Monday, September 19, 2011

Steubenville Liturgical Musician Retreat, Fall 2011

Last weekend I had the great honor of joining 90 liturgical musicians at the Franciscan University of Steubenville for their yearly Fall retreat. A good priest friend of mine who has recently produced a video on the new translation of the Roman Missal for the LifeTeen organization was the main speaker for this retreat in the previous two years, so I knew that I would be able to build upon his solid foundations in sacramental theology in my talk.

I presented two one-hour sessions, the first was at talk entitled "Perspectives on Liturgical Music" and the second was a workshop on the chants of the new English translation of the Roman Missal, and on a few proper settings from the Simple English Propers

I think that if you talk to any of the attendees, the highlight of the retreat was the opportunity to sing liturgical chant together. I think that these sorts of events can so often be exercises in theory, that is, talking about liturgical music. But to actually open up the chants of the missal and to work on them together was, I think, a powerful experience of sacred music for all who were in attendance.

Our time was very short and we could only touch very briefly on elements of chant theory. We just sang. We looked at the music and we sang the chants of the missal, and a few simple propers. I modeled, demonstrated and coached, and these 90 students sang with one voice in the retreat chapel with a sonorous thunder like I've almost never heard before! It truly was remarkable. 

Several of the students commented that simply singing these chants is what made everything that I presented in the first session come alive for them. What I have learned in this event is that we cannot underscore the importance of actually singing when we have events that discuss sacred music. Discussing in theory is one thing, but putting it into practice brings the music to life in a way that mere words cannot.

But I definitely didn't skimp on talking, as I'm sometimes wont to do, and I have decided to share my talk entitled "Perspectives on Liturgical Music" which begins with a purely subjective (and somewhat personally revealing) consideration of liturgical music and ends in a purely objective, theological view of the question. I would like to submit that the sacramental and theological perspectives on the question of liturgical music are very important for us today and will help us transcend the mucky waters of subjective and speculative discussion. I hope that this can be a small contribution to that end.

“Perspectives on Liturgical Music” - Adam Bartlett 
Steubenville Liturgical Music Retreat, Fall 2011


It’s an absolute joy to be with you all today. The Franciscan University of Steubenville will always hold a special place in my heart. The last time that I was here was about ten or so years ago. I was at the end of my high school years and was, believe it or not, attending a Stuebenville youth conference! Although much time and many life events have transpired between then and now I remain grateful for the impact that it has had on my life.

Franciscan is known for its devotion to and love for Christ and His Church, and also for its radical orthodoxy in regards to the Church’s moral teachings, or her lex credendi or “law of belief”. I hope that today we can consider the Church’s lex orandi, or “law of prayer”, which the Church tells us is intimately connected to, and even helps properly form the “law of belief”.

There is a great event upon us at this present moment in the life of the Church. This Fall we will begin, and even now are able to begin in a small way, the introduction of the new translation of the Roman Missal. This is certainly an historic and monumental event in many ways, and there has been a great deal of conversation surrounding its reception from all quarters of the Church.

Before we get into the main part of this talk, I just want to comment on a few things regarding the
new translation of the Roman Missal.
  • Firstly, this Missal, it is a fact, has more musical settings contained in it than any other missal to ever have existed! 
  • Second, the General Instruction of the Roman Missal has also been newly translated, and just in the past month or so has been publicly released and will be included in the newly printed missals that we will receive this Fall.
  • And Thirdly, the principles of translation that were used for this new edition of the Roman Missal, I would like to propose, have many implications for our practice of liturgical music. The document containing the guidelines for translation is entitled Liturgiam Authenticam” which means “Authentic Liturgy”. A more literal and more elevated translation of the Latin texts was mandated by this document. I think that these principles might also be able to tell us something about how our liturgical music can also be much more literally tied to the sacred music models given to us by the Church, and also be more elevated in their presentation.
And so, in this talk, which is entitled “Perspectives on Liturgical Music”, I hope that we can journey together through five perspectives with which we can view the question of liturgical music, in light of the musical implications of the new English translation of the Roman Missal.

The reason why I chose the topic of “perspectives” is because I know from personal experience, and also from observing many of the conversations around liturgical music and the new translation, that our perspectives can often become rather narrow as we go about the grind of life. 

This is certainly understandable for, say, college students who already have more than a full load in their studies, and who in their spare time dedicate themselves to the service of the liturgy with their musical gifts. And believe me, this equally applies to parish music directors!

We are all incredibly busy in our service of the Church, and in the business of living faithful lives. So what I hope that we can do today is take a time-out from the business, and to look at liturgical music from a few different vantage points, in hopes that we might see something that we may not have been able to see before. Or to discover insights or solutions that may be somewhat hidden from us in our most common perspectives.

So, today I would like for us to consider liturgical music from 5 perspectives: A “personal” perspective, a “legal” perspective, a “moral” perspective, a “sacramental perspective” and lastly and perhaps most importantly a “theological perspective”.

Each one of these perspectives will, in a way, build upon the other, and will gradually take us from a purely subjective view of the question of liturgical music gradually into a purely objective consideration.


And so, let’s begin with the personal perspective.

I am sure that every single person in this room, and every single person who has made the decision in their life to put their musical gifts at the service of the liturgy has tread a unique path on their way there. We all come to the liturgy with our own life experiences, with our joys and our hurts, our comforts and our sorrows, and this is surely a good thing. Christ, who meets us in the Mass, surely embraces us where we are and guides us on our journey to holiness.

I would like to share, only briefly, a bit of my personal journey to the service of the liturgy through music. And while I do, I hope that you will also reflect on your own personal journey.

And so, my own personal journey began in a small town in the Midwest, not too far from here, in fact. I had a guitar tossed in my lap as a young child, and I played in my first Mass in the 3rd grade. In one way or another, I have continually been involved in liturgical music ever since.

The music books in the pew were Glory and Praise, and in my teen years this was replaced by Gather Comprehensive. My experience of liturgical music was mostly seen through the lens of the St. Louis Jesuits, and what some other musicians at my parish growing up affectionately called the “Haugen-Haas conspiracy”.

My involvement in the singing and playing of this repertoire brought me right up to my teen years where I continued to arrive to Church with my acoustic guitar on Sunday morning, oftentimes after a very late night with my electric guitar somewhere else the night before.

As I began to get more personally involved in my faith, and as I began to mature and grow into the bigger questions of faith and life, it was a very natural progression for me to gravitate toward the Praise and Worship genre of Christian music that was really beginning to come about in the evangelical communities, and even, to my surprise, in some Catholic parishes as well.

And it was actually on this very campus where I first encountered electric guitars and drum sets and modern, rock-styled Christian music, not only in events like youth conferences, but also in the Mass!

For me, as a 17 or 18 year old wanna-be rockstar, and virtually lifelong folk-Mass guitarist, this was very much a revelation. It was not only the music that I had an affinity for that moved me, but it was also the love of Christ that this music was able to express to me, and enable me to embrace in my life. I will always remain grateful for the way that the Lord used this music to reach out to me at a time where I was otherwise very broken and very much in need of the love of Christ.

And from here I went into my college years, where I found myself at Arizona State University in Tempe, AZ, only a few miles away from the parish that created and established the LifeTeen program in the 80’s. I soon was plugged in to the world of Praise and Worship liturgy that was so common in Phoenix at the time, and in many ways still is. The parish where I served during this time was the second LifeTeen parish ever to exist, I am told, and the person who had the gig a few years before me was a guy by the name of Matt Maher, and the guy who followed me is named Ike Ndolo. Anyone heard of these guys before?

In any event, it was during my time at this parish, and also while I was studying at music school, that I began to investigate the deeper questions of the liturgy and liturgical music.

Among the many experiences I had at this parish, one of the most striking was that people my age and a bit younger who had grown up at this parish thought that “traditional Catholic music” was “I Will Choose Christ” and “Cry the Gospel” by Tom Booth. This was shocking to me since I obviously knew that traditional Catholic music was “Be Not Afraid” and “On Eagle’s Wings”!!!

But, among the questions that were raised in my mind during this time, the question of tradition certainly was one of the strongest, and it caused me to set out on a quest to discover the true Catholic sacred music tradition, and when I first discovered it, I can tell you, I immediately fell in love.

I remember vividly the first time that I ever listened to a piece of Renaissance polyphony. It was Palestrina’s Missa Papae Marcelli. I had checked the CD out of the library at school, popped it in the player in my car, and on the ride home I just remember listening to the Kyrie over and over and over–I couldn’t even get to the Gloria! I simply melted into the transcendent beauty of this music, and I knew that what I was encountering was something truly sacred, truly beautiful, and truly Catholic, and it opened me to a world that I never even knew existed.

To my surprise, as I began to study the Church documents seriously for the first time, I discovered that the Second Vatican Council said things like:

“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.”

and also said:

“The treasure of sacred music is to be preserved and fostered with great care.”

and also:

“The Church acknowledges Gregorian chant as specially suited to the Roman liturgy: therefore, other things being equal, it should be given pride of place in liturgical services.”

Reading these statements in the Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy from the Second Vatican Council were only shocking to me because I had virtually no experience of them anywhere in my personal experience of the liturgy in the years that were decades beyond Vatican II. This was only my first personal engagement of these questions, and I have done much to understand them more in the years that followed, but I will conclude my reflection on my own personal perspective in saying that in the years that followed this revelation I have not only continued to have a personal love affair with the sacred music tradition of the Church, but have also gone to great pains to try to understand more deeply the question of liturgical music, from a variety of perspectives.

So I have offered a vignette from my own life story. I can bet that many in this room have had similar experiences, perhaps some very similar, perhaps some drastically different.

Of course while our various experiences are important in our journeys as Catholics, we have to acknowledge that these considerations are almost purely subjective ones. Not unimportant, but are very purely and almost completely subjective.


And so now, let’s transition from considering our personal and mostly subjective journeys to and through liturgical music, and begin looking at the legal perspective.

I’m sure we can all remember the time when we first discovered that there existed a thing called the GIRM. The General Instruction of the Roman Missal, along with the rubrics contained in the Missal itself (and of course I’m speaking here of the Ordinary Form of the Roman Rite) have the status of liturgical law. If your early formation in liturgical music was better than mine, you probably heard much about the GIRM, and were formed in it to various degrees.

The General Instruction is to the liturgy, we might say, as the Catechism is to the Faith. Liturgical law is to the lex orandi as the Catechism is to the lex credendi.

As I said at the outset of this talk, I know the reputation of this university when it comes to the faithfulness to the moral teachings of the Church. I am sure that all of us here today also have the very strong desire not only to embrace what the Church asks of us when it comes to our moral lives (our lex credendi, and our lex vivendi), but also see that the Church has a lot to say about the way that right prayer complements, and even helps form right belief, and from this, right living.

So it is here where we begin to look at the question of the liturgy and of liturgical music from the legal perspective. And, my word of fair warning: This just might be the most challenging part of my talk today, so please hang on tight!

I’m sure that I’m not the only one who has been in a liturgical “cage match” when it comes to interpreting the GIRM. Am I right?

While the Church’s liturgical law as found in the Missal and GIRM is rather clear and systematic in most cases, we probably all know that there are many cases where the application of it is left open for a considerable amount of interpretation.

I’m sure that everyone here is familiar with the Code of Canon Law. Does anyone know what Canon #2 says? In more or less words it says “…the Code does not define the rites which must be observed in celebrating liturgical actions.” In other words, the Code does not cover liturgical law. This is stated at the outset! The Code has washed its hands of the liturgy! And for a reason.

We don’t have time for this today, but if you ever want some amusement you should study the history and development of canon law. Before the 1917 Code, what was required to answer a question pertaining to Church law was an entire library of documents, contained in many vaults, and an incredibly talented canon lawyer who could sort through them all! And so when the decision was made to codify Church law it was decided to exclude liturgical law, and perhaps to leave it for scholars to codify in subsequent centuries.

So, what this means is that, although the General Instruction is very clear, liturgical law is always subject to interpretation and always must take into account the whole of the Church writings on the liturgy, over the course of her 2000 year plus history, not only a single contemporary document, but the whole of what the Church has said regarding the liturgy.

As we know, even with systems of codified law, such as in our nation’s judicial system, we still have murderers who are set free, and innocent people who are punished all of the time. So it can also become with liturgical law. While the presentations of liturgical law–which in our case are the Missal and GIRM–may seem to be very clear and are indeed a sure guide to right worship, if we try hard enough, we can almost always find a way to get around something, or find a “loophole” so to speak.

This is where I think that many of our liturgical battles can often go. We can resort to trying to find loopholes to justify our practices, or we can try to rationalize things in order to do what we really want to do.

And, most importantly, because we’re Catholics, we are very good at finding the bare minimum that we have to do in order to be “licit”. If you’re like me, I’m sure that you are very certain when the end of Friday exactly occurs when you’re fasting during Lent, or you have an impeccable ability to calculate exactly the time that communion is be distributed at Mass so that you can quickly pound down that Egg McMuffin on Sunday morning on your way to Church, an hour before receiving communion.

We Catholics know how to do these things! But it is my hope that when it comes to the music of the liturgy we will always strive to do so much more than “simply be legal”, and always strive instead to embrace the fullness of the Church’s vision for music in liturgy. I’m sure we can easily relate this to our lives of faith.

We can certainly be “licit” by attending Mass on Sundays and going to confession yearly during Lent, but this is no path to holiness, is it? Even if we do “just get by”, our salvation still can be in great danger.

So, when we consider the Church’s teaching on right worship, and proper liturgical music let’s always try to see the big picture, because if we focus on engaging in legal arguments over fine points only, then we may be bound to miss the boat.

And so, with all of this being said, let’s take just a very quick look at a few sections in the new translation of the General Instruction of the Roman Missal (see handout).

The first thing I would like you to notice is that every one of these rubrics pertains to parts of the Mass which ideally ought to be sung! As we said before, the new missal has musical settings for a vast amount of the texts of the liturgy. If nothing else, this should tell us that the ideal is for the liturgy to be sung.

Next, let’s take a quick look at nos. 38-40. I have emphasized a few lines here. Notice at the end of art. 38 that whenever the GIRM uses words such as “say” or “proclaim” this is understood to be something that is sung or also may be recited.

In fact, a study of liturgical history shows that the Latin word “dicere”, which we think of today to mean “to say”, in the early Church was interchangeably used for “to say” and “to sing”. There was no real distinction between the two. We will get into this more later as we discuss “liturgical chant”, but for now we can see that the same principle is holding true in our modern liturgy.

Next, in art. 40 we can see the importance of the sung liturgy expressed, and that the most important texts that are to be sung are the texts of the Order of Mass: the dialogues between priest and people, and the mostly unchanging elements of the liturgy.

Next, in art. 41 we see a statement that I think is probably the line that haunts many liturgical musicians today. It is a line that has been echoed in numerous church documents and magisterial teachings since it’s promulgation in 1963:

“The main place should be given, all things being equal, to Gregorian chant, as being proper to the Roman Liturgy.”

Note here that this does not say “pride of place”. This translates the Latin more literally, which says “principem locum”, which we could say means “principle place” or “first place”. But the new translation of “main place” seems equally accurate.

For anyone who has had a similar experience of liturgy as me, and I think there are many, it is very difficult to understand how this statement has been justified in our practice of liturgical music today.

A few rhetorical questions: Why does the Church say this? Why is chant to given the main place in the liturgy? How is it to be given the main place? Why is it presented to us here as the supreme model of liturgical music?

I’m not going to answer these right now, but we will come back to it at the end of this talk.

It goes on to say that:

“Other kinds 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.”

And we understand the mention of “polyphony” to mean the choral tradition that developed historically after Gregorian chant and was exemplified in the works of Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina, of the Roman School, who has been called in church documents the “Prince of Music”. And after stating these two supreme models, if you will, there is also room given for further developments in the sacred music tradition.

Even Pope Benedict has echoed this in a recent statement when he said:

“An authentic updating of sacred music can take place only in the lineage of the great tradition of the past, of Gregorian chant and sacred polyphony." Which he said speaking in the Sistine Chapel following a tribute concert to Dominico Bartolucci on June 24, 2006.

And if we proceed to GIRM #48 we see a pretty substantial change in translation, and if you have followed the blogosphere much lately this is probably not news to you:

It states “In the Dioceses of the United States of America, there are four options for the Entrance Chant: (1) the antiphon from the Missal or the antiphon with its Psalm from the Graduale Romanum, as set to music there or in another setting; (2) the antiphon and Psalm of the Graduale Simplex for the liturgical time; (3) a chant from another collection of Psalms and antiphons, approved by the Conference of Bishops or the Diocesan Bishop, including Psalms arranged in responsorial or metrical forms; (4) another liturgical chant that is suited to the sacred action, the day, or the time of year, similarly approved by the Conference of Bishops or the Diocesan Bishop.”

Now, without even commenting on this, I would like you to imagine something. Please imagine for a moment that you’ve never been to a Catholic Mass in your life. You’re an intelligent musician and someone hands you this list and says “this is what you may sing at Mass to cover the entrance procession”. What would you be inclined to sing?

Your first option is an antiphon and psalm from an official liturgical book, either the Missal or Graduale, which is proper to the day, in its chant setting or in another musical setting. Your second option is a similar antiphon and psalm, which is proper to the season. Your third option is another antiphon and psalm from a book approved by the Church. And your fourth option is another liturgical chant that is suited to the sacred action, the day, or the time of year, similarly approved by the Conference of Bishops or the Diocesan Bishop.

Now, if you were someone who has never attended a Mass before, what would you expect to be singing during the entrance procession during Mass according to this rubric? Please try to put yourself in this situation if you can.

And remember that this rubric also essentially applies to the Offertory and Communion, respectively.

I am going to leave this here for now, and allow you to reflect on this. This is perhaps one of the most controversial part of the entire GIRM for musicians. We could argue it and circle it from the legal perspective for hours, even days, but I would rather move on now and revisit it later.

Now, we don’t have time go through all of these points in the GIRM, but I hope that you will study and deeply consider them, and continue to read the Church documents pertaining to music and liturgy. The most important of these are listed at the end of your handout.

To conclude our all too brief consideration of the legal perspective we can close with the thought that liturgical law is objective in and of itself, but it will always remain subject to subjective interpretation. So reading liturgical law in isolation without a more full understanding of liturgy and music, from a host of other perspectives, I would propose, can be very dangerous.

So, we need to dig more deeply. Let’s table this for now. We’ll return to it shortly.


I would like to shift now, for a few moments, away even from the liturgy, and just consider the moral effects that music has on us, and would like to draw upon what I believe is a kind of examination of conscience for liturgical musicians, given by Pope Benedict, then Cardinal Ratzinger, in his book The Spirit of the Liturgy.

In his chapter on sacred music, the Pope recalls a dichotomy between two general “types” of music described in the thought of Plato and Aristotle. These he calls the music of Apollo, or “Apollonian” music, and the music of Marsyas, which he describes as “Dionysian” music.

Generally speaking, these two “types” of music affect the listener in one of two ways.

Apollonian music is music that engages the senses but lifts them and draws them into the spirit and brings man to wholeness. It elevates the senses by uniting them to the spirit.

Dionysian music, on the other hand, has the effect of intoxicating the senses; it crushes rationality, and in a sense subjects the spirit to the senses. This is the effect of pure sensuality.

This dichotomy strikes me as one that speaks directly to the morality of the passions. The catechism describes how the passions work on a moral plane:

CCC 1763: In short: “Feelings or passions are emotions or movements of the sensitive appetite that incline us to act or not to act.”

CCC 1768: “Passions are morally good when they contribute to a good action, evil in the opposite case.”

CCC 1767In themselves passions are neither good nor evil. They are morally qualified only to the extent that they effectively engage reason and will. Passions are said to be voluntary, ‘either because they are commanded by the will or because the will does not place obstacles in their way.’ It belongs to the perfection of the moral or human good that the passions be governed by reason.”

In other words, the catechism tells us here that the passions have to be subordinated to and governed by reason in order for us to be in control of our passions, and so that our passions are not in control of us.

Music has the power to speaks to our passions. We all know that different styles of music, and different songs and pieces can effect us in different ways.

I’m sure you can relate to times where you’ve just lost yourself in a song. Have you? How about the times when you’ve been so sad because of heartbreak and you just put that one song on repeat and just dwelt in your own misery? Or that time that you’re just angry and had to turn on some aggressive music to find an outlet for your aggression? I know I have.

I would like to suggest to you that in these cases we are seeing examples of Dionysian music in action.

Now, this is not necessarily sinful or morally wrong in and of itself. That depends on the actions that we make as a result of our passions. But can you see in these cases that our emotions and the senses become “intoxicated” to the point where our spirit and will are perhaps crippled? Can we really choose in those moments?

After a bad breakup when you’re listening to your music, balling and weeping, is this the time to call your loved one and say “can we makeup?” I don’t think so, because our rationality is crushed. We can’t be reasonable in these situations. This is an example of the effect of Dionysian music.

Now, on the other hand, have you listened to music that seemed to make you think more clearly? That makes you more reflective and seemed to enhance your ability to perceive beauty, truth and goodness? That lifts our gaze to more elevated and eternal things? Are there any styles of music that come to mind? This is the effect that “Apollonian” music has on us according to the pope.

Now, this can happen to greater or lesser effects. But the looming question now should be “how does this apply this to liturgical music?

Well, I think that answer should be clear. The goal of the music of the liturgy is not to shackle us in our flesh, but to lift our gaze to the heavens, to “undo” in us the effects of the Fall in us. The liturgy engages us in the eschatological, heavenly liturgy where God is all in all and where creation is restored to grace. The music of the liturgy should certainly assist us in this ascent, not prevent us from it.

So the Pope has given us a litmus test, a kind of examination of conscience as we consider the music that we use in the liturgy.

But this perspective still is rather incomplete, isn’t it? This still is a pretty subjective vantage point. Here we will begin to get to the heart of the matter.


And, so, now we turn to the sacramental perspective. A perspective that can help us assess the question of liturgical music from a more objective standpoint.

So, what is a sacrament?

The classic definition of a sacrament is “a visible sign that makes present an invisible reality”. We are speaking here generally of “sacramentality”, and not the seven sacraments which efficaciously transmit grace. We are speaking of sacraments with a “small s”.  

Article 20 of the GIRM speaks of this sacramentality:

“the entire Liturgy … is carried out by means of perceptible signs by which the faith is nourished, strengthened, and expressed…”

And so does the Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy of the Second Vatican council in article 7:

“In the liturgy the sanctification of the man is signified by signs perceptible to the senses, and is effected in a way which corresponds with each of these signs…”

These signs signify and help make present to our senses the invisible realities of the liturgy. But what are these invisible realities?

Let’s look at Sacrosanctum Concilium article 8:

“In the earthly liturgy we take part in a foretaste of that heavenly liturgy which is celebrated in the holy city of Jerusalem toward which we journey as pilgrims, where Christ is sitting at the right hand of God, a minister of the holies and of the true tabernacle; we sing a hymn to the Lord's glory with all the warriors of the heavenly army; venerating the memory of the saints, we hope for some part and fellowship with them; we eagerly await the Saviour, Our Lord Jesus Christ, until He, our life, shall appear and we too will appear with Him in glory.”

So we see that the earthly liturgy is comprised of signs and symbols that make present to us an invisible reality. But what is that reality, first and foremost, that is invisibly present in the liturgy?

It is the heavenly liturgy! We participate in the heavenly liturgy when we participate in the earthly liturgy. In the earthly liturgy we experience a foretaste of heaven, do we not? Yes, of course, we do. This is the perennial teaching of our Church.

Now, let’s consider why we need the liturgy and these signs and symbols that allow us to participate in the heavenly reality. There is a fundamental problem that we as humans have from which this need arises.

Although God has given us the fullness of salvation in Christ, we are still bound by the effects of the Fall. At the end of time when Christ returns and the earth is restored to its original purity, God will be all in all and we will see him face to face. But until then, and since Christ has been revealed to us and has accomplished for us salvation, we are only able to participate in the heavenly reality as a foretaste, and through sacramental signs in the liturgy.

The Eucharist, par excellance, is the sacrament of sacraments, the source and summit of the life of the Church, the most efficacious presence of Christ on this earth. It is the Eucharistic sacrifice that is central to the earthly liturgy. But what about the other signs and symbols in the liturgy, like the sacred art, architecture, the texts, the gestures, the vestments and vessels, SACRED MUSIC? What is their purpose?

The answer to this is that they are sacraments: they are visible (and and in our case audible) signs that make present to us the invisible realities of the heavenly liturgy in which we truly participate in the earthly liturgy.

So when we think of music as a sacrament, we acknowledge that it makes something present to us. The music of the liturgy not only affects us in an emotional way, although it indeed does this. It engages our senses and it should unite them to our spirit, give us wholeness of being so that we are able to lift our gaze to the heavenly reality that is invisibly present in the sacred liturgy.

When we ask ourselves what the music of the liturgy should sound like, what should our first answer be? I would like to propose that our first answer should be that liturgical music should sound like the music of heavenly liturgy, sung by the heavenly hosts of angels and saints, surrounding the throne of heaven. Although this perhaps is an abstract idea to us, and one that composers and artists have to grapple with, it should tell us a few things.

If liturgical music should make present to us the reality of the heavenly liturgy in which we engage and indeed participate in the earthly liturgy, what could we say liturgical music should NOT be?

When we hear music that sounds like music we hear in the Mall, does this make sacramentally present to us the reality of heaven? When we hear music that sounds like what we hear on the radio in the car, does this make us think of heaven?

So this is why the Church calls liturgical music “sacred music”. Sacred means “set apart” and that is exactly what the sacred music tradition of the Church has always been, and really should always be. It is a music that is dramatically different than that of every day life. So should our architecture be, and so should our manner of speech, as we see in the more elevated language found in the new translation of the Missal.

The signs and symbols used in the liturgy, of which liturgical music is a part, are set apart from the ordinary, and form an articulate sacramental language that is safeguarded, nurtured and cultivated by the Church, and which is reserved for the worship of God and for our sacramental participation in the heavenly reality.


And so we really have now transitioned into our final perspective with which we will look at the question of liturgical music, the theological perspective.

Really, the sacramental perspective leads us to a theological consideration of the liturgy. Sacramentality deals with what we might call “ontology”. Ontology is a fancy word that essentially means “the nature of being”.

The classic definition of beauty in our Catholic tradition is not that it is found “in the eye of the beholder”. The proper understanding of beauty in the Catholic context is much more of a theological, objective consideration. The truly Catholic definition of beauty is that something is beautiful when it reveals its ontology most clearly; when it reveals what it truly is most effectively.

So when we ask whether a piece of liturgical music is beautiful, we really are asking if it is revealing the ontology of the liturgy most clearly.

And so, what is the ontology of the liturgy? This is an objective, theological question. Subjective consideration is left behind here. This is the purely objective perspective.

We can look at liturgical theology from a number of different angles. The liturgy is the at the very center of the Church’s life, and theological reflection on the nature of the liturgy surely can never be exhausted, but I would like for us to focus on one particular theological element of the liturgy, which goes beyond our consideration of the eschatological dimension of the earthly liturgy.

The theological reality of the liturgy that I would like for us to consider is this:  In the sacred liturgy it is CHRIST who ACTS. In the sacred liturgy, it is CHRIST who SPEAKS. In the sacred liturgy the prayer of Christ is offered to the Father for the salvation of the world.

Therefore the content of the liturgy, the agent of the liturgy, is the logos, the Word of God, Christ, who was with God the Father in the beginning, and who in the fullness of time was made Flesh and dwelt among us.

In Christ, God revealed to us the fullness of the image of God, and gave us the promise of eternal life. But the fundamental problem that we encounter in this historical period in which we currently reside, is that we are still subject to the effects of the Fall. As we await Christ’s return, and as we wait for the day that we can see God face to face, we become one with Christ in the sacred liturgy, as members of his body, and join him as he offers perfect worship to God the Father.

So the liturgy is the action of Christ, the great prayer of Christ, and we participate in that action as part of his body, in the liturgical assembly.

In the liturgy, how do we worship God? Is this a personal time of prayer where we offer our own personal worship to God? Well, although it is good for us to constantly do this in our lives, this is fundamentally NOT what we do in the liturgy. In the liturgy it is Christ who offers perfect worship to the Father. We participate in this perfect worship of God the Father and are ourselves offered to him, as members of his very own body.

And so, what role does sacred music play in this great prayer of Christ that is the sacred liturgy?

St. Augustine said that “singing is for the one who loves”. And Christ’s prayer in the liturgy is the ultimate song of love, the ultimate prayer of sacrifice. Is it any wonder why the Church asks us to sing the liturgy? For it is in the song of the liturgy where the voice of Christ, the Word of God, the logos, is made INCARNATE in our midst!

This is worth repeating:

It is in the song of the liturgy where the voice of Christ, the very Word of God, the logos, is made INCARNATE, made flesh, in our midst!!!

It is in the texts of the liturgy, sung as the love song of the Trinity, where the Word of God, Christ, is sacramentally made flesh and dwells among us.

Now, how much does this change the discussion about the “songs that we like to sing at Mass”?

The song of the liturgy is liturgical chant. There are chants that belong to the priest (the visible head of Christ), to the people (the assembled Body of Christ), and there is also a role given to the choir, or schola cantorum, as it is called in the General Instruction. Perhaps we could say that the schola cantorum sacramentalizes the hosts of angels and Saints that join in the song of the Lamb in the heavenly liturgy.

One of the roles given to the schola cantorum, of which the assembly may also may take part, is the singing of the proper of the Mass. The form of the proper of the Mass is made up primarily of antiphons and psalmody, as we saw demonstrated in GIRM 48 and 87. The texts of the proper of the Mass are taken primarily from scripture, and overwhelmingly from the book of Psalms.

We can recall that the Psalms have always played an integral role in the life of the Church, not only in the Liturgy of the Hours, but from the very beginnings of Christianity the Psalms have also been central to the Eucharistic liturgy. In The Spirit of the Liturgy, Pope Benedict tells us about why the Psalms are so important in Christian prayer and worship. We recall that the primary author of the book of Psalms is King David.

The Pope says:

“The Holy Spirit, who had inspired David to sing and to pray, moves him to speak of Christ, indeed causes him to become the very mouth of Christ, thus enabling us in the Psalms to speak through Christ, in the Holy Spirit, to the Father.”

How profound is this? Christ, who is the “Son of David” assumes and prays the Psalms of David himself, and continues to do so throughout history through his Body, the Church, in his eternal prayer of praise to the Father.”

This is how important psalms are to Christian worship!

So when we sing the liturgical chant that forms the proper of the Mass, a role proper to the choir or schola cantorum in which the congregation may take part, we make sacramentally present in the liturgy the voice of Christ who prays the Scriptures and the Psalms in worship of the Father, and for the sanctification of Christ’s Body!

This is our role! It is no small calling. Of the sacred signs and symbols in the liturgy, sacred music has a role of singular importance, because it forms an integral part of the liturgy.


And now we draw our consideration of liturgical music from five distinct perspectives to a close. What conclusions can we draw from all of this? Let’s begin by turning to the question that was raised toward the beginning of this talk; the question of the primacy of Gregorian chant in the Roman liturgy.

I think that if we ponder deeply on the theological realities that we’ve discussed, if we look very closely at liturgical music from a theological perspective, we can see why the Church has held and continues to hold Gregorian chant to be in such high esteem. Gregorian chant is not the only archetypal form of liturgical chant, but it is a form that has given a near perfect liturgical expression to the acting Voice of Christ in the Liturgy.

But how has it achieved this? Allow me to propose three reasons:

Firstly, Gregorian chant is purely vocal music, and it is monophonic, meaning it is pure melody. Through the singing of scriptural and liturgical texts it makes sacramentally present the One voice of Christ, and allows the entire Body to join in this once voice of praise.

Secondly, Gregorian chant is not bound to a rhythmic meter. The rhythm of Gregorian chant is the rhythm of the liturgical word. In chant, it is the word, always, that has primacy. The music is always at the service of the Word. It enables the logos, the Word of God to be made manifest, to become incarnate in our midst, without distortion. Truly, in Gregorian chant, the Word becomes flesh and dwells in our midst, when it is sung in the sacred liturgy.

Thirdly, Gregorian chant has always been music that has been reserved for the worship of God. It has never been popular music. There is virtually nothing like it that exists in the popular music in history anywhere. We don’t go to Gregorian chant concerts do we? Because it just doesn’t make sense. Chant is a musical idiom that serves one purpose, and that is to bring to life the Word of God in song in the sacred liturgy.

Now, does this mean that we must only sing Gregorian chant in the liturgy? I don’t think so, and the GIRM doesn’t say this at all.

But it should be clear to us now why chant has been given such an exalted role in the liturgy, and why it is continually upheld as the model for liturgical music. It should be given the “main place” in the liturgy, says our current liturgical legislation, and this is for good reason. When we use other musical styles and repertoires, though, they should always be judged against these qualities that are exemplified in Gregorian chant, and be informed and inspired by them.

Our job as liturgical musicians is to make the voice of Christ sacramentally present in the liturgy. So our singing and the music that we sing has to have the capacity to do this to the best of our abilities.

We’re very blessed to have a resurgence in interest in the singing of liturgical chant; both Gregorian chant and other sacred vocal repertoires that are consonant with it. There have been more chant workshops happening around the country and world in the past five years than there probably have been in all the first three decades that followed the Council.

We also have a very exciting growing trend in the development of resources that make liturgical chant, as discussed here, able to be sung in almost any parish environment. While the official books of Gregorian chant are in Latin, and can be a very complex and highly specialized repertoire at times, many composers have been discovering ways to “translate” the essence of the Gregorian chant tradition into forms that we can readily utilize in liturgical practice today.

And when we extend liturgical chant into other musical styles for use in the liturgy–something that the Church has always encouraged, and does today–my challenge to you today is to look to the Gregorian chant tradition for guidance and inspiration. What Pope St. Pius X said in his 1903 encyclical holds true today:

“…the more closely a composition for church approaches in its movement, inspiration and savor the Gregorian form, the more sacred and liturgical it becomes…”

I would challenge you to deeply consider the principles of liturgical music that are modeled for us in the Gregorian chant tradition, and seek to imbue everything you do with this spirit. This not only applies to how the music is sung and played, but also to the music and texts that are selected.

The antiphons in the Missal and Graduale remain the primary sung texts for the liturgical processions. Perhaps we could look at them when making musical selections for the Mass.

The primary textual source for the liturgical processions at the Entrance, Offertory and Communion is the psalms. Perhaps we could incorporate more musical settings of the psalms, based on the texts in the Graduale Romanum or Simplex in our musical selections.

And lastly, perhaps we could even begin to sing some of the proper chants themselves, even in the most simple English settings. An incorporation of these sorts of settings in our liturgies today will resonate beautifully with the chants found in the new edition of the Roman Missal.

These are all things that we can do to bring our service in music ministry closer to the Mind of the Church on liturgical music.

Above all, though, I hope that we can always strive to make the Word of God, the logos, the very voice of Christ, perceptible in the liturgy through the music that we sing, compose, play and offer in the liturgy.