Since the Second Vatican Council (1965-present), the Roman Catholic Church has experienced a great deal of change and development with regard to liturgical practice. Along with these changes, the Church has thought and written much about her worship, including the role of music in it. The liturgy was one of the first subjects taken up by the council with the aim of providing for more lay participation. That, of course, involves music and singing.
The document which came out of Vatican II in 1963, Sacrosanctum Concilium, expresses the Church’s view on music with these words:
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.
Holy Scripture, indeed, has bestowed praise upon sacred song [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 St. Pius X, have explained more precisely the ministerial function supplied by sacred music in the service of the Lord.
Therefore sacred music is to be considered the more holy in proportion as it is more closely connected with the liturgical action, whether it adds delight to prayer, fosters unity of minds, or confers greater solemnity upon the sacred rites. But the Church approves of all forms of true art having the needed qualities, and admits them into divine worship.
- Liturgical worship is given a more noble form when celebrated with music.
- The treasure of sacred music is to be preserved and fostered with great care.
- 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.
- Religious singing by the people is to be intelligently fostered so that in devotions and sacred exercises, as also during liturgical services, the voices of the faithful may ring out.
- In mission lands, where people have their own musical traditions, a suitable place should be given to those traditions in worship.
- Composers, filled with the Christian spirit, should feel that their vocation is to cultivate sacred music and increase its store of treasures. Let them produce compositions which have the qualities proper to genuine sacred music, not confining themselves to works which can be sung only by large choirs, but providing also for the needs of small choirs and for the active participation of the entire assembly of the faithful. The texts intended to be sung must always be in conformity with Catholic doctrine; indeed they should be drawn chiefly from holy scripture and from liturgical sources.
The document also gives pride of place to Gregorian chant and the organ in Catholic worship, but provides for and encourages the use of other instruments and styles of music when appropriate.
This is a fine, balanced set of basic propositions regarding music and its place in worship. It recognizes God’s gift of music to his people and to the world, allows for both traditional and new expressions, recognizes music as the servant of the Word, acknowledges the priority of the congregation while giving place to those with special musical gifts, affirms that we are part of a worldwide family of faith and that diverse expressions of music should be welcomed, encourages the private use of music for devotion, and emphasizes that education and training must be given with regard to these matters.
Building on this foundation, other groups such as Universa Laus, The National Association of Pastoral Musicians (NPM), and The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops have produced a number of fine documents and resources tracking liturgical developments and offering theological perspective to the role of music in the liturgy. If you go to their websites, you will find a treasure trove of rich theological thinking about worship.
One of the most recent documents appeared in 2007, when the USCCB produced a document called “Sing to the Lord: Music in Divine Worship.“ I encourage you to click the link and download the PDF for yourself. Read through it as a good example of a careful and thoughtful approach to worship and music in the church and worship setting, even if it represents a tradition outside your own.
One of its core principles is stated here:
“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.”
That is about as fine a statement about the role of music in worship as I’ve read. If American evangelicals could get hold of the principles in that paragraph and seriously implement them in the worship we practice in our churches, it could be transformative.
In preparation for our discussion on this post today, I must inject a personal note. I have attended my share of Roman Catholic services in various churches and, to be honest, I have not found the singing to be very good, especially on the congregational level. Frankly, I have not seen much enthusiasm and participation from those in the pews. Sometimes the choirs are excellent and the musicians and cantors devoted and talented, but what about the worshipers who come to Mass as individuals or with their families? Are they taught to sing? Encouraged to sing? How important is singing to the average layperson? How meaningful a part does it play in his or her worship? The documents I have referenced all represent theologizing from above, by those who give leadership in this area. What’s it like at ground level?
I am perfectly willing to admit that my own personal sample size with regard to Catholic music is tiny, so I will withhold coming to any conclusions about my experiences. To learn more about this, I need help from our Roman Catholic friends today. It appears that the Church has thought deeply about music’s role in worshipâ€”what is the state of actual practice in Catholicism, especially here in the U.S.?
I would say a basic problem in American evangelicalism is that we have allowed our musical practices to grow out of control like a field of weeds, and we have not given enough thought to cultivating pertinent regulative principles so that we might ensure a healthy garden of worship and music. Is the state of affairs in the Catholic world the opposite? Does the Church have the theology down, while lacking in practice?
Non-Catholics, I want to hear from you today too. What do you think of the detailed attention the Catholic church has given to the subject of liturgy and worship, including the role of music? What can we learn from them? What areas of disagreement or incompatibility do you see when you compare your own tradition and practices?