Tag Archives: chant

Music at Mass: Fewer Guitars, More Chant

By guest writer Sarah Coffey.

This is a post that’s been brewing for months but I didn’t quite have the right words to say until recently. In the past year, I’ve gone to several Masses at several different parishes (which are wonderful parishes, by the way) and the music was altogether disappointing. Loud. Overdone. Reminiscent of a Protestant revival (seriously).

For example, at one, the “worship band” extended out IN FRONT of part of the sanctuary. There were no fewer than four singers, 2 guitarists, a pianist, and a guy on a full drum set. When I walked up to receive communion at this Mass, the music was so loud, I could not even hear the Eucharistic Minister say “The Body of Christ” before I received Jesus. I left that Mass exhausted because of the constant noise, noise, noise that the Church had been subject to for the past hour.

At another Mass at a different parish, there was yet again an example of the recurring trend of having at least four singers, two guitarists (one acoustic and one electric!), a pianist, a drummer; and this one included a tambourine, too. The only way to describe every time this group started playing and singing is that it was oppressive. Call me an old lady who hates noise but the volume was so incredibly loud I couldn’t hear my husband speaking to me in a normal-level voice as he was sitting right next to me.

Even the Lamb of God was made to sound like part of a Matt Maher concert.

In both cases, the sheer number of participants in the “worship band” and most especially the high volume of the music made it so that the Eucharist was not the focus; the music became the focus. How could it not have been when it was so loud and marked by constant concert-esque flourishes? In true concert fashion, this Mass was marked by people swaying to the Alleluia with their hands in the air, and the congregation cheering – yes, cheering – the band when the recessional hymn ended.

Again, I left exhausted. And frustrated as it had been nearly impossible to pray or focus on Jesus.

Contrast this with my experience last weekend attending the priesthood ordination Mass at the Cathedral Basilica in St. Louis. This city is blessed with a beautiful and very large cathedral – a church in which the size of both those worship bands may have be appropriate, only in terms of size.

But instead of a Catholic jam session, we were blessed (THANK GOD) with the Cathedral choir and organist, who provided absolutely STUNNING hymns and chants in both Latin and English. Just by the music, one could tell that this ordination Mass was a special occasion – and it was, of course. Two amazing men gave their lives to Christ and His Church. It was solemn. It was quiet in some parts. The voices of the choir sounded angelic as they sang the parts of the Mass. And the focus was the Eucharist.

I left that Mass having been able to focus on the prayers, the parts of the Mass, the beauty of the rite of ordination, and my own silent prayer and reflection because the music was COMPLEMENTARY to the Mass itself. It didn’t try to insert itself as the main focus, but provided a backdrop conducive to worship, prayer, and a spirit of reverence.

Of course, this was a special occasion. A special Mass. But shouldn’t every Mass be like this?

Shouldn’t we come to every Mass prepared to create the most reverent possible atmosphere for the moment when the bread and wine is consecrated on the altar and becomes the BODY and BLOOD of Jesus Christ?

But how can we do that when the music is so loud that we can’t hear ourselves think? How can we focus on the mystery and the miracle when the music demands all our energy and attention, robbing us of the silence we need to truly appreciate the depth and beauty of the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass?

The short answer is that we can’t. You can’t hear the Holy Spirit speaking to you in the recesses of your soul when the excessive sound of drums and guitars and tambourines are drowning out His voice.

Robert Cardinal Sarah, a great and holy man of the Church, wrote recently in his book on the topic of silence, “Sounds and emotion detach us from ourselves, whereas silence always forces man to reflect upon his own life… wonder, admiration, and silence function in tandem.”

There was absolutely a sense of wonder at Mass at the Basilica. It felt like I was experiencing a very small piece of Heaven on Earth – because that’s precisely what the Mass is.

And it’s sad when we aren’t able to have that very same wonderous atmosphere every Sunday at Mass in our parishes because the music is just too loud or too excessive.

I’m not saying we should not use any contemporary music at Mass. My wedding liturgy had several Matt Maher and Audrey Assad songs! But I’m saying the music at Mass should not try to thrust itself into the forefront of our minds; it should not distract from the real reason we are there – to receive Our Lord in the Eucharist and to let His grace work within us.

It should pave the way for our hearts to seek and find Jesus at the altar, at the foot of the Cross. And it shouldn’t distract us from hearing what He is trying to say to us.

In the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass, Jesus becomes really and truly present on the altar. Let me reiterate: Jesus Christ, God incarnate, the Creator of the Universe, becomes present on the altar and we receive Him.

The music at Mass should serve as a backdrop for receiving Our Lord and creating an atmosphere conducive to worship; but it can never make that reality – the reality of the True Presence of Christ – more “cool” or “hip,” or more entertaining. And it doesn’t need to.


Originally published at Sarah Coffey.

Sarah Coffey is a convert to Catholicism who enjoys delving into Church history and the Theology of the Body. She is blessed with a wonderful family, husband, and a cat named Stella (as in “Ave Maris Stella”, of course).

Image: PD-US

What are the Church’s Teachings on Sacred Music?

Sacred music is “that which, being created for the celebration of divine worship, is endowed with a certain holy sincerity of form,” according to the Sacred Congregation of Rites in its Instruction on Music and the Liturgy, Musicam Sacram (1967, ¶4). As defined by the Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy,Sacrosanctum Concilium (1963), sacred music surpasses merely religious music when it is joined to the liturgical rite to become “a necessary and integral part of the solemn liturgy,” whose purpose is “the glory of God and the sanctification of the faithful” (¶112).

“As a manifestation of the human spirit,” said John Paul II in 1989, “music performs a function which is noble, unique, and irreplaceable. When it is truly beautiful and inspired, it speaks to us more than all the other arts of goodness, virtue, peace, of matters holy and divine. Not for nothing has it always been, and will it always be, an essential part of the liturgy.”

Sacred music “elevates the spirit precisely by wedding it to the senses, and it elevates the senses by uniting them with the spirit” (Cardinal Ratzinger, The Spirit of the Liturgy, 150).

“Not all musical forms can be considered suitable for liturgical celebrations,” says Pope John Paul II in his Chirograph on sacred music (2003). He quotes Pope Paul VI: “If music—instrumental and vocal—does not possess at the same time the sense of prayer, dignity, and beauty, entry into the sphere of the sacred and the religious is [thereby] precluded.”

In his general audience of February 26, 2003, Pope John Paul called on musicians to “make an examination of conscience so that the beauty of music and hymnody will return once again to the liturgy. It is necessary to purify worship of ugliness of style, careless forms of expression, ill-prepared music and texts, which are not worthy of the great act that is being celebrated.”

Pope Benedict XVI agrees: “An authentic updating of sacred music can take place only in the lineage of the great tradition of the past, of Gregorian chant and sacred polyphony.”

Chant is the one music that we inherit from the ancient Church fathers. It is not a “style” but the music of the Mass itself. It is sung in unison, which makes it a perfect expression of unity. It illuminates and gives expressiveness to the sacred texts, but it does not alter them. It musically expresses the heart of the Church and thus exists across and outside time.

In his Ad Limina Address (October 1998), Pope John Paul II reminded U.S. bishops that “active participation does not preclude the active passivity of silence, stillness and listening: indeed, it demands it. Worshippers are not passive, for instance, when listening to the readings or the homily, or following the prayers of the celebrant, and the chants and music of the liturgy. These are experiences of silence and stillness, but they are in their own way profoundly active.”

“A Church which only makes use of ‘utility’ music has fallen for what is, in fact, useless. . . . For her mission is a far higher one. As the Old Testament speaks of the Temple, the Church is to be the place of ‘glory,’ and as such, too, the place where mankind’s cry of distress is brought to the ear of God. The Church must not settle down with what is merely comfortable and serviceable at the parish level, she must arouse the voice of the cosmos and, by glorifying the Creator, elicit the glory of the cosmos itself, making it also glorious, beautiful, habitable, and beloved.” —Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, “On the Theological Basis of Church Music,” in The Feast of Faith, (1986, p. 124)

“When the Holy Father, Pope Francis, asked me to accept the ministry of Prefect of the Congregation for Divine Worship and Discipline of the Sacraments, I asked: ‘Your Holiness, how do you want me to exercise this ministry?’ The Holy Father’s reply was clear. ‘I want you to continue to implement the liturgical reform of the Second Vatican Council,’ he said ‘and I want you to continue the good work in the liturgy begun by Pope Benedict XVI.’” —Robert Cardinal Sara of Nigeria, Prefect of the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments, 2015

Paul VI’s request for the universal Church to learn basic chants: In April 1974 Pope Paul VI sent to every bishop in the world a booklet of some of the simplest selections of Gregorian Chant, much of it drawn from the Graduale Romanum. This booklet, called Jubilate Deo, was intended as a “minimum repertoire of Gregorian chant.” It is, in other words, an official Latin “core repertoire” for the Roman Rite. It was prepared, the pope said, in order “to make it easier for Christians to achieve unity and spiritual harmony with their brothers and with the living tradition of the past. Hence it is that those who are trying to improve the quality of congregational singing cannot refuse Gregorian chant the place which is due to it” (Voluntati Obsequens).

From the document: “Down the centuries, Gregorian chant has accompanied liturgical celebrations in the Roman rite, has nourished men’s faith and has fostered their piety, while in the process achieving an artistic perfection which the Church rightly considers a patrimony of inestimable value and which the Council recognized as “the chant especially suited to the Roman liturgy.”[3]

One of the objectives of the liturgical reform is to promote community singing in assemblies of the faithful, so that they might the better express the festive, communal and fraternal character of liturgical celebrations. In effect, “the liturgical action becomes more dignified when it is accompanied by chant, when each minister fulfills his own role and the faithful also take part.[4]

Those who because of their special vocation in the Church need to have a deeper knowledge of sacred music ought to be particularly careful to observe a proper balance between popular chant and Gregorian chant. Further, the study and the performance of Gregorian chant remain “because of its special characteristics, a very useful foundation for the cultivation of sacred music.”[9]

“In presenting the Holy Father’s gift to you, may I at the same time remind you of the desire which he has often expressed that the Conciliar constitution on the liturgy be increasingly better implemented. Would you therefore, in collaboration with the competent diocesan and national agencies for the liturgy, sacred music and catechetics, decide on the best ways of teaching the faithful the Latin chants of ‘Jubilate Deo’ and of having them sing them, and also of promoting the preservation and execution of Gregorian chant in the communities mentioned above. You will thus be performing a new service for the Church in the domain of liturgical renewal.” (Voluntati Obsequens)

Further Reading—Church documents that deal with sacred music:
Sacrosanctum Concilium
The General Instruction on the Roman Missal
Musicam Sacram
John Paul II’s Chirograph on Sacred Music
Pius X’s Tra le sollecitudini

Have You Been Missing Out on a Centuries-Old Catholic Musical Tradition?

Some of the most divisive conversations amongst Catholics today arise over music at Mass. Most arguments revolve around the style of music or the instrumentation. However, these arguments generally don’t focus much on the texts of the music. The majority of us have grown up in parishes that are unaware of or lacking an essential part of Church’s musical heritage: The Propers. We should stop asking “Is the music religious?” but rather, “Is the music (and its text) liturgical?” The Church assigns specific chants/texts to each day of the liturgical year, just as she assigns certain readings & psalms to each day of the year. The General Instruction of the Roman Missal says that these scriptural, liturgical texts (called “the Propers”) are the ideal and most desirable thing to be sung at Mass (see GIRM 48, 74, 86-87).

When Propers are sung at Mass

We are accustomed to the readings, responsorial psalm, and Alleluia verse changing each week in the Missalette. The scriptural texts of the Mass Propers also change daily and allow us to more fully participate in the liturgical day being celebrated. There are three times when the Propers are sung at a Novus Ordo Mass:

Introit: scriptural text with its antiphon sung while the celebrant and ministers enter the Church and approach the altar. “After the people have gathered, the Entrance chant begins as the priest enters with the deacon and ministers. The purpose of this chant is to open the celebration, foster the unity of those who have been gathered, introduce their thoughts to the mystery of the liturgical season or festivity, and accompany the procession of the priest and ministers.” (GIRM 47)

Offertory: sung scriptural text accompanying the procession and preparation of the gifts. “The procession bringing the gifts is accompanied by the Offertory chant (cf. no. 37b), which continues at least until the gifts have been placed on the altar. The norms on the manner of singing are the same as for the Entrance chant (cf. no. 48). Singing may always accompany the rite at the offertory, even when there is no procession with the gifts.” (GIRM 74)

Communion: scriptural text sung beginning with the Priest’s reception of Communion and continued through the faithful’s reception. “While the priest is receiving the Sacrament, the Communion chant is begun. Its purpose is to express the communicants’ union in spirit by means of the unity of their voices, to show joy of heart, and to highlight more clearly the “communitarian” nature of the procession to receive Communion. The singing is continued for as long as the Sacrament is being administered to the faithful. If, however, there is to be a hymn after Communion, the Communion chant should be ended in a timely manner.” (GIRM 86)

Each liturgical day has its own special text and melody assigned to each of these three times of the Mass. The text of each Proper expands and reflects on the readings of the day and contains deep scriptural theology which helps us more fully contemplate the specific liturgical feast.

History of the Mass Propers

The Propers of the Mass are scriptural texts, with accompanying chant melodies, that are carefully assigned to each day of the liturgical calendar. Some of the Mass Propers we use today can be found in Sacramentaries (liturgical books) dating back to the 5th century A.D. There is also written evidence that refers to their existence in the earliest days of the Church. These prayers/chants/texts have been developed and perfected throughout the centuries by the Catholic Church. Musical notation was casino in fact invented for the sole purpose of recording Catholic liturgical chants. From a historical perspective, the schola cantorum or choir has sung the propers. The reason for this is that the texts and melodies are difficult and change on a daily basis. Until Vatican II, the Mass Propers were printed and sung in Latin. There has been a recent liturgical movement to translate these texts into English so that they may be more accessible to amateur choirs.

An example of the texts changing for each liturgical day is the Introit for Christmas – Mass at Dawn (notice the English translation of the Latin below the chant).


Here is the same chant from a centuries old manuscript. Both the saints and everyday Catholics throughout history would have heard these same melodies and texts sung at Mass on Christmas morning.


Another example of the text changing for the liturgical feast is the Communion for the vigil Mass of the Assumption of the Blessed Mother.


One can see that each text can help us more fully contemplate the specific liturgical feast. The beauty of the Mass Propers is that they allow us to sing the Mass, rather to sing at Mass.

Did Vatican II do away with the Propers?

I had been leading music at Masses for about five years before anyone ever introduced me to singing the Propers. I had studied them in Music History in college, but thought they must not apply to Novus Ordo Masses because I had never heard them in any parish or been asked to sing them. I had tried to prepare choirs with “sacred” or “traditional” music and hymns, but I felt like I had been cheated out of a great musical tradition that had been present in past centuries of the Church.

“What must be sung is the Mass, its Ordinary and Proper, not “something”, no matter how consistent, that is imposed on the Mass. Because the liturgical service is one, it has only one countenance, one motif, one voice, the voice of the Church. To continue to replace the texts of the Mass being celebrated with motets that are reverent and devout, yet out of keeping with the Mass of the day amounts to continuing an unacceptable ambiguity: it is to cheat the people. Liturgical song involves not mere melody, but words, text, thought and the sentiments that the poetry and music contain. Thus texts must be those of the Mass, not others, and singing means singing the Mass not just singing during Mass.”
– 1969 response to an inquiry by the the Consilium (group of bishops and experts set up by Pope Paul VI to implement the Constitution on the Liturgy).

What about other music at Mass?

Other music can be still be a part of Mass. Many parishes have time after both the offertory chant & the communion chant for other hymns or motets. There is no liturgical proper assigned during the recession at Mass, so that is another time when other music may be chosen.

Want to sing the Propers?

The digital age has brought a wonderful community of sacred musicians together online. People have been working tirelessly over the past ten years or so to provide resources for people interested in carrying on the musical traditions of the Church. Here are some resources – free to print directly from PDFs, or for purchase in book form – for any musicians willing to learn the Propers.

I. The Gregorian Missal: This is the official Vatican edition of the sung Propers of the Mass, with English translations, and their original Latin chant melodies. It would be difficult for most Church choirs to learn and sing all three Gregorian Propers every Sunday, and the melodies can be difficult. The Communion Proper is usually the simplest and shortest, and would be a good place for choirs interested in singing Gregorian Propers to begin (here is a book with the psalm verses notated under each antiphon). Practice videos can be found on youtube through a simple search.

II. The Simple English Propers: This is a new book of the English translations of the Propers set to simple chant melodies. It is a great place to begin for less experienced choirs. There are practice videos for every SEP chant on youtube.

III. Other resources: This page provides links to other settings of the texts of the Propers, both in choral and plainchant forms.

Thanks for reading!

Other Sacred Music Resources:
How to Start Your Own Garage Schola
CMAA Website
Musica Sacra: Forum
Incredible Conference for Sacred Musicians – Sacred Music Colloquium