Church Documents

    • Pope St. Pius X published this motu proprio on sacred music just 3 months into his pontificate. The Pope was a musician himself: he studied Gregorian chant, polyphony, and music theory in seminary, and worked tirelessly as a Priest, Bishop, and Cardinal to promote sacred music. His Tra le Sollecitudini is the fullest articulation of the Church’s teaching on sacred music.

In the introductory passage, Pope Pius declares that sacred music is integral to the Liturgy and therefore shares the same aim as the Liturgy itself: the glory of God and the sanctification and edification of the faithful. He goes on to describe the inherent nature of traditional Catholic sacred music, to sum up the Church’s previous teachings on this music, and to address the abuses of it which were prevalent at the time. Perhaps most importantly, the pope offers three standards by which to judge the fittingness of music for the Liturgy – namely holiness, goodness of form, and universality. He also confirms Gregorian chant and classical polyphony as the paradigms for sacred music. All the Church’s subsequent teachings on sacred music refer back to Tra le Sollecitudini as their foundation.

    • In chapter six of the constitution Sacrosanctum Concilium, the fathers of the Second Vatican Council reaffirm the previous teachings of the church, especially of Pius X’s Tra le Sollecitudini. They declare that the Liturgy manifests a greater dignity when it is sung, and that contemporary Church musicians have a responsibility to preserve the tradition of sacred music which has ennobled the liturgy for so many centuries. Confirming the status of Gregorian chant and polyphony as paradigms for sacred music, they encourage the publishing of books of Gregorian chant, and call for the fostering of lay participation in the sacred music. Bringing about full, conscious, and active participation for all the faithful is held up as the main goal of sacred music. Questions of inculturation, appropriate use of instruments, and new compositions are also addressed.

    • After Sacrosanctum Concilium was published, a smaller council was appointed to implement the Constitution. One of the works of this council was to publish Musicam Sacram, a more detailed instruction on sacred music within the Liturgy. Musicam Sacram, in accord with Sacrosanctum Concilium, affirms that music brings great nobility to the sacred liturgy, and addresses the varying degrees of solemnity that can accompany various liturgical celebrations. Along with these distinctions, it offers a reminder that true solemnity comes from the reverent celebration of the liturgy, not from the level of sophistication of the music sung. Speaking of the active participation of the faithful in the liturgy, Musicam Sacram declares that this participation should be primarily interior: the exterior aspects of participation should be at the service of interior participation in the Mystery. The instruction also addresses the organization, training, and placement of choirs, the singing of the Divine Office and the seven sacraments, the use of Latin and vernacular, the role of new composers, and the use of instruments. It ends by calling for commissions for sacred music in each diocese of the Church.

  • Pope John Paul II, Chirograph For the Centenary Of the Motu Proprio “Tra Le Sollecitudini,” On Sacred Music, November 22, 2003:

    • On the hundredth anniversary of the publication of Tra le Sollecitudini, Pope St. John Paul II delivered a letter that reiterated his predecessor’s teaching, as well as that of the second Vatican Council. He begins the letter by reflecting on the power and benefit of sacred music, while at the same time acknowledging that the sacred music of the present day, like that of St. Pius X’s time, stands in need of purification. He reminds his reader of the three principles in Tra Le Sollecitudini (holiness, goodness of form, and universality), and elaborates on their meaning. He calls on Church musicians to preserve the sacred character of liturgical music and demands that composers mirror the texts and spirit of the liturgy in the forms of their compositions. He warns against experimentation within the liturgy, which might compromise the Liturgy’s universality. Like his predecessors, he raises up Gregorian chant and polyphony as paradigms to be imitated and encourages composers of new music to unite themselves with the Church’s traditions. Finally, he closes with practical exhortations for improving the music in every diocese throughout the Church.

    • In his Apostolic Exhortation “Sacramentum Caritatis,” Pope Benedict XVI speaks of the Eucharist as the source and summit of Christian life. The exhortation is divided into three main parts, each examining a facet of the mystery of the Eucharist: “The Eucharist, a Mystery To Be Believed”; “the Eucharist, a Mystery To Be Celebrated”; and “the Eucharist, a Mystery To Be Lived.”

In the first part, Benedict shows the way in which the Eucharist illuminates and gives life to all the mysteries of our faith. In the second part, he considers how the Eucharistic mystery ought to be celebrated. Beauty, the true shining out of God’s love, is essential to liturgical action, he says, and he speaks of the relationship between beauty, art (especially song), and the celebration of the Eucharist. In his passage on song he insists that the music we sing for the liturgy should correspond to the meaning of the Mystery we celebrate. He also addresses the question of active participation in this section, insisting that true participation in the Eucharist requires constant conversion. In the third and final part, he declares that the Eucharist should form and suffuse every part of Christian life, especially evangelization, and discusses ways in which the faithful can continue “living the Eucharist” in all they do.

    • In the third year of his papacy, Pope Benedict XVI published his motu proprio “Summorum Pontificum,” which established the missal of Blessed John XXIII as the extraordinary form of the Roman rite, and allowed for freedom to celebrate the Liturgy according to this missal throughout the Church. In the document Benedict explains that he is opening up such freedom out of consideration for those who were raised attending the Liturgies of the old Rite, and for all who had grown to love its form.

At the same time as he published “Summorum Pontificum,” Benedict also published a letter to the Bishops, explaining the reasons for this motu proprio. He first addresses the fears which he sees as standing in opposition to his legislation. He affirms that it does not undermine the authority of the Second Vatican Council and cannot stir up “disarray” or division within parish communities. Next, he offers his positive reasons for the decree, saying, first, that the two forms of the Roman rite will be “mutually enriching,” and, second, that the freedom to celebrate from the 1962 missal will contribute to reconciliation and unity “in the heart of the Church.”

Books on Sacred Music

    • In Sacred Treasure Joseph P. Swain, an author, University Professor of music, and Church musician, discusses the characteristics which set the Church’s sacred musical tradition apart from secular music and counsels current musicians on how to build within that tradition. The book is divided into three parts, “State of the Art,” in which he considers the status of sacred music in parishes since the Second Vatican Council, “Sacred Treasure,” in which he examines what the musical qualities are that render music sacred, and “Building Traditions,” in which he discusses the possibility of continuing the sacred music tradition today. In the first part Swain examines the music that began to fill Catholic Churches after the second Vatican council and demonstrates why, from a purely musical perspective, the state of Church music today requires correction. The second part gives an account of why chant, polyphony, and certain hymnodies are well-suited to our liturgical prayer. And the third part provides a realistic view on the challenges facing current sacred musicians, acknowledging the conflicts and obstacles to building within the sacred tradition as well as pointing the way to true creativity. This book is perhaps the most comprehensive overview of the qualities of sacred music that one can find.

    • In his Catholic Music Through the Ages, Edward Schaefer, a University Professor of music and experienced choir director and composer, presents a dual understanding of sacred music. Speaking with Plato and the ancients, Schaefer asserts that all music has two aspects, an expressive and a formative. We can use music to express our thoughts, feelings, and beliefs, but music also has the power to form or influence what and how we think, feel, and believe.

    • Schaefer relates this distinction to the expression lex orandi, lex credendi, or, “the rule of prayer is the rule of belief,” saying music’s expressive aspect is linked to the lex orandi and its formative aspect to the lex credendi. He posits that the history of sacred music is a history of the struggle among composers, musicians, and churchmen over which aspect ought to dominate in the music of the Church. He goes on to categorize the history of sacred music into five periods of development and subsequent reform. In each period, he argues, the question of whether music should serve primarily as expressive or formative influenced both musical practice and Church teaching. In conclusion, he examines our present situation and looks towards the future of sacred music. He suggests that we can move towards a healthy renewal by better understanding how music can help to form–and ultimately sanctify–the faithful.

    • In his Papal Legislation on Sacred Music 95 A.D. to 1977 A.D., Robert F. Hayburn presents a collection of the papal teachings on music from the Church’s very beginnings to after the second Vatican council. This book is the first comprehensive collection of Papal teaching on music. Hayburn offers historical context and commentary for each of the documents, including the correspondence of the popes, historical records, and the teachings of various bishops and cardinals at the time of the documents’ publication.

  • William Peter Mahrt, The Musical Shape of the Liturgy, Church Music Association of America, (2012). The Musical Shape of the Liturgy

    • In his incredibly detailed collection of essays, Dr. Mahrt discusses the influence of sacred music in our experience of the Liturgy, both in general terms and through the study of specific sacred works. In Section One “The Paradigm,” Mahrt explains how Gregorian chant and Polyphonic music both lend a musical shape to the Mass, demonstrating how each style in its own way draws the worshipper into the reverent celebration of the Mystery. He discusses Gregorian chant both as a paradigm of Sacred Music and as the foundation of all Western music. And he argues that the faithful can “actively participate” in the Mass through listening to Gregorian chant. The next two sections examine particular chant and polyphonic works in some detail, while the last section offers commentary on Sacred Music in general.

Books on the Sacred Liturgy

    • In his Spirit of the Liturgy, Pope Benedict XVI offers a new insight into the meaning of the Liturgy and its place in the Christian faith. He divides the books into four parts, “The Essence of the Liturgy,” “Time and Space in the Liturgy,” “Art and Liturgy,” and “Liturgical Form.” In the first part, Benedict speaks of the Liturgy as the perfection of creation, of history, and of all the religious aspirations of man throughout the ages. In the second part, he speaks of the Liturgy as it relates to the rest of the cosmos: it is the act that, performed once and for all, enters into the present, redeems all time, and gives meaning to both time and space. The third part has two chapters, one devoted to artistic imagery and one devoted to music. In the second chapter, Benedict addresses the history of liturgical music along with the questions of inculturation and the place of popular music. He concludes this chapter by outlining three ways in which sacred music relates to the Logos, or Word of God: by expressing God’s Word, by bringing us into communion with the Word through the Holy Spirit, and by conforming itself to the reasoned order of the cosmos. The final part of the book gives consideration to the sacramental rites of the Church as well as the role of the body in the Liturgy.

    • Romano Guardini’s The Spirit of the Liturgy is a theological and philosophical reflection on the reality of the Liturgy, its meaning, and the qualities it should have as the Church’s prayer. The small book is philosophically dense, and a challenging read, but its rewards are worth the careful study it requires.

    • In the first chapter entitled “The Prayer of the Liturgy,” Guardini examines what corporate prayer should be, and asserts that the Liturgy holds all the qualities listed. The second chapter, “The fellowship of the Liturgy,” dwells on the communal nature of the Liturgy.  In the third chapter, entitled “The Style of the Liturgy,” he declares that, in the Liturgy, individual expressions of emotion, inspiration, and beauty should be taken up and transformed to have a universal quality. The fourth chapter, “The Symbolism of the Liturgy” speaks of the relationship between spirit and matter, and how this relationship contributes to the Liturgy. In the fifth chapter, “The Playfulness of the Liturgy,” Guardini contrasts the modern emphasis on the “purpose” (or usefulness) of actions with the age-old emphasis on their “meaning.” He insists that the Liturgy, though without practical “purpose,” or utility, is the center of meaning. In chapter six, “The Seriousness of the Liturgy,” Guardini considers beauty in the Liturgy and declares that beauty flows from the truth and can only exist if it shines out from the truth. Finally, in the seventh chapter, “The Primacy of the Logos over the Ethos,” Guardini insists that truth is prior in importance to human will, and existence (simply “being”) prior to action (or “doing”). Following from this, he declares that contemplation and adoration are the fulfilment of the Liturgy: the Liturgy is not primarily an activity on our part, but rather the reception of a gift.  

    • In his The Organic Development of the Liturgy, Dom Alcuin Reid, O.S.B., gives an account of the changes and growth of the Roman Liturgy over time, from the Apostolic ages up to Vatican II. He offers a “principle of organic development,” saying that the Liturgy ought to develop as a tree grows, building layer upon layer, never breaking from what comes before, but allowing the new to include and draw from the old. “It holds openness to growth …  and continuity with tradition in due proportion” (p. 309). His work is divided into three chapters: the first traces the history of the Liturgy’s development from its beginnings to the beginnings of the liturgical movement, which sought a revival of liturgical piety in the early 20th century. The second chapter is a history of the liturgical movement itself, its members, voices, meetings, and ideas up until 1948. The  third chapter is the history of the liturgical movement and the reforms it had a large part in bringing about from 1948 (when the reforms began to take hold) to 1962. In his conclusion, Reid argues that the original liturgical movement aimed to build up a Christian culture through restoring liturgical piety, always acting in accord with the principle of organic development.

    • In Rome and the Eastern Churches, Aidan Nichols, O.P., gives a theological and historical account of the divisions between the Roman and Orthodox Churches. He begins by explaining the concept of schism and goes on to offer an account of each Eastern schism, along with the various political and cultural factors which contributed to the disunion. He first examines the schism of the Assyrian Christians; next that of the Oriental Orthodox; and finally, after looking into the sources of estrangement between Constantinople and Rome, the break with the Eastern Orthodox. He explains the Photian schism and the controversy over the Filioque clause in the creed, the issue of the Azymes, the question of purgatory, and the failure of the Council of Florence. After offering a brief history of the Uniate Churches, Nichols ends with a summary of the “Dialogue of Charity” that began after Vatican II. Nichols argues that Rome and the Eastern Churches need each other to mature, grow, and flourish in the present time. He offers some suggestions for a way towards union, but recognizes the theological and human factors that make such a union difficult to achieve.

Helpful Articles

    • In his address to religious teachers and catechists on the New Evangelization (12 December, 2000) then Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger offers a brief account of the structure, method, and contents of the New Evangelization. He begins by asserting that man by himself is incomplete – that he can only become fully himself through knowing and loving God, and that only God can answer the questions of his heart. Dwelling on what he calls the structure of the New Evangelization, Ratzinger recalls the parable of the mustard seed and declares that God works through what is small and hidden, not through what is “successful” in the eyes of the world. In his discussion on the methods of evangelizing, Ratzinger emphasizes the need to give oneself up to Christ, to the life of the Trinity and the life of the Church, and says that evangelization is born through prayer and suffering. Finally, regarding the New Evangelization’s contents, he reflects on four all-important Mysteries: conversion, the Kingdom of God (in which the Liturgy is of primary importance, since it makes God present to us), Jesus Christ, and Eternal Life.

    • In 2017 Robert Cardinal Sarah delivered an address on the 10th anniversary of “Summorum Pontificum” in which he speaks of the motu proprio as a contribution to what he calls the “new liturgical movement.” He begins by reminding his audience that the liturgy is the “summit and source of the life and mission of the Church” (Sacrosanctum Concilium, n. 10) since its foundation is Christ Himself. Recalling Pope Benedict’s hope for a “mutual enrichment” between the two forms of the Roman Rite, he suggests that this enrichment will lead to a rediscovery of the true essence of the Liturgy – a rediscovery which the Second Vatican council intended, but which did not in fact come about after the reforms. He insists that the essence of the Liturgy is not just a prayer, but most importantly a Mystery. Our reverence in the presence of this great Mystery, then, should contrast with a trivial attitude and a desire to be “doing” something. Although he states that the latter approach has dominated the Church, he urges us to embrace the true spirit of the Liturgy, and calls for a new liturgical movement. The three paths towards the renewal of the Liturgy which he proposes are: silence, adoration, and formation.

    • In his lecture from the General Assembly for the Association Pro Liturgia in 2018, Cardinal Sarah spoke of the need for Sacred Music to proceed from and lead to interior silence. He begins by reflecting on Gregorian chant and its development in silent contemplative monasteries. Because Gregorian chant came forth from silent meditation on the mysteries of Christ and leads to the prayerful silence of adoration, he says, it is considered the preeminent form of liturgical music.

He goes on to speak of certain qualities which distinguish secular music from sacred music in the chant tradition, particularly rhythm, which he calls the “body language of silence.” He also describes two forms of music other than Gregorian chant which still maintain and cultivate prayerful silence.

To conclude, he recalls the story of Jesus and Zacchaeus, saying that Jesus’ invitation, “make haste and come down,” is the same invitation which He gives to all of us, calling us to welcome Him into our souls.

    • In his article “Latin and Vernacular,” Francis Cardinal Arinze offers a brief account of why Latin is the universal language of the Church and reflects on the role of language in the Church’s liturgical prayer. He begins by insisting that it is a natural human tendency to wish to preserve in religion what was present from its beginnings, and that this holds true for the language of prayer. He then provides three main arguments for the advantage of using Latin in the Liturgy, namely, its universality, its stability of meaning, and its beauty and dignity. Arinze also gives consideration to Gregorian chant, the second Vatican council’s stance on Latin, and the question of translation, as well as reflecting on the relationship between language and prayer.

    • During the final preparations for publishing the new translation of the Roman Missal, Msgr. Andrew Wadsworth delivered a keynote address to the Southeastern Liturgical Music Symposium entitled Towards the Future: Singing the Mass. In his speech, Msgr. Wadsworth questions the assumption that liturgical music is merely a creative addition, an optional ornament to the unchanging liturgy. He makes the distinction between singing at Mass and singing the Mass, and declares that if we strive for the latter, our music will not be an addition, but rather an integral part of our worship. He stresses the relation between liturgical music and the sacred texts of the liturgy, encouraging musicians to sing the Propers of the Mass and expressing the hope that the new translation will inspire more musical settings for the Mass Propers. Wadsworth also recommends that priests learn to sing their parts of the Mass, and that the Liturgy of the Word be sung in solemn celebrations. The conclusion suggests that the singing of the Mass Propers will contribute to the visible unity of the Church.

    • Pope Benedict XVI opens his preface to the Russian edition of his collected works with the words of his patron, St. Benedict, “Let nothing be set before the Divine worship.” Pope Benedict declares that, though this exhortation may seem impractical at first, it is in fact the essential attitude for all our lives. No matter what tasks we have before us, no matter how busy and important we are, we must subordinate everything we do to the worship of God. If God does not have primacy, all else fails. Benedict observes that the modern world has come to prioritize human concerns over worship. After the Second Vatican Council, due to misunderstanding of the reforms, men began to place their own work and creativity before God even within the Liturgy itself. The pope insists that we cannot renew the Church unless we remedy this situation: we must restore the adoration of God to the center of the Liturgy, and let nothing come before our worship of Him.

  • Paul Jernberg, “The Logos of Sacred Music,” June 5, 2012.

    • In this article Jernberg explains his purpose in composing the Mass of St. Philip Neri. Drawing on Church tradition and teaching, he discusses the qualities of sacred music which can serve as guides for composers today: sacred character, authentic artistry, and noble accessibility. Reflecting on both the historical and the spiritual significance of these qualities, he calls upon composers to create music that radiates all three, so that the music of the Church may reflect the holiness of her Liturgy and the dignity of man as he enters into the sacred Mysteries.

Further Helpful Reading

Although they are not directly about the liturgy or liturgical music, we highly recommend these books as fruitful and inspiring spiritual guides. Much of the spirituality taught in these books can lay a foundation for reverent worship and truly beautiful sacred music!

  • Robert Cardinal Sarah, The Power of Silence:Against the Dictatorship of Noise, Ignatius Press, (April 15, 2017). The Power of Silence

    • In this powerful book, Cardinal Sarah speaks out against the noise that dominates modern society - physical noise as well as habits of frantic activity, constant work, and the desire to dominate one’s surroundings. He calls us to make room in our lives for silence, for it is only when we are silent that we can hear the voice of God. Speaking of silence as the great teacher, he describes how a soul can be purified and raised up by silence to see with God’s eyes. He explains that we can only understand the mysteries of evil and suffering through silence, learning from the silence of Christ on the Cross. The book is divided into five sections, beginning with a reflection on “Silence versus the World’s Noise,” and ending with a conversation between the Cardinal and a Carthusian monk. The chapter on “Silence, Mystery, and the Sacred” is an especially helpful insight into the place of silence in our worship.

  • Robert Cardinal Sarah, God or Nothing, Ignatius Press, (September 1, 2015). God or Nothing

    • In this autobiographical interview, Cardinal Sarah recounts his journey from its beginnings in the impoverished village of Ourous, Guinea, to his appointment as Prefect of the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments. Recalling his spiritual journey, the Cardinal honors those who offered him strong examples of holiness, asceticism, and self-sacrifice. He draws from his own experience of poverty and hardship to affirm that Christ is found through suffering. And he speaks of the life of a persecuted Church under the Marxist regime of Sékou Touré. In later chapters, Sarah discusses some of the most relevant moral and ecclesiastical issues, including gender theory, the nature of marriage, the question of clerical abuse, and the tasks of the Church in the postmodern world. His thoughts on liturgy, prayer, and contemplation in chapters VI and VII are especially helpful.