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.


Part I: Music Part II: Ad Orientem / Versus Populum Part III: Communion Reception

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 headin