Catholic Values Column: ‘Pride of Place’: Music in the Liturgy


Last month, I was able to attend the first Extraordinary Form Mass of the semester in Christ the King Chapel. I was immediately struck by the beautiful sounds of the university’s liturgical choir, Schola Cantorum Franciscana, as they prepared to sing for Mass.

Throughout the Mass, the schola did an incredible job of bringing those gathered deeper into the mysteries of the Mass. The awe-inspiring sounds of Gregorian chant and polyphony aided our participation in the liturgy and gathered our focus on the sacrifice of the altar. The schola’s efforts were entirely focused on helping us enter the Mass on a more spiritual level and there was nothing they did to make us focus more on the music than on the celebration of Mass.

Unfortunately, this experience of liturgical music is not offered enough. Whether at Franciscan University or our home parishes, the music played during Mass is usually anything but chant.

We are told that the music most commonly played at Masses today is part of a “liturgical renewal” called for by the Second Vatican Council, that chant is fine for those who prefer it but the notorious “spirit of Vatican II” requires new, alternative music be played. But the fact of the matter is that this music is generally not proper to the liturgy, while chant and polyphony are intrinsically more ordered to the good of the liturgy.

I would like to clarify that I do have a deep appreciation for this contemporary music, which I grew up with. Whether something out of the music books in the pews or something you hear at a Festival of Praise, much of this music can be good and worthy to use for praise or reflection.

However, many are unaware that Vatican II actually said that Gregorian chant “should be given pride of place in liturgical services” because it is “specially suited to the Roman liturgy,” as the Council Fathers wrote in “Sacrosanctum Concilium.”

Why the Council Fathers’ words were thrown to the wayside, I don’t know. But the fact remains that the beautiful music of the saints, chant and polyphony, is ordered more perfectly to the liturgy and should be used in it at a much greater rate, both here at Franciscan and at home.

In a recent pastoral letter on sacred music, Portland Archbishop Alexander K. Sample gave three criteria that music should meet to make it suitable for the liturgy: sanctity, beauty and universality.

“Only music which possesses all three of these qualities is worthy of Holy Mass,” the archbishop wrote. “The beauty, dignity and prayerfulness of the Mass depend to a large extent on the music that accompanies the liturgical action.”

In short, the liturgical music we are exposed to directly affects the way we perceive and participate in the Mass.

Pope Francis has often come to the defense of chant, calling it a “glimpse of the beauty of heaven” and saying that at times, “a certain mediocrity, superficiality and banality have prevailed (in liturgical music), to the detriment of the beauty and intensity of liturgical celebrations.”

Again, it is not that other music is intrinsically not sacred, but we must ask ourselves if that music really, truly draws us deeper into the Mass. From my own experience and from that of many others here at Franciscan and home, the music chosen for Mass has, at times, turned the Mass into a performance instead of an instrument for greater intimacy with the Mass.

This brings us back to the schola. It does a wonderful job and puts in hard work, but the Franciscan community is only able to listen to it if they attend the once-a-month High Mass, maybe once during Holy Week or its concerts once a semester. That’s hardly enough for the university’s officially designated liturgical choir.

When I ask students about the schola, the response I overwhelmingly receive is that they wish the schola sang at Mass more. They wish the schola sang at all the Fieldhouse Masses, especially the solemnities when the entire student body comes together.

We had one of these Masses a while back when Cardinal Wuerl was here for a conference. The sounds of the schola brought every person in the Fieldhouse deeper into the mystery of the Mass and I remember the response of students who were amazed at the beauty of it. But I haven’t seen the schola in the Fieldhouse since then, which makes me wonder: is having a cardinal celebrate Mass the only reason good enough to bring the schola out?

The university knew it was proper to have the schola for Cardinal Wuerl’s Mass because of the significance and beauty it brings to the liturgy. Its music brings us into the Mass in a way other music doesn’t. So why should we settle for anything less?

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