During Church Music Month, we will give you a chance to look at portions of documents on the subject by various church groups and denominations. We begin with a thoughtful and thorough paper by the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, published in 2007, called, “Sing to the Lord: Music in Divine Worship.” You can download the entire document in four parts (PDF) here.
I’d like for us to have a conversation about two small parts of this 87-page document.
First, meditate on the following paragraph about the role of music in corporate worship:
125. The role of music is to serve the needs of the Liturgy and not to dominate it, seek to entertain, or draw attention to itself or the musicians. However, there are instances when the praise and adoration of God leads to music taking on a far greater dimension. At other times, simplicity is the most appropriate response. The primary role of music in the Liturgy is to help the members of the gathered assembly to join themselves with the action of Christ and to give voice to the gift of faith.
In my opinion, that is one of the finest statements I’ve heard about the role of music in the gathered worship of the church. However, it requires accepting a few presuppositions:
- There is a recognized “Liturgy” in which music functions and to which it is subservient.
- Music may take a greater or lesser role, depending upon the particular Liturgy being practiced. Again, it plays a servant role, and its specific part in the service is not a given.
- The purpose of the Liturgy is to communicate the Gospel: to tell the story of Christ (grace) and encourage our response (faith). Music serves these Gospel purposes.
The second part of the USCCB paper involves how church leaders should go about choosing the best music for corporate worship. “Sing to the Lord” suggests that there are three judgments that must be made:
126. In judging the appropriateness of music for the Liturgy, one will examine its liturgical, pastoral, and musical qualities. Ultimately, however, these three judgments are but aspects of one evaluation, which answers the question: “Is this particular piece of music for this use in the particular Liturgy?” All three judgments must be considered together, and no individual judgment can be applied in isolation from the other two. This evaluation requires cooperation, consultation, collaboration, and mutual respect among those who are skilled in any of the three judgments, be they pastors, musicians, liturgists, or planners.
Here’s how they work that out…
127. The question asked by this judgment may be stated as follows: Is this composition capable of meeting the structural and textual requirements set forth by the liturgical books for this particular rite?
128. Structural considerations depend on the demands of the rite itself to guide the choice of parts to be sung, taking into account the principle of progressive solemnity (see nos. 110ff. in this document). A certain balance among the various elements of the Liturgy should be sought, so that less important elements do not overshadow more important ones. Textual elements include the ability of a musical setting to support the liturgical text and to convey meaning faithful to the teaching of the Church.
The Pastoral Judgment
130. The pastoral judgment takes into consideration the actual community gathered to celebrate in a particular place at a particular time. Does a musical composition promote the sanctification of the members of the liturgical assembly by drawing them closer to the holy mysteries being celebrated? Does it strengthen their formation in faith by opening their hearts to the mystery being celebrated on this occasion or in this season? Is it capable of expressing the faith that God has planted in their hearts and summoned them to celebrate?
The Musical Judgment
134. The musical judgment asks whether this composition has the necessary aesthetic qualities that can bear the weight of the mysteries celebrated in the Liturgy. It asks the question: Is this composition technically, aesthetically, and expressively worthy?
135. This judgment requires musical competence. Only artistically sound music will be effective and endure over time. To admit to the Liturgy the cheap, the trite, or the musical cliché often found in secular popular songs is to cheapen the Liturgy, to expose it to ridicule, and to invite failure.
136. Sufficiency of artistic expression, however, is not the same as musical style, for “the Church has not adopted any particular style of art as her own. She has admitted styles from every period, in keeping with the natural characteristics and conditions of peoples and the needs of the various rites.” Thus, in recent times, the Church has consistently recognized and freely welcomed the use of various styles of music as an aid to liturgical worship.