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Musical Musings: Liturgy

Bells and Whistles, Guitars and Tambourines

Musicians in Catholic Worship, Part III

by Lucy E. Carroll

This article first appeared in Adoremus Bulletin: Online Edition - Vol. IX, No. 7: October 2003, and is reprinted with the kind permission of the editor, Helen Hull Hitchcock, and the author, Dr. Carroll.

This is the last of a three-part series, Musicians in Catholic Worship.

Part III

Musicians fulfill an important and necessary function in the sacred Liturgy. But whether fully trained professionals or ardent amateurs (i.e., those who do it for love), all must remember that the purpose of the music is to implement the Liturgy, not to entertain the faithful or glorify themselves. The motto of all ought to be: Non nobis Domine, sed nomini tuo da gloriam! (Not to us, Lord, but to your Name be all glory!)

When Saint Juan Diego of Guadalupe was canonized recently, the cathedral in Mexico City utilized a fine choir and full orchestra. Added to the orchestra, to show the relationship to the native population of whom Diego was a part, were historic instruments: conch shells, rattles, flutes. The instruments were fitted into the whole with expert craftsmanship. Around the same time, in the cathedral in Philadelphia, a mariachi band played. Were both suitable?

This is a thorny question, but it needs to be examined. Catholic parishes today are homes to rock bands and back-up groups that sound no different from those at the local bar or supper club. While they may be entertaining, are they truly suitable for the celebration of the Eucharist?

Recall that when Judaism lost the Temple of Jerusalem and services were held only in local synagogues, no musical instruments were permitted [see Part II of this series]. The only exception to this was the symbolic shofar, or ram's horn, used at Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur.

Early Christianity, wishing to differ from the Temple services (and also to be quieter by virtue of being in hiding), did not allow any instruments. Early services used chanting derivative of Hebraic chants and cantillations. Many types of chant thus evolved: Mozarabic, Ambrosian, and Gregorian, to name three.

Eventually, Pope Gregory codified and unified the chants, and Gregorian chants were used almost universally. True Gregorian chant is best sung unaccompanied. It is, by definition, a single-line melody. However, as congregations grew, as ever-larger churches were built, and as harmony crept into the music of the Church, some instrumental help was needed. In the Western Church, the pipe organ was admitted as the perfect leader of song, an instrument that could play more than one melodic line, could be heard throughout the church, and which was a good equivalent to the tone production in the human voice.

For centuries, the pipe organ continued to be the one approved instrument for Catholic worship. Other instruments were used in music for concerts, music dramas, prayer services, feast day events, and the like. But for the Mass, only the organ was deemed sacred enough in nature.

In the sixteenth century, wind and brass instruments, and some strings, were added for festive services, as in the example of Venice's Saint Mark's Basilical and the composer Giovanni Gabrieli. For most churches, however, the organ sufficed.

Pope Saint Pius X reaffirmed this in his Instruction on Sacred Music, Tra le sollecitudini [Latin: Inter sollicitudines], issued on Saint Cecilia's Day, November 22, 1903.

Of course, all through history, abuses crept in. In the liturgical reform at the beginning of the twentieth century, the pipe organ was once again re-affirmed as being the instrument most suitable for the Mass. Orchestral instruments – woodwinds, brass, strings – could be used, with the bishop's permission, for special occasions.

Did the Second Vatican Council change this? Not really. Here is what we find in the 1963 Constitution on the Liturgy, Sacrosanctum Concilium:

other instruments may be admitted for use in divine worship. This may be done, however, only on condition that the instruments are suitable, or can be made suitable, for sacred use; that they accord with the dignity of the temple, and that they truly contribute to the edification of the faithful. (120)
The clear presumption here is that there are sacred and non-sacred instruments and usages.

At our monastery, we often include instruments on special occasions. A brass quartet joined our pipe organ and choir for centenary celebrations in 2002. A professional violist and a violinist volunteer their services at Christmas, Novena and Triduum. A trumpeter colleague joins us on occasion. These instruments fit well with the chant and traditional music we do at the monastery, and help to enhance and encourage the congregation.

So why do we find rock bands, mariachi bands, salsa bands, guitar groups, bells and whistles in our parishes? There is a passage in Sacrosanctum Concilium that has been widely misinterpreted. The Council Fathers wrote:

in mission lands there are people who have their own musical tradition, and this plays a great part in their religious and social life. For this reason their music should be held in proper esteem and a suitable place is to be given to it. (119)
The obvious intent here was to permit "mission lands" – that hadn't even plumbing or electricity – to use what was available to them. And "a suitable place" doesn't mean to throw out the universal tradition! America is hardly such a mission land. This was not a wholesale license to use every possible style of music. Indeed, the intent was quite the contrary. In the very next paragraph, the document tells of the important place of the pipe organ in worship, a goal to be reached by everyone.

Pope Saint Pius X had something to say about this in 1903. In speaking of adding "native music" elements, he wrote, "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 [here meaning, sacred in nature] on hearing them" (Tra le sollecitudini [TLS] 2). They must be subordinated to the general characteristics of sacred music. This is a powerful mandate!

So, the natural instruments of the indigenous peoples used at the canonization of Juan Diego, fitted into the mélange of choir, organ, and orchestra, were eminently suitable. But if a mariachi band sounds exactly as it does at a fiesta where the guests are swigging margaritas, or a rock band sounds as it does at a local teen dance, then they are not suitable for Mass. Whether they can be made suitable or sacred in nature as the Church requires is highly questionable.

A few months ago, Pope John Paul II called the Church to "an examination of conscience so that the beauty of music and song will return increasingly to the Liturgy." He said that "It is necessary to purify worship of deformations, of careless forms of expression of ill-prepared music and texts which are not suited to the grandeur of the act being celebrated." (Wednesday audience message, February 26, 2002)

Music that is entertaining is, by its nature and style, appealing and popular; but it is not sacred music. Mariachi bands, kazoo groups, rock bands, and the like are definitely not "suited to the grandeur of the act being celebrated".

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