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Helpful Guidelines for Challenging Issues  
Anthony Ruff  

Sing to the Lord: Music in Divine Worship (STL) offers guidance in considering issues that continue to challenge us. This article will look at four such challenges: the sacred-secular relationship, sung liturgy with sung dialogues and responses, the use of Gregorian chant, and the use of hymnody at Mass.1

The Challenge of the Relationship
between Sacred and Secular Music

Since the Second Vatican Council, some have criticized the admission of secular styles of music into Catholic liturgy, including the use of secular instruments. There is precedent for these concerns, especially in the nineteenth-century Cecilian reform movements that sought to "purify" Catholic worship. The philosophical issues involved in trying to distinguish sacred music from secular music, however, are highly complex.

As I argue in Sacred Music and Liturgical Reform, it is difficult to uphold a clear distinction between sacred and secular music on historical grounds.

In Franko-Flemish polyphony of the fifteenth century, there is the same vocal style throughout and the same musical technique of cantus firmus development, with no difference in style between church music and secular music. Similarly, one is unable to find any clear stylistic difference between Palestrina's Masses and his secular madrigals. . . . One is unable to establish a clear stylistic difference between Mozart's chamber music and his sacred music.2

One aspect of the efforts to restore the sacred to worship and music has been to consider some styles and genres as the highest models of truly sacred music. This was evidenced in the Cecilian movement and, subsequently, Pope Pius X's 1903 motu proprio, which contained many aspects of Cecilian reformist thought. The papal documents from 1903 to the Second Vatican Council show significant developments in their listing of the genres of sacred music, with shifts of emphasis and seeming contradictions. But throughout, Gregorian chant is consistently upheld as the highest model of sacred music, followed by polyphony of the Roman school.

As Edward Foley points out, the Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy introduces a shift from the position found in Roman documents before the Second Vatican Council.3 Instead of treating holiness as an intrinsic quality of particular musical styles or genres, Sacrosanctum Concilium, 112 (SC), locates holiness in its connection to ritual and its engagement of worshipers.4 SC, 112, states, "Therefore sacred music is to be considered the more holy in proportion as it is more closely connected with the liturgical action, whether it adds delight to prayer, fosters unity of minds, or confers greater solemnity upon the sacred rites." Following SC, STL, 67–71, in the section, "Music for the Sacred Liturgy," does not consider some styles or genres to be holier than others. STL speaks instead of the ritual and the spiritual dimensions which make music holy—the first referring to liturgical propriety, the second referring to the community's union with Christ and with each other. The question is not whether a particular piece sounds like chant or Palestrina, that is, whether it sounds "Catholic." Rather, the question is whether the piece fits the ritual action and engages a particular community in this ritual action. Both of these dimensions, connection to ritual and engagement of the community, are to be considered within a cultural context according to STL, 67 and 70. There, STL does not assume that chant and polyphony are absolutely the highest models of sacred and Catholic music in all cultures, as if there were no need to take into account cultural location. It follows, then, that many instruments, even strings and percussion, are potentially usable in the liturgy, which is explicitly stated in STL, 90.

To be sure, traditional music, such as chant and choral polyphony, is advocated with new vigor in STL. But STL does not claim that these are ontologically (in their very essence) more sacred. The end result is that STL advocates both traditional repertoire5 and the stylistic diversity of all the various contemporary cultures,6 without attempting to define the relationship between all these styles or the parameters of their liturgical usage in every situation.

STL cautions us against making easy distinctions between sacred and secular music. It shows us that one can advocate traditional music (such as chant and polyphony) without trying to claim that these are essentially more sacred than other genres of worship music.

The Challenge of Singing the Liturgy
The 1967 Roman instruction Musicam Sacram (MS), issued shortly after the close of the Second Vatican Council, advocates the model of a sung liturgy in which the responses and dialogues, such as "The Lord be with you," "The Word of the Lord," and "The Mass is ended" are chanted, along with the presidential prayers and even the readings. In contrast to this, the 1972 document Music in Catholic Worship (MCW) primarily emphasized the singing of acclamations, the Responsorial Psalm, and hymns at Mass. This was probably a good place to start in the early stages of the vernacular liturgy. But some have criticized MCW for not following MS on the issue of sung liturgy. In recent years, there has been increased discussion of this issue, and the practice of singing the dialogues and orations has begun to increase in some places.

It must be admitted that, at the pastoral level, there are real challenges to sung liturgy.7 We are no longer a singing culture; recorded and electronic music have increasingly made us into listeners. Liturgical ministers (priests, deacons, lectors) have not grown up in a Church where sung liturgy is the norm. Many liturgical ministers are not comfortable singing in public. Acoustics in all too many of our churches impede chanting the liturgy, because one needs a resonant space for the practice of chanted liturgy to work well. Singing the liturgy, if not done well, can make the liturgy seem heavier rather than more spirited. The liturgy becomes slower, duller, and consequently, less prayerful for many participants. For reasons such as these, some people are skeptical about the possibility and desirability of singing the liturgy. STL approaches the issue by setting the Church's high ideal and encouraging sung liturgy to the extent practical. STL, 19, (following MS, 8) recommends that priests who do not possess a suitable voice for singing instead recite in a loud and distinct voice, while adding that this is not to be done for mere convenience.

The strong encouragement for sung liturgy in STL takes its cue from MS. In STL, 115, on "the parts to be sung," the first category is "dialogues and acclamations." One could argue that strict adherence to MS should have meant that dialogues are the first category of importance, as their own separate category. But so much progress has been made in the United States with singing the acclamations, that it has become virtually universal practice to sing the Gloria, Sanctus, Memorial Acclamation, Agnus Dei, etc., at Sunday Mass. If the first category listed were "dialogues," this could mean that, if the dialogues are not sung for whatever reason, then that which is of a lower priority, such as acclamations, should not be sung. That would be most unfortunate. Hence, the interesting decision to call the first category "dialogues and acclamations" at STL, 115. This categorization suggests that we should promote singing dialogues, but not at the expense of singing the acclamations.

Other sections of STL, in treating various aspects of the liturgy, call for sung liturgy. STL, 19, encourages priests to sing the presidential orations and dialogues; STL, 20, calls for the training of priests and seminarians to sing the liturgy; STL, 23, calls for deacons to be trained to sing their parts of the liturgy; STL, 153-154, recommends the singing of the responses after the readings and, with appropriate cautions, even the readings themselves. The singing of presidential prayers is treated in the various parts of the section "Music and the Structure of the Mass."8

It seems likely that STL will lead us to a richer practice of singing the liturgy in coming years, always taking into account the pastoral challenges and acting with sensitivity to people's experience.

The Challenge of Using Gregorian
Chant in the Reformed Liturgy

This challenge is closely related to the sacred/secular question discussed above. It is worth examining Gregorian chant separately, though, because it offers a concrete case for thinking about the relationship between an inherited repertoire and the demands of the reformed liturgy.

To be honest, most of the U.S. Church does not sing very much Latin chant. Most Catholics have heard very little chant in worship. Some, perhaps many Catholics, do not like Gregorian chant much. At the same time, many people experience chant as beautiful, calmly soothing, deeply spiritual, or truly holy, as it calls us to prayer. Experiences and practices vary.

The magisterium's statements advocating Gregorian chant are very strong. Gregorian chant is to have pride of place in the reformed liturgy, we read in SC, 116. The faithful are to be able to sing the Mass Ordinary in Latin, we read in SC, 54. Given how little that chant is actually sung in Catholic worship, one is struck, and perhaps surprised, by such strong statements.

STL takes up Gregorian chant and is keenly aware of both realities: the official documents advocate chant strongly, but the use of chant in the U.S. Church is, with some important exceptions, somewhat minimal. STL strives for an intelligent obedience to the Roman documents with a pastoral sensitivity to the actual situation. The judgment of Father Edward Foley on this issue should be noted: "[STL] contains one of the best reflections on Gregorian chant in the liturgy that I have read."9

There is high praise for chant at STL, 72:

Gregorian chant is uniquely the Church's own music. Chant is a living connection with our forebears in the faith, the traditional music of the Roman rite, a sign of communion with the universal Church, a bond of unity across cultures, a means for diverse communities to participate together in song, and a summons to contemplative participation in the Liturgy.

But STL immediately sounds some important cautions in STL, 73:

The "pride of place" given to Gregorian chant by the Second Vatican Council is modified by the important phrase "other things being equal." These "other things" are the important liturgical and pastoral concerns facing every bishop, pastor, and liturgical musician. In considering the use of the treasures of chant, pastors and liturgical musicians should take care that the congregation is able to participate in the Liturgy with song. They should be sensitive to the cultural and spiritual milieu of their communities, in order to build up the Church in unity and peace."

It could be said that STL counsels us not to use chant as a weapon.

In articles 74 and 75, STL follows SC in advocating elements of the Latin chant as ordinary, first by admitting that most communities not do this and then giving very specific and practical and specific directives on where to start. "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, all of which are typically included in congregational worship aids. More difficult chants, such as Gloria VIII and settings of the Credo and Pater Noster, might be learned after the easier chants have been mastered."

It is relevant to the issue of Gregorian chant to note STL, 64: "Whenever the Latin language poses an obstacle to singers, even after sufficient training has been provided—for example, in pronunciation, understanding of the text, or confident rendition of a piece—it would be more prudent to employ a vernacular language in the Liturgy."

The challenge is to use Gregorian chant in the liturgy wisely and sensitively. STL helps us to do so by counseling slow but sure progress toward a reachable goal.

The Challenge of Whether to Sing Hymns at Mass
Some have begun to question in recent years whether hymns belong at Mass. The primary reason for this is renewed interest in the proper antiphons of the Mass liturgy—either in Latin chant as found in the Graduale Romanum, or in English, perhaps in a chant-like setting. In taking up the challenging issue of hymns and antiphons, it is helpful to look at the question from the perspectives of liturgical history, inculturation, ecumenism, and the official documents in all their comprehensiveness. STL does this as it offers helpful guidance on the use of hymns at Mass.

On this question of hymns versus antiphons, many of us are of two minds because we are drawn to both.10 STL is also of two minds, in that it speaks positively of both proper antiphons and strophic hymns. By speaking positively of proper antiphons, STL is sounding a new theme in the U.S. documents, since MCW and Liturgical Music Today (LMT) virtually ignored them. See especially STL, 115b, on "Antiphons and Psalms": "The psalms are poems of praise that are meant, whenever possible, to be sung." See also STL, 117: "proper antiphons from the liturgical books are to be esteemed and used especially because they are the very voice of God speaking to us in the Scriptures."

Regarding strophic hymnody at Mass, MS, 32, had allowed "substituting" hymns for the proper antiphons at the entrance, offertory, and communion. The General Instruction of the Roman Missal, 48, no longer speaks of "substitution." It simply lists as an "option," albeit the last option given, the use of "a suitable liturgical song." (The proper antiphon is the first option). Some zealous (but misinformed) voices in recent years, in their enthusiasm for the chant propers, have begun to criticize hymnody at Mass as if it were not liturgical. It is thus significant that STL, 115d, states, "Because these popular hymns [at the Entrance, Preparation of the Gifts, Communion, or Recessional] are fulfilling a properly liturgical role, it is especially important that they be appropriate to the liturgical action." And despite the Church's strong commitment to ecumenism, some have begun to criticize the use of non-Catholic hymns at Mass, often under the mistaken impression that this is an innovation since the Second Vatican Council. STL, 115d, offers necessary clarification: "In accord with an uninterrupted history of nearly five centuries, nothing prevents the use of some congregational hymns coming from other Christian traditions, provided that their texts are in conformity with Catholic teaching and they are appropriate to the Catholic Liturgy."11

STL offers much guidance on challenging issues, including those discussed here and many others as well. May we be enriched by STL's helpful guidance. Above all, may we participate ever more fruitfully in sung worship, and thereby become more closely united to Christ and each other. For, as STL, 10, states, "through grace, the liturgical assembly partakes in the life of the Blessed Trinity, which is itself a communion of love."


  1. Sing to the Lord: Music in Divine Worship (STL) was approved by the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops in November 2007. STL supersedes two earlier documents of the U.S. bishops' conference, Music in Catholic Worship (MCW) of 1972 and Liturgical Music Today (LMT) of 1982. (For an excellent overview of the historical development of the U.S. Bishops' directives on music, see Edward Foley, A Lyrical Vision: The Music Documents of the U.S. Bishops, Collegeville, Minnesota: Liturgical Press, 2009). Canonically, STL is not "particular law" with the weight of binding legislation. Rather, it provides "guidelines" of the Bishops' conference. This means that the force of STL's individual prescriptions derive in every case from the force of the document that STL cites.
  2. Anthony Ruff, Sacred Music and Liturgical Reform. Treasures and Transformations, Chicago, Illinois: Hillenbrand Books, 2007), 27.
  3. Edward Foley, "The Ritual Function of Beauty: From Assisi to Snowbird," Pastoral Music 21.3 (1997) 17–21, especially 18.
  4. SC, 112: "Sacred music is to be considered the more holy the more closely connected it is with the liturgical action, whether making prayer more pleasing, promoting unity of minds, or conferring greater solemnity upon the sacred rites."
  5. On chant, see STL, 72–80; on polyphony see, e.g., STL 30, "At times, the choir performs its ministry by singing alone. The choir may draw on the treasury of sacred music, singing compositions by composers of various periods and in various musical styles, as well as music that expresses the faith of the various cultures that enrich the Church."
  6. STL is quite strong in affirming inculturation and cultural diversity; see especially STL, 57–60, "Diverse Cultures and Languages." STL typically moves from the affirmation of traditional sacred music to the affirmation of contemporary music of various cultures, e.g. in the move from the organ at STL, 87–88, to other instruments at STL, 89–90, or in the move from "the repertoire of sacred music inherited from the past" to "contemporary composers and the diverse repertoires of various cultures" in STL, 54, on Catholic schools.
  7. I treat this question in "Do Priests Need to Sing?" Pastoral Music 28.3 (Feb.-Mar 2004), 41–43. In what follows I also draw on the address I gave, "Singing the Liturgy: What is the Goal, and What are the Challenges?" at the October 2006 meeting of the Federation of Diocesan Commissions.
  8. The presidential orations are treated at STL, 151, 175, and 197, the Eucharistic Prayer at STL, 181–182, and the final blessing at STL, 198.
  9. Edward Foley, "Sing to the Lord: The U.S. Bishops & Liturgical Music," Church magazine, available online at www.churchmagazine.org/issue/0809/par_sing_to_the_lord.php.
  10. I discuss this question in "Proper Chants and Improper Hymns: What Texts Shall We Sing in Worship?" The Hymn 56.4 (Autumn 2005), 7–13.
  11. The extensive history of Protestant hymnody at Catholic Mass is reviewed in my Sacred Music and Liturgical Reform (see footnote) 6576–88, esp. 585–586.

Anthony Ruff, OSB, a monk of St. John's Abbey, Collegeville, Minnesota, is the author of Sacred Music and Liturgical Reform: Treasures and Transformations, Chicago, Illinois: Hillenbrand Books, 2007. He teaches liturgy, liturgical music, and Gregorian chant at St. John's University School of Theology Seminary.

This is the final article in a series of six reflecting on the Sing to the Lord: Music in Divine Worship. Those using the study guide may find it helpful to read the document, which can be found online at the web site of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, www.USCCB.org.

Part I: How Firm a Foundation: The Theology of Sing to the Lord: Music in Divine Worship
Part II: Considering the Lenses of Sing to the Lord:The Relationship between the Three Judgments and the Two Dimensions, One Context
Part III: Catechizing the Faithful
Part IV: Cultural, Multicultural, and Intercultural Perspectives
Part V: Sing to the Lord and Psalmody in the Life of the Church
Part VI: Helpful Guidelines for Challenging Issues

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