Pre-recorded Music at Mass

Author: Father Edward McNamara


Pre-recorded Music at Mass

ROME, 23 NOV 2004 (ZENIT)

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

Q: What is the official teaching of the Church on using taped music at Mass? We just attended a funeral today and two songs were played over the loud speaker that were professional recordings. Each of these had a Christian message. Another song was pre-recorded onto a tape and was sung by a relative. Is there any official document that has guidelines that would help with this situation? — C.Y., Murdock, Minnesota

A: There are few universal norms which explicitly forbid the using of recorded music during the liturgy. But this should not be surprising as it is impossible to foresee everything that the human imagination can conjure up.

The principal documents that deal with music in Church always emphasize the importance of singing and presume the presence of live musicians who are considered as being part of the assembly.

Thus the General Instruction of the Roman Missal states in Nos. 39-40: "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.' There is also the ancient proverb: 'One who sings well prays twice.'

"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."

Later the same document (in No. 312) states: "The choir should be positioned with respect to the design of each church so as to make clearly evident its character as a part of the gathered community of the faithful fulfilling a specific function. The location should also assist the choir to exercise its function more easily and conveniently allow each choir member full, sacramental participation in the Mass."

The same principles are also valid for organists and other musicians.

The reason for this is that the use of music in the liturgy is always to enhance the quality of liturgical prayer and can never be considered as entertainment.

It is practically impossible for recorded music to serve the same function.

All the same, there is one circumstance where recorded music has been permitted, if somewhat timidly, in the Directory for Children's Masses. No. 32 of this document states:

"Care should always be taken, however, that the musical accompaniment does not overpower the singing or become a distraction rather than a help to the children. Music should correspond to the purpose intended for the different periods at which it is played during the Mass.

"With these precautions and with due and special discretion, recorded music may also be used in Masses with children, in accord with norms established by the conferences of bishops."

Among the various episcopal conferences, one that has explicitly forbidden the use of recorded music in the liturgy is the Italian. The Italian bishops have even extended this prohibition to cover children's Masses by calling attention to the need for the "veracity" of important liturgical signs such as singing, and furthermore "stresses the duty of educating in song the assembly of little ones that participates in the Sacred Celebration."

For this reason the conference states: "It is good to use recorded music to teach the songs outside of the sacred celebration but it is not permitted to use it during Mass." ZE04112322

* * *

Follow-up: Pre-recorded Music [12-07-2004]

As a corollary to our column regarding the use of pre-recorded music at Mass (Nov. 23) a reader from Taiwan asked about the legitimacy of pre-set accompaniment to live singing, a possibility offered by many modern organs.

Simultaneously, a correspondent from Wisconsin reminded me of the 1958 instruction "De Musica Sacra" issued by the Congregation of Rites, which states: "Finally, only those musical instruments which are played by the personal action of the artist may be admitted to the sacred liturgy, and not those which are operated automatically or mechanically."

This document followed Pope Pius XII's 1955 encyclical, "Musicae Sacrae," in which he insisted that liturgical music be "true art," if it is to be a genuine act of worship and praise of God.

Although these documents precede the Second Vatican Council, there is practically nothing in the conciliar or post-conciliar documents which would contradict the principles enunciated or invalidate their general normative value.

Indeed the council's insistence that choir and musicians form part of the liturgical assembly would even strengthen the presumption against the use of mechanical music.

There may be exceptions, as we saw in the case of children's Masses, but any general permission to use recorded or automatically produced music would require the express approval of the corresponding bishop or episcopal conference.

According to the above documents it is preferable to sing without musical accompaniment than resort to artificial means.

A Nigerian correspondent requested if, due to the dearth of musically literate parishioners, it were possible to hire professional musicians to play the organ or other instruments even if they are non-Catholic.

Paid musicians are actually quite common, especially in cathedrals and large churches.

The principle, however, is that, even if paid, the musicians should form part of the assembly, and hence be practicing Catholics.

There may be circumstances when this is not possible and a parish must recur to the services of non-Catholic professionals in order to support the liturgical participation of the faithful.

In such cases great care must be taken to ensure that the musician understands the sacred nature of the music to be played and to avoid musical virtuosities and other elements that smack of public concert performances.

The latter criterion, needless to say, is also valid for Catholic musicians.

They should likewise always be in a supportive role with respect to the choir and the rest of the assembly. For the purpose of good liturgical music is to foster the active participation of the assembly, at times through joining in the song and at times by meditatively listening to the music while uniting heart and soul to God.

As far as I know, there is no recent official document which would forbid the use of non-Catholic musicians in the above-mentioned circumstances or on very special occasions, provided the use is limited and the music played is genuinely Catholic.

In 1988 I remember participating at a Mass in St. Peter's Basilica, presided over by Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger but attended by the Holy Father, in which Rome's German community celebrated the 10th anniversary of the pontificate with a thanksgiving Mass accompanied by a major German orchestra and choir that sang Beethoven's "Missa Solemnis."

Certainly not all of the musicians were Catholic, but the Mass and the Music certainly were. ZE04120722

This article has been selected from the ZENIT Daily Dispatch
© Innovative Media, Inc.

ZENIT International News Agency
Via della Stazione di Ottavia, 95
00165 Rome, Italy

To subscribe
or email: with SUBSCRIBE in the "subject" field