Church Music Association of America

Toward a Revision of Music in Catholic Worship

by William Mahrt

[The following essay by William Mahrt is drawn from comments delivered during and following the Consultation on a Revision of Music in Catholic Worship, sponsored by the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, Committee on the Liturgy, Subcommittee on Music in the Liturgy, Chicago, Illinois, October 9, 2006. It appears in the Spring 2007 issue of Sacred Music]

I thank the members of the Subcommittee on Music of the USCCB Committee on Liturgy for asking our views of the document, for holding the recent consultation, and for receiving supporting statements. I attend the consultation as President of the Church Music Association of America, and I think I represent its views in general, but my recommendations are my own. I have directed a church choir, specializing in Gregorian chant and classical polyphony, for over forty years, and I am as well professor of musicology at Stanford University.

There are many aspects of Music in Catholic Worship that need revision. The purposes of music should be stated clearly; I would say that there are two overriding purposes: to make the liturgy more beautiful and to emphasize its sacred character.

To accomplish these purposes, the statements about the aesthetic judgment need re-emphasis. A principal problem today is that the quality of the music—not just the texts—is mediocre; it fulfills what then Cardinal Ratzinger called utility music, concluding that utility music is useless. Only music that is truly beautiful should have a place in the liturgy.

Music can establish unambiguously the sacred character of the action. Here the statements about style need a radical revision. All styles are not equal. The tradition of Roman documents establishes a clear hierarchy. Gregorian chant has pride of place; classical polyphony has a privileged role. It is because styles carry with them associations and even evoke a place—the style of a Broadway show tune evokes the theater; the style of cocktail music evokes the cocktail bar, yet we hear these styles in church. The priority of sacred styles needs re-emphasis.

The analysis of the purposes of the parts of the Mass needs reformulation. The distinction between proper and ordinary is a very useful one—propers accompany other actions, ordinary are the liturgical actions themselves. Thus the description of the introit as establishing a tone of celebration may not be the most accurate—the introit accompanies the procession, emphasizing the focal point of the altar as a point of arrival, and observing its sacredness by incensing it. It is then particularly the Gloria which establishes the tone of celebration.

The theology of music in the document is only anthropocentric; but it should also be theocentric. The document speaks only of the action of the congregation; but this has no meaning unless it is in the service of the action of Christ in the Mass. To say that music has the purpose of the glorification of God (theocentric) does not contradict that it cultivates the faith of the people (anthropocentric); these two purposes reinforce each other.

If music is to be central to the liturgy, a strong statement needs to be made that the singing of the celebrant of the Mass is crucial; otherwise the music seems secondary to the structure of the liturgy. In this context, the attention of the subcommittee should ultimately turn to the melodies for the celebrant, particularly the Lord’s Prayer, but also the dialogues —these are sorely in need of revision.


What makes music and liturgy sacred? Some of the meanings of music come about by association. Music does not have connotations, rather its meanings accrue by association. Take two examples: We have had classes in the dancing of Baroque dances, for example, the minuet, which gets its name from the tiny steps used in dancing it: one dances in a small pattern and does not get anywhere. We had a classical guitarist engaged to play during one of the Masses, and at the communion time, he played a Bach minuet. I thought to myself, how am I ever going to get to communion with these tiny steps? I once heard a Beethoven piano sonata played during Mass. I was astonished to realize just how vividly it recalled a place, and the place was the home. The music is domestic—house music. I would not have anticipated how incongruous it seemed to hear it in church.

Others of the meanings of music derive from intrinsic qualities of the music. Cocktail music has a quality of relaxed familiarity that reinforces the inhibition-releasing qualities of the cocktail itself and encourages social interaction. This is probably not very suitable for a sacred action. In fact, the very notion of “sacred,” being set apart for special usage, suggests that music that is free from such associations is better suited to sacred purposes. The inherent qualities of Gregorian chant are particularly in its rhythm. The more strongly metric music is, the more closely it is tied to the passage of time. The non-metric qualities of Gregorian chant leave it free from being tied down to the temporal and allow it to evoke the eternal. This evocation of the eternal accounts for the fact that Gregorian chant is rarely used for anything else; it is not even very successfully employed in concerts, despite its high artistic status. Rather, whenever it is heard, its character is unmistakable—it is sacred music, set aside for a most high purpose.


How should we approach the question of heritage? Pius X in his Tra le sollicitudini, the motu proprio in which he authorized the revival of Gregorian chant, defined three characteristics of sacred music: it is holy, beautiful, and universal. But his term for beautiful is more precise: bontà delle forme, bonitas formarum, literally, goodness of forms (in the plural). What I think this means is that each of the forms of Gregorian music suits its particular liturgical function, an introit works best as an introit, projecting a sense of purposeful motion to accompany the action; a gradual works best as a gradual, creating a sense of recollection and receptivity in the listeners as a complement to the lessons, and so forth. This is how these pieces are intimately linked, not only with their texts, but also with the rite itself. This is how Gregorian chant constitutes in a special way the beauty of the liturgy, its splendor formae. Pius X proposed that Gregorian chant should be the model against which other sacred music is to be judged, precisely for this reason.

Gregorian chant should then be taken as the paradigm of sacred music. This can be done in many different ways: the paradigm can be exemplified in the singing of a Latin High Mass, in which all its parts are sung in the proper Gregorian chants. It can be translated into English, and some of the parts of the Mass sung in that way. It can serve as a model for other compositions, taking into account the stylistic differences that serve the different liturgical functions.


I propose several areas where clear statements could improve Music in Catholic Worship (MCW).

1. Reconciliation with Vatican documents. Perhaps the most important issue is the relation of MCW to Sacrosanctum Concilium (SSC) and the Second Instruction for its implementation, Musicam Sacram (MS). These documents reflect the fact that in general the regulation of the liturgy belongs to the Apostolic See. While I am not a canonist, it would seem to me that for this reason they bear the highest authority, and where MCW is in conflict with them, there should be a resolution of that conflict. While it is true that MS was issued before the promulgation of the Missale Romanum of 1969, very little of it was made obsolete by the new Missal, because it deals mainly with general principles that apply to either rite. Some of the points of conflict in MCW are the place of Gregorian chant, polyphony, and the organ; the overall purposes of music; and the role of the proper and ordinary of the Mass.

2. The place of Gregorian chant, polyphony, and the organ. I take Bob Hurd’s point that there is a place for diversity, and that polarization should be avoided; still, I would suggest a third way of viewing the choices he proposes: within a rather wide range of traditions, styles, and instruments, the document should present some priorities. Gregorian chant should have “pride of place,” and classical polyphony should receive special cultivation; this does not rule out the use of chorale melodies or popular religious songs, but it does present a priority. It seems to me that this priority could be stated without prejudice to the other genres. In fact, in the consultation none of us proposed that chant and polyphony should be the exclusive music of the liturgy, though it was reported in the Tablet that we did. I regret it if our enthusiasm for chant and polyphony may have given a false impression, but I doubt that any of us thinks that hymns, for instance, should be eliminated. Likewise, among the instruments, the pipe organ is clearly stated as the sacred instrument of preference. This could be emphasized, leaving the judgment about the suitability of other instruments open.

3. The theology of music. The description of the purposes of music in MCW focuses almost entirely upon the subjective aspect of the congregation and not at all on the intrinsic significance of the rites or their overall meaning theologically, particularly the action of Christ in the liturgy. These are not mutually contradictory: the traditional purposes—the glory of God and the sanctification of the faithful— are not in conflict with the expression of faith on the part of the congregation, but their restatement in this document would remedy an almost completely anthropocentric view with a complementary theocentric one. Further, the traditional descriptions of the functions of music—it adds delight to prayer, fosters unity of minds, and confers greater solemnity upon the rites—could only enrich the view of the document on the place of music.

4. The sacredness of music. There is a further qualification about diversity. “Not all forms of music can be considered suitable for liturgical celebrations” (Pope John Paul II, Chirograph for the Centenary of the Motu Proprio, 2003, Par. 4). Within the diversity of available musical styles, judgments should be made about which styles are suitable for incorporation into the sacred liturgy. In order for them to be truly sacred, there must be something which distinguishes them from the merely secular. There are some musical styles that are intrinsically sacred, set apart for liturgical use, free from secular associations; others which have secular associations, but which can be distinguished by sacred hallmarks; still, others may be too strongly associated with secular styles for them not to insert into the liturgy elements that are too strongly secular. I am speaking particularly of entertainment music, cocktail music, theater music, or even classical secular genres, such as Baroque dance music, or operatic styles. Thus, not all styles are suitable for incorporation in the liturgy.

5. The beauty and sacredness of the liturgy. Over and above the aforementioned purposes of music, I think that there are even more general purposes, and if they were taken seriously, they could transform the music of our liturgies. They are obvious to some, but somehow forgotten by others: music should make the liturgy more beautiful, and music should emphasize the sacredness of the liturgy. If music were really selected to fulfill these purposes, our liturgies would amply fulfill all the other purposes mentioned above.

6. The quality of the music. The statement about making the aesthetic judgment in MCW is crucial. Its priority should not be compromised in the revision. In fact, it should be emphasized: too much music published today is simply mediocre. It fulfills what then Cardinal Ratzinger called “utility music,” concluding ironically that utility music is useless. Sadly, I hear the complaint regularly, “The music in our churches is so awful.” The criterion should be whether the music is truly beautiful, nothing less. The subcommittee is proposing a directory, general principles for the selection of music in the liturgy, setting criteria for texts which are sound theologically. They should be applauded for this. Still, they should not forget the next, much more difficult task, setting criteria for music that is truly beautiful, truly sacred.

7. The ordinary and the proper. MCW seems to downplay the distinction between ordinary and proper and to deemphasize the ordinary, often dismissing it as “secondary.” But there are important distinctions between the ordinary and the proper. The proper parts of the Mass accompany other actions, mainly processions; even in the case of the gradual and alleluia, their function is to complement and respond to the lessons. On the other hand, the ordinary parts are in and of themselves liturgical actions; this is the ground for attributing them normally to the singing of the whole congregation. There is a practical reason for this as well: as unchangeable texts, they can be learned through repetition until the congregation is secure in singing them. This cannot be said of the propers which change each week, and should change each week, since they are a source of the sense that each day is unique.

8. The ordering of the sung parts. MCW denies the significance of the distinction between sung and recited Masses, asserting that “almost unlimited combinations of sung and recited parts may be chosen.” (Par. 51) This is in direct contradiction with MS, which retains the distinction between the low and the high Mass, and yet proposes various degrees of incorporation of singing into the Mass. The first degree is the melodies of the celebrant plus the Sanctus; the second degree is the rest of the ordinary; the third degree is the chants of the proper. I suggest that these are very practical stages and should be incorporated into the revision of MCW, at least as an ideal; this does not mean that other schemes should be prohibited, but that this ought to be the recommended one.

9. The singing of the celebrant. A key feature of the scheme of incorporation of singing in MS is the priority of the singing of the celebrant. The revision of MCW should exhort, as strongly as possible, celebrants to learn to sing their parts in the Mass; seminaries should instruct their students in the singing of the priest’s parts. The reason is that when the celebrant sings his part, the rite itself is clearly sung, and this unifies it; the other musical parts then play a natural role in the scheme of music. Without the singing of the celebrant, the other music seems to be less central to the celebration and the congregation’s role is denigrated. When the priest sings his part, he validates the singing of congregation and choir at the same time.


This concludes my general comments on the proposed revision. What follows are comments on some specific paragraphs of the document; these are secondary to the foregoing general comments, but still, I think, of interest.

¶11. Thematic unity: traditionally this has always been true of the feast days and the special seasons of the year. Yet ordinary time (traditionally the Sundays after Epiphany and Pentecost) did not show the same thematic unity, but rather each of these celebrations embraces a multiplicity of themes, so that what characterized the Masses in ordinary time was a comprehensiveness. This is still true of the propers of the current Graduale Romanum.

¶15. While it is important to suit the music to the needs of the congregation, an important need on the part of most congregations is to be educated in sacred music, to have their taste formed for the higher sorts of music truly suited to the liturgical action. This ultimately will enhance their participation. The process is a slow one and progress is only evident on a scale of years.

¶16. If the psalms create rather than solve problems where faith is weak, this should not be the case if they are regularly employed in the liturgy; preaching should address such problems as well.

¶17. “All must be willing to share likes and dislikes with others whose ideas and experiences may be quite unlike their own.” This points to the need gradually to establish a repertory of sacred music that is above the differences of likes and dislikes and which fulfills the quality of universality spoken of by St. Pius X in the Motu proprio. The liturgy needs to rise above such limitations, not impose them.

¶21. The celebrant has to conduct the liturgy as a sacred action. While a “human naturalness” is a necessary quality, the bearing of the celebrant should transcend that by projecting the sense that it is a sacred action.

¶28. Styles themselves need to be the subject of liturgical and pastoral judgment: not all styles are suitable to incorporation in the liturgy.

¶30. MS prescribes priorities concerning what parts are to be sung, based upon the nature of the liturgy.

¶31. I would suggest eliminating suggestions that parts of the ordinary are secondary; the Kyrie and the Gloria are fundamental acts of worship; to sing them in ample settings cannot detract from the liturgy of the word.

¶35. Cantors should not dominate the congregational singing, either by using overly operatic voices or by singing through a highly-amplified microphone. When leading the congregation, the cantor should step back from the microphone somewhat to avoid dominating the sound.

¶37. The organ should not be used as background music: “soft background to a spoken psalm” is a very bad idea.

¶39. The people’s expression of their faith should not be the only criterion for the pastoral judgment.

¶41. Sensitivity toward the needs of the congregation should include their need to be formed in singing and hearing excellent and suitable liturgical music.

¶42. The analysis of structure is defective. The notion that a festive entrance rite with elaborate music distracts from the liturgy of the word is mistaken—it enhances it. Only if the liturgy of the word is conducted without sufficient solemnity will its importance be deemphasized. The statement that the introductory and concluding rites are secondary should be deleted.

¶44. There is a deficient analysis of the structure behind the statement that the
entrance song is primary, but the Kyrie and Gloria are secondary.

¶49. Concerning the recessional song, one should reflect carefully on why the whole tradition of liturgy prescribes no such piece. If anything is secondary it is the priest greeting the people at the door, not a culmination of the whole concluding rite.

¶50. Include a positive statement about employing the treasury of sacred music as in SSC.

¶51. That “the musical settings of the past are usually not helpful models for composing truly liturgical pieces today” is in direct contradiction with SSC and particularly with the notion from St. Pius X that Gregorian chant is the norm against which other liturgical music should be judged. This statement should be omitted.

¶45. I would delete “all else is secondary.” Many other things are important, the worship of God, for instance. It is an oversimplification to say that the chants between the lessons comprise the people’s acceptance of the readings; in addition to that significance, there is a very ancient tradition that views the psalm as another lesson, and another that views the gradual and alleluia as meditation chants.

¶47. Calling the Sanctus an acclamation is an oversimplification—it is much more than that. St. Augustine designated it as a hymn, and it certainly has other aspects than the “statement of faith of the local assembly.”

¶54. The isolated singing of “five acclamations” is in contradiction with MS, whose conception of the centrality of the priest’s parts to the singing represents a better functional use of music. The sung preface is important to the Sanctus; the sung Lord’s Prayer is important to the doxology which follows it. It is not that these five pieces should not be sung without any other singing, but this is far from an ideal, liturgical use of music.

¶55. This overlooks the Tract, which replaces the alleluia in Lent as an extended psalm text. It also overlooks the fact that the alleluia when sung in Gregorian chant is a meditation chant. Perhaps it is better to have the people remain sitting until the repeat of the alleluia when it is sung in Gregorian chant.

¶57. There is surely more to the memorial acclamation than the expression of the people’s faith—praise of the Lord just made present, for example.

¶61. The description of the entrance song is incomplete, first of all to accompany the procession and to emphasize the importance of the altar and sanctuary as the location of the sacred action (also emphasized through incensation); its mood is more one of anticipation than of celebration—that comes with the Gloria.

¶62. Adoration is not in conflict with communion, unless the union is only among the people, rather with Christ.

¶63. Curiously, there is no purpose attributed to the responsorial psalm. I have sometimes heard it said that its purpose “is to give the people something to do,” clearly not quite a sufficient purpose. I believe that the purpose and function of this part requires fundamental examination, and will devote a session to this subject at the next Summer Colloquium of the Church Music Association of America. A serious problem is that the brief antiphons for the people are often so very trivial musically. Reflection upon the gradual and alleluia from the Graduale Romanum suggests another purpose: recollection, even meditation, as a complement to hearing the lesson. I believe that this purpose is fundamentally much more pastoral than giving them a trivial antiphon to repeat.

¶64. The ordinary are fundamentally sung texts, with the possible exception of the Credo. MS prescribes them as the second degree of the incorporation of music.

¶65. The Kyrie is not a prayer of praise, but clearly a litany asking for mercy. The statement that anything but a simple setting gives undue importance to the introductory rites should be eliminated: the dismissal of the Kyrie and Gloria as merely parts of the introductory rites is based upon a faulty analysis of the structure of the liturgy of the word.

¶66. This statement should be revised in the light of the new translation of this text.

¶67. It would be sufficient to call the Agnus Dei a litany, not a litany-song.

¶69. MS does not make the Credo an exception to the singing of the ordinary. A well-sung Creed is surely a good expression of faith.

¶70. The Graduale Romanum includes specified texts for the offertory.

¶71. The function of the offertory is much more than accompanying the procession; it accompanies making the offerings, and it has an additional musical function of allowing a period of reflection before the important action of the preface, Sanctus, Eucharistic Prayer, etc. This reflective character is represented in the Gregorian offertories by the fact that they are, like the graduals, responsories, not antiphons.

¶77. The need for well-qualified music directors requires adequate salaries.

My prayers and best wishes are with you in your deliberations, and I thank you once again for the privilege of contributing to the discussion.


Church Music Association of America