino or mixed backgrounds.

    To Kathryne’s point, my parish in eastern PA recently re-started a children’s Liturgy. After the first one, the people burst out in applause after the Mass! Not at the “performance” but out of joy, I was told. I have not seen that happen at any other Mass in the 2 1/2 years I’ve been at the parish. To me, that counts more than someone’s opinion. In my line of work, we would say there were about 400 respondents gathered that Sunday in one place. And the vast majority gave their assessment of the music in a very clear, unequivocal way!

  8. Jim said

    And I feel like I need to add one other response: I’ve met several very well-trained classical liturgical musicians at Catholic parishes over the years. And I have noticed several key differences between them and the more “contemporary” musicians:

    1) The classical-oriented musicians are usually brought in from the outside, and not from the parish. The more contemporary musicians are usually from the parish family.

    2) As a result, the classical-oriented musicians come and go much more quickly.

    3) Many of the classically-oriented musicians are gay men who admittedly would not go to church on their own, as they and/or their lovers would not be accepted if they were honest about their gay lifestyle.

    These are just based on my 15 years+ of observations…

  9. james0235 said


    I guess that ultimately my point is that it does not really matter what I prefer or what you prefer or what anyone prefers. What should matter is what the Church says in regards to Liturgical music.

    And while it can definitely be said that the Church allows for a wide variety of musical styles it must also be acknowledged that, according to the Church herself, the norm is supposed to be Gregorian Chant. This IS the music of the Roman Rite.

    The fact that a majority of Catholic never seem to be exposed to Gregorian chant at all is unjustifiable. I have met several people in their 30s and 40s recently who not only have never heard any Gregorian chant but have actually never even heard of it.

    It is time to restore Chant to “pride of place” in the Roman Rite as the 2nd Vatican Council declared.



    Sorry it takes me so long to reply at times. As an experiment I decided to rid myself of the internet about 6 months back and I am finding it liberating. I’m not sure when I will have it hooked back up.

  10. […] When I pointed out to him some of the things that the popes and bishops have written on music in the Mass I believe the terms he used were “archaic” and “pre-Vatican II” – and […]

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