"Everyone who belongs to the Truth hears my voice…" (John 18:37)

Music and the Liturgy

“How I wept when I heard your hymns and canticles, being deeply moved by the sweet singing of your Church.” – St. Augustine, The Confessions


I’m a pianist, and from the time I was a young child I’ve been involved in music ministry in one form or another. I sang my first duet with my mother – O Tannenbaum – when I was just 4 years old. By the age of 8, I was accompanying Sunday School choruses on the piano at the Evangelical Church where I grew up. I later sang and played the piano and organ at Sunday services, weddings, and funerals, and at the age of 11, I was even invited to conduct the Adult Choir. It didn’t seem odd to me at the time, and I confess that I didn’t appreciate the fact that adults – including my own mother – might not take kindly to being corrected by a young girl. (Which may have contributed to the fact that I was only invited to serve as director for one year!) I went on to become a professional musician, and many years later – after re-discovering my faith and converting to Catholicism – it only seemed natural for me to want to continue to serve my parish community in this way.

I should confess that before I converted to Catholicism, the Mass and all things Catholic were completely foreign to me. My only exposure was as a young teen when I attended the Funeral Mass of a local piano teacher. I didn’t understand what was going on and was completely mystified by all the rituals. Some years later, I sang in a performance of Haydn’s “Nelson” Mass as a member of my University choir. The director tried to explain the meaning of the Kyrie, Gloria, Credo, Sanctus, and Agnus Dei, but though the words were in Latin, it was all ‘Greek’ to me!

Given my somewhat eclectic history, I felt a bit anxious when I volunteered to play at Mass years later. How would I know when to play? Would the priest give me a signal? Would the heavens open up and swallow me if I played the Lamb of God at the wrong time? I had no clue about the role of music in Catholic liturgy; the Evangelical tradition was my reference point, and I assumed I would continue doing what I had always done as a child: play background music for about 10 minutes before the service started, accompany the congregation in the singing of hymns, and do ‘specials’ – musical performances inserted into the services to keep things interesting. (I assumed that because I hadn’t heard any ‘specials’ at Mass, it was because they didn’t have anyone willing to take on this responsibility.) Needless to say, it would be a steep learning curve, and my first foray into music ministry lasted all of three weeks.

In my search for God, I had been drawn to the Catholic Church – out of respect for its long tradition, its universality, and its deep intellectual thought. Even so, I knew very little about the deeper meaning behind its Liturgy. I knew the parts of the Mass and could follow along in my missal, but I hadn’t yet developed an appreciation for their true character and purpose. I didn’t even realize that there were liturgical guidelines that all Catholics are expected to follow!

bad-musicThere was a lot of confusion in the Church in the years following Vatican II, and even today there continues to be a lot of debate about what kind of music is appropriate for use in the Liturgy of the Church. From small parishes to large cathedrals, it’s not uncommon to hear people complain about the music. “It’s so s-l-o-o-o-w.” “It’s too LOUD!” “It’s too jazzy.” Sadly, sometimes the only comment is, “The music is just … bad.”

Concerns about the level of musical performance are valid and need to be addressed, but what many people don’t realize is that the choice of liturgical music is not about our personal preferences, tastes, or opinions; it’s not determined by the instruments we play or the style of music we have chosen. Rather, music must serve the purpose of the Liturgy, which is to give glory to God and to sanctify and uplift the hearts of the faithful. Its purpose is not to entertain us, but “to open our hearts to the presence of Jesus living and active in the liturgy.”1 As Pope Pius X wrote in his motu proprio2 letter on Sacred Music, Tra le sollecitudini (“among the concerns”), the “principal office [of sacred liturgical music] is to clothe with suitable melody the liturgical text proposed for the understanding of the faithful, its proper aim is to add greater efficacy to the text, in order that through it the faithful may be the more easily moved to devotion and better disposed for the reception of the fruits of grace belonging to the celebration of the most holy mysteries.”3

It’s because of the need for a close relationship between the liturgical text and music that Gregorian Chant has been given pride of place in the liturgy. “The rhythm of chant is free and is governed more by the rhythms of speech than by imposed musical patterns. … Prayer, meditation, reverence, awe, and love – Gregorian chant carries them in rhythm and melody. More than any other music with lyrics, chant is ‘heightened speech’. In chant the music and prose are perfectly integrated. Its function is to add solemnity to Christian worship. In sacred music, the text is at the heart of the composition. … Sacred chant is a heightened form of prayer.”4


But despite its ethereal beauty, chant is not the only music that the Church admits into its Liturgy. The Second Vatican Council noted that other kinds of sacred music, especially polyphony, also have their place in liturgical celebrations as long as the music is in “accord with the spirit of the liturgical action.”5 So how do we go about deciding what type of music would best fulfill this role?

What do we mean when we talk about ‘liturgical’ music?

It’s generally not too difficult to distinguish sacred music from secular music: sacred music is religious and is meant to be used in Church; secular music is all music that doesn’t fit that description. Things that are sacred are about ‘the holy or divine’. “The sacred is that which pertains to God, as distinguished from what pertains to human beings; that which is eternal, in contrast with the temporal; the heavenly as opposed to the earthly; the mysterious and therefore not the rationally explainable; the infinite and not the finite. … [The sacred] does not change in word because it is the Word of God.”6

Sacred Secular
Pertains to God Pertains to Human Beings
Eternal (Heaven, Spiritual) Temporal (Earth, Physical)
Does not change Changes
Used within the church Used outside the church

“Secular music,” on the other hand, “is the stuff of ‘man’. It speaks of hurt, loss, struggles, love, joy, emotion, etc. The lyrics are the words of men, not of God. Secular music speaks of the here and now, the physical and earthly.”7 Unlike sacred music, secular music changes rapidly and is based on culture, time, and place. “This is why we call secular music ‘pop’, because it is popular and what is popular changes.”8

Can music be sacred, but not liturgical?

But music that is considered sacred is not necessarily liturgical. Pope St. John Paul II remarked that, “Today, the meaning of the category ‘sacred music’ has been broadened to include repertoires that cannot be part of the celebration without violating the spirit and norms of the Liturgy itelf.”9 We listen to such sacred music on the radio, MP3s, and DVDs; we hear it performed at concerts, and we enjoy singing it at other Catholic gatherings outside of the Eucharistic celebration. But no matter how much we might love a particular song, some religious music was simply never meant to be used as part of a solemn celebration. As Pope St. John Paul II once observed, “not all the expressions of figurative art or of music are able ‘to express adequately the mystery grasped in the fullness of the Church’s faith’. Consequently, not all forms of music can be considered suitable for liturgical celebrations.”10 The following chart illustrates this point:11


What do we mean by “liturgy”?

What exactly do we mean by liturgical music? The word “liturgy,” comes from a Greek word that means, “public work or word done on behalf of the people” (referring to an organized community). In the Catholic liturgy, this ‘work’ is done by an individual (or group) on behalf of the community, liturgybut “[a]ll the worshipers are expected to participate actively in each liturgy, for this is holy ‘work’, not entertainment or a spectator event. Every liturgical celebration is an action of Christ the High Priest and of his Mystical Body, which is the Church. It therefore requires the participation of the People of God in the work of God.”12

Music has an important role in the liturgy, both as “a means of lifting up the spirit to God and as a precious aid for the faithful in their ‘active participation in the most holy mysteries and in the public and solemn prayer of the Church’.”13 As Pope Benedict XVI reminds us, for Catholics, the liturgy of the Church “is a privileged context in which God speaks to each one of us, here and now, and awaits our answer.”14 “Sacred music should consequently possess, in the highest degree, the qualities proper to the liturgy, and in particular sanctity and goodness of form, which will spontaneously produce the final quality of universality.”15

The Liturgy unites the two holy places, the earthly temple and the infinite heavens, God and man, time and eternity.” – Pope St. John Paul II, General Audience 26 February 2003

What constitutes “good” liturgy?

Pope Paul VI taught that “if music – instrumental and vocal – does not possess at the same time the sense of prayer, dignity and beauty, it precludes the entry into the sphere of the sacred and the religious.”16 Pope Benedict XVI echoed this truth, saying, “We celebrate and live the liturgy well only if we remain in a prayerful attitude, and not if we want ‘to do something’, to make ourselves seen or to act, but if we direct our hearts to God and remain in a prayerful attitude, uniting ourselves with the Mystery of Christ and with his conversation as Son with the Father.”17 “The first requirement for a good liturgical celebration,” he noted, “is that there should be prayer and a conversation with God, first of all listening and consequently a response. … God has given us the word and the sacred liturgy offers us words; we must enter into the words, into their meaning and receive them within us, we must attune ourselves to these words; in this way we become children of God, we become like God.”18

Characteristics of Liturgical Music

There are certain characteristics that music must have in order to satisfy the requirements of the Liturgy. In his letter on Sacred Music, Tra le sollecitudini, Pope Pius X wrote, “It must be holy, and must, therefore, exclude all profanity [irreverence] not only in itself, but in the manner in which it is presented by those who execute it. It must be true art, for otherwise it will be impossible for it to exercise on the minds of those who listen to it that efficacy which the Church aims at obtaining in admitting into her liturgy the art of musical sounds. But it must, at the same time, be universal in the sense that while every nation is permitted to admit into its ecclesiastical compositions those special forms which may be said to constitute its native music, still these forms must be subordinated in such a manner to the general characteristics of sacred music that nobody of any nation may receive an impression other than good on hearing them.”19

For music to be holy “means it is not the ordinary, not the every-day. It is set aside for the purpose of glorifying God and edifying and sanctifying the faithful.”20 Music is considered more holy the more closely connected it is to the liturgical action, “whether it adds delight to prayer, fosters unity of minds, or confers greater solemnity upon the sacred rites. But the Church approves of all forms of true art having the needed qualities, and admits them into divine worship.”21

True art means that music has beauty of form. “[Excellence of form] refers to the tendency of sacred music to synthesize diverse ritual elements into a unity, to draw together a succession of liturgical actions into a coherent whole, and to serve a range of sacred expressions. Excellence of forms also serves to differentiate those elements, to distinguish the various functions of liturgical chants by revealing their unique character.”22

Finally, to be universal means that sacred music must be supranational: it must be equally accessible to people of diverse cultures – and of all ages. “Liturgical worship is given a more noble form when the divine offices are celebrated solemnly in song, with the assistance of sacred ministers and the active participation of the people.”23

We may think that it is enough for a song to be religious for it to be used as part of a liturgical celebration, but if we apply the measure above, it’s easy to see that this isn’t always the case.24

“The introduction into the celebration of anything which is merely secular, or which is hardly compatible with divine worship, under the guise of solemnity should be carefully avoided.” – Musicam Sacram: Instruction on Music in the Liturgy (Second Vatican Ecumenical Council)

Music is God’s gift to us, and He wants us to enjoy it. “Nothing prevents us from preferring one form of popular religious song to another. But music that is suitable for sacred liturgy must be of a special sort. No longer can personal preference be the sole criterion.”25

The Language of the Lord

Does this mean that we may need to abandon some of our preconceived ideas about the type and style of music that should be played and sung at Mass? Does it mean that – heaven forbid – we might be asked to embrace a style of music that we don’t understand and perhaps don’t even like? If the Liturgy is at heart a conversation between God and ourselves, shouldn’t we be able to choose how we want to worship Him?

In this, as in all things, we must never forget who we are – or who He is. He is God, and we are His creatures, the work of His Hands. It is to God that every act of worship is directed, and we should approach Him humbly with hearts filled with love, praise, and gratitude, reverently bringing Him the best of all we have to offer. The Liturgy is not just about what (or how) we would like to speak to God, but it is first and most importantly about His Word – about what He would like to say to us. At times we must set aside our own opinions and preferences. We must quieten our hearts and listen; we must make the effort to learn the language of the Lord. Consider the attitude modelled for us by St. Augustine:


St. Augustine of Hippo (354-430) – painting by Antonio Rodriguez

“When St. Augustine abandoned the teaching of rhetoric in Milan to enroll for baptism, he asked St. Ambrose, the bishop of Milan, what to read in the Scriptures ‘to make me readier and fitter to receive so great a grace’? Ambrose told him to read the prophet Isaiah. Augustine took his advice, but as soon as he took the book in hand he was perplexed by what he read. ‘I did not understand the first passage of the book,’ he writes, and he thought ‘the whole would be equally obscure.’ So Augustine laid it aside, as he explains, ‘to be resumed when I had more practice in the Lord’s style of language.’ … He recognized that if he were to enter the Church he would have to learn this new tongue, hear it spoken, grow accustomed to its sounds, read the books that use it, learn its idioms, and finally speak it himself. He had to embark on a journey to acquaint himself with the mores of a new country. Becoming a Christian meant entering a strange and often alien world.”26

“In my experience, liturgy maintains its power and relevancy by being informed by culture without conforming to it. There’s an element of discernment involved in worship: a selection of what is and is not appropriate, contemplative, inspiring, challenging, and in accordance with the Scriptures – both liturgically and musically. Liturgy that conforms to the standards of culture loses the richness of its history, the element of discernment, and the ability to remain constant across cultures. Liturgy that is based on a given culture will only be relevant for that culture and will grow and change with that particular group of people. However, liturgy that is simply informed by culture will be accessible enough to draw people in while still providing an opportunity for them to learn. As Wilken (2005) noted, the church is its own culture and by holding fast to its history and heritage, invites people into experience a greater level of understanding and more enriching, meaningful worship.”27 – Ashley Danyew

 We, too, are called to learn the Lord’s style of language in order to enter into sacred Liturgy, into what has been set apart, into what is holy and consecrated. We must hear it sung, grow accustomed to its sounds, and learn its idioms; we must make it our own song. We must seek only to offer to God that which will please Him most and give Him the greatest glory: music that is holy, excellent, and universal, in order that we might all be able to be united in Him: One People, One Faith, One Lord.

  • Sharon van der Sloot

Suggestions for Further Reading:

  1. Feb. 19, 1749 – Benedict XIV Annus Qui (text in Italian); available from https://w2.vatican.va/content/benedictus-xiv/it/documents/enciclica–i-annus-qui-hunc–i—19-febbraio-1749–nell–8217-im.html.
  1. Nov. 22, 1903 – Pope Pius X Tra le Sollecitudini (Instruction on Sacred Music); available from http://www.adoremus.org/MotuProprio.html.
  1. Nov. 20, 1947 – Pius XII – Mediator Dei; available from http://w2.vatican.va/content/pius-xii/en/encyclicals/documents/hf_p-xii_enc_20111947_mediator-dei.html.
  1. Dec. 25, 1955 – Pius XII Musicae Sacrae Disciplina; available from http://w2.vatican.va/content/pius-xii/en/encyclicals/documents/hf_p-xii_enc_25121955_musicae-sacrae.html.
  1. Dec. 4, 1963 – Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy Sacrosanctum Concilium – promulgated by Pope Paul VI; available from http://www.vatican.va/archive/hist_councils/ii_vatican_council/documents/vat-ii_const_19631204_sacrosanctum-concilium_en.html#.
  1. March 5, 1967 – Vatican II Musicam Sacram; available from www.adoremus.org/MusicamSacram.html.
  1. Nov. 17, 1985 – Pope Benedict XVI Liturgy and Church Music; available from http://media.musicasacra.com/publications/sacredmusic/pdf/liturgy&music.pdf, or http://www.adoremus.org/0408SacredMusic.html.
  1. Feb. 26, 2003 – Pope John Paul II General Audience; available from http://w2.vatican.va/content/john-paul-ii/en/audiences/2003/documents/hf_jp-ii_aud_20030226.html.
  1. Nov. 22, 2003 – JPII Chirograph for the Centenary of Tra Le Sollecitudini; available from http://w2.vatican.va/content/john-paul-ii/en/letters/2003/documents/hf_jp-ii_let_20031203_musica-sacra.html.
  1. July 15, 2011 – General Instruction of the Roman Missal (GIRM) – Canada; available from http://www.ccwatershed.org/blog/2013/aug/25/general-instruction-roman-missal-pdf/.


1 United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, United States Catholic Catechism for Adults (Washington, D.C.: United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, 2006), 165.

2 John C. Piunno, “Gregorian Chant: Back to Basics in the Roman Rite,” Catholic Culture.org; available from http://www.catholicculture.org/culture/library/view.cfm?id=7366; Internet; accessed 12 October 2016.

3 Cf. Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy Sacrosanctum Concilium (Dec. 4, 1963), #116; promulgated by Pope Paul VI; available from http://www.vatican.va/archive/hist_councils/ii_vatican_council/documents/vat-ii_const_19631204_sacrosanctum-concilium_en.html; Internet; accessed 12 October 2016.

4 The term motu proprio is the Latin term for “on his own impulse.” This means that the Pope’s letter was written on his own initiative and was signed by him alone. A document issued motu proprio may be addressed to the entire Church, to only part of it, or to certain individuals.

5 Pope Pius X, Tra le Sollecitudini (Instruction on Sacred Music – Nov. 22, 1903); available from http://www.adoremus.org/MotuProprio.html; Internet; accessed 3 October 2016; #1.

6 Matthew Gill and Jason Spoolstra, “Lesson – Sacred vs. Secular Music,” Link to Liturgy; available from http://www.linktoliturgy.com/index.cfm?load=page&page=1787; Internet; accessed 28 September 2016.

7 Ibid.

8 Ibid.

9 Pope St. John Paul II, Chirograph for the Centenary of the Motu Proprio ‘Tra Le Sollecitudini’ on Sacred Music; available from http://w2.vatican.va/content/john-paul-ii/en/letters/2003/documents/hf_jp-ii_let_20031203_musica-sacra.html; Internet; accessed 3 October 2016; #4.

10 Ibid., #4.

11 Cf. Fr. Leo Nilo Mangussad, “Music in the Liturgy,” available from http://www.slideshare.net/AlanCaceres/music-in-the-liturgy; Internet; accessed 3 October 2016.

12 United States Catholic Catechism for Adults, 167.

13 Pope St. John Paul II, Chirograph for the Centenary of the Motu Proprio ‘Tra Le Sollecitudini’ on Sacred Music, #1.

14 Pope Benedict XVI, “General Audience September 26, 2012,” available from https://w2.vatican.va/content/benedict-xvi/en/audiences/2012/documents/hf_ben-xvi_aud_20120926.html; Internet; accessed 26 September 2016.

15 Pope Pius X, Tra le Sollecitudini (Instruction on Sacred Music), #2.

16 Pope St. John Paul II, Chirograph for the Centenary of the Motu Proprio ‘Tra Le Sollecitudini’ on Sacred Music, #4.

17 Pope Benedict XVI, “General Audience September 26, 2012.”

18 Ibid.

19 Pope Pius X, Tra le Sollecitudini (Instruction on Sacred Music), #2.

20 “Twenty-Four Questions on Sacred Music,” Musica Sacra (Church Music Association of America); available from http://musicasacra.com/about-cmaa/faq/; Internet; accessed 28 September 2016; 1-2.

21 Pope Paul VI, Sacrosanctum Concilium (Dec. 4, 1963), #112.

22 “Twenty-Four Questions on Sacred Music,” Musica Sacra, 2.

23 Pope Paul VI, Sacrosanctum Concilium, #113.

24 People sometimes wonder why it is not possible to admit secular music into liturgical celebrations (especially at wedding ceremonies), or they think that as long as the music is sacred, any manner of performance should be acceptable (provided it appeals to the congregation). But consider, for example, the case of two traditional wedding marches: “Here comes the Bride” and Mendelssohn’s “Wedding March.” “Here Comes the Bride” is taken from Wagner’s opera, Lohengrin; it is sung to accompany Elsa and Lohengrin to their Bridal Chamber after they have taken part in an illicit wedding ceremony. (The bride, Elsa, doesn’t even know her groom’s name!) When Elsa asks Lohengrin to tell her his name, he abandons her without consummating their marriage, and the opera ends tragically with Elsa’s death. One can only wonder why someone would want to include such a song in a ceremony that should be joyful and life giving! Even Wagner was bemused.

Another traditional wedding song with unhappy associations is Mendelssohn’s “Wedding March” from A Midsummer Night’s Dream. It was written to accompany the mock wedding that takes place between the Queen Fairy, Titania, and Bottom – a man who was turned into a jackass. While the music in both cases is rich and profound, neither piece has anything to do with Sacred Liturgy and both have tragic associations which have nothing in common with the hopes and dreams of couples who are about to be married. When measured against the criteria given above, it is easy to see that there is no place in a religious ceremony for music of this type.

With regard to performance, consider Whoopi Goldberg’s rendition of “Hail, Holy Queen” in the movie, Sister Act. “Hail, Holy Queen” is a Marian hymn – one of four Marian antiphons originally composed in Latin for use in liturgical celebrations. The performance begins very reverently, but after the first verse, there is a dramatic shift in approach. The words and music don’t change, but the style has been transformed. The tempo is finger snapping and jazzy, and the music has a great beat. It makes you want to dance, and every time I hear it, it brings a smile to my face! It’s great fun, but the music is no longer solemn or prayerful; the focus is more about getting into the performance than lifting our minds and hearts up to God. The content itself is sacred, but the manner in which the song is performed here would exclude its use within the Mass. To  view the performance, see https://youtu.be/ctjG4MjJwEA?t=2.

25 “Twenty-Four Questions on Sacred Music,” Musica Sacra, 3.

26 Robert Louis Wilkin, “The Church’s Way of Speaking (August 2005),” First Things; available from https://www.firstthings.com/article/2005/08/the-churchs-way-of-speaking; Internet; accessed 11 October 2016.

27 Ashley Danyew, “On Liturgy and Culture” (Feb. 27, 2013); available from http://www.ashleydanyew.com/2013/on-liturgy-and-culture/; Internet; accessed 8 October 2016.

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