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Sacred Music and Catholic Identity

May 23, AD2013 5 Comments


A Protestant Face Book friend – addressing her mostly Protestant friends – posted this “status”:

Just wondering, when worshipping in a corporate setting, where is the line between letting go and worshipping freely, and self-indulgence that causes distraction and becomes a stumbling block?

Ah, yes. I was a Pentecostal Christian for a number of years. The music was important. The music was uplifting. As I was being drawn to the Catholic Church, I still held out for the music – with electric guitars, drums, keyboard – of the Pentecostal church I attended. The music at the Catholic church – with acoustic guitars, drums, and piano – sucked. I said I’d go to Mass to receive Jesus, but I’d still go to the Pentecostal church for the music…but only as long as I was enjoying the music, of course.

At some point, I came to wonder if we were worshiping the music instead of the Lord.

“Letting go and worshipping freely” in the sense my Face Book friend is using that phrase, is, I believe, something you do in the privacy of your own room. Public worship – liturgy – is not the place for individualized expressions of praise. It’s not the place for debates within the music ministry about which hymns or songs to sing.

And that is why liturgical worship is so liberating.

Well…let me qualify that: I’m talking about liturgical worship that follows the rubrics, and liturgical music that follows the mind of the Church rather than the mind of the choir director or the liturgy committee or the “worship team”.  I’m talking about sacred music.

The liturgy mandated by the Church takes away the petty arguments about style and “substance”. Gregorian chant has pride of place; the proper chants of the Mass are determined from ages ago and have evolved out of the wisdom of the Church. The liturgy becomes what it is meant to be – a public expression of worship – by unifying all of the faithful as they use the same words and worship in a universal way.

The definition of sacred or religious music depends explicitly on the original intended use of the musical pieces or songs; that is to say, sacred music is music which was composed for the Liturgy. In 1967, the document Musicam Sacram (Instruction on Music in the Liturgy) was promulgates specifically to direct the choice of liturgical music within the context of the changes in the Mass brought about by Vatican II; it says:

4. It is to be hoped that pastors of souls, musicians and the faithful will gladly accept these norms and put them into practice, uniting their efforts to attain the true purpose of sacred music, \”which is the glory of God and the sanctification of the faithful.\”

(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.

(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.

The distinction between “sacred” music and “religious” music and the criteria for determining to what “degree” a particular composition approaches the adjective “sacred” dates back to Pope St Pius X’s 1903 Motu proprio Inter sollicitudines (a.k.a., Tra lesollecitudini)). It is significant that this distinction has been repeated in every papal document on sacred music since then, even until our own days.

So where’s the freedom then? Well, the freedom is in following the mind of the Church. Non-Catholic Christians can generally agree that following Jesus is liberating – there is absolute freedom in following Truth. Non-Christians will argue that Christianity puts all kinds of constraints on human behavior, so we are not “free”. They don’t understand that we are bound by sin when we follow our own fallen, sinful nature.

In the same way, our fallen human nature makes itself known in the “freedom” of style of worship in non-Catholic Christian services. My Face Book friend mentions the fine line between “letting go and worshipping freely” and “self-indulgence that causes distraction”. Been there, done that! When there are no rules, human concupiscence can run wild, and individuals can justify their behavior on the grounds that “the Spirit led me” – even, and maybe especially, in the context of the very worship of God. We end up having music for its entertainment value, and when you do that, you have debates, because not everyone is “entertained” in the same way by particular types of music.

The Mass, though – especially the “old” Mass, the “traditional Latin Mass”, the “extraordinary form” of the Mass – allows for “actual” participation of the faithful. That participation is internal, in the depths of one’s soul, rather than the external manifestation of singing, dancing, waving of hands, falling to the floor, etc. The priest leads us in prayer to God, and we are united behind him. The music – Gregorian chant in particular – carries our minds upward to God, rather than centering our thoughts on ourselves. Truly liturgical, sacred music does not mimic the popular music of the time. It must itself be timeless, objectively beautiful, and “traditional” rather than “contemporary”. Contemporary quickly becomes trite.

I suspect that if Protestant musicians began to use Catholic sacred music – such as Gregorian chant and sacred polyphony, which are all based on the Psalms – their services would become much more Catholic. And sadly, when Catholic musicians insist on “contemporary Christian” music for Mass, the Mass begins to resemble a Protestant service.

Our sacred music is a source of our Catholic identity. It’s worth hanging on to…or, in most parishes, re-introducing.

Go here to see a video by Corpus Christi Watershed which provides an excellent explanation of the difference between sacred liturgical music and “contemporary” music that is inappropriate for Mass.

© 2013. Jay Boyd PhD. All Rights Reserved.

Photography: See our Photographers page.

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About the Author:

Jay Boyd was received into the Catholic Church in 2002, contrary to all expectations of her cradle-Catholic husband, Jerry. Since her conversion, Jay has focused on understanding and proclaiming the true teaching of the Magisterium, especially as regards life issues and the liturgy. Several of her articles on these topics have been published in Homiletic and Pastoral Review. Jay earned a doctorate in Developmental Psychology at the University of California, Santa Barbara, in 1989, and taught a few years at the college level, but her life’s work has involved pouring her time and energy, heart and soul, into the rearing of two children who have grown up to be a couple of the most wonderful people you’d ever want to meet. She admits, however, that this has much more to do with God’s grace than her own abilities as a mother. Jay lives in northeastern Oregon and blogs at Philothea on Phire. She has recently published a book, "Natural Family Planning: Trojan Horse in the Catholic Bedroom?" which is available on

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