What is Sacred Music? Maybe you know! Maybe you think you know. Maybe you have no idea.

What does the Church say is “Sacred Music?”

In January of 2019, Archbishop Alexander Sample of the Archdiocese of Portland in Oregon wrote a pastoral letter on Sacred Music in Divine Worship entitled: “Sing to the LORD a New Song.” It is a brilliantly written synthesis of the Church’s perennial teachings on music in the Latin Rite of the Catholic Church. The original letter can be found here. I highly recommend that any person involved in the ministry of music in a Latin Rite Catholic Church give it a read.

Though I highly recommend reading the letter in its entirety, I will seek here to give a brief summary of the key points of this beautiful and faithful document. I will retain the same headings that Archbishop Sample uses and let this serve as a brief commentary.

Introduction

Quoting St. Augustine, the archbishop reminds us that singing is an expression of joy and of love. When the People of God gather, we sing praises to God. To lose the great 2,000 year tradition of Sacred Music in the Church would be a tragedy. In fact, the “beauty, dignity and prayerfulness of the Mass depend to a large extent on the music that accompanies the liturgical action (Sample, 1).”

Speaking of language, form, and genre, Pope Francis is quoted in the letter as saying, “At times a certain mediocrity, superficiality and banality have prevailed, to the detriment of the beauty and intensity of liturgical celebrations (Sample, 2).”

The archbishop alludes to the fact that there has been a certain confusion about Sacred Music in the past decades and that a rediscovery of the tradition of the Church will constitute for some a “change.” He says, “Change can be difficult, but this can also be an exciting time of rediscovering the spirit of the liturgy and exploring new horizons of sacred music (Sample, 3).”

Outline

The Archbishop then subdivides the first three sections in this way: 

1.    Some History and the Nature and Purpose of Sacred Music

2.    The Qualities of Sacred Music

a.    The sanctity of Sacred Music

b.    The Intrinsic Beauty (Artistic Goodness) of Sacred Music

c.    The Universality of Sacred Music 

3.    The Treasury of Sacred Music in the Church

a.    Gregorian Chant

b.    Other Sacred Music of the Church

c.    Secular Music

I will make some general remarks about these three sections. Stay tuned for part two of this series which gets more into the specifics.

History and the Nature and Purpose of Sacred Music 

Since the time of the Apostles, singing has not been an addendum to the worship of God. It is integral. Singing is an art form that “takes its life and purpose from the Sacred Liturgy and is part of its very structure (Sample, 3).”

The Second Vatican Council reiterates this in the document on the Liturgy, Sacrosanctum Concilium: “The musical tradition of the universal Church is a treasure of inestimable value, greater even than that of any other art. The main reason for this pre-eminence is that, as sacred song united to the words, it forms a necessary or integral part of the solemn liturgy (Sample, 3).”

If this is the case, and it is, then it seems unfitting that the norm in the United States (at least) is to “‘tack on’ four songs (the opening hymn, the offertory hymn, communion hymn and recessional hymn), along with the sung ordinary of the Mass (Gloria, Sanctus, etc.). We must come to see that, since sacred music is integral to the Mass, the role of sacred music is to help us sing and pray the texts of the Mass itself, not just ornament it (Sample, 3).”

The KEY PHRASE: “The Church solemnly teaches us, then, that the very purpose of sacred music is twofold: the glory of God and the sanctification of the faithful. This understanding of the essential nature and purpose of sacred music must direct and inform everything else that is said about it (Sample, 4).”

The Qualities of Sacred Music

There are three essential qualities of sacred music that flow from its nature and purpose: sanctity, beauty, and universality.

SANCTITY – Sacred Music has sanctity because it is holy. It must be free of profanity in its words, themes, and the manner in which it is delivered. To be holy is to be set apart. Common, secular music has no place in the worship of God in the liturgy.

BEAUTY – Liturgical and Sacred Music can give people a glimpse of the beauty of heaven, according to Pope Francis. Our liturgies must seek to be transcendent. They can be nothing compared to the glory of Heaven, but the beauty of Sacred Music can offer a foretaste of the Heavenly reality. 

UNIVERSALITY – The composition of Sacred Music, of any culture, must be recognized as having a sacred character. As a universal principle, holiness transcends every individual culture. In other words, “Not every form or style of music is capable of being rendered suitable for the Mass (Sample, 5).”

The Treasury of Sacred Music

The treasury of the Church’s Sacred Music spans centuries. Whether ancient or modern, Sacred Music must have the same character of sanctity, beauty, and universality.  

For example, there is Gregorian Chant which the Second Vatican Council gave pride of place in Sacred Music in the Roman liturgy. This has been reinforced by every Pontiff since. In terms of full, conscious, active participation of the laity in the liturgy, Pope Pius XI says this, “In order that the faithful may more actively participate in divine worship, let them be led once more to sing the Gregorian chant, so far as it belongs to them to take part in it (Sample, 6).”

The Second Vatican Council also suggests that “(S)teps should be taken so that the faithful may also be able to say or sing together in Latin those parts of the Ordinary of the Mass which pertains to them (SC, 54).” This is referring to the Kyrie (actually in Greek), the Gloria, the Credo, the Sanctus, the Mysterium Fidei, the Pater Noster, and the Agnus Dei. 

Echoing the Second Vatican Council, Pope Benedict XVI said, “(W)hile respecting various styles and different and highly praiseworthy traditions, I desire, in accordance with the request advanced by the Synod Fathers, that Gregorian chant be suitably esteemed and employed as the chant proper to the Roman liturgy (Sample, 7).”

There are other kinds of Sacred Music in the Church. For example, polyphony has a venerable tradition in the Church, such as the compositions of Palestrina, Tallis, and Allegri. There is also a vast body of Sacred Music composed for the people, such as hymnody, psalmody, and different Mass settings in Latin or the vernacular. 

In contrast to Sacred Music is secular music. Secular music is not sanctified, necessarily beautiful, or universal. This does not just pertain to lyrics. There a great many songs being written and utilized at Mass which are secular in their manner of being played (folk, rock, country, etc.) or their ambiguous lyrical content. 

Quoting Pope Benedict XVI: “As far as the liturgy is concerned, we cannot say that one song is as good as another. Generic improvisation or the introduction of musical genres which fail to respect the meaning of the liturgy should be avoided. As an element of the liturgy, song should be well integrated into the overall celebration. Consequently everything – texts, music, execution – ought to correspond to the meaning of the mystery being celebrated, the structure of the rite and the liturgical seasons (Sample, 9-10).”