A Liturgical Disconnect

Carissimi Lector,
I recently attended a conference at a Catholic institution known for its fidelity to the Church’s teaching and Magisterium. You could see very well that the leadership fostered a real sense of zeal for evangelization and for prayer. When Holy Mass was celebrated they were careful about the ceremonial, the sacred art, and the vestments. However, when it came to the music — now there was a real disconnect. The music at Mass consisted mainly of the “praise and worship” kind. This type of music has its place in other gatherings, but not as the musical offering during Holy Mass. I wrote the following letter to the chief organizer of the conference to explain why.

Dear Professor,
I attended recently the conference at your institution. One of the admirable aspects of your institution is its preoccupation with fidelity to the Church’s Magisterium and to the ceremonial of the Mass. I thank you for a very enjoyable and inspiring conference. However, I feel an obligation to point out a certain disconnect in regards to the music at Masses during the conference. Although the musicians were obviously talented at their craft and were sincere in their execution, the music used during the Masses did not belong in the liturgy because it did not harmonize with the spirit of liturgy itself or fit the Church’s criteria for music admitted into the Sacred Liturgy.

Pope Saint Pius X lays down three principles for music in the liturgy that have a “quasi canonical” status in his Tra le sollectitudini (November 22, 1903). In paragraph 2 he states that “… Sacred music should possess, in the highest degree, the qualities proper to the liturgy, and in particular sanctity and goodness of form, which will spontaneously produce the final quality of universality.”

For sanctity, the music must evoke a certain holiness or sense of the sacred and so exclude any association in the minds of the listeners with secular forms and styles, not only in the music itself, but also in its execution.

Goodness of form means that it must be true art, “…for otherwise it will be impossible for it to exercise on the minds of those who listen to it that efficacy which the Church aims at obtaining in admitting into her liturgy the art of musical sounds.”

The principle of universality is observed when, even in different cultural and new forms of music, the musical offerings are “… subordinated in such a manner to the general characteristics of sacred music that nobody of any nation may receive an impression other than good on hearing them.” (Tra le sollectitudini n.2). These three principles were referred to and upheld in chapter six of the constitution Sacrosanctum concillium from Vatican II, Musicam sacram (Congregation for Divine Worship, 1967), and restated explicitly in the monograph of Blessed John Paul II commemorating the centenary of Pope Saint Pius’s X Motu proprio Tra le sollectitudini (L’Osservatore Romano, January 28, 2004).

The music offered during the Masses at the conference, did not respect these three principles. The style of music did not evoke the sense of the sacred and anyone who was knowledgeable in music would recognize in the musical pieces many elements, such as the melodic phrases, harmonies and rhythms, that are associated with secular forms and styles of music. If you took the musical pieces that were performed and removed the religious texts, anyone hearing that music in a secular setting such as a coffee house or folk concert would not have considered it in any way out of place. Also, the drum set and bongo drums are associated in everyone’s mind not with the sacred but with dance bands and entertainment. The role of drums in a musical ensemble is to provide the driving rhythm for dancing, to excite the emotions, and to appeal to the baser sensibilities. The liturgy and its music are meant to raise us to a higher level of sensibility.

The music itself was not true art and did not possess sufficiently the quality of goodness of form. The melodic motifs and harmonic progressions were drawn from the musical formulae of pop and commercial music. It falls into the category which Pope Benedict would call “utility music” — easy to grasp and repeat, but neither memorable and nor worthy of serious study, unlike the pieces from the Church’s heritage of sacred music.

Being neither authentically sacred nor true art, it lacked the quality of universality. There are many people, musicians or not, to whom this music would leave a bad impression. Because it jarrs against the sublime characteristics of the liturgy, every time it was played, it distracted or called attention to itself rather than helped one enter more deeply into the sacred action of the liturgy. The assumption that everyone appreciates this music at Mass is not true. This style of music at Mass appeals to a certain demographic but is annoying to others for good reason. It does lack universality. However, regarding that music which is part of the Church’s heritage of sacred music, such as Gregorian chant, polyphony, and organ music, there may be people who do not particularly enjoy it, yet even they would not say that it is inappropriate at Mass.

Many may object to the musical offerings at the Mass during the conference on the basis of personal taste. However, those who appreciate the Church’s heritage of sacred music and who know the principles of sacred music have objective criteria upon which to base their opinions.

Once again, I really appreciated the things I learned and the people I met while at the conference. I will keep you and your ministry in my prayers.


About Didobonaparte

A Roman Catholic priest of the Archdiocese of Vancouver, I am the parish priest of Saint Joseph's Catholic Church, Langley.
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