Church Music Association of America

A Critique of Sing to the Lord

by William Mahrt

[This article appears in the Spring 2008 issue of Sacred Music, published by the Church Music Association of America]

ing to the Lord, a thoroughgoing replacement of Music in Catholic Worship, was approved by the bishops’ conference at their meeting last November. It had been the subject of consultation in October 2006, and had been redrafted extensively. At the actual meeting, according to a report of Helen Hitchcock in Adoremus Bulletin, the bishops reviewed over four hundred amendments, but they voted on the document without seeing the amended text. Originally it was proposed as binding liturgical law for the United States, which would have required Vatican confirmation, but it was decided not to present it as binding law but only as recommendation, thus avoiding the necessity of submitting it to the Vatican. The previous year, the bishops approved a directory for hymn texts and sent it for Vatican confirmation, which confirmation is yet to be received. It seems unlikely that the Vatican would have confirmed the present document, and thus they settled for a lesser status. The result is a document with extensive recommendations about the employment of music in the liturgy. It incorporates the views of many without reconciling them: Everyone will find something in the document to like, but the astute will notice that these very things are in conflict with other statements in the same document. Essentially, it states the status quo, with the addition of principles from Vatican documents; what comes from Vatican documents, however, does represent binding liturgical law.

There are distinct improvements over the previous document, most notably, that it takes seriously the existing liturgical legislation. There are copious citations from major sources of liturgical law. Yet these citations often seem to be imposed upon a document already written without them, and some authoritative statements, after being cited, are ignored in subsequent discussion

One of the most positive and fundamental statements in the document is that the priest celebrant should sing the most important parts that pertain to him. “The importance of the priest’s participation in the liturgy, especially by singing, cannot be overemphasized” (19). Seminaries should give sufficient training in singing, so that future priests can confidently sing their parts in the Mass(¶20). In my opinion, this is the lynchpin of a successful sung liturgy. When the priest sings his parts, the parts of congregation and choir fall naturally into place as integral parts of an organic whole. When the priest speaks these parts, the parts the congregation and choir sing seem to be less integral to the liturgy. That the parts are all sung gives them a continuity that binds them together into a coherent liturgy.

This notion goes back directly to Musicam Sacram, where three degrees of the employment of music are delineated: 1) the dialogues with the congregation (at the beginning, before the preface, before communion, and at the conclusion), the Sanctus and the Lord’s Prayer, and the collects—principally the priest’s parts plus the most central congregational parts; 2) the rest of the Ordinary of the Mass and the intercessions—principally the rest of the congregation’s parts; 3) the sung Propers of the Mass (introit, gradual, Alleluia, offertory, communion) —principally the choir’s parts, and possibly the lessons. Musicam Sacram proposes that these be instituted in order, that is, the first degree should be in place before the second and third degrees(MS 28–31).

Musicam Sacram places these degrees in the context of a general statement about the sung Mass: “The distinction between solemn, sung, and read Mass . . . is retained. . . . However, for the sung Mass different degrees of participation are put forward here for reasons of pastoral usefulness, so that it may become easier to make the celebration of Mass more beautiful by singing, according to the capabilities of each congregation” (MS ¶28). This compromise of the notion of a completely sung Mass, a high Mass, was allowed to permit congregations gradually to add sung parts according to their abilities, the ideal being gradually to achieve the high Mass. Since then, however, a new principle has been extrapolated, that of “progressive solemnity.” Sing to the Lord proposes that the amount of singing be used to distinguish the most solemn feasts from the lesser days. The document cites Musicam Sacram, ¶7, but not the more pertinent ¶28, where the context is to achieve a completely sung Mass, not to differentiate the days.

It is quite true that traditionally, there was a principle of progressive solemnity, by which the chants of the Ordinary of the Mass were more or less elaborate according to the solemnity of the day; likewise the use of instruments was restricted during the seasons of Advent and Lent as a sign of the penitential character of these seasons. On the other hand, the chants for the penitential seasons are sometimes more elaborate and more beautiful. But there is nothing in the tradition that omits the singing of a text as a sign of lesser solemnity, except for, perhaps, the very depth of Holy Week. It is true that the General Instruction on the Roman Missal concedes that parts of the Mass usually sung need not always be sung (¶40), but this is in the context of weekday Masses and for the accommodation of the abilities of the congregation.

As a practical matter, progressive solemnity may be useful; the gradual introduction of sung parts is a much more realistic strategy than the sudden imposition of a completely sung service upon an unsuspecting congregation. Yet, there is good reason to be consistent about which pieces are sung from day to day, and the differentiation of the solemnity of days should be achieved principally through the kind of music employed, rather than how much. As a matter of principle, I would suggest that “progressive solemnity” does not properly serve the sung liturgy, since it omits the singing of certain parts of the Mass which should and could be sung and thus gives up on the achievement of a completely sung service. The result is what I have called the “middle Mass,” neither high nor low, in which the beautiful and purposeful differences between the musical parts of the Mass are overshadowed by the more obvious differences between the spoken and sung parts.

It is encouraging that the document mentions the singing of the lessons; until now, this has been swept under the carpet. Traditionally in the high Mass, the lessons were always sung; the present document seems to recommend them on more solemn days, but there is no reason not to sing them as a matter of course. The continuity from prayer to lesson to chant at the beginning of the Liturgy of the Word contributes to an increasing climax the peak of which is the gospel. When the lessons together with the authentic Gregorian gradual and Alleluia are sung and a gospel procession is made, a splendid progression of increasing importance is depicted in the liturgy.

Another positive statement and a distinct improvement in the present document is the acknowledgement of the role of Gregorian chant, quoting the Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy, which gives chant “pride of place in liturgical services,” (SttL ¶72) and citing the council’s mandate that the faithful be able to sing the Ordinary of the Mass together in Latin (¶74), and even asserting a minimum: “Each worshiping community in the United States, including all age groups and all ethnic groups, should, at a minimum learn Kyrie XVI, Sanctus XVIII, and Agnus Dei XVIII.” A second stage of learning then includes Gloria VIII, the Credo, and the Pater Noster (¶75). Though the document does not mention it, the latter two are particularly desirable for international gatherings, especially for papal audiences, where everyone can participate in a common expression of worship. There is a touching story from the time immediately following the Second World War: Two trains arrived at the same platform, one from France and one from Germany, and the tension between the two groups disembarking was palpable. Then someone intoned “Credo in unum Deum,” and the entire crowd spontaneously continued singing the whole Creed, expressing a common faith which transcended the recent history of animosity. Would enough people today even know the Credo, were the same event even to occur now?

The normative status of chant is, however, qualified by citing the council’s “other things being equal.” This is elaborated (¶73) by saying that every bishop, pastor, and liturgical musician should be sensitive to the reception of chants when newly introduced to a congregation. Who could dispute that, in principle? Yet why is such a qualification made only for chant, when it should apply equally well to any music newly introduced? How many of us have heard “other things are never equal,” when we ask to sing the church’s normative music?

The endorsement of chant is thus not as strong as it could have been, and should have been. Several reasons in support of chant are given, reasons of tradition, universality, and contemplation. The principal reason, however, is not given—that the chant is integral to the Roman rite, it sets its normative texts, and that it uniquely expresses the nature of each of its liturgical actions. Pope John Paul II expressed it succinctly:

Liturgical music must meet the specific prerequisites of the liturgy: full adherence to the text it presents, synchronization with the time and moment in the liturgy for which it is intended, appropriately reflecting the gestures proposed by the rite. The various moments in the liturgy require a musical expression of their own. From time to time this must fittingly bring out the nature proper to a specific rite, now proclaiming God’s marvels, now expressing praise, supplication, or even sorrow for the experience of human suffering which, however, faith opens to the prospect of Christian hope.

This is, of course, a problem that is wider than the present document. Ever since Musicam Sacram (1967), the admission of alius cantus aptus, “the anthrax in the envelope” according to Lazlo Dobszay, any other suitable song in place of the proper chants, has meant in practice the virtual abandonment of the Gregorian propers. The present document even represents a progressive erosion of the priorities: for example, the Alleluia verse: “The verses are, as a rule, taken from the lectionary for Mass,” ( ¶161) but the General Instruction states “the verses are taken from the lectionary or the gradual,” (GIRM ¶62a) without expressing a preference.

There has, in fact, been a progressive conversion of the Alleluia into another genre that is prejudicial to the Gregorian Alleluia. The present document refers to it only as the gospel acclamation, stating its function to be the welcoming of the Lord in the gospel by the faithful. But the Gregorian Alleluia has two functions: it comes as a meditation chant following upon the reading of the second lesson; as such it is even more melismatic than the gradual, and this contributes to an increasing sense of anticipation of the singing of the gospel, and this is its second purpose—to prepare the congregation to hear the gospel. This is a function more fundamental to the liturgy than the act of the congregation welcoming the Lord, since it prepares the congregation internally as well as externally for the high point of the whole liturgy of the word, the hearing of the gospel—the congregation welcomes the Lord best by being prepared sensitively to hear the gospel.

The problem, wider than the present document, is that the ultimate in Gregorian chants, the gradual, tract, and Alleluia, chants whose liturgical function represents a profound entrance by the congregation into the ethos of the liturgy of the word, have gradually been replaced by, at best, pieces from the divine offices, which were composed for quite different purposes—e.g., the antiphon with the three-fold Alleluia as a text from the Easter Vigil—or, worse, mediocre refrains, repeated too frequently. The congregation’s rightful participation in the liturgy of the word is the sympathetic and in-depth hearing of the Word itself. I have consistently maintained and continue to maintain that this fundamental participation is achieved in a far better and more profound way when they hear a gradual or Alleluia beautifully sung than when they are asked to repeat a musically impoverished refrain with similarly impoverished verses. I concur with the notion that these parts should be sung, but I maintain that their simpler forms are only an intermediate step in achieving their singing in the authentic Gregorian forms, where possible, or a practical solution for Masses where a choir cannot yet sing the more elaborate chants or does not sing at all.

Much discussion of repertory throughout the document passes over the facts that Gregorian chant sets the normative texts of the liturgy and that it uniquely expresses the nature of each liturgical action. A particular case in point has to do with the texts of introits and communions. The texts in the Graduale Romanum are not the same as those of the Missale Romanum, and it is those of the missal which are printed in the disposable missals used in the parishes. I have often been asked, “Where can I find the Gregorian chants for the introits and communions in the missal?” The answer is, you cannot find them, because they were provided for use in spoken Masses only. Christoph Tietze, in these pages, sets out the documentation of this issue: for sung settings, even to music other than Gregorian chant, the texts of the Graduale Romanum are to be used. The present document says only that they may be used (¶77). The bishops were to have voted upon a proposal to amend the American text of the GIRM to prescribe the texts of the Graduale Romanum for all sung settings, but for some reason, this proposal was withdrawn. However, with the growing incorporation of Gregorian chants into our liturgies, missal publishers should now be persuaded to include both texts.

One is grateful that the place of the organ is asserted: among instruments, it is accorded “pride of place” (¶87). It is praised for its role in accompanying congregational singing, improvisation to accompany the completion of a liturgical action, and playing the great repertory of organ literature, whether for the liturgy or for sacred concerts. The recommendation of other instruments, however, raises a few questions. Instrumentalists are encouraged to play music from the treasury of sacred music, but what music for instrumentalists is meant? Is it the church sonatas of the seventeenth century, requiring an ensemble of string players and keyboard? One hopes it is not a recommendation that the treasury of organ music be played upon the piano or that secular piano music be played.

The wider issue that this raises is the suitability of other instruments. The document does not state the principle reason for the priority of the organ: it is primarily a sacred instrument. Other instruments do not share that distinction. A citation of Old Testament usage of “cymbals, harps, lyres, and trumpets” (¶89) begs the question of their associations in the present culture. The document proceeds to allow “wind, stringed, or percussion instruments . . . according to longstanding local usage, provided they are truly apt for sacred use or can be rendered apt” (¶90). This avoids the vexed issue of whether instruments with strong associations with popular music, such as those of a rock band, but even the piano, are really apt for sacred use.

A curious omission from the document is that there is no mention of the special status of sacred polyphony, as stated by the Constitution on the Liturgy. It mentions a general use of the treasure of sacred music among musics of various periods, styles, and cultures (¶30), and again, in a general statement about the role of sacred music in Catholic schools, music from the past is mentioned alongside other repertories (54), but with no hint that there should be any priority.

There are, alas, some more negative aspects to the document, most of which are survivals from Music in Catholic Worship. Perhaps the most pervasive of these is the anthropocentric focus upon the action of the congregation and its external participation, rather than being in balance with a theocentric focus upon giving glory to God. ¶125 states “The primary role of music in the liturgy is to help the members of the gathered assembly to join themselves with the action of Christ and to give voice to the gift of faith.” It must be acknowledged that this comes after having said that “the praise and adoration of God leads to music taking on a far greater dimension,” but the emphasis in the document is mainly upon what the congregation does, and how music expresses their faith; even the action of Christ is mentioned in the context of how the assembly joins itself to it. I would have said that music has three functions in the liturgy, to give glory to God, to enhance the beauty and sacredness of the liturgy, and to assist in the aedifcation of the faithful. But a quotation of the purpose of music from the council is even more succinct: “the glory of God and the sanctification of the faithful.” Both of these things are theocentric, the first focusing upon the object of what we do, the second focusing upon what God does for us. Neither focuses only upon what we do.

Related to this is an emphasis upon external participation. A good example is the discussion of music during the communion procession. “The singing of the people should be preeminent” (¶189). The purpose of the music is “to express the communicants’ union in spirit by means of the unity of their voices, to show joy of heart, and to highlight more clearly the ‘communitarian’ nature of the procession to receive Communion.” It is recommended that they sing easily memorized refrains, “limited in number and repeated often.” (¶192) There is no mention of Who is received in communion or the possibility of singing praise and adoration of Him. The focus is upon the attitude of the congregation. There is no addressing of the problem that a devout person may not want to be providing the musical accompaniment to his own procession, but rather be recollecting for that moment when the Lord Himself is received. “Easily-memorized refrains . . . repeated often” is a prescription for triviality. A tendency to over-manage the congregation seems to be in evidence.

There is, however, a statement about the need for participation to be internal, and it is strengthened by a quotation from Pope John Paul II:

In a culture which neither favors nor fosters meditative quiet, the art of interior listening is learned only with difficulty. Here we see how the liturgy, though it must always be properly inculturated, must also be countercultural.

The context of this statement is even more powerful, and would have made an even stronger statement about listening:

Active participation does not preclude the active passivity of silence, stillness, and listening; indeed it demands it. Worshipers are not passive, for instance, when listening to the readings or the homily, or following the prayers of the celebrant, and the chants and music of the liturgy. These are experiences of silence and stillness, but they are in their own way profoundly active. In a culture . . .

Music in Catholic Worship famously proposed three judgments: musical, liturgical, and pastoral, and even suggested by placing it first that the musical judgment was prior to the other two, though not final. It made a statement about the artistic quality of the music:

To admit the cheap, the trite, the musical cliché often found in popular songs for the purpose of “instant liturgy” is to cheapen the liturgy, to expose it to ridicule, and to invite failure.

This statement turned out to be prophetic, for who has not heard the cheap and trite regularly performed in the liturgy? who would have thought that such a statement had been made 1972? The seeming priority of the musical judgment in the 1972 document was relegated to the dustbin before the ink was dry on it. So nothing will change, because the present document denies the priority of any of the three judgments, placing the musical judgment last, devoting the least attention to it, and giving the criterion of excellence no more than the statement quoted above, this in a document ostensibly about music.

The discussion of the musical judgment is concluded by a serious misquotation of the Second Vatican Council. “The church has not adopted any particular style of art as her own” (SC ¶123), concluding that the church freely welcomes various styles of music to the liturgy. There are two things wrong with this statement: it comes from the chapter on sacred art and was said about art and architecture. The church has not adopted Romanesque or Gothic or any other style as canonical, but when it comes to music, the church has acknowledged the priority of Gregorian chant and to a lesser degree polyphony. These are styles and they do have priority.

Similarly, even though the document regularly uses terms like sacred music and sacred liturgy, there is practically nothing about what constitutes the sacred and its role in the liturgy. This would be, of course, a controversial topic, since so many of the styles now adopted into liturgical practice are blatantly secular. It seems that as long as the texts are acceptable, no judgments from this document will concern the acceptability of musical styles, however secular—until it comes to weddings and funerals. Finally, a statement comes forth in the context of requests by parties to a wedding that their favorite song be included: “Secular music . . . is not appropriate for the sacred liturgy” (¶220). The same statement is repeated for funerals (¶246).

The discussion of funerals is the occasion of another misrepresentation—in the statement about the purpose of funerals: “The church’s funeral rites offer thanksgiving to God for the gift of life that has been returned to him.” If one examines the proper texts for the funeral Mass, one finds quite a different picture: there among reminders of eternal life and the resurrection are prayers for the repose of the soul of the departed. Nowhere in the fourteen paragraphs on the music for funerals does this even receive a mention. Even for those of the strongest faith, the death of a beloved is a deprivation, and the funeral must be the occasion for mourning. Likewise, the Gregorian chants for the Requiem Mass are among the most beloved of chants still cherished by the Catholic faithful, because the need for the objectification of mourning is so strongly fulfulled by the chant. There is not a peep in the discussion of funerals about chant. I remember the rather secular university service held upon the death of a young woman on the faculty, for whom my choir subsequently sang a Requiem Mass. I later saw a colleague from the woman’s department—an expert on Nietzsche—who said that he had been to the university service and it had torn him apart; he had then come to the Gregorian Mass and told me that although he was not a believer he had found consolation in it, “a fitting closure to a life.”

In spite of the fact that this is a document on music, there is precious little discussion of intrinsically musical matters. Only ¶124 asserts the affective side of music, as difficult to describe, even though it is very important and should be taken into account. So much more could be said about the intrinsic musical characteristics of chant, polyphony, hymnody, and instrumental music in a sacred context. Sacred Music will continue to address such issues, particularly since they are crucial to decisions about what music to incorporate into the liturgy. There is even less about beauty, a crucial criterion for liturgy, in my estimation. A couple of references in passing (¶83, 118) show tantalizing possibilities, but they are not realized.

Although the bishops have rightly been concerned about the soundness of the texts being sung in the liturgy, there seems not be a similar concern about the quality of the music; the document seems to encourage the continuation of existing repertories, with little further attention to quality. Still, our task is to work for the improvement of the intrinsic qualities of liturgical music. This is an educational function; one searches in vain for any statement in the document that the function of a musician is to educate the congregation in what is sacred and what is beautiful, to raise their level of participation in the liturgy by giving them better music that they understand as their own.

What, then, are we to make of this document? We will all find the paragraphs we like and quote them, but their authority is ambiguous: when the document quotes established liturgical law, such as Musicam Sacram andthe General Instruction on the Roman Missal, their authority is secure; we might as well quote the respective documents. For the rest, since the bishops did not submit them for ratification to the Vatican, they are in a kind of limbo, not liturgical law, but ratified by the bishops. But perhaps like the doctrine of limbo itself, the document will find itself obsolete in due time. We might view it as a transitional document—the revival of Gregorian chant and excellent liturgical music will progress apace, and a subsequent document, though it may only restate the status quo, will have to accommodate those things Sacred Music has perpetually advocated: the sacred and the beautiful as represented by the priority of Gregorian chant and classical polyphony in the service of the liturgy.


William Mahrt is editor of Sacred Music.

Available at (Paragraph citations in the text are from this document, occasionally specified as SttL.)

See William Mahrt, “Toward a Revision of Music in Catholic Worship,Sacred Music, 134, no. 1 (Spring 2007), 54–60.

Helen Hull Hitchcock, “Bishops Approve Three Liturgy Items at Busy Baltimore Meeting,” Adoremus Bulletin, 13, no. 9 (December 2007–January 2008), 4.

A quick tally produces the following results: sixty-nine citations from General Instruction of the Roman Missal (hereafter cited as GIRM), twenty-four from Lectionary for Mass, twenty from Sacrosanctum Concilium (Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy, 1963, SC), and thirteen from Musicam Sacram (Instruction on Music in the Liturgy, 1967, MS)

The term in the document is celebrant and not presider. Presider has always seemed to me to imply that the priest is just one of the congregation chosen to represent the people, as the president of a secular assembly is usually elected by the assembly, a view not entirely consistent with priestly ordination, the call from Christ, and the role as alter Christus.

¶153; there was no mention of it in Music in Catholic Worship, though Musicam Sacram provided for it with reservations (¶31e).

SC¶116; it should be noted that the Latin for the phrase “pride of place” is principium locum. All too often, this phrase seems to have been taken to mean a place of honor, when, if it were given a stronger translation, it would mean first place.

See William Mahrt, “Gregorian Chant as a Paradigm of Sacred Music,” Sacred Music, 133, no. 1 (Spring 2006), 5–14.

Chirograph for the Centenary of the Motu Proprio “Tra le Sollecitudini” on Sacred Music, ¶5 <>

I will address this issue more substantially in a subsequent article.

Christoph Tietze, “Graduale or Missale: The Confusion Resolved,” Sacred Music, 133, no. 4 (Winter 2006), 4–13.

¶393; This citation is from the English translation, which includes authorized American adaptations; this paragraph in the original Institutio Generalis (2000) mentions only “instrumenta musica,” without further specification.

“Other kinds of sacred music, especially polyphony, are by no means excluded from liturgical celebrations, so long as they acccord with the spirit of the liturgical action.” SC ¶116.

The document consistently uses the word “assembly,” rather than “congregation;” while these terms generally have the same meaning, the difference is that the first is principally used in secular contexts, the second in sacred; why do we use the term that has greater secular contexts?

SC ¶112.

Address of Pope John Paul II to the Bishops of Washington, Oregon, Idaho, Montana, and Alaska, October 9, 1998, ¶3.

Music in Catholic Worship, ¶26.

I have addressed only a few of the many issues Sing to the Lord raises, the ones I have thought most pertinent, but discussion of this document will continue for some time. I would be interested in the views of readers, who could contact me at


Church Music Association of America