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Music for Worship

Reflections for Liturgy

Copyright © 2001 by

Rick Swenton
106 Melinda Lane
Bristol, CT 06010-7199
All Rights Reserved

Permission is granted for use of this work in parish liturgy or music programs in a non-commercial setting provided that no fee is charged and that this copyright notice remains on all copies.

This letter appeared in The Catholic Transcript, September 2001 

Music for Worship

There has been a lot of noise in the media lately about certain kinds of music being banned in Catholic worship. Many of the writers gave the impression that the church was oppressing the faithful and driving them away with rules of which Jesus himself would not approve. Many clearly do not understand the difference between going to a concert and celebrating Mass.

The Mass is not a concert. The Mass is a time to celebrate the Paschal Mystery – the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, and that through this we are redeemed and called to eternal life. A concert is a time to enjoy a performance of human creativity and feeling. Mass is never a time for performances.

Popular and cultural music give people a "warm fuzzy feeling," but that's not what liturgy is about. Liturgy is not supposed to make you feel good. It's supposed to make you want to do something good. The Second Vatican Council calls for full, conscious and active participation by all people. Fr. Lucien Deiss, author and musician, wrote about liturgical music that "The sung word is not an art in itself; it is not an ornamentation of worship but a kind of bridge between human beings and God." What the critics are forgetting is that our liturgical music and texts are supposed to bridge human beings and God, not human beings to themselves.

The Catholic Church is responsible for determining the content of the Mass and the rules (rubrics) for its celebration. The Church uses proven formulas for determining appropriateness of music for worship that have worked successfully through the ages. They have been modified over time. The Second Vatican Council opened up the options considerably. The person appointed by the Church to moderate over this judgment is the local bishop, not popular opinion.

From the US Bishops document "Music in Catholic Worship" there are three judgments used to determine the appropriateness of music for Mass:

  • The Musical Judgment. Is the song musically, aesthetically and expressively good?

  • The Liturgical Judgment. The texts should conform to Catholic doctrine and be drawn chiefly from scripture.

  • The Pastoral Judgment. Does the music enable the people to express their faith, in this place, in this culture?

The real concern is not jazz or polka music. It is whether this music fits the three judgments of appropriateness. Most music would have a tough time fitting the second judgment.

In his book, "From Sacred Song to Ritual Music," Fr. Michael Joncas compiled information from many other Church documents on what constitutes "sacred music" suitable for Mass.

  • Holiness. It must possess the qualities which belong to the liturgical rites. It must avoid everything that is secular.

  • Beauty. It must really be an art in order to have a positive impact on those hearing it.

  • Universality. It may never produce a bad impression in the mind of any stranger who may experience it.

  • It must be within the capabilities of the assembly.

Where do we go from here? Here are some ideas to move ahead.

  • Form a parish liturgy planning team to study the appropriateness of music for liturgy based on the needs of today’s particular assembly. Ongoing training is required in almost every profession. Training of clergy and musicians can only improve the quality of liturgical worship.

  • Hire a competent music director. Many parishes just "get by" with a musician who can play keyboard. This person typically has no training in theology, liturgy or worship. Often hymns are selected five minutes before Mass with no regard for the dynamics between the music, scripture, liturgy and the assembly. This person needs both solid keyboard and directing skills and a practical knowledge of Vatican-II as it applies to liturgy and worship.

  • Require ongoing musical, liturgical and spiritual formation of your musicians. Fr. Deiss said, "The goal of the music director is not primarily to ensure better singing but rather better prayer through better singing. No one may direct the assembly’s prayer if they do not pray themselves."

  • Be available to answer questions from your parishioners about musical selections and consider their input. Be flexible to include those requests that conform to the judgments of appropriateness.

  • Train your children in liturgical music.

The liturgy and ritual of the Mass are part of what makes us Catholic. Obedience to liturgical laws is the price to pay for the unity of the Church. And the song goes on ……

- Rick Swenton

Copyright © 1997 - 2007 - Rick Swenton. All rights reserved.

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