The Church and the Sacred Arts - Music

"music is not something added on as 'extra.' The music and hymns we sing in the Mass are all part of a holistic celebration."

 When it comes to the Liturgy, what does the Church actually tell us about the role of music, and what guidelines does the Church give us in selecting music?

Of the three sacred arts of art, architecture, and music, the Church has given us the most explicit direction when it comes to music. But as music acts (or should act) in concert with art and architecture, what is said of one can apply to the others.

Sacrosanctum Concilium (SC) is the Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy. It was promulgated by Pope Paul VI on December 4, 1963. And while it has been explored in greater depths in later documents, its directions are still to be followed by the universal Church. It says of music:

“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.”SC 112

This is an important first principle. The solemn liturgy is a sung liturgy. The music is not something added on as “extra.” The music and hymns we sing in the Mass are all part of a holistic celebration.

In fact the Church gives us much of the music for Mass within the Roman Missal or the Sacramentary. When we begin planning the music for the liturgy, the first place we should look is the Roman Missal.

When it comes to language, Sacrosanct Concilium is very consistent.

"the use of the Latin language is to be preserved in the Latin rites.”
and for the vernacular, it has a proper place." SC 36.1

"In Masses which are celebrated with the people, a suitable place may be allotted to their mother tongue. This is to apply in the first place to the readings and "the common prayer," SC 54

As for the singing, Sacrosanctum Concilium tells us:

"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.” SC 116

Other forms of music are allowed but they should be in keeping with the sacred nature of the liturgy. New music should grow organically from the traditions of the past. The fathers of Vatican II speak of a conformity with the past. We are not remaining in the past nor are we breaking with it. Rather we build upon it to produce new art and music that resonates with us and evokes the mystery and Beauty of the liturgy.

One beautiful example of this comes from the 1989 film "Henry V" directed by Kenneth Branagh. Towards the end of the film the soldiers are instructed to sing the "Non Nobis," a hymn taken from Psalm 115. "Not to us Lord, but to your name goes the glory." Branagh instructed the composer Patrick Doyle to compose a version that would be accessible and easy for people to sing. The result is a splendid example of building on the past without breaking from it or being stuck in it.

Sacrosanctum Concilium also comments on musical instruments.

“In the Latin Church the pipe organ is to be held in high esteem, for it is the traditional musical instrument which adds a wonderful splendor to the Church's ceremonies and powerfully lifts up man's mind to God and to higher things.” SC 50

And in composing new music,

“Composers, filled with the Christian spirit, should feel that their vocation is to cultivate sacred music and increase its store of treasures. Let them produce compositions which have the qualities proper to genuine sacred music,” SC 51

The most recent document on music from the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops is “Sing to the Lord,” (SttL) (2007) which is a revision of the previous document titled “Music in Catholic Worship.” While it lacks a recognitio from Rome, and therefore is advisory in nature rather than binding, it still represents the desires of the bishops of the U.S.. For example, the bishops recognize that Mass in the vernacular has become the norm, but they echo Sacrosanct Concilium in stressing the importance of Latin.

"However, care should be taken to foster the role of Latin in the Liturgy, particularly in liturgical song. Pastors should ensure that the faithful may also be able to say or to sing together in Latin those parts of the Ordinary of the Mass which pertain to them.” SttL 61

The USCCB also offers a preference for Latin in which two or more communities are present that speak different languages.

"At international and multicultural gatherings of different language groups, it is most appropriate to celebrate the Liturgy in Latin, with the exception of the readings, the homily and the prayer of the faithful. In addition, selections of Gregorian chant should be sung at such gatherings, whenever possible.” SttL 62

The use of Gregorian chant is also affirmed.

"Gregorian chant is uniquely the Church’s own music. Chant is a living connection with our forebears in the faith, the traditional music of the Roman rite, a sign of communion with the universal Church, a bond of unity across cultures, a means for diverse communities to participate together in song, and a summons to contemplative participation in the Liturgy.” SttL 72

The Church does allow other forms of music as, arguably, a less desirable option. And “Sing to the Lord” offers us some guidelines in judging music for the liturgy.

The Liturgical Judgment. - The question asked of this judgment may be stated as follows: Is this composition capable of meeting the structural and textual requirements set forth by the liturgical books for this particular rite? SttL 127

Directors of music are encouraged to study the liturgical texts so that they may choose music that is well suited to the different parts of the liturgy. There is a progression of solemnity built into the liturgy and care should be taken that less important elements do not overshadow more important ones.

The Pastoral Judgment – takes into consideration the actual community gathered to celebrate in a particular place at a particular time. Does a musical composition promote the sanctification of the members of the liturgical assembly by drawing them closer to the holy mysteries being celebrated? Does it strengthen their formation in faith by opening their hearts to the mystery being celebrated on this occasion or in this season? Is it capable of expressing the faith that God has planted in their hearts and summoned them to celebrate? SttL 130

And finally,

The Musical Judgment - The musical judgment asks whether this composition has the necessary aesthetic qualities that can bear the weight of the mysteries celebrated in the Liturgy. Is this composition technically, aesthetically, and expressively worthy? SttL 134

But all of these considerations are really parts of a singular judgment.

"Ultimately, however, these three judgments are but aspects of one evaluation, which answers the question: “Is this particular piece of music appropriate for this use in the particular Liturgy? All three judgments must be considered together, and no individual judgment can be applied in isolation from the other two.” SttL 126

While the documents mentioned have varying degrees of authority and binding force, it is important to know what the documents say. I have not mentioned "Musica Sacram, Instruction on Music in the Liturgy,"because in the practical matters this article discusses Musica Sacram simply reiterates and refers to Sacrosanctum Concilium.

Nevertheless, ultimately the weight of these documents as they pertain to our celebration of the Mass rests largely with our bishops.

"Regulation of the sacred liturgy depends solely on the authority of the Church, that is, on the Apostolic See, and, as laws may determine, on the bishop. The regulation of the liturgy within certain defined limits belongs also to various kinds of bishops’ conferences, legitimately established, with competence in given territories" SC 22:1-2

Ultimately our task is to work with our bishops in creating a beautiful liturgy that points to the source of all that is Good, and True, and Beautiful.

this article originally appeared at


Pontifex University is an online university offering a Master’s Degree in Sacred Arts. For more information visit the website at

Lawrence Klimecki, MSA, is a deacon in the Diocese of Sacramento. He is a public speaker, writer, and artist, reflecting on the intersection of art and faith and the spiritual “hero’s journey” that is part of every person’s life. He maintains a blog at