ROME, 11 NOV. 2003 (ZENIT).
Answered by Father Edward McNamara, professor of
liturgy at the Regina Apostolorum Pontifical Athenaeum.
Q: What criteria should be used in judging the use of modern music in
Mass? Is it OK to use Protestant songs? What criteria apply in those
cases? — P.C., Honolulu, Hawaii
A: First it is necessary to recall that the choice of text and melody is
not totally arbitrary but requires the use of properly authorized texts.
The new General Instruction on the Roman Missal (GIRM), explaining the
different modes of singing the proper of the Mass, gives as the fourth and
last alternative "a suitable liturgical song similarly approved by the
Conference of Bishops or the Diocesan Bishop."
The other choices are: (1) the antiphon from the Roman Missal or the Psalm
from the Roman Gradual as set to music there or in another musical
setting; (2) the seasonal antiphon and Psalm of the Simple Gradual; (3) a
song from another collection of psalms and antiphons, approved by the
bishops' conference or the diocesan bishop, including psalms arranged in
responsorial or metrical forms (No. 48; see also Nos. 86 and 87).
Referring specifically to the United States, it states: "Bearing in mind
the important place that singing has in a celebration as a necessary or
integral part of the Liturgy, all musical settings of the texts for the
people's responses and acclamations in the Order of Mass and for special
rites that occur in the course of the liturgical year must be submitted to
the Secretariat for the Liturgy of the United States Conference of
Catholic Bishops for review and approval prior to publication" (No. 393).
Some episcopal conferences have published official repertoires of songs
that may be used in the liturgy while others have yet to install a system
for the approval of musical texts. The diocesan bishop may decide for
himself the manner in which he approves hymns and songs for liturgical
use. He may publish a diocesan repertoire or may simply limit himself to
approve any hymnal or liturgical songbook containing an imprimatur from
What is important is to understand that the choice of texts and music for
the liturgy is not merely a question of personal taste but entails the
deeper question of ecclesial communion.
In general the criteria used for the approval of suitable texts is that
the hymn or song be inspired by Scripture or the liturgy although vested
in a poetic form, and also that the text should be, in some way, a
confession of faith, expressing perennial and orthodox truths rather than
This should be taken into account in the case of Protestant hymns. They
may be used in the liturgy provided they conform to Catholic doctrine. Any
hymn that contains doctrine contrary to Catholic teachings, or is
ambiguous, should not be used.
Liturgical melodies are there to assist prayer and should be distinctive
in style and tone from worldly music. Their function is to elevate the
spirit — not set the foot tapping or the imagination rolling. Therefore,
they should never be baptized versions of current hits — or, as is more
common, hits from the previous generation — but should seek to express the
religious value of the text for, in Catholic tradition, the text always
has priority over the music and in a sense is its soul.
The dearth of good liturgical music is fairly understandable given that
after the introduction of the vernacular, parishes found themselves almost
overnight with the need for music adapted to the new liturgy. The
repertoire of traditional vernacular and Latin compositions was
unfortunately judged insufficient, or worse, out of fashion or irrelevant.
As Mozarts don't come a dime a dozen, and the need for new music was
pressing, most parishes took what they could get and they got a lot of
dross although some fine pieces were also composed.
Almost every country experienced a period of generally dreadful music,
especially in the 1970s. In Spain, for example, many traditional American
or English tunes were adapted with new words, raising tourists' eyebrows
as they heard Spanish versions of "Nobody Knows the Troubles I've Seen" or
"Land of Hope and Glory" belted out at Mass, or even the "Lord Have Mercy"
and the "Sanctus" sung to the Beatles' "Hey Jude" and "Help."
This invasion of the profane into the realm of the sacred is a recurring
problem in Church music and has always been strenuously combated.
Around the time of the Council of Trent, for example, many bishops
complained about the use of secular melodies as musical themes for
polyphonic masses, such as the one inspired in a popular ditty called "Bacciami
amica mia" (Kiss me, my dear). St. Pius X , both as bishop and Pope, also
fought against the fashion of individualistic opera style music in Italian
In recent years there has been marked, albeit slow, improvement in many
places. Along with the recovery of many traditional songs, and even some
return to the use of Gregorian chant and classic polyphony, some serious
contemporary composers are addressing the problems of music for the
Italy, for example, has seen many excellent compositions that could easily
provide a benchmark for the work of composers in other languages. Most
notable perhaps is the work of Monsignor Marco Frisina, whose biblically
and liturgically inspired music is both beautiful and easily memorable,
being open to interpretation either by a simple congregation or a
full-blown, four-voice choir.
Although it will probably take several decades, it is probable that a new
corpus of good liturgical music will be formed in accordance with the
principles of the Second Vatican Council and authentic Catholic tradition
* * *
Follow-up: Protestant Songs at Mass [from 11-25-03]
A reader says he was "totally shocked" by our comments on liturgical
music… He asks if I "have any sense how critical a role music plays in the
Liturgy for young people" and believes that "To move back to traditional,
pre-Vatican music is contrary to what John Paul II has demonstrated as he
has reached out to our younger members. He has participated in World Youth
Day celebrations ..."
While I am sorry for causing distress to anybody I do not believe that my
earlier response called either for a total return to pre-conciliar music
nor for any prohibition of new pieces. In fact, I actually recommended the
work of Monsignor Marco Frisina, who wrote almost all the liturgical music
for the 2000 World Youth Jubilee.
Certainly the pre-conciliar world had its share of maudlin dirges which
should not be resuscitated. But this does not mean that anything produced
before 1962 is fit only for octogenarians and the trash can.
While no expert on the role of music in the religious formation of youth,
I firmly believe that young people — like older folk — cannot be painted
with the same brush with respect to tastes and inclinations.
My own experience with parish youth choirs has taught me that normal young
men and women easily understand that, even when recent compositions are
adopted, the liturgy demands a musical style that is different from
secular or other contexts.
For example, during the heady days of the Jubilee 2000 Youth Encounter, 2
million young people sang the theme song "Emanuel" all over Rome, except
during the Holy Father's Mass, as its text and style, while musically
attractive and religious in content, were not orientated toward the
I have also learned that young people can appreciate and sing with gusto
good music from any epoch if presented to them without prejudice. They can
even take a liking to the more common Gregorian melodies, especially those
of the common prayers of the Mass. Widespread knowledge of a couple of
Gregorian Masses is expressly recommended by the Second Vatican Council
and later documents and would be most useful for the ever increasing
number of international encounters.
Several readers asked me to comment as to the propriety and orthodoxy of
particular hymns and songs, for example singing patriotic songs such as
"America the Beautiful."
It is unfortunately impossible for me to deal with each example, but as a
general principle, since most regulation of liturgical music falls within
the province of the bishops' conference and the local bishop, one may
trust that a song approved by them has a certain guarantee of overall
Sometimes these texts may be subject to several interpretations, such as
one sample a correspondent sent in saying, "Sing a new church into being,
one in faith and love and praise." Since this particular song received
episcopal approval, one may suppose that in this case the novelty refers
to the inner renewal of the Church's members and is not proposing a Church
other than the one founded by Christ.
Episcopal approval, though offering assurance of doctrinal orthodoxy, does
not guarantee musical or literary quality or doctrinal clarity. Pastors,
with the help of their music directors, should select these texts with
great care lest the legitimate poetic license enjoyed by composers lead to
confusion among the faithful.
Composers of liturgical music, aware of the importance of their mission,
should also strive to present the truths of the faith as clearly as
While patriotic hymns should not be the norm, local custom may allow for
them on special occasions such as Independence Day. Healthy patriotism has
always been considered a Christian virtue. Nonetheless, even when
permitted by the bishops, it appears most appropriate to reserve them as
closing hymns, sung after the blessing and dismissal, rather than during
Mass itself. ZE03112520