Hymns at Mass: Some Observations on What We Sing in Church

Author: Duane L.C.M. Galles


Duane L.C.M. Galles

"From the Mail," in <The Wanderer> of February 23,1995, contained a long column bemoaning the loss of favorite hymns since the Vatican II reform of the liturgy; in the good old days "goose flesh would break out all over you as you and the congregation sang with all your lungs the great hymns of Catholic spirituality." Ditto. But those were the hymns sung by way of popular participation at a low or read Mass. But I also remember the music at the high or sung Mass and today that music is even more rarely heard. Be fore Vatican II the low and high Mass types were by liturgical law to be as distinct as the Medes and the Persians. The singing of the four hymns at the beginning and end of Mass and at the offertory and communion was permitted precisely because this was not liturgical music; it was merely "religious music" and so did not violate the ban on liturgical music at a low Mass.

Catholic liturgical law recognizes three types of music: liturgical or sacred music, religious music and profane music. Liturgical or sacred music is music written for the liturgy using a sacred or liturgical text. Religious music is music employing religious themes or texts, which is not intended originally for use in the liturgy. Most English hymns fall into this latter category. All other music is secular and has no place in the temple. Thus, most popular ballads, even if "meaningful" to the congregants, are not suitable at Catholic Eucharists.

Liturgical or sacred music belonged to the sung or high Mass and consisted of two parts, the ordinary and the proper. The proper includes the varying texts of the day, the Introit, Gradual, Alleluia, Offertory and Communion. The ordinary includes the invariable texts, the Kyrie, Gloria, Credo, Sanctus and Agnus Dei.

In many places today only the responsorial psalm, Alleluia, Sanctus and Agnus Dei are sung. The other portions of the liturgical texts are either replaced by hymns or are merely recited. Some even have a positive aversion to the sung Credo. Once all this is said it becomes clear how little sacred or liturgical music is really to be found in most American Catholic churches today.

The American Bishops' Committee on the Liturgy made this point recently in their newsletter when they said that most of what passes for liturgical music in the American Catholic Church is not that. Generally American Catholic church music consists of four hymns, a responsorial psalm and an alleluia verse. While the hymns are licit since the American bishops made them licit (with the approval of the Holy See), they are seldom liturgical music.

The Committee went on to note that in the United States one may lawfully take the propers from the reformed 1974 Vatican II <Graduale Romanum> or, in the case of a smaller church with few musical resources, from the <Graduale Simplex>. The American bishops also authorized a supplement to the latter consisting of psalms and antiphons in English and this supplement in 1968 was approved by Rome. In 1969 to promote music in English the bishops added a fourth category of "other sacred songs" (i.e., hymns) for use at the Introit, Offertory and Communion. Into this fourth category come hymns and it is here that the four-hymn Mass was made lawful.

But the Committee was quick to point out that, whilst the approval of this fourth category of "other sacred songs" provides canonical legitimacy for the current four-hymn practice, the result is not liturgical music as the church intends.

As the Committee said, "it is unfortunate that the fourth option, which permits "the use of 'other sacred songs,' has developed as the normative practice in the United States to the neglect of the first three options." Ditto.

The Committee went on to say, "In fact many of the faithful interpret singing the liturgy to mean singing hymns or songs. Thus, those involved in liturgical preparation oftentimes confine themselves to the selection of hymns as their first priority and neglect the singing of ritual texts." The Committee noted that this is not the result that the Church intended.[1] Ditto. Indeed, we might add it frustrates one major conciliar reform—opening up more of the treasure of the scriptures to the People of God.

The Vatican council's constitution on the liturgy, <Sacrosanctum concilium>, article 10, tells us that the liturgy is the <fons et culmen>, the source and summit, of the church's activity and article 112 reminds us that sacred music is necessary or integral to the solemn liturgy. The solemn liturgy, Pope Pius XII declared in article 106 of his encyclical, <Mediator Dei>, "possesses its own special dignity due to the impressive character of its ritual and the magnificence of its ceremonies." It is—as the 1958 instruction on sacred music, <De musica sacra>, and the 1967 instruction, <Musicam sacram> tell us—a sung Mass celebrated with the assistance of sacred ministers.

Vatican II in article 112 of the constitution on the liturgy also declared that the musical tradition of the church is a treasure of inestimable value, "greater than that of any other art," and one with a ministerial function. Accordingly, it ordered that the treasury of sacred music be preserved and fostered with superlative care (<summa cura>), that choirs be assiduously developed, that great importance be given to music in seminaries and houses of studies, and that composers and singers be given a genuinely liturgical training and accept that it belongs to their vocation to cultivate sacred music and increase its store of treasure (arts. 114, 115, 121).

While declaring that the church approves all forms of true art which have the requisite qualities and admits them to the liturgy, the Vatican council set forth its own threefold "short list" of sacred music. It said that Gregorian chant is the Latin church's "very own music" (<liturgiae romanae proprium>) and that it should be accorded "lead spot" (<principem locum>). The council also went on to say that sacred polyphony is "by no means excluded from the liturgy" (art. 116), and so those wags who say the Masses of Mozart, Hayden and Schubert are "more culture than cult" are merely "pre-Vatican II." Thirdly, the council praised the pipe organ and its music.

Although the piano (once seen only in Baptist churches) is now commonly used in American Catholic churches, Vatican II went on to utter paeans on the (now mostly silent) pipe organ and ordered that it be held in high esteem "for it is the traditional musical instrument that adds a wonderful splendor to the church's ceremonies and powerfully lifts up the spirit to God and to higher things." For the introduction of other instruments into the liturgy of the Latin church it laid down a three-fold test that: 1) they are suitable for sacred music and that 2) they accord with the dignity of the temple and that 3) they contribute to the edification of the faithful (art. 120).

Noting that the vernacular "may frequently be of great advantage to the people," at the same time the council ordained that the Latin language be preserved in the Latin rites and that "care must be taken to ensure that the faithful may also be able to say or sing together in Latin those parts of the ordinary of the Mass that pertain to them" (arts. 36, 54). Canon 928 of the annotated version of the 1983 Code, which states that the Mass may be celebrated in Latin, cites <inter alia> precisely these two conciliar decrees as the legal sources for the canon and these references provide mute evidence that the Latin liturgy has not been suppressed, as some say citing canon 26, by a custom <contra legem>.

All of this suggests that genuine liturgical music must clearly be more than "utility music," as Cardinal Ratzinger in his <Feast of Faith> disparagingly calls the simple ditties found in most contemporary Catholic churches. The Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith went on to explain how some commentators on the documents of Vatican II have glossed the <ipsissima verba> or very own words of the council which we have just quoted to mean merely that the treasury of church music is to be preserved only <in the concert hall> and not at Mass where it would "interfere with "active participation." As Cardinal Ratzinger put it, "The years which followed [the council] witnessed the increasingly grim impoverishment which follows when beauty for its own sake is banished from the Church and all is subordinated to the principle of 'utility.' One shudders at the lackluster face of the post-conciliar liturgy as it has become, or one is bored with its banality and its lack of artistic standards."

Continuing his attack on today's banal "utility music," he adds, "A Church which only makes use of 'utility' music has fallen for what is, in fact, useless. She too becomes ineffectual. For her mission is a higher one...The Church is to transform, improve, 'humanize' the world-but how can she do that if at the same time she turns her back on beauty, which is so closely allied to love? For together, beauty and love form the true consolation in the world, bringing it as near as possible to the world of the resurrection."[2]

Of course, this does not mean that sacred music cannot be useful as well as beautiful. Indeed, it must be both in order truly to be sacred music. Nor is this a recent discovery. The Introit, Gradual, Alleluia, Offertory and Communion verses were always understood to be "traveling music," music sung during the entrance procession of the clergy, during the procession of the sub-deacon (now deacon or lector) fro and to between the first and second and third readings, during the procession of the deacon or priest before the chanting or reading of the Gospel, during the Offertory procession, and during the communion of the faithful. Singing has a second practical aspect, too. As the recent instruction on inculturation notes, "a text which is sung is more deeply engraved in the memory than one which is said."[3] Also it might be noted that, without music, these reformed rites in the television age appear a bit "wordy." Without the ministry of music, the celebrant before long becomes a "talking head" and too frequently he is "tuned out" and ignored by his auditors.[4]

The new rubrics provide that if more verses are needed the entire psalm of the propers can be changed and more than once if need be. A couple of years ago I attended Sunday Mass at the "Black Basilica" in Norfolk, Virginia. It was explained that black Catholics had a particular love of psalmody and so, besides hymns, they added entire psalms to the music of the Mass. But I do not recall that they sang the entire psalms that the church had offered them at the Introit, Gradual, Offertory and Communion. They sang beautifully and with great gusto but they thus missed a chance to "sing the Mass" using the psalms integral to the Mass of the day. They and others might adjust their practice so that it is the proper music of the Mass and not just music at Mass that is sung.

Occasionally one hears the ordinaries sung. I was delighted recently to hear the Kyrie, Gloria, Sanctus and Agnus Dei from the <Missa de Angelis> sung during an English Mass in suburban Arlington, Virginia. After Mass during the fellowship hour I suggested to the pastor that they add a plainchant Credo. Sustained by a choir, the singing actually went quite well and it was satisfying to hear at least a minute portion of the treasury of sacred music being preserved and cultivated as Vatican II wished at this Virginia parish.

But you will say, "If we sing only sacred music at Mass when will we sing hymns?" People are too accustomed to them to deprive them of hymnody. Do not try. The post-Vatican II instruction on sacred music, <Musicam sacram>, tried to promote "progressive solemnity." It was this rubric which ended the old ban on sacred music at a read or low Mass. The aim was to let those small places which could not muster the resources for a complete sung Mass to have at least some music at Mass. But, like so many "affirmative action" measures, the actual result was the reverse. Instead of greater solemnity all is now "dress-down." Except for the versicles before the preface and the <Per Ipsum> at the close of the canon, priests seldom sing the Mass nowadays. Thus while there is no need to banish hymns from week-end Masses, it might actually be helpful to restore the distinction between the low or read Mass and the high or sung Mass at parishes which can muster the musical resources for the latter.

At the low Mass the hymns might remain and make these the ones that people know and love and can sing. At the high or sung Mass, sing the propers (in English or Latin) and the ordinaries (in English or Latin) and try to encourage the priest who has a voice and may even have been vouchsafed training at seminary in plainchant to sing the prefaces. While they do not always seem to have been written to be sung, with some practice they can in fact be sung. And the Bishops' Committee on the Liturgy has stressed they should be sung.

Another place for religious music—hymns—is at popular devotions. Despite the fact that Vatican II "highly recommended" popular devotions (SC 13), these often have been neglected since the council and this is unfortunate. Such devotions provide a useful bridge between the "domestic church" (as Vatican II called the family) and the church's public liturgy. Once again they should be encouraged, for canon 839 provides summary recognition of the prayers and pious and sacred practices of Christian people.

An obvious place for the use of religious music, they can link home and church whilst providing vent for affective piety in forms approved by the church. Instructive of the church's renewed concern for popular devotions is the injunction in the recent 1989 decree on minor basilicas that in such churches "approved forms of popular devotions should be cultivated."[5] These include litanies, the rosary and the Way of the Cross, and these might be conducted before benediction of the Blessed Sacrament which remains in the ritual even if not often found today in American Catholic churches.

All of this is to say that hymns—even those of the good old days—are not passe. But they are not liturgical music and three decades now after Vatican II it is time to begin to implement the council's decrees as the council intended.


1. Bishops' Committee on the Liturgy <Newsletter> (August-September, 1993) 29, pp. 30, 33.

2. Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, <Feast of Faith: Approaches to a Theology of the Liturgy> (San Francisco, 1981) pp. 100, 125. The problem is not just the music but also the libretto. The English translations proffered by the International Committee on English in the Liturgy (ICEL) have received withering criticism. Day, on page 128 of the work cited in note 4, largely credits ICEL's texts for changing "a serious act of worship [the Mass] into a low-grade variety show." With its "less is more" approach, ICEL has given us "utility language"—to borrow a phrase from Cardinal Ratzinger. And it is about to abort or, at least, jettison this offspring in favor of a successor already, in the language of the common law, <en ventre de sa mere>. Surely both "utility language" and "utility music" are linked to the contraceptive mentality. Contraception severs love from life and reduces it to the function of pleasure alone, ensuring that love will result in no enduring expression, no child. Similarly, "utility language" or "utility music" regards only the functional aspects of language or music and eschews the creation of lasting beauty. The link seems to be that both contraception and "utility language" and "utility music" are rooted in a Manichean disdain for created things upon which, at the end of each day of creation, God looked and found to be good.

3. "Instruction on Inculturation in the Roman Liturgy," <Origins> (April 14, 1994) 23, p. 752.

4. Thomas Day, <Why Catholics Can't Sing: The Culture of Catholicism and the Triumph of Bad Taste> (New York, 1990) p. 134.

5. Bishops Committee on the Liturgy <Newsletter> (July, 1990) p. 26.

Taken from the May 1, 1995 issue of "Christifidelis". To subscribe to "Christifidelis", please contact: The Saint Joseph Foundation, 11107 Wurzbach, #404, San Antonio, TX 78230-2553, (210) 697-0717, Fax (210) 699-9439.