Friday, February 20, 2009


120. The pipe organ is to be held in high esteem in the Latin church, for as the traditional musical instrument, the sound of which can add a wonderful splendor to the Church's ceremonies and powerfully lifts up men's minds to God and higher things.

• Among the musical instruments that have a place in church, the organ rightly holds the principal position, since it is especially fitted for sacred chants and sacred rites. It adds a wonderful splendor and a special magnificence to the ceremonies of the Church.
It moves the souls of the faithful by the grandeur and sweetness of its tones. It gives minds an almost heavenly joy and it lifts them up powerfully to God and to higher things. (Musicae sacrae disciplina: article 58, Pope Pius XII, 1955)

But other instruments also may be admitted for use in divine worship, in the judgment and with the consent of the competent territorial authority as laid down in Articles 22: 2, 37 and 40. This may be done, however, only on condition that the instruments are suitable, or can be made suitable, for sacred use; that they accord with the dignity of the temple, and that they truly contribute to the edification of the faithful.
• Besides the organ, other instruments can be called upon to give great help in attaining the lofty purpose of sacred music, so long as they play nothing profane, nothing clamorous or strident and nothing at variance with the sacred services or the dignity of the place. Among these the violin and other musical instruments that use the bow are outstanding because, when they are played by themselves or with other stringed instruments or with the organ, they express the joyous and sad sentiments of the souls with an indescribable power. . .

COMMENTARY: As was explained in the previous article's commentary,the pipe organ is the sacred instrument of the Roman Rite. Historically, however, other instruments have been used in the Roman liturgy, and the hierarchy has been rather permissive or very restrictive, depending on the time and place. Though there was a somewhat restrictive attitude expressed in Pius X's 1903 motu proprio, a more generous attitude toward the use of other instruments, which began in Pius XII's 1955 encyclical, is stated in the Conciliar text. Nonetheless these other instruments must "accord with the dignity of the temple," and the use of them in church does not make them sacred instruments per se. By analogy one might point out that a suit //accord(s) with the dignity of the temple" and that this is what lay men should wear to church, rather than T-shirt and shorts (which do not accord with the dignity of the temple). However that does not make the suit "sacred," since its primary reference is outside of the church. Only the priest's garments, like the chasuble or cassock and surplice, could be considered sacred. Similarly, an instrument like the violin, because of its association with classical (or serious) music may be dignified enough for sacred use. However because its primary use is outside of the church, it is not a sacred instrument. Thus one can conclude from this that there are two categories of musical instrument in the liturgy: the first category—of which the pipe organ is the sole occupant in the Latin church—consists of instruments which have been specifically set aside, consecrated, for the liturgy; the second category consists of those instruments which, though they have never acquired the status of being sacred instruments per se, are nonetheless considered suitable for sacred use because they accord with the "dignity of the temple." Someone who accepts the above premises and who is being honest with himself would have to conclude that in Western culture these "dignified other instruments" are orchestral instruments. It is probably necessary to say something about the use of the folk guitar at Mass. While the classical guitar as an instrument might fit into the second category as one of those "dignified other instruments," it is definitely not a sacred instrument. However, in the case of the strummed folk guitar, we have an instrument which, due to its unmistakably casual connotation, is not even dignified enough for sacred use.

A brief history of the "liturgical folk guitar" and the "folk Mass" may be instructive. In a sense the folk Mass had its origins in the 1950's in England when a group of Anglican clerics, musicians, and schoolmasters formed the Twentieth Century Light Music group. Popularly known as the "Church Light People" they held that the "transient music of today—which is the background to the lives of so many—has a rightful place in our worship." (from Preface to Thirty 20th-century Hymn Tunes, London, 1960) In the early 1960's, major changes were occurring in the Catholic liturgy, as well as more contact with our separated brethren, an ecumenical borrowing of ideas, and a growing theology of secularization (e.g. the theme of the 1966 liturgical week was "Worship in the City of Man"). With all this and the popularity of folk music in the early 1960's, it was perhaps inevitable that there would be experimentation with the use of folk music at Mass. The specific impetus for this, however, seems to have been an address given by the influential Benedictine liturgist, Father Godfrey Diekmann in New York City to a meeting of the National Catholic Education Association in April 1965. In this address he promoted the folk Mass, or as it was then called, the "hootenanny Mass" for young people. At the beginning of the school year that next Fall there were reports of such Masses at Catholic colleges and high schools. Eager to gain official approval for this trend, some liberal liturgists pushed for a statement from the Music Advisory Board of the Bishops Committee on the Liturgy. A considerably modified form of such a statement was passed by one vote in February 1966 at the end of a long meeting after many of the members had left. Though the statement had no official status and was never approved by the full body of bishops, it was widely reported in the Catholic and secular press as having given formal approval for the "guitar Mass." In response to this trend the Sacred Congregation of Rites and the Consilium issued a joint statement on December 29,1966 prohibiting profane music in church. When Consilium spokesman Monsignor Annibale Bugnini was asked at a press conference what was meant by "profane" music, he said that this referred to such things as "jazz" Masses and instruments such as the guitar. This statement, of course, was not heeded.
So, we are brought back to the original, burning question: What musical instruments are appropriate for worship? If asked this question by an ordinary parish of the Roman Rite, I would respond that the pipe organ comes first and foremost; it is our sacred instrument. After this, if one wanted to augment the organ with a brass quintet, or string quartet, or some other combination of dignified, orchestral instruments for feast days, this would be fine, too. (Incidentally, I have nothing against orchestral Masses which employ a full orchestra and chorus. It is just that to do this regularly would require financial resources beyond that of an ordinary parish—and a parish with the finances, savvy, and knowledge necessary for such an undertaking wouldn't ask my opinion in the first place) This being said, we are brought to the even more burning question: What is to be done about the many folk and "contemporary" groups which have been playing at Masses throughout this country for the past 35 years? The answer is that, quite simply, they must be phased out. Now the twin virtues of charity and prudence will have to be exercised by the pastor and music director. Perhaps, for the time being, the prescribing of the good rather than the proscribing of the bad, will be the prudent course in many locales. However, if we are to have a recovery of the sense of the sacred on a large scale among our Catholic populace, eventually instruments and music with heavy secular associations will have to be excised from the liturgy and the talents of the people involved in such music employed elsewhere.

By Kurt Poterack,
Volume 125, Number 4, Winter 1998

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