What Are the Eight Myths About Church Music?

What Are the Eight Myths About Church Music?


  Dispelling eight myths about church music
 
 
  Myth 1. When it comes to music, there's no debating taste
 
  Many people think that the choice of music for Mass is just up to the pastor   and his musicians. Some parishes have more traditional music, others more   contemporary. Many parishes have a little bit of everything under the sun.
 
  Most Catholics know that there are laws which govern church structure and   worship, but many are not aware that the popes often have set down rules for   what music is admissible in church worship.
 
  In 1967 the Vatican issued Musicam Sacram as the musical legislation binding   in the Catholic Church since the Second Vatican Council.
 
  Music for the Mass is not arbitrary. Certain texts are designed by their very   nature to be sung, such as the Alleluia. Others, although they may be   recited, lend themselves to congregational or choral singing, such as the   responses and the ordinary texts of the Mass like the gloria.
 
  The church does not issue blacklists stating that certain songs are   prohibited, but she does offer general principles in her liturgical   documents. While the treasury of sacred music is broad indeed, what is sung   at Mass must be consistent not with the tastes of liturgy planners, but with   the celebration itself. Bishops and pastors may rule that certain selections   are inappropriate based on their content, associations, or irrelevance. Music   at Mass is not based on what we like, but on what is appropriate for the   celebration.
 
  Myth 2. Music at Mass is just a nice addition; it's not like it's necessary   or anything.

 
  Vatican II’s Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy calls sacred music an   integral part of the liturgy. It is not an embellishment unrelated to the   rites. The verb “to sing” is one of the most frequently used words in the   Bible. Christian liturgy in ancient times was always sung.
 
  In the Eastern Churches today the entire eucharistic liturgy is sung.   “Saying” Mass became popular around the Middle Ages when private Masses   multiplied, such that a distinction was made even ceremonially between a Low   Mass with no music or hymns and a Sung Mass where the actual texts of the   Mass were set to music.
 
  Vatican II provides for the principle of progressive solemnity. Depending on   various situations, more or less of the Mass may be accompanied by music. A   cathedral on Easter Sunday should be different than a private Mass on a   weekday. But the church’s preference is always for sung liturgy. He who sings   prays twice, said St. Augustine, and the church’s prayer has inspired some of   the most beautiful art and music in history.
 
  Myth 3. Choirs are only there to support congregational singing.

 
  In the early church, the faithful sang much of the Mass. There were, however,   certain melodies and texts that developed over time that some found difficult   to sing.
 
  Choirs, or scholae cantorum, were developed with trained singers who not only   supported congregational singing, but also performed some pieces on their   own. Europe saw the development of famous choir schools and Catholic   education has always included the teaching of music in its curricula. The   advent of part-singing made choirs even more necessary to the Mass.
 
  Choirs can be beneficial in leading the faithful in song, but they also can   have their own role apart from the congregation. Active participation does   not mean that everyone has to do the same things at the same time; it implies   an interior participation by listening and contemplation as much as engaging   in following the Mass and observing ritual gestures.
 
  Paid professional cantors and choirs have been a part of the Catholic musical   tradition for many centuries and continue to inspire Christians in their   worship beyond what is accessible to the ordinary pew-singer. Vatican II   explicitly urges the development of such choirs and musical education in   schools.
 
  Myth 4. We are supposed to sing four hymns at Mass.

 
  Catholics in the United States have become used to singing a hymn at the   entrance, at the offertory, during Communion and at the recessional at Sunday   Mass. This “four-hymn sandwich” actually harkens back to pre-Vatican II days   in which congregations who could not pull off Latin music were allowed to   sing English hymns at Low Masses.
 
  When English was allowed in the Mass and the rite of Mass changed, many   parishes continued this practice, albeit often with different music. While   hymns are allowed at Mass, they are not actually what the church asks for   during those times.
 
  The missal, the large book from which the priest reads the prayers at Mass,   provides short scriptural sentences called antiphons for the entrance and   communion. In the church’s legislation on sacred music, these antiphons have   pride of place for singing in the Mass. The antiphons are intimately   connected with the other prayers of each Sunday’s Mass. The church allows for   substitutions with other appropriate songs, but they should be modeled in   character after those antiphons.
 
  Hymns are not a part of the Roman eucharistic liturgy; they belong more   properly to the Liturgy of the Hours. The church prefers the antiphons drawn   from the Bible to hymns composed by people.
 
  Myth 5. Vatican II abolished Latin in the Mass.
 
  Vatican II’s Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy states, “The use of the Latin   language is to be preserved.” The council fathers commanded the use of Latin   while allowing for some use of the vernacular.
 
  The same document also calls for the faithful to be able to sing parts of the   Mass together in Latin. Latin gives the church a universal language.
 
  In an increasingly mobile culture of globalization, Catholics able to follow   the Mass in Latin and in their own tongue can actively participate in their   church anywhere in the world. The use of Latin also frees us from being too   narrow-minded and too centered on our own nation or culture; it connects us   with our history and paves the way for our future.
 
  The point of Latin is not to make the rites impossible to understand; it is   to make real the universality of the church.
 
  One can often see people at international Masses who can all make the Latin   responses and sing some things together in Latin. A powerful experience of   the church’s unity is when we all sing with one voice the same words that   Catholics have always sung at Mass.


 
 
 
 


 
 
 

Sacred Music and   singing are integral parts to the Sacred Roman Catholic Liturgy we   affectionately call The Mass. The documents of the Church actually call for   the Mass to be sung, not just for some singing at Mass. The type of music and   the lyrics to be sung are also specified by the liturgical books. All are   called to participate. Participation is sometimes by actively singing and   sometimes by actively listening and allowing yourself to be carried away by   the transcendent beauty of the Sacred Liturgy and its Sacred Music.


 
 
 
 
 
 


 
  Beautiful choirs can at times lead the congregations in singing and at   other times invite the congregation to an interior participation through   listening and contemplation. This photo is of a choir singing during Mass at   Notre Dame in Paris, France
 
 
 
 
 
 
 


 
 
 
 


 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

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Myth   6. The church does not have her own hymnal.
 
  The Graduale Romanum is the official hymnal for the Roman rite. It contains   Latin chants for the entrance, the Psalm and Gospel acclamation, the   offertory and Communion, which are collectively called the Propers of the   Mass, for every Mass of the year.
 
  They also provide Latin chants for Lord have mercy, glory to God, the creed,   holy holy holy and Lamb of God, collectively called the Ordinary of the Mass.   Music at Mass should always refer to these texts.
 
  What is called Gregorian chant is the music proper to the Roman rite and is   the church’s own composition. Much of the music sung since ancient times was   gathered by Pope St. Gregory the Great in the sixth century, and the church   has amplified the texts from time to time.
 
  The monks of Solesmes have done several critical editions of this hymnal,   including one which can be used for the reformed liturgy. Pastors and   musicians may provide for other music at Mass, and even develop other   hymnals, but Gregorian chant has, as Vatican II tells us, pride of place in   the liturgy. The Graduale Romanum is an indispensable tool for the church   musician.

Myth   7. Chant is too hard for people today to sing.
 
  There are two principal obstacles to chant today. Many people are no longer   fluent enough in Latin to understand or even pronounce it properly, and even   most musicians are unfamiliar with its notation.
 
  Just as it takes practice and education to play an instrument well, it takes   time and patience to learn the language and the markings of chant. There are   resources for musicians to learn the chant properly, and teaching choirs and   congregations chant may take time, but it will yield amazing results.
 
  Many people sing things that are actually more difficult. Consistent effort will   break down barriers and open up new possibilities for people to sing.
 
  When Msgr. Martin Hellriegel became pastor of Holy Cross in St. Louis in the   1950s, nobody in his parish had ever heard chant. He started teaching the   school children, and the adults were inspired to learn. Within a few years,   his people knew several chant Masses and could sing out of the church’s   official hymnal, the Graduale Romanum.
 
  Dedication and perseverance gave the people confidence that they could sing   Gregorian chant and many people today still know from memory the music they   learned in the parish.

Myth   8. Music is supposed to make me feel good at Mass.
 
  Music, especially at Mass, can be very powerful. The point of sacred music,   though, is not to make us feel good. Sacred music accompanies the church’s   rites to bring us beyond our own emotions and experiences to a transcendent   experience of the divine.
 
  The haunting beauty of the church’s traditional funeral music, for example,   stresses the mystery of death and the hope of the resurrection. It is far   superior to singing a loved one’s favorite radio tune as a memorial.
 
  Because the Mass is an unbloody re-presentation of the one sacrifice of   Calvary, music which is theatrical and which inspires us to the worldly or to   the irreligious is inappropriate to the dignity of the liturgy.
 
  The solemnity of the church’s music need not be boring or saddening, however.   Sacred music can be a powerful tool in helping us see beyond ourselves to   heaven.
 
  All liturgy is essentially a revelation of God to us. If the music at Mass   reveals more about what we like and what makes us happy, it is doing us a   disservice. If it brings us to true prayer and helps us contemplate the   beauty of God’s holiness and love, it can reveal God to us in amazing ways.
 
  Father Smith is the parochial vicar at St. Francis by the Sea Church on   Hilton Head Island and a member of the Church Music Association of America.   He has directed chant scholas both in Italy and the United States.
 
  Article by
  Father Christopher Smith
  Published April 23, 2009, The Catholic Miscellany, Used with Permission, June   1, 2009