Non-liturgical Music in Cathedrals

Author: Father Edward McNamara


Non-liturgical Music in Cathedrals

ROME, 19 SEPT. 2006 (ZENIT)

Answered by Father Edward McNamara, professor of liturgy at the Regina Apostolorum university.

Q: In what circumstances can a cathedral be used for a non-liturgical purpose such as a concert of secular operatic arias? — B.N., Bunbury Australia

A: This theme was addressed in a declaration on "Concerts in Churches" published by the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Sacraments in November 1987 (Protocol No. 1251/87). The English version of the text appeared in Sacred Music, Volume 114, N. 4 (Winter) 1987. Among other sites it is available electronically at

For brevity, we will limit ourselves to quoting its practical norms. It is also possible that individual bishops' conferences or even individual bishops publish norms that apply these principles to concrete situation:

"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 ....

"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, to the saints or to 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 instrumental, 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 seasons; c. create 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 favors and makes accessible the proclamation of God's word, as for example, a sustained reading of the Gospel; 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 modum actus.' These concerts should be occasional events. This excludes permission for a series of concerts, for example in the case of a festival or a 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, para. 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 program, 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 president's 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 928, 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 listeners.

"h. The organizer of the concert will declare in writing that he accepts legal responsibilities 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." ZE06091921

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Follow-up: Non-liturgical Music in Cathedrals [10-3-2006]

Our quoting of the norms regarding concerts of non-liturgical music (Sept. 19) brought to light another question regarding the use of other forms of music in liturgical settings.

A Michigan reader mentioned that his new pastor had banned "patriotic music during the Mass" — such as "The Navy Hymn" and "America the Beautiful."

"In addition," he writes, "ethnic songs ('Danny Boy') are not to be sung during funeral liturgies even if requested by the family. Also banned: music by Mozart, Handel, Chopin and Beethoven. The congregation must sing all parts of the Mass with Choir, even during special occasions (Christmas, Easter, etc.).

"Our parish is over 50 years old and has an excellent choir and music director. Four previous pastors encouraged excellent music (Latin, traditional, contemporary, gospel, folk). The choir has met with the new pastor and he insists that it is his decision on the type of music and songs that will be sung during the liturgy."

Few themes are more fraught with difficulties than that of suitable music for Mass. We have already discussed several aspects of liturgical music on earlier occasions (see Nov. 11, 25 and Dec. 23, 2003; Jan. 13, 27, Nov. 23, 30 and Dec. 7, 14, 2004).

The pastor is correct that he has final say regarding the kind of music used in church. But his decision must not be arbitrarily based on personal taste but on the criteria and indications found in Church documents as issued by the Holy See, the national bishops' conference, and the local bishop.

The Church has specifically recommended on numerous occasions the use of Gregorian chant and classic liturgical polyphony even though it permits other styles that are in harmony with the sacredness of the Eucharistic celebration, and are not immediately associated with profane contexts.

The Church also recognizes that many classical (usually orchestral) compositions are no longer suitable for common liturgical use even though some of them may still be used on special occasions.

Thus, while it is highly desirable that the congregation habitually sing all parts of the Mass, certain feasts may be highlighted by the choir singing a classical polyphonic Mass or by the assembly learning a Gregorian chant Mass.

It would probably be better to have the assembly sing the Mass with the choir for Christmas and Easter as such a community celebration could be a draw to those Catholics who only rarely practice their faith. There are many other suitable feasts that could be reserved for a classical polyphonic Mass such as Ascension or Trinity Sunday.

The choir may also use Gregorian chant and polyphonic compositions as musical meditations for example to accompany the presentation of gifts and after Communion.

Regarding patriotic songs: Some countries have special Mass formulas to commemorate national holidays such as Australia Day (Jan. 26) and Canada Day (July 1). Hence, it is not contrary to Catholic custom to invoke God's blessing on a particular country by dedicating a national day of prayer.

The use of patriotic hymns on national holidays depends on prevailing custom as well as the text and theology of the hymns in question. Not all patriotic hymns are suitable for the context of the Eucharist and some texts may even express sentiments contrary to Catholic theology.

Likewise, although patriotism is a virtue, the upsurge of patriotic sentiments produced by such hymns is likely to distract our attention away from the holy mystery we are celebrating. Thus, if patriotic hymns are used at all, it is probably better to use them as closing hymns after the final blessing.

With respect to ethnic songs, maudlin Irishman though I am, songs such as "Danny Boy" have no place at the funeral Mass at which only suitable hymns may be used. Otherwise the character of the Mass as the supreme act of intercession for the soul of the departed can be easily obscured.

Such songs may be performed during the wake at the funeral parlor or at some similar reception, along with any eulogies and celebrations of the life of the deceased. ZE06100321

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