Vatican II embraced the role of sacred music in liturgy


By Eleanor Kiel

Members of the diocesan choir sing during the diaconate ordination Mass July 13, 2013, at Sacred Heart Cathedral in Davenport.

Editor’s note: On Dec. 4, 1963, Pope Paul VI promulgated the Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy, known in Latin as Sacrosanctum Concilium, the first document the world’s bishops approved during Vatican Council II (1962-65). To commemorate the 50th anniversary of Sacrosanctum Concilium, The Catholic Messenger is publishing a series of articles exploring key themes of the document. This article addresses sacred music.
Chapter VI of the Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy (Sacrosanctum Concilium) delves into the musical traditional of the Church. It begins with the assertion that music in the Church is extremely important, “… greater even than that of any other art.” Its centrality to the community’s life of faith has been declared in the Scriptures and by the Fathers of the Church because of the “…ministerial function supplied by sacred music in the service of the Lord.” Music, as with other art forms, has the ability to emotionally and spiritually inspire those who hear it, and deepen the prayer of those who participate in it. Those involved in music ministry love to quote Saint Augustine: “Those who sing pray twice!”
Although these ideas were not new in the time of Vatican II, a more specific mandate came from the Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy in regards to music in the Church. Consistent with the aims of the Council, the full, conscious and active participation of the faithful was to be the greatest goal of sacred music. Whereas prior to Vatican II one could expect to listen to Gregorian chant being sung from the choir loft, or to join in a few standard hymns over and over, “now there were blue-jean-clad guitar players singing from wobbly microphones where the communion rail used to be” (Huebsch, Bill: “Catholic Culture and Memory: Life in the Church on the Eve of the Council”). It must have been quite a shock to go from being the audience to an expected member of the band!
An area of contention since the 1960s has been what constitutes sacred music, and what are appropriate musical art forms and instruments to be used in the liturgy. As reported by those who remember, the pendulum swung quite wide from chant to the “guitar mass.” The Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy clearly states that Gregorian chant is to have “pride of place in liturgical services.” However, other kinds of sacred music are allowed by the document, especially songs with simpler melodies and cultural appeal that can encourage the participation of those in the pews. A specific urge is made towards missionaries to learn the traditional music of the people they serve. The writers of Sac­ro­sanctum Concilium must have understood the power of music to inspire and transform, and to realize how it could assist in bringing people into the Church. Whatever genre of music is used, sacred music should use Scripture or liturgical sources for its text.
Going to Mass in different Catholic parishes shows the great diversity in interpretation of the Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy in regards to musical genre and instrumentation.
Some parishes use the organ predominantly, as “the pipe organ is to be held in high esteem” within the liturgy. Other parishes use the freedom that the Council allowed in the admission of other instruments.
Music has the power to change the “flavor” of the Mass. What works for one congregation may not work for another.
Some congregations may sing a cappella Gregorian chant well, especially once they are educated and accustomed to it. Others may find it foreign and distancing. Some congregations might sing, dance and clap along to “cultural” or “modern” music, while others would be uncomfortable joining in. Allowing the freedom of musical expression from community to community is a great gift that can aid the full, conscious and active participation of the faithful.
Whatever personal preference one might have in regards to music, most would agree that it gives the Mass “greater solemnity.”
I have a vivid memory of going to Mass in Florence, Italy, on Pentecost Sunday. I expected, being in the “mother country” of the Church, to take part in an inspiring liturgical celebration. I was shocked that there were no musicians, no instruments and no singing. How sad it was to watch the priest process to the ambo for the proclamation of the Gospel without the “Alleluia” and to acclaim the Eucharistic prayer with only a limp, spoken “Amen.”
In contrast, I have never been more moved than by the celebration of the Easter Vigil at the Basilica of St. Mary in Minneapolis, Minn. From the a cappella chanting of the Exsultet in the pitch black church as the Easter candle entered the sanctuary, to the triumphant organ, brass and exclamatory singing of the congregation on “Jesus Christ is Risen Today,” the Spirit was moving through the church filling all with greater awe in the Holy Presence. By adding our voices to the holy song, may we all be blessed!
(Eleanor Kiel is director of liturgy and music for St. John Vianney Parish, Bettendorf.)

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