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Sacred Music

"Liturgical worship is given a more noble form when it is celebrated in song, with the ministers of each degree fulfilling their ministry and the people participating in it.

Indeed, through this form, prayer is expressed in a more attractive way, the mystery of the liturgy, with its hierarchical and community nature, is more openly shown, the unity of hearts is more profoundly achieved by the union of voices, minds are more easily raised to heavenly things by the beauty of the sacred rites, and the whole celebration more clearly prefigures that heavenly liturgy which is enacted in the holy city of Jerusalem.

Pastors of souls will therefore do all they can to achieve this form of celebration."

- Second Vatican Council (Vatican II) Instruction on Music in the Liturgy, Musicam sacram, #5


Kyrie (Lord, Have Mercy)

from Mass XVI

Gloria (Glory to God)

from Mass VIII

Sanctus (Holy, Holy, Holy)

from Mass XVIII

Memorial Acclamation post Consecration

Simple melody

Agnus Dei (Lamb of God)

from Mass XVIII



1. What is sacred music?

Sacred music is music which "being created for the celebration of divine worship, is endowed with a certain holy sincerity of form." (Musicam sacram #4a) This includes Gregorian chant, sacred polyphony, sacred music for the organ and other approved instruments, and sacred popular music (hymns). The Church proposes Gregorian chant as the "supreme model" (Pope St. Pius X, Tra le sollecitudini #3) for all sacred music because of its ancient and close association with the liturgy.

2. What makes Gregorian chant special?

Gregorian chant has been an element of the sacred liturgy since at least the 9th century. It was composed specifically for use in the Mass and has never had any other purpose than this use. Pope St. Pius X wrote, "The more closely a composition for church approaches in its movement, inspiration, and savor the Gregorian melodic form, the more sacred and liturgical it becomes; and the more out of harmony it is with that supreme model, the less worthy it is of the temple." (Tra le sollecitudini #3)

3. But I don't really like chant. Can't we have music that's more upbeat and appealing?

There's nothing wrong in and of itself with upbeat, fun, catchy music. But the question here is what's appropriate for the liturgy, not what suits our personal tastes. The Church has said that the purpose of music in the Mass is to glorify God and sanctify the people (Musicam sacram #4). It has also identified Gregorian chant as the most appropriate type of music to achieve that purpose, for several reasons: a) chant, because it is sung without instrumental accompaniment, puts a special emphasis on the human voice and on the words of prayer; b) unlike pop music or music written for movies, etc., chant is not intended to manipulate the emotions, but rather to create a calm in the soul, which is the perfect environment for prayer to arise; c) when we sing Gregorian chant, we are more closely united with the many generations of Christians who came before us and sang the Mass in the same way.

4. What types of music are not appropriate for the liturgy?

Music which is not closely tied thematically to the parts of the Mass, the feast day, or the liturgical season is not appropriate (Musicam sacram #32). Neither is music which, in its style or composition, is secular in origin or incompatible with divine worship (#43), or which is "unbecoming to the holiness of the place, the dignity of the liturgy, and the devotion of the faithful" (#60).

5. Didn't Vatican II do away with Latin in the Mass?

Not at all. On the contrary, the Vatican II Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy, Sacrosanctum concilium, states that "the use of the Latin language, with due respect to particular law, is to be preserved in the Latin rites" (#36.1); and that "pastors of souls should take care that besides the vernacular the faithful may also be able to say or to sing together in Latin those parts of the Ordinary of the Mass which pertain to them." (Musicam sacram #47)


The Archdiocese of Washington, in keeping with Vatican II's request, directs: "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. Chants, such as Gloria VIII and settings of the Credo and Pater Noster, might also be learned... In many worshiping communities in the United States, fulfilling this directive will mean introducing Latin chant to worshipers who perhaps have not sung it before. While prudence, pastoral sensitivity, and reasonable time

for progress are encouraged to achieve this end, every effort in this regard is laudable and highly encouraged." (Liturgical Norms and Policies 6.28.6-6.28.7)

In obedience to Vatican II and with the appreciation of Latin as the language of the universal Church, St. John's Music Ministry does make use of Latin in the sacred liturgy at times. If you are not comfortable singing or reciting the prayers of the Mass in Latin, we understand. We would encourage you to pray the prayers silently, perhaps using the missalette or another aid, while they are being sung, so as to participate in the prayers in an internal way.

6. I thought that the active participation of the people at Mass is the most important thing. Doesn't singing in Latin take the music away from the people?

Vatican II did place a significant emphasis on the people's ability to participate in the singing: that is why we will do whatever we can to help you learn to sing the Ordinary parts of the Mass in Latin!


That being said, it is important to keep in mind how Vatican II defined "full, conscious, and active participation": it "should be above all internal, in the sense that by it the faithful join their mind to what they pronounce or hear, and cooperate with heavenly grace." (Musicam sacram #15a) If this internal element is missing, no amount of speaking or singing can make up for its absence. If it is present, then full participation has been achieved (although it will be perfected when the external actions or words are added). We should all strive after this internal participation to the best of our ability!

As mentioned above, if at any time you do not feel up to joining in the sung or spoken prayers at Mass, we encourage you to use a Missal, missalette, or other aid to pray the prayers silently as they are being sung. This can be a very fruitful way of actively participating in the Mass in an internal way.

7. What is sacred polyphony?

Sacred polyphony is a type of music featuring Scriptural or other sacred texts sung by two, three, or more voices, often using melodies that "overlap" in each of the voice parts. Sacred polyphony is considered by the Church to be very suitable for the Mass because its texts and melodies are very similar to, and in fact often directly borrowed from, those of Gregorian chant. In the Church's teaching documents on the liturgy, the two are usually mentioned in the same breath.

Some classic examples of sacred polyphony are linked to below so that you can get a feel for what it sounds like. You will also sometimes hear our 9am choir sing polyphony at Mass. Some famous composers of sacred polyphony include Tomas Luis de Victoria, Thomas Tallis, Orlando di Lasso (also called Lassus), and G. P. da Palestrina. We think you will agree that their best works are some of the most beautiful music ever written!

But not all polyphony comes from the Renaissance. New sacred polyphonic works are being composed today by well-regarded Catholic composers such as Kevin Allen.


If you have any questions or would like more information about the role of music in the liturgy, we encourage you to explore the Vatican II liturgical documents, papal writings, and other texts listed and linked to below.

SACROSANCTUM CONCILIUM (Vatican II Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy)

MUSICAM SACRAM (Vatican II Instruction on Music in the Liturgy)


LITURGICAL NORMS AND POLICIES OF THE ARCHDIOCESE OF WASHINGTON (2010) - The relevant sections can be found under Chapter 6, "Sunday Eucharist," section 28, "Music and Singing"

TRA LE SOLLECITUDINI (Motu Proprio of Pope St. Pius X, "Instruction on Sacred Music")


VOLUNTATI OBSEQUENS (Letter to the Bishops on the Minimum Repertoire of Plain Chant, issued by the Sacred Congregation for Divine Worship)


If ye love me

Thomas Tallis (1505-1585)

As sung by the Westminster Abbey Choir

"If ye love me, keep my commandments; and I will pray the Father, and he shall give you another Comforter, that he may bide with you forever: ev'n the Spirit of truth." (Jn 14: 15-17a)

Sicut cervus

G. P. da Palestrina (1525 - 1594)

As sung by the Cambridge Singers

Sicut cervus desiderat ad fontes aquarum, ita desiderat anima mea ad te, Deus.

"As a deer longs for flowing streams, so my soul longs for thee, O God." (Ps 42: 1)

Ave verum corpus

William Byrd (c. 1540 - 1623)

As sung by the Tallis Scholars

Ave verum corpus, natum de Maria Virgine, vere passum immolatum in cruce pro homine, cujus latus perforatum unda fluxit sanguine. O dulcis, O pie, O Jesu fili Mariae, miserere mei. Amen.

"Hail, true Body, born of the Virgin Mary, which truly suffered, sacrificed on a cross for mankind, and from whose pierced side did blood flow. O sweet, O holy, O Jesus, son of Mary, have mercy on me. Amen."

Exsultate justi

Lodovico da Viadana (1560 - 1627)

As sung by the Hastings College Choir

Exsultate justi in Domino: rectos decet collaudatio. Confitemini Domino in cithara, in psalterio decem chordarum psallite illi. Cantate ei canticum novum, bene psallite ei in vociferatione.

"Rejoice in the Lord, O ye just: praise becometh the upright. Give praise to the Lord on the harp; sing to him with the psaltery, the instrument of ten strings. Sing to him a new canticle, sing well unto him with a loud noise." (Ps 33: 1-3)

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