I. Music in churches other than during liturgical celebrations
1. The interest shown in music is one of the marks of contemporary
culture. The ease with which it is possible to listen at home to
classical works, by means of radio, records, cassettes and television,
has in no way diminished the pleasure of attending live concerts, but on
the contrary has actually enhanced it. This is encouraging, because
music and song contribute to elevating the human spirit.
The increase in the number of concerts in general has in some
countries given rise to a more frequent use of churches for such events.
Various reasons are given for this" local needs, where for example
it is not easy to fund suitable places; acoustical considerations, for
which churches are often ideal; aesthetic reasons, namely the desire to
perform in beautiful surroundings, reasons of fittingness, that, to
present the works in the setting for which they were originally written;
purely practical reasons, for example facilities for organ recitals: in
a word, churches are considered to be in many ways apt places for hold a
2. Alongside this contemporary development a new situation has arisen
in the church.
The Scholae cantorum have not had frequent occasion to execute
their traditional repertory of sacred polyphony music within the context
of a liturgical celebration.
For this reason, the initiative has been taken to perform this sacred
music in church in the form of a concert. The same has happened with
Gregorian chant, which has come to form part of the concert programmes
both inside and outside of church.
Another important factor emerges from the so-called "spiritual
concerts", so termed because the music performed in them can be
considered as religious, because of the theme chosen, or on account of
the nature of the texts set to music, or because of the venue for the
Such events are in some cases accompanied by readings, prayers and
moments of silence. Given such features they can almost be compared to a
3. The increased numbers of concerts held in churches has given rise
to doubts in the minds of pastors and rectors of churches as to the
extent to which such events are really necessary.
A general opening of churches for concerts could give rise to
complaints by a number of the faithful, yet on the other hand an
outright refusal could lead to some misunderstanding.
First it is necessary to consider the significance and purpose of a
Christian church. For this, the Congregation for Divine Worship
considers it opportune to propose to the episcopal conferences, and in
so far as it concerns them, to the national commissions of liturgy and
music, some observations and interpretations of the canonical norms
concerning the use of churches for various kinds of music, music and
song, music of religious inspiration and music of non-religious
4. At this juncture it is necessary to reread recent documents which
treat of the subject, in particular the Constitution on the Liturgy Sacrosanctum
Concilium, the Instruction Musicam Sacram, of 5 March 1967,
the Instruction Liturgicae Instaurationes of 5 September 1970, in
addition to the prescriptions of the Code of Canon Law, cann. 1210, 1213
In this present letter the primary concern is with musical
performances outside of the celebration of the liturgy.
The Congregation for Divine Worship wishes in this way to help
individual bishops to make valid pastoral decisions, bearing in mind the
socio-cultural situation of the area.
II. Points for consideration
The character and purpose of churches
5. According to tradition as expressed in the rite for the dedication
of a church and altar, churches are primarily places where the People of
God gather, and are "made one as the Father, the Son and the Holy
Spirit are one, and are the Church, the temple of God built with living
stones, in which the Father is worshipped in spirit and in truth".
Rightly so, from ancient times the name "church" has been
extended to the building in which the
Christian community unites to hear the word of God, to pray together,
to receive the sacraments, to celebrate the Eucharist and to prolong its
celebration in the adoration of the Blessed Sacrament (cf. Order of the
Dedication of a Church, ch. II, 1).
Church, however, cannot be considered simply as public places for any
kind of meeting. They are sacred places, that is, "set apart"
in a permanent way for Divine Worship by their dedication and blessing.
As visible constructions, churches are signs of the pilgrim Church on
earth; they are images that proclaim the heavenly Jerusalem, places in
which are actualized the mystery of the communion between man and God.
Both in urban areas and in the countryside, the church remains the house
of God, and the sign of his dwelling among men. It remains a sacred
place, even when no liturgical celebration is taking place.
In a society disturbed by noise, especially in the big cities,
churches are also an oasis where people gather, in silence and in
prayer, to seek peace of soul and the light of faith.
That will only be possible in so far as church maintain their
specific identity. When churches are used for ends other than those for
which they were built, their role as a sign of the Christian mystery is
put at risk, with more or less serious harm to the teaching of the faith
and to the sensitivity of the People of God, according to the Lordís
words: "My house is a house of prayer" (Lk 19:46).
Importance of sacred music
6. Sacred music, whether vocal or instrumental, is of importance.
Music is sacred "in so far as it is composed for the celebration of
divine worship and possesses integrity of form" (Musicam Sacram
n. 4a). The Church considers it a "treasure of inestimable value,
greater even that of any other art", recognizing that it has a
"ministerial function in the service of the Lord" (cf. SC
n. 112); and recommending that it be "preserved and fostered with
great care" (SC n. 114).
Any performance of sacred music which takes place during a
celebration, should be fully in harmony with that celebration. This
often means that musical compositions which date from a period when the
active participation of the faithful was not emphasized as the source of
the authentic Christian spirit (SC n. 14, Pius X Tra le
sollecitudini) are no longer to be considered suitable for inclusion
within liturgical celebrations.
Analogous changes of perception and awareness have occurred in other
areas involving the artistic aspect of divine worship: for example, the
sanctuary has been restructured, with the presidentís chair, the ambo
and the altar versus populum. Such changes have not been made in
a spirit of disregard for the past, but have been deemed necessary in
the pursuit of an end of greater importance, namely, the active
participation of the faithful. The limitation which such changes impose
on certain musical works can be overcome by arranging for their
performance outside the context of liturgical celebration in a concert
of sacred music.
7. The performance of purely instrumental pieces on the organ during
liturgical celebrations today is limited. In the past the organ took the
place of the active participation of the faithful, and reduced the
people to the role of "silent and inert spectators" of the
celebration (Pius XI, Divini Cultus, n. 9).
It is legitimate for the organ to accompany and sustain the singing
either of the assembly or the choir within the celebration. On the other
hand, the organ must never be used to accompany the prayers or chants of
the celebrant nor the readings proclaimed by the reader or the deacon.
In accordance with tradition, the organ should remain silent during
penitential seasons (Lent and Holy Week), during advent and the Liturgy
for the Dead. When, however, there is real pastoral need, the organ can
be used to support the singing.
It is fitting that the organ be played before and after a celebration
as a preparation and conclusion of the celebration.
It is of considerable importance that in all churches, and especially
those of some importance, there should be trained musicians and
instruments of good quality. Care should be given to the maintenance of
organs and respect shown towards their historical character both in form
III. Practical Directives
8. The regulation of the use of churches is stipulated by canon 1210
of the Code of Canon law:
"In a sacred place only those things are to be permitted which
serve to exercise or promote worship, piety and religion. Anything out
of harmony with the holiness of the place is forbidden. The Ordinary
may, however, for individual cases, permit other uses, provided they are
not contrary to the sacred character of the place".
The principle that the use of the church must not offend the
sacredness of the place determines the criteria by which the doors of a
church may be opened to a concert of sacred or religious music, as also
the concomitant exclusion of every other type of music. The most
beautiful symphonic music, for example, is not in itself of religious
character. The definition of sacred or religious music depends
explicitly on the original intended use of the musical pieces or songs,
and likewise on their content. It is not legitimate to provide for the
execution in the church of music which is not of religious inspiration
and which was composed with a view to performance in a certain precise
secular context, irrespective of whether the music would be judged
classical or contemporary, of high quality or of a popular nature. On
the one hand, such performances would not respect the sacred character
of the church, and on the other, would result in the music being
performed in an unfitting context.
It pertains to the ecclesiastical authority to exercise without
constraint its governance of sacred places (cf. canon 1213), and hence
to regulate the use of churches in such a way as to safeguard their
9. Sacred music, that is to say, music which was composed for the
liturgy, but which for various reasons can no longer be performed during
a liturgical celebration, and religious music, that is to say, music
inspired by the text of Sacred Scripture or the liturgy and which has
reference to God, the Blessed Virgin Mary, the Saints or the Church, may
both find a place in the church building, but outside liturgical
celebration. The playing of the organ or other musical performance,
whether vocal or instrument, may "serve to promote piety or
religion". In particular they may
a. prepare for the major liturgical feasts, or lend to these a more
festive character beyond the moment of actual celebration;
b. bring out the particular character of the different liturgical
c. created in churches a setting of beauty conducive to meditation,
so as to arouse even in those who are distant from the Church an
openness to spiritual values,
d. create a context which favours and makes accessible the
proclamation of Godís Word, as for example, a sustained reading of the
e. keep alive the treasures of Church music which must not be lost;
musical pieces and songs composed for the liturgy but which cannot in
any way be conveniently incorporated into liturgical celebrations in
modern times; spiritual music, such as oratorios and religious cantatas
which can still serve as vehicles for spiritual communication;
f. assist visitors and tourists to grasp more fully the sacred
character of a church, by means of organ concerts at prearranged times.
10. When the proposal is made that there should be a concert in a
church, the Ordinary is to grant the permission per mudum actus.
This excludes permission for a series of concerts, for example in the
case of a festival or cycle of concerts.
When the Ordinary considers it to be necessary, he can, in the
conditions foreseen in the Code of Canon Law, can. 1222 par. 2,
designate a church that is no longer used for divine service, to be an
"auditorium" for the performance of sacred or religious music,
and also of music not specifically religious but in keeping with the
character of the place.
In this task the bishop should be assisted by the Diocesan Commission
for Liturgy and Sacred Music.
In order that the sacred character of a church be conserved in the
matter of concerts, the Ordinary can specify that:
a. Requests are to be made in writing, in good time, indicating the
date and time of the proposed concert, the programme giving the works
and the names of the composers.
b. After having received the authorization of the Ordinary, the
rectors and parish priests of the churches should arrange details with
the choir and orchestra so that the requisite norms are observed.
c. Entrance to the church must be without payment and open to all.
d. The performers and the audience must be dressed in a manner which
is fitting to the sacred character of the place.
e. The musicians and the singers should not be placed in the
sanctuary. The greatest respect is to be shown to the altar, the
presidentís chair and the ambo.
f. The Blessed Sacrament should be, as far as possible, reserved in a
side chapel or in another safe and suitably adorned place (cf. C.I.C.,
can 938, par. 4).
g. The concert should be presented or introduced not only with
historical or technical details, but also in a way that fosters a deeper
understanding and an interior participation on the part of the
h. The organizer of the concert shall declare in writing that he
accepts legal responsibility for expenses involved, for leaving the
church in order, and for any possible damage incurred.
11. The above practical directives should be of assistance to the
bishops and rectors of churches in their pastoral responsibility to
maintain the sacred character of their churches, designed for sacred
celebrations, prayer and silence.
Such indications should not be interpreted as a lack of interest in
the art of music.
The treasury of sacred music is a witness to the way in which the
Christian faith promotes culture.
By underlining the true value of sacred or religious music, Christian
musicians and members of "scholae cantorum" should feel that
they are being encouraged to continue this tradition and to keep it
alive for the service of the faith, as expressed by the Second Vatican
Council in its message to artists:
"Do not hesitate to put your talent at the service of the divine
truth. The world in which we live has need of beauty in order not to
lose hope. Beauty, like truth, fills the heart with joy. And this,
thanks to your hands" (cf. Second Vatican Council, Message to
Artists, 8 December 1965).
Rome, 5 November 1987.
Paul Augustine Card. Mayer, O.S.B.
Titular Archbishop of Voncaria