ROME, 13 JAN. 2004 (ZENIT).
Answered by Father Edward McNamara, professor
of liturgy at the Regina Apostolorum Pontifical Athenaeum.
Q: What norms should be followed regarding music during celebrations of
the Eucharist? On March 5, 1967, the Sacred Congregation of Rites issued
the instruction "Musicam Sacram" (AAS 59  300-320) with the approval
and confirmation of Paul VI, indicating its provisions should go into
force on Pentecost Sunday, May 14, 1967. So far as I know, the document's
provisions never have been followed in the U.S. But also, so far as I
know, the document's provisions never have been replaced or abrogated.
G.G., Emmitsburg, Maryland
A: The following extract (below) from the new General Instruction on the
Roman Missal should respond in part to the question. From the footnotes it
is clear that "Musicam Sacram" has not been abrogated and indeed its
principles are still in force.
Some details of the document have been rendered obsolete by the
publication of the Missal at a later date
such as the formal distinction between solemn, sung and read Mass
but on the whole it is still valid.
The new Roman Missal in Latin clearly shows the desire to remain faithful
to the principles of "Musicam Sacram" by printing the musical notations
for the ordinary of the Mass and for all of the major Prefaces. It even
goes further in providing chant tones for the readings and for all four
The reason why much of the document has remained a dead letter was
perhaps, to paraphrase Chesterton, not that it was tried and found wanting
but found difficult and left untried.
In some cases the document specified tasks for the episcopal conferences
or the bishop to regulate sacred music. Unfortunately, with so much on
their hands after the Second Vatican Council, many episcopal conferences
did not consider liturgical music a priority. Thus in many cases the
document was left without any regulatory organs on the local or national
level to implement its dispositions. The choice of music was thus often
left to each parish with relatively little official guidance and
at the same time other sources, sometimes motivated by commercial
concerns, offered parishes a wide range of music of disparate quality.
In part this situation has been redressed by the U.S. episcopal
conference, which has inserted into the new General Instruction a
requirement that all musical settings of the texts for the people's
responses and acclamations in the Order of Mass and for special rites that
occur in the course of the liturgical year must be submitted to the
bishops' Secretariat for the Liturgy, for review and approval prior to
publication (No. 393).
Some episcopal conferences, such as in Italy and Spain, have published
official repertoires of songs and psalms for liturgical use.
A further reason is the mistaken idea that the people have to sing
everything, and even that Latin was forbidden. This led to the disbandment
of many choirs who had no outlet for their repertoires. Once gone, they
were difficult to start again.
Finally, another reason is that many priests either cannot sing, or else
found the English translations too difficult to sing according to the
traditional chants and so, never applied the norms regarding the order of
choice in singing the liturgy.
There are probably other reasons also but I think these are among the
Extract from the General Instruction
The Importance of Singing
39. The Christian faithful who gather together as one to await the Lord's
coming are instructed by the Apostle Paul to sing together psalms, hymns,
and spiritual songs (cf. Col 3:16). Singing is the sign of the heart's joy
(cf. Acts 2:46). Thus Saint Augustine says rightly, "Singing is for one
who loves."1 There is also the ancient proverb: "One who sings
well prays twice."
40. Great importance should therefore be attached to the use of singing in
the celebration of the Mass, with due consideration for the culture of the
people and abilities of each liturgical assembly. Although it is not
always necessary (e.g., in weekday Masses) to sing all the texts that are
of themselves meant to be sung, every care should be taken that singing by
the ministers and the people is not absent in celebrations that occur on
Sundays and on holy days of obligation.
In the choosing of the parts actually to be sung, however, preference
should be given to those that are of greater importance and especially to
those to be sung by the priest or the deacon or the lector, with the
people responding, or by the priest and people together.2
41. All other things being equal, Gregorian chant holds pride of place
because it is proper to the Roman Liturgy. Other types of sacred music, in
particular polyphony, are in no way excluded, provided that they
correspond to the spirit of the liturgical action and that they foster the
participation of all the faithful.3
Since faithful from different countries come together ever more
frequently, it is fitting that they know how to sing together at least
some parts of the Ordinary of the Mass in Latin, especially the Creed and
the Lord's Prayer, set to the simpler melodies.4
1 Cf. Sacred Congregation of Rites, Instruction Musicam sacram,
On music in the Liturgy, 5 March 1967, nos. 7, 16: AAS 59 (1967), pp. 302,
2 Cf. Second Vatican Ecumenical Council, Constitution on the
Sacred Liturgy, Sacrosanctum Concilium, no. 116; cf. also Sacred
Congregation of Rites, Instruction Musicam sacram, On music in the
Liturgy, 5 March 1967, no. 30.
3 Cf. Second Vatican Ecumenical Council, Constitution on the
Sacred Liturgy, Sacrosanctum Concilium, no. 54; Sacred Congregation of
Rites, Instruction Inter Oecumenici, on the orderly carrying out of the
Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy, 26 September 1964, no. 59: AAS 56
(1964), p. 891; Sacred Congregation of Rites, Instruction Musicam sacram,
On music in the Liturgy, 5 March 1967, no. 47: AAS 59 (1967), p. 314.
4 Cf. Second Vatican Ecumenical Council, Constitution on the
Sacred Liturgy, Sacrosanctum Concilium, nos. 30, 34; cf. also Sacred
Congregation of Rites, Instruction Musicam sacram, On music in the
Liturgy, 5 March 1967, no. 21.
* * *
Follow-up: 1967's "Musicam Sacram" [from 1-27-04]
Father Peter Schineller, an American Jesuit who has ministered for 18
years in Africa and who has authored a "Handbook on Church Music
Choirs, Priest and Catholic Faithful," wrote the following commentary on
our response regarding "Musicam Sacram" (Jan. 13):
"1. We are primarily not to sing at or during the Mass, but SING THE MASS
that is, sing the important parts of the Mass in response to the priest.
This means that the priority in singing should be the four Acclamations
(Alleluia; Holy, Holy, Holy; Acclamation of Faith; and the Great Amen). If
there is any singing, these are the first and most important before [the]
entrance hymn or Communion hymns (cf. Nos. 7,16,29).
"2. A main focus of the choir is to lead and stir up the voices of all in
the congregation. It is not to replace the congregation, not to perform.
The choir should be evaluated, not by how well the choir sings, but by how
well, how actively, the entire congregation sings (cf. No. 19).
"3. For both of these wishes of the document to be implemented, the burden
lies on the priest to lead and to instruct his choir and parishioners. If
the priest does not chant the important parts, the people will not sing
them (cf. Nos. 13,14,26)."
I substantially agree with everything that Father Schineller says and that
he is quite correct in his interpretation of Church documents.
Regarding his affirmation that we are not to sing at Mass but sing the
paraphrasing a famous statement of Pope Pius XI regarding not praying at
Mass but praying the Mass
would add that not just the acclamations but also the greetings and
responses ("The Lord be with you," etc.), the presidential prayers, the
responsorial psalm and the people's invocation of the Prayer of the
Faithful, the Our Father, the Lamb of God and the final blessing should
also ideally be sung.
While no Sunday Mass should be without some singing, there is plenty of
room for a gradual approach to distinguish and emphasize the more solemn
feasts from lesser celebrations and even distinguish among the various
Sunday Masses so as to cater to diverse spiritual sensibilities.
The experience of several pastors who arrived at parishes where there was
little tradition of congregational singing seems to prove that the best
way of fomenting this form of active participation is through the singing
of the common prayers that are repeated every week.
Once people get used, for example, to singing the Alleluia, the Holy Holy
Holy and the Our Father, they gradually lose their fear of singing and
join in with gusto. After this they readily participate in more complex
pieces such as the Gloria and the Creed as well as other hymns.
The vast majority of the faithful find that this form of singing helps
them to live the Mass in a fuller way, which is logical as this form of
celebration is, pardon the pun, more in tune with the mind of the Church.
Often this aspect is neglected while there are endless discussions about
selecting the most appropriate entrance, offertory or Communion hymn,
which, as Father Schineller correctly points out, are the least important
elements from the liturgical point of view.
While our correspondent is correct in saying that the choir should be
evaluated by how actively the congregation sings, this does not exclude
the possibility that sometimes the choir may sing alone.
The purpose of the choir is to help the people pray, and while this is
principally achieved through leading the congregation in singing, it may
also be done through the beauty of a musical expression that favors silent
"Musicam Sacram" expressly calls for the conservation of the Church's
Gregorian and polyphonic patrimony (Nos. 50-53), and some recent
liturgical compositions blossom fully only when executed by a choir. The
best way to conserve the patrimony of liturgical music is to use it in the
setting for which it was composed and not just the occasional concert.
Thus the choir can solemnize some special feasts by using a classical or
Gregorian Mass setting. Or it could sing a more complex piece during a
more meditative moment, such as the preparation of the gifts. Some
excellent compositions alternate refrain and strophe between choir and
people, allowing both to participate.
The choir's participation should never lead to the total exclusion of
congregational participation. Provision should be made for the people to
have a copy and translation of the texts being sung so as to heighten the
spiritual efficacy of the musical interpretation.
Finally, Father Schineller correctly places much of the onus on the priest
to carry out the Church's desire regarding the proper order of liturgical
singing. The traditional simple chants used for singing priestly prayers
and greetings are well within the range of most priests although the
magnificent tone for the preface can sometimes be a challenge.
The priest is the first who has to lose his fear of singing, including his
fear of appearing ridiculous. Once begun he will find that singing the
prayers and greetings not only adds a touch of solemnity but also frees
him from the temptation of having to act or stress the prayers in order to
put feeling or meaning into them.
Thus singing, rather than emphasizing the individual personality of the
priest, serves to accentuate his priestly function.
These prayers were probably composed in order to be sung and find their
best expression in the traditional simple prayer chants or in similar
tones adapted to the vernacular.
Once the priest leads he will find that the people will follow him. And
the spiritual benefits of singing the Mass will undoubtedly follow for, as
St. Augustine said, "He who sings prays twice." ZE04012723