Week 13: Sacred Music

Sacred Music

Perhaps the reason sacred music tends to be a point of great liturgical interest is because of its inherent power to touch the soul.  Usually those who concern themselves with sacred music try to maximize this effect.  For this reason, some parishioners ardently advocate for their favorite form almost always believing their view belongs to the majority.  As one who is on the receiving end of such opinions, I assure you that is not the case.  Following a given Mass, within the space of minutes I will hear two directly opposing perspectives each convinced he/she is reflecting what everyone is thinking.  If parishioners could only hear what a pastor hears they would quickly realize that unanimity is hard to find.  There is no sacred music formula that will satisfy everyone.

Coming to understand the above, some have suggested that different Sunday Mass times could highlight different musical types.  The common categories today are typically referred to as traditional, contemporary, choral, and congregational.  The latter two merely refer to who is singing.  The first two, however, consider the style.  As distinct as these two styles may seem, they are not.  What seems traditional to one person may strike another as contemporary.  Having varied approaches and styles is precisely what we do at St. Thomas.  Some Masses highlight choral music and others facilitate congregational singing by way of a cantor.  Each Mass enjoys sacred music selections from both contemporary and traditional composers.  There is confusion, however, regarding the liturgical norms that govern the use of sacred music at Mass.  Not all styles, even if religious in nature, fit the Roman Rite.  Yet, there is legitimate variety.  In this sense it can be rightly said sacred music in the Roman Rite is not a “one size fits all” approach.  On the other hand there are liturgical laws that define the range of sizes, so to speak, that fit.  Just as it can be said that one size does not fit all, it can be equally said that not all sizes fit either.  The norms of the Roman Rite define the range. 

Before explaining the legitimate range, a point of clarity must be brought to bear.  There is an important distinction that is assumed in the norms that govern liturgical music.  Mainly, there is a difference between religious and sacred music.  Sacred music refers to that music that is suitable for the sacred rites.  In other words, not all religious music is appropriate for the celebration of Mass.  Having religious lyrics does not make a song suitable for liturgical use.  Nor are all musical instruments permitted.  Accordingly, the Roman Rite defines that music which is proper for its celebration.  Herein lies the difficulty and consequently the confusion.

Continuing with the clothing metaphors ‘one size does not fit all’ and ‘not all sizes fit,’ there are naturally a couple questions that need to be answered.  Who makes these determinations?  From where are the characteristics of sacred music proper to the Roman Rite coming?  With respect to the first, the Holy Father promulgates the general norms.  The local bishop’s conference and diocesan bishop may further regulate.  And in a parish, the pastor makes the final judgment in accord with all the above.  With respect to the second question, the short answer is tradition.  As already noted there is more than one legitimate rite for the celebration of the Mass.  There are several Latin rites and even more Eastern rites.  As a sacrament, the Mass is necessarily an incarnational reality.  (This topic was addressed in a previous installment.)  This means that just as the Son of God became man and clothed Himself in flesh, so too are the sacraments clothed in materiality.  Just as being clothed in flesh required him to have material specificity such as eye color, hair color, height, etc., so too do the material aspects of the sacraments require specificity.  The priest will wear clothes, but what type of clothes?  The priest will say words, but exactly which words?  The priest will move, but how and when?  There may be music, but what type?  Each rite, whether from the East or West, answers these questions according to the tradition from which the rite was formed.  In a sense, each rite was clothed beginning in apostolic times depending upon where the celebration of the Mass took root.  These material aspects of the liturgy, including music, were then passed down from generation to generation.  In the Roman Rite, the liturgy was profoundly influenced by the Roman culture and style.  As a living tradition the pastors of the Church, specifically the Holy Father and the bishops, governed all evolutions and generational contributions to the liturgy after receiving faithfully that which had been handed down and assuring that all approved liturgical developments were in keeping with the character of the rite.  This is the case with sacred music.  The Roman Rite has sacred music that is proper to it and currently allows for current compositions provided that they are in harmony with the rite and are in accord with the stated norms. 

Next week I will address the music proper to the rite and the current norms that govern contemporary composition. 

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