Sing to the Lord: Music in Divine Worship (STL) offers guidance
in considering issues that continue to challenge us. This article
will look at four such challenges: the sacred-secular relationship,
sung liturgy with sung dialogues and responses, the use of
Gregorian chant, and the use of hymnody at Mass.1
Since the Second Vatican Council, some have criticized the
admission of secular styles of music into Catholic liturgy,
including the use of secular instruments. There is precedent for
these concerns, especially in the nineteenth-century Cecilian
reform movements that sought to "purify" Catholic worship. The
philosophical issues involved in trying to distinguish sacred
music from secular music, however, are highly complex.
As I argue in Sacred Music and Liturgical Reform, it is difficult
to uphold a clear distinction between sacred and secular
music on historical grounds.
||In Franko-Flemish polyphony of the fifteenth century, there
is the same vocal style throughout and the same musical
technique of cantus firmus development, with no difference
in style between church music and secular music. Similarly,
one is unable to find any clear stylistic difference between
Palestrina's Masses and his secular madrigals. . . . One is
unable to establish a clear stylistic difference between
Mozart's chamber music and his sacred music.2
One aspect of the efforts to restore the sacred to worship
and music has been to consider some styles and genres as the
highest models of truly sacred music. This was evidenced in the
Cecilian movement and, subsequently, Pope Pius X's 1903 motu
proprio, which contained many aspects of Cecilian reformist
thought. The papal documents from 1903 to the Second Vatican
Council show significant developments in their listing of the
genres of sacred music, with shifts of emphasis and seeming
contradictions. But throughout, Gregorian chant is consistently
upheld as the highest model of sacred music, followed by
polyphony of the Roman school.
As Edward Foley points out, the Constitution on the Sacred
Liturgy introduces a shift from the position found in Roman
documents before the Second Vatican Council.3 Instead of treating
holiness as an intrinsic quality of particular musical styles or
genres, Sacrosanctum Concilium, 112 (SC), locates holiness in its
connection to ritual and its engagement of worshipers.4
SC, 112, states, "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." Following
SC, STL, 67–71, in the section, "Music for the Sacred Liturgy,"
does not consider some styles or genres to be holier than others.
STL speaks instead of the ritual and the spiritual dimensions
which make music holy—the first referring to liturgical propriety,
the second referring to the community's union with Christ
and with each other. The question is not whether a particular
piece sounds like chant or Palestrina, that is, whether it sounds
"Catholic." Rather, the question is whether the piece fits the
ritual action and engages a particular community in this ritual
action. Both of these dimensions, connection to ritual and engagement
of the community, are to be considered within a cultural context according to STL, 67 and 70. There, STL does not assume
that chant and polyphony are absolutely the highest models of
sacred and Catholic music in all cultures, as if there were no
need to take into account cultural location. It follows, then, that
many instruments, even strings and percussion, are potentially
usable in the liturgy, which is explicitly stated in STL, 90.
To be sure, traditional music, such as chant and choral
polyphony, is advocated with new vigor in STL. But STL does
not claim that these are ontologically (in their very essence)
more sacred. The end result is that STL advocates both traditional
repertoire5 and the stylistic diversity of all the various
contemporary cultures,6 without attempting to define the relationship
between all these styles or the parameters of their liturgical
usage in every situation.
STL cautions us against making easy distinctions between
sacred and secular music. It shows us that one can advocate traditional
music (such as chant and polyphony) without trying to
claim that these are essentially more sacred than other genres of
The 1967 Roman instruction Musicam Sacram (MS), issued
shortly after the close of the Second Vatican Council, advocates
the model of a sung liturgy in which the responses and dialogues,
such as "The Lord be with you," "The Word of the Lord,"
and "The Mass is ended" are chanted, along with the presidential
prayers and even the readings. In contrast to this, the 1972 document
Music in Catholic Worship (MCW) primarily emphasized
the singing of acclamations, the Responsorial Psalm, and hymns
at Mass. This was probably a good place to start in the early
stages of the vernacular liturgy. But some have criticized MCW
for not following MS on the issue of sung liturgy. In recent years,
there has been increased discussion of this issue, and the practice
of singing the dialogues and orations has begun to increase
in some places.
It must be admitted that, at the pastoral level, there are
real challenges to sung liturgy.7 We are no longer a singing culture;
recorded and electronic music have increasingly made us
into listeners. Liturgical ministers (priests, deacons, lectors) have
not grown up in a Church where sung liturgy is the norm. Many
liturgical ministers are not comfortable singing in public.
Acoustics in all too many of our churches impede chanting the
liturgy, because one needs a resonant space for the practice of
chanted liturgy to work well. Singing the liturgy, if not done
well, can make the liturgy seem heavier rather than more spirited.
The liturgy becomes slower, duller, and consequently, less
prayerful for many participants. For reasons such as these, some
people are skeptical about the possibility and desirability of
singing the liturgy. STL approaches the issue by setting the
Church's high ideal and encouraging sung liturgy to the extent
practical. STL, 19, (following MS, 8) recommends that priests
who do not possess a suitable voice for singing instead recite in a
loud and distinct voice, while adding that this is not to be done
for mere convenience.
The strong encouragement for sung liturgy in STL takes its
cue from MS. In STL, 115, on "the parts to be sung," the first
category is "dialogues and acclamations." One could argue that
strict adherence to MS should have meant that dialogues are the
first category of importance, as their own separate category. But
so much progress has been made in the United States with singing
the acclamations, that it has become virtually universal
practice to sing the Gloria, Sanctus, Memorial Acclamation,
Agnus Dei, etc., at Sunday Mass. If the first category listed were
"dialogues," this could mean that, if the dialogues are not sung
for whatever reason, then that which is of a lower priority, such
as acclamations, should not be sung. That would be most unfortunate.
Hence, the interesting decision to call the first category
"dialogues and acclamations" at STL, 115. This categorization
suggests that we should promote singing dialogues, but not at
the expense of singing the acclamations.
Other sections of STL, in treating various aspects of the
liturgy, call for sung liturgy. STL, 19, encourages priests to sing
the presidential orations and dialogues; STL, 20, calls for the
training of priests and seminarians to sing the liturgy; STL, 23,
calls for deacons to be trained to sing their parts of the liturgy;
STL, 153-154, recommends the singing of the responses after
the readings and, with appropriate cautions, even the readings
themselves. The singing of presidential prayers is treated in
the various parts of the section "Music and the Structure of
It seems likely that STL will lead us to a richer practice of
singing the liturgy in coming years, always taking into account
the pastoral challenges and acting with sensitivity to people's
This challenge is closely related to the sacred/secular question
discussed above. It is worth examining Gregorian chant separately,
though, because it offers a concrete case for thinking
about the relationship between an inherited repertoire and the
demands of the reformed liturgy.
To be honest, most of the U.S. Church does not sing very
much Latin chant. Most Catholics have heard very little chant in
worship. Some, perhaps many Catholics, do not like Gregorian
chant much. At the same time, many people experience chant as
beautiful, calmly soothing, deeply spiritual, or truly holy, as it
calls us to prayer. Experiences and practices vary.
The magisterium's statements advocating Gregorian chant
are very strong. Gregorian chant is to have pride of place in the
reformed liturgy, we read in SC, 116. The faithful are to be able
to sing the Mass Ordinary in Latin, we read in SC, 54. Given
how little that chant is actually sung in Catholic worship, one is
struck, and perhaps surprised, by such strong statements.
STL takes up Gregorian chant and is keenly aware of both
realities: the official documents advocate chant strongly, but the
use of chant in the U.S. Church is, with some important exceptions,
somewhat minimal. STL strives for an intelligent obedience
to the Roman documents with a pastoral sensitivity to the
actual situation. The judgment of Father Edward Foley on this
issue should be noted: "[STL] contains one of the best reflections
on Gregorian chant in the liturgy that I have read."9
There is high praise for chant at STL, 72:
||Gregorian chant is uniquely the Church's own music. Chant is
a living connection with our forebears in the faith, the traditional
music of the Roman rite, a sign of communion with the
universal Church, a bond of unity across cultures, a means
for diverse communities to participate together in song, and
a summons to contemplative participation in the Liturgy.
But STL immediately sounds some important cautions
in STL, 73:
||The "pride of place" given to Gregorian chant by the Second
Vatican Council is modified by the important phrase "other
things being equal." These "other things" are the important
liturgical and pastoral concerns facing every bishop, pastor,
and liturgical musician. In considering the use of the treasures
of chant, pastors and liturgical musicians should take
care that the congregation is able to participate in the
Liturgy with song. They should be sensitive to the cultural
and spiritual milieu of their communities, in order to build
up the Church in unity and peace."
It could be said that STL counsels us not to use chant as
In articles 74 and 75, STL follows SC in advocating elements
of the Latin chant as ordinary, first by admitting that
most communities not do this and then giving very specific and
practical and specific directives on where to start. "Each worshiping
community in the United States, including all age groups
and all ethnic groups, should, at a minimum, learn Kyrie XVI,
Sanctus XVIII, and Agnus Dei XVIII, all of which are typically
included in congregational worship aids. More difficult chants,
such as Gloria VIII and settings of the Credo and Pater Noster,
might be learned after the easier chants have been mastered."
It is relevant to the issue of Gregorian chant to note STL, 64:
"Whenever the Latin language poses an obstacle to singers, even
after sufficient training has been provided—for example, in pronunciation,
understanding of the text, or confident rendition of
a piece—it would be more prudent to employ a vernacular language
in the Liturgy."
The challenge is to use Gregorian chant in the liturgy
wisely and sensitively. STL helps us to do so by counseling slow
but sure progress toward a reachable goal.
Some have begun to question in recent years whether hymns
belong at Mass. The primary reason for this is renewed interest in
the proper antiphons of the Mass liturgy—either in Latin chant
as found in the Graduale Romanum, or in English, perhaps in a
chant-like setting. In taking up the challenging issue of hymns
and antiphons, it is helpful to look at the question from the perspectives
of liturgical history, inculturation, ecumenism, and the
official documents in all their comprehensiveness. STL does this
as it offers helpful guidance on the use of hymns at Mass.
On this question of hymns versus antiphons, many of us
are of two minds because we are drawn to both.10 STL is also of
two minds, in that it speaks positively of both proper antiphons
and strophic hymns. By speaking positively of proper antiphons,
STL is sounding a new theme in the U.S. documents, since MCW
and Liturgical Music Today (LMT) virtually ignored them. See
especially STL, 115b, on "Antiphons and Psalms": "The psalms
are poems of praise that are meant, whenever possible, to be
sung." See also STL, 117: "proper antiphons from the liturgical
books are to be esteemed and used especially because they are
the very voice of God speaking to us in the Scriptures."
Regarding strophic hymnody at Mass, MS, 32, had allowed
"substituting" hymns for the proper antiphons at the entrance,
offertory, and communion. The General Instruction of the
Roman Missal, 48, no longer speaks of "substitution." It simply
lists as an "option," albeit the last option given, the use of "a suitable
liturgical song." (The proper antiphon is the first option).
Some zealous (but misinformed) voices in recent years, in their
enthusiasm for the chant propers, have begun to criticize hymnody
at Mass as if it were not liturgical. It is thus significant
that STL, 115d, states, "Because these popular hymns [at the
Entrance, Preparation of the Gifts, Communion, or Recessional]
are fulfilling a properly liturgical role, it is especially important
that they be appropriate to the liturgical action." And despite the
Church's strong commitment to ecumenism, some have begun
to criticize the use of non-Catholic hymns at Mass, often under
the mistaken impression that this is an innovation since the
Second Vatican Council. STL, 115d, offers necessary clarification:
"In accord with an uninterrupted history of nearly five centuries,
nothing prevents the use of some congregational hymns
coming from other Christian traditions, provided that their
texts are in conformity with Catholic teaching and they are
appropriate to the Catholic Liturgy."11
STL offers much guidance on challenging issues, including
those discussed here and many others as well. May we be enriched
by STL's helpful guidance. Above all, may we participate ever
more fruitfully in sung worship, and thereby become more
closely united to Christ and each other. For, as STL, 10, states,
"through grace, the liturgical assembly partakes in the life of the
Blessed Trinity, which is itself a communion of love."
- Sing to the Lord: Music in Divine Worship (STL) was approved by
the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops in November
2007. STL supersedes two earlier documents of the U.S. bishops'
conference, Music in Catholic Worship (MCW) of 1972 and
Liturgical Music Today (LMT) of 1982. (For an excellent overview
of the historical development of the U.S. Bishops' directives on
music, see Edward Foley, A Lyrical Vision: The Music Documents
of the U.S. Bishops, Collegeville, Minnesota: Liturgical Press,
2009). Canonically, STL is not "particular law" with the weight of
binding legislation. Rather, it provides "guidelines" of the Bishops'
conference. This means that the force of STL's individual prescriptions
derive in every case from the force of the document
that STL cites.
- Anthony Ruff, Sacred Music and Liturgical Reform. Treasures and
Transformations, Chicago, Illinois: Hillenbrand Books, 2007), 27.
- Edward Foley, "The Ritual Function of Beauty: From Assisi to
Snowbird," Pastoral Music 21.3 (1997) 17–21, especially 18.
- SC, 112: "Sacred music is to be considered the more holy the more
closely connected it is with the liturgical action, whether making
prayer more pleasing, promoting unity of minds, or conferring
greater solemnity upon the sacred rites."
- On chant, see STL, 72–80; on polyphony see, e.g., STL 30, "At
times, the choir performs its ministry by singing alone. The choir
may draw on the treasury of sacred music, singing compositions by
composers of various periods and in various musical styles, as well
as music that expresses the faith of the various cultures that enrich
- STL is quite strong in affirming inculturation and cultural diversity;
see especially STL, 57–60, "Diverse Cultures and Languages."
STL typically moves from the affirmation of traditional sacred
music to the affirmation of contemporary music of various
cultures, e.g. in the move from the organ at STL, 87–88, to other
instruments at STL, 89–90, or in the move from "the repertoire
of sacred music inherited from the past" to "contemporary
composers and the diverse repertoires of various cultures" in
STL, 54, on Catholic schools.
- I treat this question in "Do Priests Need to Sing?" Pastoral Music 28.3 (Feb.-Mar 2004), 41–43. In what follows I also draw on the
address I gave, "Singing the Liturgy: What is the Goal, and What
are the Challenges?" at the October 2006 meeting of the Federation
of Diocesan Commissions.
- The presidential orations are treated at STL, 151, 175, and 197, the
Eucharistic Prayer at STL, 181–182, and the final blessing at STL, 198.
- Edward Foley, "Sing to the Lord: The U.S. Bishops & Liturgical
Music," Church magazine, available online at www.churchmagazine.org/issue/0809/par_sing_to_the_lord.php.
- I discuss this question in "Proper Chants and Improper Hymns:
What Texts Shall We Sing in Worship?" The Hymn 56.4 (Autumn
- The extensive history of Protestant hymnody at Catholic Mass is
reviewed in my Sacred Music and Liturgical Reform (see footnote)
6576–88, esp. 585–586.
Sacred Music and Liturgical Reform: Treasures
and Transformations, Chicago, Illinois: Hillenbrand Books, 2007.
He teaches liturgy, liturgical music, and Gregorian chant at
St. John's University School of Theology Seminary.
a monk of St. John's Abbey, Collegeville,
Minnesota, is the author of
This is the final article in a series of six reflecting on the Sing to the Lord: Music in Divine Worship. Those using the study guide may find it helpful to read the document, which can be found online at the web site of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, www.USCCB.org.
Part I: How Firm a Foundation: The Theology of Sing to the Lord: Music in Divine Worship
Part II: Considering the Lenses of Sing to the Lord:The Relationship between the Three Judgments and the Two Dimensions, One Context
Part III: Catechizing the Faithful
Part IV: Cultural, Multicultural, and Intercultural Perspectives
Part V: Sing to the Lord and Psalmody in the Life of the Church
Part VI: Helpful Guidelines for Challenging Issues