Wednesday, January 28, 2009

The sources of Sacrosanctum Concilium

As we journey back and look at the recommendations of St. Pius X we must not lose sight of the fact that the one of the new developments in Sacrosanctum Concilium involves the permission for competent territorial authorities (e.g. the USCCB) to make legitimate, approved inculturations of the liturgy. The new General Instruction of the Roman Missal (GIRM) contains such an approved variation;

Adaptations of the Institutio Generalis Missalis Romani, editio typica tertia

Musical Instruments and Approval of Musical Settings
This adaptation will be inserted at number 393:

Bearing in mind the important place which singing has in celebration, as a necessary and integral part of the Liturgy, 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 USCCB Secretariat for the Liturgy for review and approval prior to publication

While the organ is to be accorded pride of place, other wind, stringed, or percussion instruments may be used in liturgical services in the dioceses of the United States of America, according to longstanding local usage, provided they are truly apt for sacred use or can be rendered apt.

Writing in 1903 Pope St. Pius X, Motu Proprio Tra le sollecitudini (Restoration of Sacred Music) notes that in order to acquire the Christian spirit the “first and most indispensible source” is “active participation in the sacred mysteries and in the public and solemn prayer of the Church” (AOG 117).

Purpose of sacred music is “to clothe with suitable melody the liturgical text presented for the understanding of the faithful” (AOG, p. 117). He remarks that sacred music must possess holiness, beauty of form, and universality (AOG, 118). Gregorian chant is the “supreme model of sacred worship” and needs to be “restored to the people so that they may take a more active part in the sacred liturgy” (AOG, 118). This is still the case in the most current GIRM which notes; “All other things being equal, Gregorian chant holds pride of place because it is proper to the Roman Liturgy” (GIRM 41).

At a somewhat later date Pius XI, in Divini Cultus (1928) declared;

In order that the faithful may more actively participate in divine worship, let them be made once more to sing the Gregorian Chant, so far as it belongs to them to take part in it. It is most important that when the faithful assist at the sacred ceremonies, or when pious sodalities take part with the clergy in a procession, they should not be merely detached and silent spectators, but, filled with a deep sense of the beauty of the Liturgy, they should sing alternately with the clergy or the choir, as it is prescribed. (

Pope St. Pius X comments that modern music can also be appropriate if it is good, beautiful and in keeping with liturgical law. He forbids the use theatrical style of 19th Century Italy. As far as I can tell this would be Italian Opera. I wonder what this says about the use of vibrato in Church singing? Classical polyphony, though difficult to produce, accords well with Gregorian chant. At the time of Pius X, however, all vernacular singing is forbidden. The Latin words are to be sung without distorting syllables in a manner intelligible to the faithful.

Commenting on singers Pope St. Pius X, notes that women are excluded, and men must be of known piety. Further the choir should where cassocks and a surplice and be hidden from view. Making observations on the use of organ and other instruments he clarifies “singing must always have the chief place, the organ and other instruments should merely sustain, never suppress it.” (AOG 121) He is also uncomfortable with music as a performance. “It is not lawful to introduce the singing with long preludes, or to interrupt it with intermezzos” (Ibid).

The use of piano, drums, kettle drums, cymbals, bells, and the like forbidden and bands are strictly forbidden to play in church. Finally he observes that music must be good but also “suited to the ability of the singers and always sung well.”

Once again we are reminded that St Pius’ specific advice is not part of the current norms of the Church. Yet we can still ask ourselves, what broad principles can we see in Pope St. Pius X’s remarks? First the purpose of sacred music is to facilitate active participation in the liturgy. The focus should be on congregational singing which inspires a deep sense of the beauty of the Liturgy. Our attention should be on worship and not on the music itself, or the performers. If we are tempted to clap after hearing the music then we have missed the entire point. Worship should lift our hearts to the transcendent, the good and the beautiful. It should be a means of prayer. Clearly the musicians, cantors, and choir should try not to draw attention to themselves, either by their dress, or their performance. The theme of active participation will be further discussed in the next blog on Pius XII, Mediator Dei (On Sacred Liturgy) 1947.


  1. Liturgists appear to have drifted from these standards.

    Would an of Bill Gaither pass muster?

  2. Hey, I think there is a typo in your question. Bill Gaither is a gospel performer. That is great but not the same as leading music for a liturgy. If you mean to ask about his style of singing, I'm not sure I am familiar enough with him, he is a bit before my time.

    Songs should be sung so that everyone is involved, and we lose sight of the chantor. We are not looking for performers.