The Liturgy Wars: Sacred Music

The Catholic Geeks have been spending a lot of time on the Geek part of that title (and there’s not a single thing wrong with that, of course!), but I think it’s time for a good, non-Geek, Catholic post.  The topic of choice:

Sacred Music.

Yes, I did just kick that hornet’s nest.

BumpyNightIn my capacity as the volunteer organist for my parish, I have noticed two things that make people mind-numbingly, foaming-at-the-mouth angry: any mention of Latin, and the idea that the music they’re performing at the Mass is not appropriate.

While trying to help my parish along and give it some more orthodoxy, I’ve been ganged-up-on in public; lectured in loud voices during a Rosary in the church; passive-aggressively bullied into quitting one Mass; and been the subject of behind-the-scenes manipulation, in addition to more direct action, like finding used Kleenex left on the organ console; having the sound board messed with to make the organ sound funny; and having the organ unplugged, even though I had a sign up in two languages asking people not to do that (because unplugging it erases the presets).

After I tell those horror stories, the first question that people think of is: if it makes you so miserable, why bother doing it?  It’s just music, after all.  It’s not that big a deal.

Oh, but it is, and I’m going to tell you why.

Most people don’t know much about what the Church teaches regarding Sacred Music.  I didn’t, either, until I got involved in this cat-fight.  It’s easy to think of Sacred Music as just plain music — that it’s all about personal taste, which, as we all know, is not disputable (de gustibus non est disputandum).  If you don’t like the Praise and Worship style, that’s fine; go somewhere else and let them continue on their way.

That attitude may seem polite on the surface, but it’s really very dangerous.  It implies that more than one way is right; that Church teaching is secondary to a person’s opinion.

Sound familiar?

This isn’t just a problem in Sacred Music.  It’s the same problem that we see all over the world — that the Catholic Church is backwards, and needs to change Her ways because people don’t like them.  She should change her ways to suit us, because asking us to change our ways to suit her is mean, or — the even more seductive objection — impossible.

It is neither.

If we allow ourselves to do anything other than what Holy Mother Church teaches us in what seems to be a small matter (but isn’t; more on this later), like what kind of music we use at the Mass, we can make that same justification in all other matters of Church teaching, and down the rabbit hole we go, where homosexual “marriage” must be okay because a “majority” of people say so, and damn Church teaching.  The Church is wrong.  Abortion is a woman’s choice, and the Church should back off and let her make it.  The Church should change Her teachings, because we don’t like that one.

The Church should allow Praise and Worship music because people like it, and screw what any of the popes have told us to do.

Same problem; different issues.

So, how do we address this problem where Sacred Music is concerned?  First, we have to know what Holy Mother Church tells us, so that we can follow Her.  Then, we have to have the guts to tell other people the truth about it, which usually involves making good, solid arguments that apply to the situation at hand.  Finally, we have to love it.  We can’t just be little Catholic automatons.  It’s okay to insist that we do what we’re supposed to simply because we fear punishment for doing otherwise.  That’s a good start, and we can use that — Holy Mother Church tells us to do this, therefore we shall, and that’s the end of it — but it’s not where we should stop.  We need to show people that this is good, true, and beautiful, and I love it!  And because I love it, I can show you how to love it, too.

Before getting into the actual teachings and the documents that accompany them, I think it’s important to mention why the Sacred Music issue is important in its own right.  It really is that big a deal, something that goes beyond personal taste, and not just because there are rules about it.

It’s as important as saving a soul, because that’s what it can do.

It’s as important as maintaining a proper reverence for the Blessed Sacrament, because that’s what it does.

It’s something that’s worth every bad day I’ve had, every tear I’ve shed, every hysterical crying fit I’ve had because I’m too overwhelmed to do anything else, every frustrated rant-fest I’ve made to my family and friends, every bad word spoken about me in public, every mean glare I’ve received, and every penny I’ve spent on music lessons, sheet music, trips to conferences, and even my own practice organ.

Pope Pius XII said in his encyclical, Musicae Sacrae:

Certainly no one will be astonished that the Church is so vigilant and careful about sacred music.  It is not a case of drawing up laws of aesthetics or technical rules that apply to the subject of music.  It is the intention of the Church, however, to protect sacred music against anything that might lessen its dignity, since it is called upon to take part in something as important as divine worship (Musicae Sacrae, 21).

That was in 1955.  Not much changed between then and 1963, when the Second Vatican Council was called.  Their Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy (Sacrosanctum Concilium) devoted an entire chapter on Sacred Music.  It begins:

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 (Sacrosanctum Concilium, 112).

We don’t just “sing at Mass.”  We “sing the Mass.”  The sung Gloria, or the Lamb of God, or the Alleluia before the Gospel are not optional musical pieces the choir up and decided to stick in there.  They are part of the Mass, and that means we all have to sing them in order to be truly participating in the Liturgy.

Yes, I’m totally guilt-tripping you.

It doesn’t matter if you can’t carry a tune; sing it anyway!  It’s your role.  It’s your job to sing the Gloria.  As a friend put it: “God gave you the voice; make Him listen to it.”  You wouldn’t skip the Gospel, would you?  Then neither should you neglect singing the Gloria.

And that’s why picking easy music is important; it encourages participation.  More on this later.

So, Sacred Music is a necessary part of the Liturgy, but what about the importance of the Liturgy itself?

For the liturgy, “through which the work of our redemption is accomplished,” most of all in the divine sacrifice of the Eucharist, is the outstanding means whereby the faithful may express in their lives, and manifest to others, the mystery of Christ and the real nature of the true Church. It is of the essence of the Church that she be both human and divine, visible and yet invisibly equipped, eager to act and yet intent on contemplation, present in this world and yet not at home in it; and she is all these things in such wise that in her the human is directed and subordinated to the divine, the visible likewise to the invisible, action to contemplation, and this present world to that city yet to come, which we seek. While the liturgy daily builds up those who are within into a holy temple of the Lord, into a dwelling place for God in the Spirit, to the mature measure of the fullness of Christ, at the same time it marvelously strengthens their power to preach Christ, and thus shows forth the Church to those who are outside as a sign lifted up among the nations under which the scattered children of God may be gathered together, until there is one sheepfold and one shepherd (Sacrosanctum Concilium, 2).

I can’t say it any better than that.  The Liturgy is the work of our redemption.  In it, the human is subordinated to the divine.  It nourishes and strengthens us, and changes the world around us.

So why do we insist upon treating it like a country fair or a concert?  Why do we fill it with worldly trappings and then wonder why we don’t “get anything out of it”?  It’s not supposed to be us bringing the Divine down to our level; it’s supposed to be us climbing our way up to the Divine, as close as we can get in this world.

“For my thoughts are not your thoughts, nor your ways my ways, saith the Lord.  For as the heavens are exalted above the earth, so are my ways exalted above your ways, and my thoughts above your thoughts” (Isaiah 55:8-9).  Shouldn’t we be trying to make our thoughts and our ways as close to His as we can?

Is it any wonder that the dearth of vocations started in the 1960s, when the Mass began to be treated like some trite little community gathering?  It was stripped of all its sacred character, in music, in architecture, and in the attitudes of the congregation, and we wonder why no one wants to come to Mass on Sunday, let alone join the priesthood or religious life.

And yet, instead of fixing the problem, we get people who want to continue doing all those things that crushed our faith, as if more of the problem will fix the problem.

InsanityPutting guitars and pianos and songs like “Gather Us In” didn’t bring people in flocks to the Catholic Church; it drove them away.  That isn’t the only reason for the major drop in attendance and vocations, of course, but abusing something as important as the Mass has far-reaching consequences.  We shouldn’t be surprised.

Something that powerful can’t be “not a big deal.”  It really is that important, and we need to treat it as such.  We can’t have this “it’s good enough” attitude.  We shouldn’t settle for two guys and a guitar in the choir.  We want to have Scholas, big youth choirs with thirty or forty members, so many volunteers that we don’t know what to do with all of them, and a congregation that can raise that church off its foundation with its unified singing.  The minute we settle for less than what we could have, we’ve lost so much more than a pleasant sound for our ears.  We’ve lost souls, and we’ve lost the world.

The Church has always had very specific things to say about Sacred Music, and not just since Vatican II.  In this century alone, almost every pope has had something to say on the subject.  And, contrary to popular belief, Vatican II didn’t change what the previous popes said.  In fact, it agrees with them, and makes a special point to say so:

Holy Scripture, indeed, has bestowed praise upon sacred song, 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 (Sacrosanctum Concilium, 112).

In other words, the Council agrees with everything Her Revered Predecessor said.

Gregorian Chant didn’t go out with the Tridentine Mass, no matter what anyone claims.  On the contrary:

The Church acknowledges Gregorian chant as specially suited to the Roman liturgy: therefore, other things being equal, it should be given pride of place in liturgical services (Sacrosanctum Concilium, 116).

On instruments, the Council says:

In the Latin Church the pipe organ is to be held in high esteem, for it is the traditional musical instrument which adds a wonderful splendor to the Church’s ceremonies and powerfully lifts up man’s mind to God and to higher things (Sacrosanctum Concilium, 120).

The Council even mentions compositions:

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 (Sacrosanctum Concilium, 121).

There.  Roma locuta est; causa finita est.

Rome has spoken; the case is closed.

There are some passages in Sacrosanctum Concilium that have been used to justify the use of guitars, pianos, and Praise and Worship music in the Mass.  It’s important to acknowledge that, so that we can explain to anyone who makes that claim why the Council didn’t actually say that.

Paragraph 116, after saying that Gregorian Chant has pride of place, goes on to say:

But other kinds of sacred music, especially polyphony, are by no means excluded from liturgical celebrations

On the surface, that might mean that we now have permission to use whatever style of music we like.  But the rest of that sentence has an important qualifier:

so long as they accord with the spirit of the liturgical action, as laid down in Art. 30 (Sacrosanctum Concilium, 116).

Aha!  So not every kind of music is appropriate for Mass.  Although article 30 says that we need that “active participation” that everyone likes to use to justify those changes:

To promote active participation, the people should be encouraged to take part by means of acclamations, responses, psalmody, antiphons, and songs, as well as by actions, gestures, and bodily attitudes. And at the proper times all should observe a reverent silence (Sacrosanctum Concilium, 30)

the “spirit of the Liturgical action” is the more important qualifier:

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” (Sacrosanctum Concilium, 112).

There is nothing solemn about “City of God.”

There is a similar passage regarding instruments:

But other instruments also may be admitted for use in divine worship, with the knowledge and consent of the competent territorial authority, as laid down in Art. 22, 52, 37, and 40 (Sacrosanctum Concilium, 120).

That permission has never been given by any “competent territorial authority” anywhere in the United States.  Not ever.  All the “approval” of replacing Sacred Music with Praise and Worship music, the pipe organ with guitars and pianos, has been tacit approval, because the bishops have said nothing about it for almost fifty years.

And the GIRM is very specific: there is no such thing as “tacit approval.”

Also, that same passage goes on to say:

This may be done, however, only on condition that the instruments are suitable, or can be made suitable, for sacred use, accord with the dignity of the temple, and truly contribute to the edification of the faithful (Sacrosanctum Concilium, 120).

It is impossible to make a guitar or a piano “suitable for sacred use, in accord with the dignity of the temple.” They are, by their very nature, performance instruments, and the Mass is not a performance.  More on this in a moment.

The last part that people try to use is the passage on the music of various cultures:

In certain parts of the world, especially mission lands, there are peoples who have their own musical traditions, and these play a great part in their religious and social life. For this reason due importance is to be attached to their music, and a suitable place is to be given to it, not only in forming their attitude toward religion, but also in adapting worship to their native genius, as indicated in Art. 39 and 40 (Sacrosanctum Concilium, 119).

For example, liturgical dance is allowed in Africa, because dancing was used specifically as an act of worship in those cultures.  So, a “suitable place” has been given to it.  The Church is always in favor of drawing all cultures close to Herself, and respecting the traditional culture of a society is a good way to do it.  That privilege can be abused, however.  Liturgical dance is forbidden in the Roman Rite, because dancing has NEVER been an act of worship in European, and therefore, American, culture.  It has always been a form of entertainment or courtship, and so, by its nature in our culture, is never appropriate for Mass.

In addition, as it applies to the Sacred Music arguments in this country, the United States is not now, nor has it ever been, “mission lands.”

There are many other beautiful, relevant points made by various popes, and some of them are worth sharing.  Even though some of these were written before the Second Vatican Council, they still apply, as the Council agreed with them in most ways, and updated them in others.

The first major document issued on Sacred Music was done by Pope Saint Pius X in 1903, Tra le Sollecitudini.  This is a motu proprio, meaning that it does, in fact, have the force of law in the Church.

Now, I’m sure some people will read that motu proprio and think “this can’t be right!  He says that only men of good character should sing in choirs!  This whole document is irrelevant, then!”  That’s not true, because some of the rules laid down have been updated by other popes in other documents, like the part about choirs.  Sacrosanctum Concilium says specifically that choirs of both sexes should be fostered.  That’s one thing that has been re-evaluated and updated for us.  But the Council did not throw out the whole document, and most of what Pius X tells us is still relevant.

This document is so relevant to the discussion on Sacred Music that Pope Saint John Paul II wrote his Chirograph on Sacred Music on the centenary of that document.

Pius X tells us very clearly:

Nothing should have place, therefore, in the temple calculated to disturb or even merely to diminish the piety and devotion of the faithful, nothing that may give reasonable cause for disgust or scandal, nothing, above all, which directly offends the decorum and sanctity of the sacred functions and is thus unworthy of the House of Prayer and of the Majesty of God (Tra le Sollecitudini, introduction).

Again, this is why the rules are there for us.  And, this touches on the specific points in the argument for proper hymns, Gregorian Chant, the organ, and against Praise and Worship music, guitars and pianos, and the like.

A guitar cannot have decorum.  A piano is not something sacred, of its nature.  The words of modern songs that talk only about me are completely unworthy of the House of Prayer and the Majesty of God.  We’re not there for us; we’re there for Him.

Pius X addresses this specifically:

Sacred music, being a complementary part of the solemn liturgy, participates in the general scope of the liturgy, which is the glory of God and the sanctification of the faithful.  It contributes to the decorum and splendor of the ecclesiastical ceremonies, and since its principal office is to clothe with suitable melody the liturgical text proposed for the understanding of the faithful, its proper aim is to add greater efficacy to the text, in order that through it the faithful may be more easily moved to devotion and better disposed for the reception of the fruits of grace belonging to the celebration of the most holy mysteries.

Sacred music should consequently possess, in the highest degree, the qualities proper to the liturgy, and in particular sanctity and goodness of form, which will spontaneously produce the final quality of universality.

It must be holy, and must, therefore, exclude all profanity not only in itself, but in the manner in which it is presented by those who execute it.

It must be true art, for otherwise it will be impossible for it to exercise on the minds of those who listen to it that efficacy which the Church aims at obtaining in admitting into her liturgy the art of musical sounds (Tra le Sollicitudini, 1-2).

Those are the proper qualities; now for the means to obtain them.  First:

On these grounds Gregorian Chant has always been regarded as the supreme model for sacred music, to that is fully legitimate to lay down the following rule: the more closely a composition for church approaches in its movement, inspiration, and savor the Gregorian form, the more sacred and liturgical it becomes; and the more out of harmony it is with that supreme model, the less worthy it is of the temple (Tra le Sollicitudini, 3).


Classic polyphony agrees admirably with Gregorian Chant, the supreme model of all sacred music, and hence it has been found worthy of a place side by side with Gregorian chant, in the more solemn functions of the Church, such as those of the Pontifical Chapel (Tra le Sollicitudini, 4).

On instruments:

Although the music proper to the Church is purely vocal music, music with the accompaniment of the organ is also permitted (Tra le Sollicitudini, 15).

And now for my favorite part — the stuff that is NOT allowed:

The employment of the piano is forbidden in church, as is also that of noisy or frivolous instruments such as drums, cymbals, bells, and the like.  It is strictly forbidden to have bands play in church, and only in special cases with the consent of the Ordinary will it be permissible to admit wind instruments, limited in number, judiciously used, and proportioned to the size of the place, provided the composition and accompaniment be written in grave and suitable style, and conform in all respects to that proper to the organ (Tra le Sollicitudini, 19-20).

A guitar would fall under the rule about bands.

Guitars and pianos cannot be made appropriate for the Mass.  Their very nature makes them performance instruments.  Their use in popular culture makes them even less appropriate, because the association one makes when they are heard are to things “profane and secular,” as Pius X has said.  They are not bad in themselves; there is nothing at all wrong with enjoying George Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue on the piano, or listening to country music played on the guitar, or playing a guitar around a campfire and singing silly songs.  But none of those things come anywhere close to being sacred.

When those “profane and secular” instruments are used, the “dignity of the temple” suffers, and with it, the spiritual life of everyone in attendance, even if they don’t know exactly why.

John Paul II went to the trouble of writing the Chirograph on Sacred Music  on the hundredth anniversary of Pius X’s motu proprio, and he confirms many of these things.

On various occasions I too have recalled the precious role and great importance of music and song for a more active and intense participation in liturgical celebrations.  I have also stressed the need to “purify worship from ugliness of style, from distasteful forms of expression, from uninspired musical texts which are not worthy of the great act which is being celebrated,” to guarantee dignity and excellence to liturgical compositions (Chirograph, 3).

There is nothing dignified in singing “go make a diff’rence in the world,” or “better is one day in your courts than thousands elsewhere.”  They are utterly uninspired musical texts.

Singing about nothing but ourselves (e.g., “Gather Us In,” see above link) is not worthy of the great act that is being celebrated, and is a distasteful form of expression.

A setting of the Mass Ordinary that is nearly identical to the theme song for My Little Pony is definitely an example of ugliness of style.

This has to stop.  It’s not only against the rules laid down for us by the Church; it hurts us.

That takes care of some of the more specific arguments against good, traditional Sacred Music.  A lot of people simply don’t know what the Church teaches, and informing them is a good place to start.

Sometimes, though, you encounter people who listen to you read the quote from the applicable Church document, and then look you right in the face and say:

“I don’t care.”

Yes, that did happen to me, and those take a little more convincing.

All we have to do is look at the results of both styles, and that should be enough to convince even the most hardened skeptic (if you can get them to listen long enough to make your point, which is a neat trick.  I haven’t managed it so far, but you might).

Which of the following looks like something appropriate for the action “through which the work of our redemption is accomplished”?  Answer honestly, now.


How about these clips of music?  Which one makes you believe that you are in a church, and that something important is happening right at this very moment: the first, or the second?

Which one of these choirs has the ability to raise your mind to higher things?  Which one fulfills its purpose, showing “the glory of God” and accomplishing “the sanctification of the faithful”?

Even a person who isn’t a Catholic can see and hear the difference between these things.  The traditional music of the Church is, of its very nature, a sacred thing, and its proper place is the Liturgy.

Have you ever noticed that, in movies and television, every time they need to depict a church, they show you a traditional one?  Pews facing forwards, an organ playing in the background, stained-glass windows, statues, and usually a priest or other clergyman in a black suit and white clerical collar?  Why do they bother, if the way we’re supposed to worship looks like this:


and sounds like this:

instead of like this:

GoodChurchand this?

More importantly, why is it that young people flock in droves to the second church, and flee in droves from the first?

Everywhere orthodoxy goes, attendance and vocations follow.  That is a proven fact, not some line that the “rad Trads” use to try and make the poor hapless “everyman” Catholics learn to speak fluent Latin.

Just look at the Diocese of Lincoln, Nebraska.  Ever since Bishop Fabian Bruskewitz demanded orthodoxy in the parishes of his diocese, attendance and vocations have exploded.  In that diocese, there are 96,625 Catholics, with 134 parishes, 150 priests, and 49 seminarians.  Compare that to the Diocese of Rochester, New York.  350,000 Catholics (or maybe I should say “catholics”), with 172 parishes, and 251 priests, and no count on the seminarians, which probably means there are zero.  There were zero when I lived there, anyway.

Just to put Rochester in perspective for you: that is the only diocese in the world that voted against papal infallibility.  In my “catholic” high school, we were naming rocks and doing chi-gong for our morning prayer in “Sacraments class.”  The May Crowning event was marked by the “litany of Mary,” which was made up by our religion teacher, and included the title “unwed mother” for Mary.  When I objected to this in class, her only answer was “I’m sorry you were offended.”  The principal of my brother’s catholic primary school was an open lesbian living with her “girlfriend.”  We regularly sang every Marty Haugen and David Haas “hymn” at Mass on Sunday, and my mother still reminds us of the horrors of “those old Polish Catholics trying to sing Negro Spirituals at Mass.”  The song she meant, “Up From the Waters,” was regularly referred to as “Upchuck the Waters” in my house, that’s how bad it was.  They were closing churches left and right, and consolidating them into “parish communities” because they had only one priest per two or sometimes three churches.  The only reason St. Casimir’s survived the purge was because it was still beautiful, and people liked it for weddings (and it had perpetual Adoration, so that probably had a lot to do with it).

Meanwhile, Bishop Bruskewitz has so many seminarians, they’re sleeping on the floor because they don’t have room for them all.

CoincidenceHere in my own area, there’s a good example that proves the value of orthodoxy, in music and in everything else.  Blessed Sacrament Parish in Dallas, an inner-city, on-the-verge-of-closing, run-down, in-debt-up-to-its-ears church that one orthodox priest was able to revitalize.  After Bishop Grahmann yanked him out of there, and sent him to the hinterlands of the diocese, Fr. Weinberger did exactly the same thing a second time at St. William’s in Greenville.  So it wasn’t a one-time fluke.

I’ve been to St. William’s in Greenville, and it’s always one of the most beautiful Masses I’ve attended in a long time.  It takes an hour and a half to get there, but it’s worth it.  Latin, incense, bells, a dozen dedicated altar boys, and a congregation that responds and sings like it means it, like this really is the most important part of their week.

Would I drive an hour and a half to Mass for this?


My family wasn’t the only one driving that long to get to Greenville for Mass (there was at least one other, very large family from my town in Grenville every weekend).  I know people now who will brave the horrific mess that is I35S to get to Mater Dei in Irving, just for an orthodox Mass.

The results are obvious.  Attendance and vocations follow orthodoxy, and the most visible aspect of that is the music of a parish.  It really is that important.

And, more importantly, it’s not impossible.  I know this from my own experience.  I became the organist for one Mass at my parish when the nice lady who had been playing the organ for thirty-some years decided to retire.  After she left, we had one Sunday with guitars, and the next Sunday, the other choir members (all three of them) recruited me:

“Lori, you play the piano, right?”

“Uh . . . maybe a little.”

“That’s fine, just sit down here at the organ, and play the melody for us.  That way, we can stay on the right notes and it won’t sound bad.”

That was five years ago.

Because I was the one doing the accompaniment, I got to pick the hymns, so I picked the best I could out of the crappy hymnal we had.  Everything very orthodox.  I only had the skill to play about a dozen, so I repeated them often, which made them familiar to the congregation, which meant they began to sing them.  I managed to pick a setting of the Ordinary that was tolerable, mostly because it was easy for me to play, and it worked.  Then, because I hated playing the Owen Alstott responsorial psalms (they’re difficult, and usually in funky keys, in addition to sounding corny and juvenile), I switched to the simple chanted psalms, and the congregation learned those.  Then I began to use the simple propers for feast days and Lent, and they learned those, too.  It took years, but now, we use the propers every Sunday, all the hymns are traditional (thanks partly to the new St. Michael Hymnal), and the choir sings three-part polyphony every weekend (unless one of the members is sick).  We’ve even learned one by Palestrina.

Just this past Corpus Christi Sunday, we had a simplified version of the sequence printed in the pews, and the congregation was chanting that.  I even heard a lot of voices joining in the antiphons.  If I really want the congregation to sing loudly enough to be heard down the block, all I have to do is play “Faith of Our Fathers” and crank the organ up to full.

Attendance at that Mass has increased, and every now and then (like on Corpus Christi), even has more people there than at the more popular (probably for the sake of convenience) 11am Mass.  I get more compliments than complaints about the chant, too.  Come to think of it, I’ve never had someone complain about it to my face, but when someone does comment on it in my presence, it’s always been positive.

Slowly — very, very slowly — orthodoxy is filtering its way into my parish.  It hasn’t been around long enough to really show the kind of changes that Fr. Weinberger managed at Blessed Sacrament Parish, but there’s a slight dent in the armor of the Fluffy Horde.  I can’t take credit for all of that; not even close.  The major renovations we finally did to the church itself has had a lot to do with it, no doubt.  It looks like a church now, and that in itself is a major accomplishment.

But now, the beautiful, traditional church is the kind of place that demands the kind of music that belongs there.  We don’t have pink carpet on the floors and vertical wooden slats on the walls anymore.  We have beautiful paintings, a real high altar, hard floors, and a choir loft.  That kind of visual beauty needs musical beauty to fill it and match it.  That means that our senses — sight, hearing, and even smell, if we’re lucky enough to have incense — are engaged by the things around us, all working to lift our pathetic mortal selves up to God.

It’s not impossible.  If I can do it — Lori, who never played an organ in her life before that Sunday when the choir asked her to — anyone can.  All you need is that love of the Liturgy and the will to do it.

I love the Mass.  I love the beautiful musical traditions of my Church.  And I want to show everyone within the short range of my tiny amount of influence what things could be like.  How souls can be moved to higher things with the tools we have available to us.

I’m not so presumptuous to think that I can change someone’s heart or mind or soul.  That’s not something I have the power or the right to do — I have to leave that to the Holy Spirit.  All I can do is use my knowledge of what’s right and my little skill to help make the kind of atmosphere that will allow Him to work on the individuals in it.

lsbFollow the squirrel minion to get to Lori’s website, Little Squirrel Books.

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20 Responses to The Liturgy Wars: Sacred Music

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  3. I’m a church organist myself and I agree with you 100 percent! The music for the mass shouldn’t conform to whatever is popular at the time. Especially not the 70s! Yikes! Thanks so much for posting this!

    Liked by 2 people

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  5. riahkathleen says:

    YES! A thousand times yes. Thank you so much for putting it into words.


  6. riahkathleen says:

    Reblogged this on Amata Bene and commented:
    Beautiful, blunt and beyond comparison. The best explanation I’ve seen so far for sacred music.


  7. sussmayr says:

    As soon as I first read this post I thought, “Wow, our church is in huge trouble.” Every Sunday the singers at ten o’clock Mass use guitars and pianos EVERY time! I also love the Latin mass and I’m setting that to music.


    • A common argument we see is “Well, even if you’re right, there are more important things to focus on first.” It’s the little things that often do the most good or damage. Without a strong foundation, how can we be a great structure? If it’s okay to break the small rules, why is it bad to break the big rules?

      Besides, we see more and more that young Catholics are drawn to the traditional. They want to be part of something greater, and “Peter, Paul, and Mary choirs” singing plain and uninspiring music using two cords don’t help that, even before you add in heretical lyrics that (for example) place the congregation in the role of the priest (implying that the priest isn’t necessary to have Mass).

      By the way, the phrase “Peter, Paul, and Mary choirs” comes from a fallen-away Catholic, who told me why he stopped going to Mass. It was precisely because these groups are destroying things, and he left in the 70s. Until he met me, he had no idea that Latin and chant were still used at all. He’d been surrounded by “do what you want” Catholics so much that they’d so thoroughly destroyed the faith for him, and he had thought that the whole Church was like that now. I’m hoping he’ll take the next step to come back in, but the inertia and mistrust of so many decades is hard for him to overcome.

      It’s an extreme example, but every time someone tells me that the music doesn’t matter, I think of him and wonder how many more took his path.

      Liked by 1 person

      • sussmayr says:

        Yes, the music matters very much! There are Catholics that fall away from the faith because of the terrible music! I’ve heard very good sacred music before, and that’s part of the reason why I (a convert) decided to join the Church!


        • For me, it wasn’t a bug thing at first. I converted on the weight of evidence. (Well, it’s complicated, but that’s still why I’m here.) I couldn’t learn about history without understanding the Church was right. And from that, I knew that other things were probably right as well, and that there would be reasons for them. The tradition of sacred music is just one such topic. There are reasons, they are good, and they are important.

          I have no clue — even though I used to be one — why anyone can look at the Church and say they only want part of it. It’s too important. If any of it is true, then all of it is true.

          Liked by 1 person

        • sussmayr says:

          I read about the “lord, liar, or lunatic” argument and found that it makes perfect sense. Jesus wasn’t just a great man; He said He was God, and if Jesus was lying, then He would not be a great man! And if Jesus was a lunatic, could Christianity have lasted for 2000 years? There’s got to be a reason why some religions die out (Greek mythology, for example), and other flourish. There must be truth in these things.

          1 Corinthians 10:31 says: “So whether you eat or drink or whatever you do, do it all for the glory of God.” Liturgical music, which is used for divine worship, must be suitable for glorifying God. As a musician, I am just very depressed about how low the music industry in general (not just liturgical music) has sunk. with all those vulgar phrases!


        • That’s probably what kept me Christian in my teens and early twenties: the argument that there’s no way our religion would have survived everything it’s been through if it weren’t true. No other ideology in the world, much less a religion, has survived without fracturing when faced with even a fraction of what the Church has been through. Each of them will split and scatter, as has happened with Protestantism, Islam, communism, and more. Even Judaism has been unable to fully hold together, though I believe that their partial success in that regard — because they’ve gone through arguably more than Catholics — is due to their status as our spiritual origin. Even so, they have not maintained their status as a whole unit.

          But it goes even further than that. The Church has never had to backtrack on any doctrine. No Pope, no matter how openly sinful, has ever taught that sin is now okay. Despite human error after massive human error, the Church’s spiritual teachings have remained the same and never changed to suit one generation over another. That’s unlikely over two decades; it’s impossible over two millennia. I can’t look at that and see it as somehow coincidental.

          Liked by 1 person

        • sussmayr says:

          Christianity is logical, and Jesus was actually a real person, not a hero from a myth. One of my atheist friends told me, “How can the Pope be infallible? St. Peter even betrayed Jesus.” I said that although some popes in history have been outwardly sinful, they still know the correct teachings. When they speak of faith and morals they are infallible.

          Obviously the Catholic Church was wrong to say that the sun revolves around the earth, but that was back in the Middle Ages and it was due to lack of scientific knowledge, not a problem with a church teaching or doctrine.


        • St. Peter’s denial of Christ was that he did not know Him, not that Christ was not God; so a sin, but not a sin of heresy. Even if it were, Peter wasn’t Pope yet. The Church considers his ordination as a bishop, along with the other Apostles, to be when the Risen Christ breathed on them in the locked room. Yet even without that, the birth of the Church itself is considered to be Pentecost, and you can’t have a head of the Church before the Church comes into full existence.

          And a fun note on that tired old saw of the Church and science: Copernicus was a deacon, and no one said he was a heretic for suggesting that Earth revolves around the sun. There was caution with Galileo because 1) he was using it to cast doubt on moral teachings, and 2) this was after the Protestant Revolution, and people were very antsy about vocal disagreement leading to ignorance rather than building up a body of knowledge. (In fact, while Protestants like bringing it up, the first people to condemn Galileo were Protestants themselves.)

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  12. Debra Carlson says:

    Excellent, excellent article. As a musician, I have seen people leaving the church over not getting their way with the music. They have been incredibly hostile to the priest. One of our choir directors who supports “Praise and Worship” said to me “Jesus, is the music”. Or, I had one 8th grade class at the Catholic School ask “Why can’t we sing Jingle Bells, it is a sacred song?” I have never seen so much hostile and angry behavior in adults. It is as if the music has become their “sacred cow”.


    • I think it narrows down to whether or not they think that the music is a performance, or something to help someone pray. The latter is, of course, the whole purpose. We can and do have Masses without any music, even chanting by the priest. Similarly, it’s still the same sacrifice if the priest were in street clothes (though there are rules to have the proper attire except in grave circumstances, of course). One need not have gold or jewels on the chalice, or even the church itself (again, in the proper circumstance; I attended several outdoor Masses while on pilgrimage).

      But all those details help elevate the mind to God. The first cup used in the first Mass, as Indiana Jones suggested, was likely quite humble; but we decorate ours today to show it is special. We construct grand churches to help us remember that it is a place apart — in the world, but not of it. Our priests wear special robes to help us — and them — remember their role. And the music, proper liturgical music, lifts the mind and joins us together in harmony (er, theoretically . . . but hey, that guy in the pew behind you is trying!) to praise God.

      Music isn’t the only thing being treated that way. It’s just sometimes a little more obvious because it’s a replacement. People try to minimize the church by saying “Oh, we don’t need to be ostentatious,” and then shove the tabernacle down the hall, behind three doors, up some stairs, and far enough away they should add in a tram system. They sometimes fiddle with the priests’ robes, ignoring the rubrics on colors; or make the sacred vessels simple and ordinary; they have the priest face the congregation, rather than face the altar with said congregation. Bit by bit, they chip away at the beauty and separate nature of the Mass; and the more they treat the Mass as ordinary and about the people rather than God, the less reason they see for keeping the sacred music sacred.

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