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Music at Mass:

What the Church Teaches about Liturgical Music
Part 3

by Matthew C. Hoffman  March 24, 2002

The Modern Liturgical Reform Movement:
Vatican II - 2002

Vatican II and Sacrosanctum concilium (1963)

At the Second Vatican Council, none of these principles were revoked. In fact, Vatican II's Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy, Sacrosanctum concilium, reaffirmed the earlier statements of Popes on sacred music:

112. ...Holy Scripture, indeed, has bestowed praise upon sacred song [Footnote 42: "Cf. Eph. 5:19; Col. 3:16."], and the same may be said of the fathers of the Church and of the Roman pontiffs who in recent times, led by Saint Pius X, have explained more precisely the ministerial function supplied by sacred music in the service of the Lord.

Sacrosanctum concilium makes it clear that the Church's tradition of sacred music is a "treasure" that is to be maintained, not thrown out:

112. The musical tradition of the universal Church is a treasure of inestimable value, greater even than that of any other art. The main reason for this pre-eminence is that, as sacred song united to the words, it forms a necessary or integral part of the solemn liturgy...

114. The treasury of sacred music is to be preserved and fostered with great care. Choirs must be diligently promoted, especially in cathedral churches; but bishops and other pastors of souls must be at pains to ensure that, whenever the sacred action is to be celebrated with song, the whole body of the faithful may be able to contribute that active participation which is rightly theirs, as laid down in Art. 28 and 30.

Sacrosanctum concilium goes on to specify what sort of music is proper to the liturgical rites, repeating in essence what had been said by Pope Pius X sixty years earlier:

116. 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, as laid down in Art. 30.

Three times Sacrosanctum concilium used variations of the word "solemn" with regard to liturgical music, contradicting those who wish to use informal, "festive" music in the liturgy (boldfacing added):

112. [sacred music] forms a necessary or integral part of the solemn liturgy...Therefore sacred music is to be considered the more holy, the more closely connected it is with the liturgical action, whether making prayer more pleasing, promoting unity of minds, or conferring greater solemnity upon the sacred rites...

113. Liturgical worship is given a more noble form when the divine offices are celebrated solemnly in song...

Sacrosanctum concilium also made it clear that only instruments "suitable for sacred use" were to be admitted to the Sacred Liturgy:

120. ...But...instruments [other than the pipe organ] also 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.

The Sacred Congregation of Rites and Musicam sacram (1967)

Following Vatican II, and Sacrosanctum concilium, in 1967 the Sacred Congregation of Rites issued an implementing document, called Musicam sacram, just as it had for Pius XII's encyclical Musicæ sacræ. Musicam sacram reaffirmed the basic principles concerning music in the liturgy that had been stated by Popes Pius X, Pius XI, Pius XII, and Vatican II. It also reaffirmed the categorization of sacred music that had been made by the Sacred Congregation of Rites in De musica sacra in 1958, distinguishing between liturgical and non-liturgical "popular" music.

Musicam sacram explicitly made reference to Pope Pius X's letter on sacred music at the beginning of the document, just as had Vatican II in Sacrosanctum concilium:

4. ...(a) By sacred music is understood that which, being created for the celebration of divine worship, is endowed with a certain holy sincerity of form. [Footnote 2: "Cf. Saint Pius X, motu proprio, Tra le sollecitudini, n. 2"].

It then listed the same categories of sacred music that the Sacred Congregation of Rites had given in De musica sacra in 1958, explicitly referring to that document in a footnote, and in the last two categories distinguished again between the kinds that are "liturgical" or "simply religious":

4. [...] (b) The following come under the title of sacred music here: Gregorian chant, sacred polyphony in its various forms both ancient and modern, sacred music for the organ and other approved instruments, and sacred popular music, be it liturgical or simply religious. [Footnote 3: "Cf. Instruction of the S.C.R., 3 September 1958, n. 4."]

The basic types of music permitted in the liturgy, therefore, were the same as those permitted in 1958 and before. Musicam sacram was in a perfect continuity with previous documents on basic principles of liturgical music.

Again, following the Popes and Vatican II, Musicam sacram made it clear that "profane" musical instruments were prohibited from the Sacred Liturgy, again referring to the instruction De musica sacra of 1958:

63. In permitting and using musical instruments, the culture and traditions of individual peoples must be taken into account. However, those instruments which are, by common opinion and use, suitable for secular music only, are to be altogether prohibited from every liturgical celebration and from popular devotions. [Footnote 44: "Cf. Instruction of the S.C.R., 3 September 1958, n.70."]

Pope Paul VI was still referring in his public statements to Musicam sacram as late as 1977,32 indicating that it did not apply merely to the Mass as it was before the changes in 1970 and 1975, but that it continued to be relevant for the "New Mass" as well.

Various Statements of Pope Paul VI and Other Authorities

In the years following Vatican II, Pope Paul VI, who had presided over the second session of the council, made numerous public statements about liturgical music, as did other Church authorities. In these statements, the Church's traditional teaching concerning liturgical music was upheld, and secular forms of music in the liturgy were denounced. Unfortunately, they were ignored by many in the Church, and continue to be ignored today. These statements prove that the principles proclaimed before the promulgation of the Missal of 1970 were still applicable to the Liturgy. The Church, as always, does not change its teachings; it only adapts unchanging principles to different circumstances.

Pope Paul VI: Address to the Associazione Italiana di Santa Cecilia (1968)33

In his Address to the participants in the general meeting of the Associazione Italiana di Santa Cecilia of Italy, on sacred music, handmaiden of the liturgy, Pope Paul IV denounced the use of improper forms of music in the liturgy, and decried the loss of traditional music:

Yet this reform is not without obstacles that also involve sacred music and song. Moreover, there is a failure at times to hold in due honor the priceless musical heritage; the new styles of music are not always in keeping with the Church's magnificent and revered tradition, which is so sound even at the level of culture. On the one hand, musical compositions are offered that, although simple and easy to perform, are either uninspired or lacking in any nobility. On the other hand, musical experiments are going on here and there that are completely unauthorized and outlandish and that must cause anyone to be puzzled and suspicious.

The Holy Father went on to repeat the categorization of sacred music made by De musica sacra in 1958 and Musicam sacram in 1967:

... you must above all not lose sight of the function of sacred music and liturgical singing. The alternative is the futility of every attempt at reform and the impossibility of correct and appropriate use of the different structural resources for this noble and sacred endeavor. These resources are, as you well know, Gregorian chant, sacred polyphony, and modern music; the organ and other instruments; the Latin and vernacular texts, the ministers, choir, and congregation; official liturgical song and the religious music of the people (see SC ch 6; SCR, Instruction on music in the liturgy, 1967).

He noted the attributes that must be present in music used for worship:

Music and song are servants of worship and are its subordinates. Accordingly they must always possess the qualities befitting their place: grandeur yet simplicity; solemnity and majesty; the least possible unworthiness of the absolute transcendence of God, to whom they are directed, and of the human spirit, which they are meant to express. Music and song must possess the power to put the soul in devout contact with the Lord, arousing and expressing sentiments of praise, petition, expiation, thanksgiving, joy as well as sorrow, love, trust, peace. There is a limitless range for every kind of inspiring melody and the most varied harmony.

Since that is the essential function for sacred music, what ground is there for allowing anything shabby or banal or anything that caters to the vagaries of aestheticism or is based on the prevailing excesses of technology?...

Vocal and instrumental music that is not at once marked by the spirit of prayer, dignity, and beauty, is barred from entrance into the world of the sacred and the religious...

The primary purpose of sacred music is to evoke God's majesty and to honor it. But at the same time music is meant to be a solemn affirmation of the most genuine nobility of the human person, that of prayer.

These statements were echoed repeatedly by Pope and officials of the Holy See, well into the 1970s. Vatican authorities also continued to uphold the principles stated in Musicam sacram. A sample of such statements are given below:

Cardinal J. Villot:34 Letter to Cardinal J. Garibi y Rivera, Archbishop of Guadalajara (1969)35

... During the last seventy years, from Saint Pius X to Vatican Council II and since then, the Apostolic See has expressed itself repeatedly on the place of sacred music in the liturgy. As a result the documents issued on this topic constitute a very sizable doctrinal corpus. Anyone interested in the theme should pause attentively over this teaching in order to penetrate and take hold of its riches (see SC ch. 6; the Instruction Musicam sacram, 5 March 1967).

Moreover, the serious problems now besetting sacred music and thus disturbing the harmony belonging to it could be solved by taking as the key the doctrinal principles and practical guidelines contained in the conciliar and postconciliar documents.

Pope Paul VI: Address to the 10th International Congress of Church Choirs (1970)36

... Your wish is for a word from the Pope. His word can be nothing else but an echo of the Church's recent declarations on the relationship between music and liturgy (in the Constitution on the Liturgy and the various instructions on carrying it out, particularly that on sacred music 5 March 1967). His word is an echo also of what the Church has said on the role that you as choirs are called to fulfill in order to bring an ever greater splendor and devotion to the celebrations of the sacred mysteries.

The study of such documents clearly establishes that the charge the Church entrusts to music, its composers and performers, remains, as it has always been, one of great importance and highest purpose?

Pope Paul VI: Address to women religious taking part in the National Convention of the Associazione Italiana di Santa Cecilia (1971)37

... Our wish is to leave you with one counsel: always give first place, as the main concern for yourselves and for others, to the sensus Ecclesiæ. Otherwise, instead of helping to deepen charity, singing can be a source of disturbing, diluting, and profaning the sacred and even of creating division among the faithful. The sensus Ecclesiæ will mean your grasping in obedience, prayer, and the interior life the sublime and elevating reasons for our musical endeavors. The sensus Ecclesiæ means also the deep study of papal and conciliar documents in order always to be aware of the criteria that regulate the liturgical life. ... The sensus Ecclesiæ, finally, will mean discernment in what concerns the music of the liturgy: not everything is valid, not everything is lawful, not everything is good. In the liturgy the sacred must come together with the beautiful in a harmonious and devout synthesis that allows the assemblies with their different capabilities fully to express their faith for the glory of God and the building up of the Mystical Body.

Cardinal J. Villot: Letter to Cardinal G. Siri, Archbishop of Genoa, on the occasion of a national meeting on sacred music (1973)38

We must avoid and bar from liturgical celebrations profane types of music, particularly singing with a style so agitated, intrusive, and raucous that it would disturb the serenity of the service and would be incompatible with its spiritual, sanctifying purposes. A broad field is thus opened for pastoral initiative, the effort, namely, of leading the faithful to participate with voice and song in the rites, while at the same time protecting these rites from the invasion of noise, poor taste, and desacralization. Instead there must be encouragement of the kind of sacred music that helps to raise the mind to God and that through the devout singing of God's praises helps to provide a foretaste of the liturgy of heaven.

Sacred Congregation of Divine Worship, Letter Voluntatit obsequens to bishops, accompanying the booklet Jubilate Deo (1974)39

Pope Paul VI has expressed often, and even recently, the wish that the faithful of all countries be able to sing at least a few Gregorian chants in Latin (for example, the Gloria, Credo, Sanctus, Agnus Dei). In compliance, this Congregation has prepared the enclosed booklet Jubilate Deo, which provides a short collection of such Gregorian chants.

I have the honor and office of sending you a copy of this booklet as a gift from the Pope himself. I also take this occasion to commend to your own pastoral concerns this new measure intended to ensure the carrying out of the prescription of Vatican Council II: "Steps should be taken enabling the faithful to say or to sing together in Latin those parts of the Ordinary of the Mass belonging to them."


The teaching of the Catholic Church concerning liturgical music is consistent and clear, and flows from the very nature of the Mass as the Sacrifice of Jesus Christ. As the numerous ecclesiastical authorities cited in this paper proclaim, the music of the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass must have a sacred character and be conducive to prayer and contemplation. From these principles are derived the teachings, directives, and restrictions issued by the Popes and Roman Congregations concerning sacred liturgical music.

Until these principles are upheld in our parish churches, our participation in the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass will be undermined, and the very nature of the Eucharistic Liturgy will continue to be distorted. We cannot show respect for the atoning death of our Savior with trite, breezy, informal music. The Mass is not an occasion for entertainment, but for the highest act of worship possible to man. The Sacred Liturgy is, according to Vatican II, "the summit toward which the activity of the Church is directed; it is also the fount from which all her power flows."40 If we do not treat it as such, our spiritual loss will be incalculable.


  1. Pope Paul VI, Address to the 10th International Congress of Church Choirs, April 6, 1970.

          Pope Paul VI, Homily to members of the Associazone Italiana di Santa Cecilia, September 25, 1977 (Notitiæ 13 [1977] 475).
  2. Published in Italian in Notitiæ 4 (1968) pp. 269-273. Address delivered on September 18, 1968.
  3. 34. The Vatican's Secretary of State.
  4. 35. Published in Spanish in Notitiæ 6 (1970) pp. 309-310. Letter issued in December 1969.
  5. 36. Published in Italian in Notitiæ 6 (1970) pp. 154-157. Address delivered April 6th, 1970.
  6. 37. Published in Italian in Notitiæ 7 (1971) pp. 241-243. Address delivered April 15th, 1971.
  7. 38. Published in Italian in Notitiæ 9 (1973) p. 301. Letter issued September 1973.
  8. 39. Published in Notitiæ 10 (1974) pp. 123-126. Issued April 14th , 1974.
  9. 40. Vatican II, the Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy (Sacrosanctum concilium), par. 10.

Copyright © 2002 by Matthew C. Hoffman.
Reprinted with permission.

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