Music Guidelines for School Masses


Our diocesan liturgy commission is developing liturgical guidelines for school Masses. Music has such power to move us in spirit that the Church has very clear teaching on what is proper for use during the sacred liturgy. Well performed music that is in harmony with the spirit of the liturgy can turn a barn into a cathedral, while inappropriate music, especially when poorly performed can turn a cathedral into a barn, that is, seriously detract from the beauty of the liturgy and the sacred architechture. Here is a submission that I made to the head of the liturgy commission in hopes of ameliorating the current situation.

Unfortunately, sometimes the music at the school Masses is not in accord with the spirit of the sacred liturgy. Paragraph 114 of Sacrosanctum concilium stipulates that the heritage of sacred music “is to be preserved and fostered with great care”, yet this treasury is hardly ever promoted in our schools nor are our Catholic students even acquainted with this music in its proper context, that is, in the liturgy.

One of the issues that needs to be addressed is the use of drums in the sacred liturgy. The Church’s own teaching and legislation on sacred music provides objective criteria for excluding the use of drums at school Masses.
Pope Saint Pius X lays down three principles for music in the liturgy that have a “quasi canonical” status in his instruction on sacred music, 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 of sanctity, goodness of form, and universality 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 X’s Motu proprio Tra le sollectitudini (L’Osservatore Romano, January 28, 2004).

If we take these three principles and apply them to the use of drums, we will see whether they belong at Mass. In regards to sanctity, the issue is that drum sets and bongo drums are associated not with the sacred but with dance bands and entertainment. In a musical ensemble they provide the driving rhythm for dancing and physical movement and they appeal to the lower sensibilities. However, the liturgy and its music are meant to raise us to a higher level of sensibility. Rather than helping us center our thoughts and prayers on the heavenly realities we a celebrating in the Mass, the driving rhythm and sound of drums takes our thoughts “where you do not wish to go” (Jn 21.18), that is, to more secular venues.

The usual musical pieces performed at Mass in which drum sets and bongos are used do not possess sufficiently the quality of goodness of form. The melodic motifs and harmonic progressions of these pieces are mainly drawn from the musical formulae of pop and commercial music. They fall 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.

Drum sets and bongos at Mass also lack the quality of universality. There are many people, musicians and non-musicians, to whom this music would leave a bad impression. The assumption that everyone appreciates drums at Mass is not true. This style of music at Mass may appeal to a certain demographic but is annoying to others for good reason. It does lack universality.

Many may object to the use of drums sets and bongos at Mass 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.
However, regarding that music which is part of the Church’s heritage of sacred music and specially mentioned in her pronouncements, 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 this music is inappropriate at Mass.

Sacrosanctum consilium in paragraph 120, after lauding the organ as a liturgical instrument which “…adds a wonderful splendor to the Church’s ceremonies and powerfully lifts up man’s mind to God and to higher things” it states:

“…other instruments also may be admitted for use in divine worship, with the knowledge and consent of the competent territorial authority …. This may be done, however, only on condition that the instruments are suitable, or can be made suitable, for sacred use, accord with the dignity of the temple, and truly contribute to the edification of the faithful.”

To my knowledge, the archbishop has neither made the case for the appropriateness of drums at Mass, nor sanctioned their use in the liturgy. Beside, if drums would be appropriate at Mass, then it would seem any instrument would be appropriate, which is clearly not the case, nor is allowing all instruments into the liturgy what the Church’s documents have in mind.

Our Catholic school system has an obligation to bring our students to know and love that sacred music which is part of our Catholic culture and heritage. Sacrosanctum concilium states:

Great importance is to be attached to the teaching and practice of music in seminaries, in the novitiates and houses of study of religious of both sexes, and also in other Catholic institutions and schools. To impart this instruction, teachers are to be carefully trained and put in charge of the teaching of sacred music. (paragraph 115).

If the teachers themselves lack familiarity with the our Catholic heritage of sacred music, even Gregorian chant, then all the more necessary are explicit guidelines needed and encouragement for their formation so that they come to know and appreciate this repertory and so pass this appreciation onto their students.

The Congregation of Divine Worship’s instruction on music in the liturgy, Musicam sacram (1967) charges us:

In order to preserve the heritage of sacred music and genuinely promote the new forms of sacred singing, “great importance is to be attached to the teaching and practice of music in seminaries, in the novitiates and houses of study of religious of both sexes, and also in other Catholic institutes and schools,” especially in those higher institutes intended specially for this. Above all, the study and practice of Gregorian chant is to be promoted, because, with its special characteristics, it is a basis of great importance for the development of sacred music. (paragraph 52)

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About Didobonaparte

A Roman Catholic priest of the Archdiocese of Vancouver, I am the parish priest of Saint Joseph's Catholic Church, Langley.
This entry was posted in Gregorian Chant, liturgy, sacred music and tagged , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Music Guidelines for School Masses

  1. Sash Alexander Siano says:

    Post a link to this blog on the parish bulletin. Continue with your drum beating (lol) maybe someone will hear.

  2. Marcello Caesar says:

    Putting a link in the bulletin’s a winning idea.

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