Singing the Mass — Part One

St. Augustine recounts in his autobiography “Confessions” an experience he had during the singing of the Mass:

How I wept, deeply moved by your hymns, songs, and the voices that echoed through your Church! What emotion I experienced in them! Those sounds flowed into my ears, distilling the truth in my heart. A feeling of devotion surged within me, and tears streamed down my face — tears that did me good.”

How can we explain this overwhelming and transforming experience that led one of our greatest saints to the Church? Clearly, this was much more than a man simply being moved by a well-performed song. His entire being was penetrated and transformed through music. How can this be?

EN ESPAÑOL: La música litúrgica como participación en Cristo


At Mass, Christ sings to the Father

The Most Rev. Thomas J. Olmsted is the bishop of the Diocese of Phoenix. He was installed as the fourth bishop of Phoenix on Dec. 20, 2003, and is the spiritual leader of the diocese’s 1.1 million Catholics.

The Catechism of the Catholic Church (#1157) makes a direct reference to St. Augustine’s experience when it teaches that the music and song of the liturgy “participate in the purpose of the liturgical words and actions: the glory of God and the sanctification of the faithful.”

The Mass itself is a song; it is meant to be sung. Recall that the Gospels only tell us of one time when Jesus sings: when he institutes the Holy Eucharist (Cf. Mt 26:30; Mk 14:26). We should not be surprised, then, that Christ sings when he institutes the sacramentum caritatis (the Sacrament of love), and that for the vast majority of the past 2,000 years, the various parts of the Mass have been sung by priests and lay faithful. In the 1960s, the Second Vatican Council strongly encouraged a rediscovery of the ancient concept of singing the Mass: “[The musical tradition of the universal Church] forms a necessary or integral part of solemn liturgy” (Sacrosanctum Concilium, 112). The Mass is most itself when it is sung.

This recent rediscovery of “singing the Mass” did not begin with the Second Vatican Council. Following a movement that stretches back at least to Pope Saint Pius X in 1903, Pope Pius XII wrote in 1955, “The dignity and lofty purpose of sacred music consists in the fact that its lovely melodies and splendor beautify and embellish the voices of the priest who offers Mass and of the Christian people who praise the Sovereign God” (Musicae Sacrae, #31).

In the years immediately following the Council, there arose the need to highlight and clarify the Council’s teaching regarding the importance of liturgical prayer in its native sung form. In 1967, The Sacred Congregation for Rites wrote:

Indeed, through this form [sung liturgical prayer], prayer is expressed in a more attractive way, the mystery of the Liturgy, with its hierarchical and community nature, is more openly shown, the unity of hearts is more profoundly achieved by the union of voices, minds are more easily raised to heavenly things by the beauty of the sacred rites, and the whole celebration more clearly prefigures that heavenly Liturgy which is enacted in the holy city of Jerusalem” (Musicam Sacram, #5).

In other words, sung liturgical prayer more effectively reveals the mystery of the Liturgy as well as more easily accomplishes its heavenly purposes. In this way, sung liturgy is a revelation of Christ as well as a vehicle for profound participation in His saving work.

What is Sacred Music?

Sacred music is, in the narrowest sense, that music created to support, elevate, and better express the words and actions of the sacred liturgy. The Council praises it as music “closely connected … with the liturgical action” (Sacrosanctum Concilium, 112), for example, the Order of Mass (dialogues between ministers and people, the unchanging framework of the Mass), the Ordinary of the Mass (Kyrie, Gloria, The Creed, Sanctus and Agnus Dei), and the Proper of the Mass (the priest’s sung prayers, the Responsorial Psalm, Alleluia and Verses, the antiphons and psalms prescribed for the processions).

Sacred music is distinct from the broader category of what we may call “religious” music, that which aids and supports Christian faith but is not primarily a part of the sacred liturgy. “Religious” music includes various devotional music, such as much popular hymnody, “praise and worship” music, as well as a host of other musical forms.

The Council’s enthusiastic rediscovery and promotion of sacred music was not meant to discourage “religious” music but rather to encourage it — assuming the clear distinction and proper relationship between them. Just a few years before the Council, Pope Pius XII wrote:

We must also hold in honor that music which is not primarily a part of the sacred liturgy, but which by its power and purpose greatly aids religion. This music is therefore rightly called religious music … As experience shows, it can exercise great and salutary force and power on the souls of the faithful, both when it is used in churches during non-liturgical services and ceremonies, or when it is used outside churches at various solemnities and celebrations” (Musicae Sacrae, #36).

Participating in the Mystery of Christ

What are the concrete attributes of sacred music? The Catechism (CCC 1157) teaches that sacred music fulfills its task according to three criteria: 1) the beauty expressive of prayer 2) the unanimous participation of the assembly at the designated moments, and 3) the solemn character of the celebration. All three criteria link sacred music intimately to the work of Christ in the liturgy and in our hearts.

  1. The beauty expressive of prayer. As we have seen, sacred music is the Church’s liturgical prayer in sung form. When we hear sacred music, we hear prayer. We hear the liturgy itself. In the Mass, we hear that most beautiful of prayers: Christ’s prayer of self-offering to the Father. Music can express any number of things; but sacred music expresses something utterly unique: the saving and sacrificial prayer of Christ and the Church in the liturgy.
  2. Unanimous participation. As I addressed in previous articles on the new English translation of the Mass, liturgical participation is primarily participation with and in Christ Himself, rooted by the deep interior participation of each person. Sacred music powerfully aids us in this union of the heart and mind with whatever liturgical action is taking place exteriorly. “Unanimous” means “of one mind/soul”; thus sacred music aims to unite us all to the soul of Christ in perfect love for the Father at every step of the Mass.
  3. Solemn character. In the sacred liturgy, Christ our Lord performs the work of our redemption through sacramental signs. The liturgy then is a solemn experience, and therefore sacred music bears this character. Far from meaning cold, unfeeling, or aloof, the solemn character of sacred music refers to its earnest, intense, and festive focus on the great Mystery which it serves: Christ’s redemptive and transformative love for His Church.

In the next part of this series on singing the Mass, I will explore the rich history of sacred music in order to illuminate what the Second Vatican Council meant when it calls us to preserve and foster “the inestimable treasure” of sacred music.