The Liturgy

On Dec. 4, 1963, at the closing of the second session of the of the Second Vatican Council, Pope Paul VI promulgated the “Sacrosanctum Concilium,” the Latin title for the “Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy.” It was a long-awaited document in the history of the Church which would have profound effects on the liturgy by redefining and forever changing the Church’s celebration of the sacred mysteries. It not only opened the possibility of the use of the vernacular in the liturgy — even if perhaps the Council Fathers did not initially envision the extent to which it would be used in the Church — it spoke about matters of culture. One of those cultural matters was that of music and its ministerial function, both regarding the liturgy itself and the celebrating assembly.

Prior to “Sacrosanctum Concilium,” a universal church council had never before addressed the use of sacred art of any kind in the context of the liturgical celebration. Article 112 clearly expresses the importance of the musical tradition of the universal Church, calling it a “treasure of inestimable value,” which “forms a necessary or integral part of the solemn liturgy.” The article goes on to read, “sacred music is to be considered the more holy the more closely it is joined to the liturgical rite, whether by adding delight to prayer, fostering oneness of spirit, or investing the rites with greater solemnity.”

The book “Themes of Renewal” explains this as, “musicians no longer need to speak of music as the ancilla of the liturgy, the ‘handmaid’ or complementary part that helps, but is not really needed for the liturgy.”

Around the beginning of the 20th century, sacred music was exactly that — the ancilla of the liturgy. It was something that happened parallel to the liturgy and with little, if any, direct relationship to the liturgical action or the Paschal Mystery. Music provided little opportunity for the participation of the faithful and was considered by some an ornament or embellishment to the actions of the priest.

This, however, was not always the case regarding music in the liturgy. In the early Church, particularly the period before the fourth century, community gatherings for worship were small and familiar, with a genuine sense of unity around the altar. There was a flexibility of ritual that created space in the celebration of the liturgy for spontaneous adaptation, and music served as a natural and instinctive response to readings and instructions, a tradition of communal prayer that carried over from the Jewish synagogal tradition. Music functioned as a means of enhancing the spirit of the liturgical action and provided the assembly opportunity for heartfelt participation.

As Christianity grew, the small and familiar gatherings for worship became ritualized. Spontaneous responses to prayers and readings were no longer possible or effective. The Byzantine court ceremonial was introduced into the liturgy and the celebration of Mass became a formal act, legislated by rubrics and law. Latin — the language of the Roman Empire, but not necessarily the people — became the official language of the Church. By the eighth century, we find the origin of chant. By the ninth century, chant had developed into polyphony, which was artistically demanding and accessible only by skilled singers. Sacred music went from being one of the elements of the liturgy to being ornamentation, resulting in separation from the ritual action. Eventually music became a contemplative, transcendental accompaniment to the Latin liturgy. The little singing that was done was meaningless for much of the faithful as increasingly fewer people understood the Latin language. Music was performed by the choir as organists, scholae, and soloists performed while parishioners listened.

The question of music in the liturgy would not be considered until the 12th century, when on the Feast of St. Cecilia, November 22, 1903, Pope Pius X issued “Tra le sollecitudini,” a decree calling for a reform of Church music. In that document, the pope defined music as an integral element to the liturgy, which enhances the beauty and splendor of the ceremonies of the Roman Rite. He called for a return to chant as it was being recovered in its simplicity by the French Benedictine monks of the Abbey of Solesmes. The intention was that this return to chant might restore the faithful’s participation in the liturgy. As the liturgical reform got underway, theologians called for intelligent participation in the form of congregational singing. Chant, done in Latin, had posed difficulty for many. Despite the work at Solemnes, to the untrained or unskilled singer, chant was still difficult.

The Second Vatican Council fathers considered the question of why we sing and what service does music provide both to the liturgy and the community celebrating the liturgy. Composer Joseph Gelineau addressed this question in his book “Liturgical Assembly, Liturgical Song”:

“With inspired boldness, the conciliar liturgical reform set out to repair the damage done in earlier centuries by highlighting the assembly as the primary subject of the celebration, the Word of God, proclaimed in the vernacular and explained in the homily, and song as the privileged form of the assembly’s participation in the rites.”

The ministerial function of song, particularly regarding the worshiping community, was to become, once again, a primary means of participation of the assembly. As a necessary and integral element of the liturgy, music today is closely connected to the liturgical rites celebrated, while investing the celebration with greater solemnity. The intention is to bring glorification of God and sanctification of the faithful by contributing to, capturing and enhancing the overall theme of the liturgy, adding expression and delight to prayer, and fostering a sense of unity of the People of God.

As we read in Paul’s letter to the Colossians, “Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly; teach and admonish one another in all wisdom; and with gratitude in your hearts, sing psalms, hymns and spiritual songs to God.”