Music and Instruments in the Liturgy


One of the ongoing controversies in parishes is what kind of music and instruments are  appropriate in the Mass. Fortunately, the experimentation of the past, when there were Rock Masses, Jazz Masses and even Polka Masses, seems for the most part over. Naturally, where there is no regard for the nature of the liturgy or the norms of the Church anything is still possible.

Such "liturgies" (if they can be called that) are sometimes justified as what "Vatican II" was about, opening the windows, trying new things, using worldly forms. Nothing could be further from the truth. The Council insistently called for the preservation of the traditions of the Latin Rite and the harmonization of any universal or local adaptations to that tradition and the nature of the sacred liturgy. 


Second Vatican Council. The Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy Sacrosanctum Concilium makes clear the nature of authentic liturgical reform. Excerpting, and highlighting, what applies to our subject it states,

22. 1. Regulation of the sacred liturgy depends solely on the authority of the Church, that is, on the Apostolic See and, as laws may determine, on the bishop.
2. In virtue of power conceded by the law, the regulation of the liturgy within certain defined limits belongs also to various kinds of competent territorial bodies of bishops legitimately established.
3. Therefore no other person, even if he be a priest, may add, remove, or change anything in the liturgy on his own authority.

23. That sound tradition may be retained, and yet the way remain open to legitimate progress. Careful investigation is always to be made into each part of the liturgy which is to be revised. This investigation should be theological, historical, and pastoral. Also the general laws governing the structure and meaning of the liturgy must be studied in conjunction with the experience derived from recent liturgical reforms and from the indults conceded to various places. Finally, there must be no innovations unless the good of the Church genuinely and certainly requires them; and care must be taken that any new forms adopted should in some way grow organically from forms already existing.

26. Liturgical services are not private functions, but are celebrations of the Church, which is the "sacrament of unity," namely, the holy people united and ordered under their bishops.

29. Servers, lectors commentators, and members of the choir also exercise a genuine liturgical function. They ought, therefore, to discharge their office with the sincere piety and decorum demanded by so exalted a ministry and rightly expected of them by God's people. Consequently they must all be deeply imbued with the spirit of the liturgy, each in his own measure, and they must be trained to perform their functions in a correct and orderly manner.

37. Even in the liturgy, the Church has no wish to impose a rigid uniformity in matters which do not implicate the faith or the good of the whole community; rather does she respect and foster the genius and talents of the various races and peoples. Anything in these peoples' way of life which is not indissolubly bound up with superstition and error she studies with sympathy and, if possible, preserves intact. Sometimes in fact she admits such things into the liturgy itself, so long as they harmonize with its true and authentic spirit.

39. Within the limits set by the typical editions of the liturgical books, it shall be for the competent territorial ecclesiastical authority mentioned in Art. 22, 2, to specify adaptations, especially in the case of the administration of the sacraments, the sacramentals, processions, liturgical language, sacred music, and the arts, but according to the fundamental norms laid down in this Constitution.

112. 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. ... 

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. But the Church approves of all forms of true art having the needed qualities, and admits them into divine worship.

114. The treasure of sacred music is to be preserved and fostered with great care. Choirs must be diligently promoted, especially in cathedral churches; but bishops and other pastors of souls must be at pains to ensure that, whenever the sacred action is to be celebrated with song, the whole body of the faithful may be able to contribute that active participation which is rightly theirs, as laid down in Art. 28 and 30.

116. 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. But other kinds of sacred music, especially polyphony, are by no means excluded from liturgical celebrations, so long as they accord with the spirit of the liturgical action, as laid down in Art. 30.

119. 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.

120. 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.

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. 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.

121. 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.


Musican Sacram. After the Council it fell to the Sacred Congregation of Rites (today called Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments) to apply the norms of Sacrosanctum Concilium in implementing documents touching on all the various areas of liturgical reform. In the area of liturgical music the implementing document is called Musicam sacram (Sacred Music). It establishes what can be called sacred music.

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." [SC 112]

(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.


Thus, popular liturgical, or simply religious, music can be sacred if:

1) it is created for worship, and 

2) it is endowed with a certain holy sincerity of form. 

This suggests that adapted secular tunes do not belong in the Mass, but that modern creations that have the described character can be used.

As for instruments, the same guiding document states,

62. Musical instruments can be very useful in sacred celebrations, whether they accompany the singing or whether they are played as solo instruments.

The pipe organ is to be held in high esteem in the Latin Church, since it is its traditional instrument, the sound of which can add a wonderful splendor to the Church's ceremonies and powerfully lift up men's minds to God and higher things.

"The use of other instruments may also be admitted in divine worship, given the decision and consent of the competent territorial authority, provided that the instruments are suitable for sacred use, or can be adapted to it, that they are in keeping with the dignity of the temple, and truly contribute to the edification of the faithful.

63. In permitting and using musical instruments, the culture and traditions of individual peoples must be taken into account. However, those instruments which are, by common opinion and use, suitable for secular music only, are to be altogether prohibited from every liturgical celebration and from popular devotions.

Any musical instrument permitted in divine worship should be used in such a way that it meets the needs of the liturgical celebration, and is in the interests both of the beauty of worship and the edification of the faithful.

As you can see, an instrument that can get the approval of the "territorial authority" (read "bishops' conference") can be used in the Mass. 

GIRM. The General Instruction of the Roman Missal (2002) states the following:

20 The celebration of the Eucharist, like the entire liturgy, involves the use of outward signs that foster, strengthen, and express faith. There must be the utmost care therefore to choose and to make wise use of those forms and elements provided by the Church which, in view of the circumstances of the people and the place, will best foster active and full participation and properly serve the spiritual well-being of the faithful.

24 For the most part, these adaptations consist in the choice of certain rites or texts, that is, of liturgical songs, readings, prayers, introductory comments and gestures which may respond better to the needs, degree of preparation and mentality of the participants. Such choices are entrusted to the priest celebrant. Nevertheless, the priest must remember that he is the servant of the sacred Liturgy, and that he himself is not permitted, on his own initiative, to add, remove or to change anything in the celebration of Mass. [SC 22]

39 The faithful who gather together to await the Lord's coming are instructed by the Apostle Paul to sing together psalms, hymns, and inspired liturgical songs (see Colossians 3:16). Liturgical song is the sign of the heart's joy (see Acts 2:46). Thus Saint Augustine says rightly: "To sing belongs to lovers." There is also the ancient proverb: "One who sings well prays twice."

41 All things being equal, Gregorian chant should hold a privileged place, as being more proper to the Roman liturgy. Other kinds of sacred music, polyphony in particular, are not in any way to be excluded, provided that they correspond with the spirit of the liturgical action and that they foster the participation of all the faithful.

Since the faithful from different countries come together ever more frequently, it is desirable that they know how to sing at least some parts of the Ordinary of the Mass in Latin, especially the profession of faith and the Lord's Prayer, set to simple melodies.

42 The gestures and posture of the priest, deacon and the ministers, as well as of the people should allow the whole celebration to shine with dignity and noble simplicity, demonstrating the full and true meaning of each of their diverse parts, while fostering the participation of all. Therefore, greater attention needs to be paid to what is laid down by liturgical law and by the traditional practice of the Roman Rite, for the sake of the common spiritual good of the people of God rather than to personal inclination or arbitrary choice.

Thus, it should be clear from the general norms, as well as from the norms governing specific parts of the Mass, that while there is obviously an element of judgment on the part of bishops and priests as to what music and instruments to allow within the Mass, that this license does not extend to music and instruments of a purely secular nature which are not adaptable to the liturgy and its sacred character.


Answered by Colin B. Donovan, STL

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