|ROME, 23 NOV 2004 (ZENIT)
Answered by Father Edward McNamara,
professor of liturgy at the Regina Apostolorum Pontifical University.
Q: What is the official teaching of the Church on using taped music at
Mass? We just attended a funeral today and two songs were played over
the loud speaker that were professional recordings. Each of these had a
Christian message. Another song was pre-recorded onto a tape and was
sung by a relative. Is there any official document that has guidelines
that would help with this situation?
C.Y., Murdock, Minnesota
A: There are few universal norms which explicitly forbid the using of
recorded music during the liturgy. But this should not be surprising as
it is impossible to foresee everything that the human imagination can
The principal documents that deal with music in Church always emphasize
the importance of singing and presume the presence of live musicians who
are considered as being part of the assembly.
Thus the General Instruction of the Roman Missal states in Nos. 39-40:
"The Christian faithful who gather together as one to await the Lord's
coming are instructed by the Apostle Paul to sing together psalms,
hymns, and spiritual songs (cf. Col 3:16). Singing is the sign of the
heart's joy (cf. Acts 2:46). Thus Saint Augustine says rightly, 'Singing
is for one who loves.' There is also the ancient proverb: 'One who sings
well prays twice.'
"Great importance should therefore be attached to the use of singing in
the celebration of the Mass, with due consideration for the culture of
the people and abilities of each liturgical assembly. Although it is not
always necessary (e.g., in weekday Masses) to sing all the texts that
are of themselves meant to be sung, every care should be taken that
singing by the ministers and the people is not absent in celebrations
that occur on Sundays and on holy days of obligation."
Later the same document (in No. 312) states: "The choir should be
positioned with respect to the design of each church so as to make
clearly evident its character as a part of the gathered community of the
faithful fulfilling a specific function. The location should also assist
the choir to exercise its function more easily and conveniently allow
each choir member full, sacramental participation in the Mass."
The same principles are also valid for organists and other musicians.
The reason for this is that the use of music in the liturgy is always to
enhance the quality of liturgical prayer and can never be considered as
It is practically impossible for recorded music to serve the same
All the same, there is one circumstance where recorded music has been
permitted, if somewhat timidly, in the Directory for Children's Masses.
No. 32 of this document states:
"Care should always be taken, however, that the musical accompaniment
does not overpower the singing or become a distraction rather than a
help to the children. Music should correspond to the purpose intended
for the different periods at which it is played during the Mass.
"With these precautions and with due and special discretion, recorded
music may also be used in Masses with children, in accord with norms
established by the conferences of bishops."
Among the various episcopal conferences, one that has explicitly
forbidden the use of recorded music in the liturgy is the Italian. The
Italian bishops have even extended this prohibition to cover children's
Masses by calling attention to the need for the "veracity" of important
liturgical signs such as singing, and furthermore "stresses the duty of
educating in song the assembly of little ones that participates in the
For this reason the conference states: "It is good to use recorded music
to teach the songs outside of the sacred celebration but it is not
permitted to use it during Mass." ZE04112322
* * *
Follow-up: Pre-recorded Music [12-07-2004]
As a corollary to our column regarding the use of pre-recorded music at
Mass (Nov. 23) a reader from Taiwan asked about the legitimacy of
pre-set accompaniment to live singing, a possibility offered by many
Simultaneously, a correspondent from Wisconsin reminded me of the 1958
instruction "De Musica Sacra" issued by the Congregation of Rites, which
states: "Finally, only those musical instruments which are played by the
personal action of the artist may be admitted to the sacred liturgy, and
not those which are operated automatically or mechanically."
This document followed Pope Pius XII's 1955 encyclical, "Musicae Sacrae,"
in which he insisted that liturgical music be "true art," if it is to be
a genuine act of worship and praise of God.
Although these documents precede the Second Vatican Council, there is
practically nothing in the conciliar or post-conciliar documents which
would contradict the principles enunciated or invalidate their general
Indeed the council's insistence that choir and musicians form part of
the liturgical assembly would even strengthen the presumption against
the use of mechanical music.
There may be exceptions, as we saw in the case of children's Masses, but
any general permission to use recorded or automatically produced music
would require the express approval of the corresponding bishop or
According to the above documents it is preferable to sing without
musical accompaniment than resort to artificial means.
A Nigerian correspondent requested if, due to the dearth of musically
literate parishioners, it were possible to hire professional musicians
to play the organ or other instruments even if they are non-Catholic.
Paid musicians are actually quite common, especially in cathedrals and
The principle, however, is that, even if paid, the musicians should form
part of the assembly, and hence be practicing Catholics.
There may be circumstances when this is not possible and a parish must
recur to the services of non-Catholic professionals in order to support
the liturgical participation of the faithful.
In such cases great care must be taken to ensure that the musician
understands the sacred nature of the music to be played and to avoid
musical virtuosities and other elements that smack of public concert
The latter criterion, needless to say, is also valid for Catholic
They should likewise always be in a supportive role with respect to the
choir and the rest of the assembly. For the purpose of good liturgical
music is to foster the active participation of the assembly, at times
through joining in the song and at times by meditatively listening to
the music while uniting heart and soul to God.
As far as I know, there is no recent official document which would
forbid the use of non-Catholic musicians in the above-mentioned
circumstances or on very special occasions, provided the use is limited
and the music played is genuinely Catholic.
In 1988 I remember participating at a Mass in St. Peter's Basilica,
presided over by Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger but attended by the Holy
Father, in which Rome's German community celebrated the 10th anniversary
of the pontificate with a thanksgiving Mass accompanied by a major
German orchestra and choir that sang Beethoven's "Missa Solemnis."
Certainly not all of the musicians were Catholic, but the Mass and the
Music certainly were. ZE04120722