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Popular Misconceptions About the Catholic Mass, Part I: Music

A number of liturgical reforms seen in the U.S. since Vatican II were not actually mandated or even recommended by the Council, but were reactionary shifts that had more to do with the culture of the decade – it’s time to revisit those changes.

Pope Francis incenses the altar at the Cathedral Basilica of Saints Peter and Paul during his visit to Philadelphia. (Source: CNS / Paul Haring)

Numerous articles and studies published in recent months and years indicate that without a doubt the Catholic Church is changing, and look to millennial trends in part to do so. Conversely – partially as cause and partially as effect – observable shifts in the spirituality of the laity have also been taking place, and a resurgence of traditional aspects of worship are ushering in a sense of deepening reverence and piety among the current youth and young adult populations.

So what is the evidence of this change? Dioceses are revising guidelines for the design of sacred buildings with a greater emphasis on tradition and good liturgical theology. Music directors are rediscovering the beauty of chant and traditional hymnody as they are being republished with increasing frequency in various forms to serve the liturgy. Youth and adult ministries structured around orthodox catechesis and traditional worship and devotion are flourishing to the point of lacking adequate space in many parishes. New media featuring music, audio, literature, and video abound. Parishes are hiring graphic designers and communications directors to improve the efficacy with which information is distributed to a people who increasingly expect the availability of on-demand information regarding Mass and sacrament times, ministry calendars, online giving, and homily archives. Many times credited to the efforts of now Saint Pope John Paul II and his popularization of the New Evangelization, these bright spots that for many indicate a renewed energy and devotion within the faith nonetheless cause dismay for some as both theological and practical regressions. In light of the very apparent generational transition that the Church is currently facing, without going into intimate detail (and in truth, hardly doing each justice), a few growing trends seem to be worth some prayerful consideration as we each discern our contributions to the Church both as she is and in the direction she's moving.

The subjects discussed below are topics about which the Church did not issue official mandatory directives for change following Vatican II, yet all of them changed in widespread practice, particularly in the U.S. Many such changes to liturgical practice were happening even before the Council in anticipation of what might be decided thereafter. Many of the freedoms granted after Vatican II elicited an over-zealous and in some ways premature response to what the Council intended to accomplish. In an article published on Adoremus a few years ago called “The Day the Mass Changed,” Susan Benofy recalls the sequence of events around this time and gives some background to changes many have since assumed Vatican II mandated. These changes resulted in many clearly re-asserted directives within the documents being overshadowed by a larger clamor for particular reform, encouraged by the same sensationalism of the secular media we have seen in recent times and also headed by many clergy and lay leaders desiring a more radical degree of change.

Because this blog primarily focuses on art and architecture, we will only briefly outline the underlying liturgical topics below to understand their relationship to the arts. Hopefully this initial glance will invite those seeking deeper understanding to study some of the more detailed and in-depth expert resources linked within for further contemplation and discussion.

PART I: Music

Saint Cecilia in a window in the church of St Mary The Virgin in Little Wymondley in Hertfordshire.

“The notion that the Church replaced antiphons and propers with hymns and songs, and did away with chant and Latin is not accurate.”

There are few subjects that can divide Catholics as quickly as musical preference. Quite literally, in most American parishes, there are at least two prevalent forms of music to appease two camps – usually referred to as “traditional” and “contemporary” – with many parishes also tossing into the mix a Spanish Mass and a Saturday evening vigil or early Sunday morning music-less Mass for the time-conscious. Worship style has become a commodity, and it's an idea reinforced by the services of our Protestant brethren in many places.

But increasingly today, the idea of true worship – not as a commodity but as a place of deep communal prayer – is become a much sought-after ideal: the possibility that music used at Mass could transcend style and draw all who participate into the highest state of worship. The cases for various types of music abound, but here we're simply suggesting it's time to take a closer look at what we are singing.

Some instances of questionable doctrinal content aside, much of the music published in the last 50 years that is widely used in Catholic Masses today lacks the richness of spiritual depth and beauty that is contained in more ancient pieces. Any musician who has read the Church documents and guidelines for music in the Liturgy (Sacrosanctum Concilium, Musica Sacram*) might be wondering why organ and chant are constantly mentioned, almost without a second thought about something else being used instead, except where the exceptions are clearly stated. Without at all suggesting a ban on any instrument or musical style, shouldn't we be asking the question "why isn't the normative practice in the documents the normative practice in our parishes?" or from another angle, "why has the exception become the rule?" Many of us have grown comfortable and familiar with what we have practiced for years, and change doesn't come easily. "The Church did away with Latin and chant." How many times have we heard this myth? In light of this popular misconception, it is particularly interesting to see the surging popularity of these elements among the youngest demographics in the Church. It makes one wonder how exactly the radical change in music after Vatican II happened so quickly.

In her five-part article published in the Adoremus Bulletin called “Buried Treasure,” Susan Benofy gives a great account of this development, including the tragic circumstances surrounding the release of the Graduale Simplex (Simple Gradual). Read more about that here. This liturgical music resource, while intended to serve as a simpler version of the Church's official song book to make chant more widely available and accessible, hardly made a wave in a liturgical landscape bursting with enthusiasm for what was perceived as a collective dismissal of previous rules and traditions. Published in 1967 well after the writing was on the wall about where liturgical music was heading in popular practice this effectively opened the doors to a number of substitutions (many of which had been experimentally implemented years prior to the culmination of the council, e.g. the Dialogue Mass and later the folk Mass), resulting in the almost-universal replacement of the majority of music that the Council actually intended to be sung at Mass. Unfortunately, as the plans for implementing the liturgical changes the Council intended was released, it was too little too late for a Church that had already made a radical shift.

The details of the case for each of the points below are abundant, and there are many seasoned experts in music who do an excellent job of explaining them. That said, the notion that the Church replaced propers and antiphons with hymns and songs and did away with chant and Latin is not accurate. These aspects are worth a little further study from all Catholics to cultivate, in small steps, a more inclusive understanding of our faith and our practice of liturgy. They also form the framework for some small steps I am personally taking in my ministry to youth and young adults to foster greater knowledge and increased liturgical participation.


and a more restrained use of making the exception to them (hymns or other suitable songs) the rule. The Church assigns Scriptural texts for use in musical settings; before we replace them with something from another source, particularly something that is not a Scriptural text, let's look harder at trying to include them first. Our Mass is intended to be packed with Scripture. Putting Scripture on the lips of the assembly is the best way to help them pray the Mass. If selecting hymns, the most appropriate content is that which reflects the spirit or message, if not the words, of Scriptural text assigned.


particularly in the context of Progressive Solemnity (higher feasts have more extravagant liturgies), meaning that perhaps chant is initially reserved and integrated as a component for special seasons and feasts, such as Advent/Christmas and Lent/Easter. These special times should feature particularly reverent and special music. The language in the liturgical guidelines concerning penitential seasons speaks of putting away the instruments, all but the bare minimum accompaniment for supporting singing. The Church speaks of the human voice as the primary instrument of the liturgy, with pipe organ second. Attempting to honor this “pride of place” and this integral part of our tradition is something everyone should have in mind, particularly priests, who are instructed to sing specific prayers of the Mass. We know from the adage attributed to St. Augustine that a sung prayer packs twice the punch as it joints our heart to our voices in prayer – "a sacrifice of praise."


How wonderful is it that we Catholics have our own sacred tongue? Sure, that’s because Latin, which used to be a widespread imperial language of commerce within a pagan society, is now a dead language and is used mostly by scientists, historians, and theologians. Nonetheless, it's not only a huge part of our history and our Liturgy, the Church actually expected it to still be used in part in vernacular liturgies after Vatican II. The historical aspects of our heritage are important in understanding Sacred Tradition and in being mindful of the Communion of Saints. There is no more beautiful picture than the Mystical Body of Christ on earth, in purgatory, and in heaven (the Church militant, suffering, and triumphant) united in worship and glorifying God in the same tongue in so far as that is possible on earth – the Mass being the closest glimpse of heaven available to us. If children and converts can learn the Creed, they and any of the rest us can learn the Sanctus to “join the choirs of angels as they sing …”

So, why sing the Mass? If attempting to pray as powerfully and beautifully as possible is not enough reason, the most helpful guidelines for our worship, the General Instruction of the Roman Missal (GIRM), tells us to do so (sections 39-41). Why learn these parts in Latin? Again, see the same sections of the GIRM:

“Since the faithful from different countries come together ever more frequently, it is fitting that they know how to sing together at least some parts of the Ordinary of the Mass in Latin, especially the Creed and the Lord's Prayer, set to the simpler melodies. (41)”
Monks displaying an illuminated score at Mission Santa Barbara, California, ca.1904

*While there are several more general resources for current musical guidelines, the most thorough and authoritative is the 1967 Vatican II document Musica Sacram (Instruction on Music in the Liturgy), which dispels many common misconceptions about Catholic liturgical music. For further reading, three documents that paved the way for Musica Sacram lend additional understanding to the topic: an earlier Vatican II document, Sacrosanctum Concilium (Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy, 1963) as well as the 1947 Encyclical of Venerable Pope Pius XII, Mediator Dei and the 1903 Motu Proprio of Pope Saint Pius X, Tra le Sollecitudini (Instruction on Sacred Music).

For some excellent examples of current endeavors to integrate these concepts into the Mass, browse chant resources from the Lumen Christi Series by Illuminare Publications (Adam Bartlett), Corpus Christi Watershed (Jeff Ostrowski), Chant Café (Jeffrey Tucker), and two new products from Ignatius: The Proper of the Mass (Fr. Samuel F. Weber, O.S.B.), and Pew Missal 2015, distributed by Lighthouse Catholic Media. This post is the first in a series. See also Part II: Versus Populum, and Part III: Communion Reception.

written by Michael Raia.


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