Here is another excerpt from Bishop Olmsted’s excellent series on sacred music in the liturgy. (Check out the entire series at: http://diocesephoenix.org/bishop-olmsted-columns) Here he notes the difference between “sacred music”, which is the music written to support all the proper prayer, antiphons and other parts of the Mass, and “religious music”, which covers hymns of praise and other devotional music. Then he offers three attributes of sacred music from the Catechism: beauty, unanimous participation, solemn character.
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 Disciplina, #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.
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.
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.
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.
Notice that “unanimous” in Bishop Olmsted’s teaching does not mean that everybody has to be singing a song. Our choirs sometimes sing meditation songs, while the congregation listens. “Unanimous” means “one heart/soul”. We can all be joined, performers and listeners, in prayer during a meditation song.
One way I have sometimes considered “solemn character”, is to ask the question, “Could we sing that at Calvary?” The Mass is Calvary re-presented, after all. There is great material for meditation in this question.
Have a blessed week!
In cordibus Iesu et Mariae,