What About 1967's Musicam Sacram?

Author: ZENIT



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 [1967] 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 Eucharistic Prayers.

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 supervision — 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 principal ones.

— 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, 305.

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 — for 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 Mass — paraphrasing a famous statement of Pope Pius XI regarding not praying at Mass but praying the Mass — I 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 meditation.

"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


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