Establishing Criteria for Liturgical Songs: The Directory for Music and Liturgy

By McMahon, J. Michael | Pastoral Music, August/September 2007 | Go to article overview

Establishing Criteria for Liturgical Songs: The Directory for Music and Liturgy


McMahon, J. Michael, Pastoral Music


Words matter-they have the power to shape lives and events. When President John F. Kennedy stood before the recently constructed Berlin Wall in 1963 and proclaimed (in German), "I am a citizen of Berlin," his words made a difference for the people of West Berlin and affected the course of world events at the height of the Cold War. When President Ronald Reagan stood at the same wall twenty-four years later and uttered the challenge, "Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!" his words likewise resounded throughout the world, hastened the collapse of the Soviet bloc, and helped to speed the reunification of Germany.

The words of the liturgy matter-they also have the power to shape lives and events. When we open the Scriptures to proclaim the words of the sacred texts, God is speaking and acting in our midst. When the whole assembly sings or prays together or when the priest speaks words of prayer on behalf of the congregation, those words have a profound impact.

The liturgy expresses the faith of the Church and in doing so forms the faithful in it. This principle is sometimes stated in its Latin form: Lex orandi, lex credendi. The norm of the Church's prayer determines the norm of its faith. The lex orandi includes the words of the liturgical rites along with all the actions and other elements of celebration. As we join in singing, praying, listening, acting, keeping silence, and all the other actions of the liturgy, the faith of the Church comes to expression and shapes us in it.

Following from the principle lex orandi, lex credendi, the Vatican issued an instruction on translation of liturgical texts in 2001 entitled Liturgiam authenticam. This document is rooted in a concern that the texts of the liturgy accurately express the Catholic faith, and it prescribes principles that will soon result in more literal translations of liturgical texts than we have been accustomed to since 1970.

Norms for Liturgical Songs

Although most of Liturgiam authenticam is devoted to principles of translation, it also includes some norms on the texts for singing that are rooted in a concern for doctrinal fidelity. The document makes reference to the Vatican II norm that the "texts intended to be sung must always be in conformity with Catholic doctrine; indeed they should be drawn chiefly from holy Scripture and from liturgical sources."1 Liturgiam authenticam requires each conference of bishops to prepare within five years of the document's publication "a directory or repertory of texts intended for liturgical singing."2 It also directs that the repertoire of liturgical hymns should "remain relatively fixed so that confusion among the people may be avoided."3

The Latin (Roman) Rite bishops of the United States were the first conference in the world to address these directives in Liturgiam authenticam. In November 2006 the U.S. bishops approved the Directory for Music and the Liturgy for Use in the Dioceses of the United States of America, in which they set forth norms and principles for evaluating liturgical songs. The directory was then submitted for the recognitio, or approval, of the Vatican Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments. As of July 1, the U.S. bishops were still waiting to hear back from Rome.

The document begins by affirming the importance of music in the liturgy and praising the good work that has been done in liturgical music since the Second Vatican Council. The major focus of the document, however, is on criteria for evaluating liturgical texts from a doctrinal perspective. In looking at individual songs, it directs that they "should be consonant with Catholic teaching and free from doctrinal error."

Individual songs cannot, of course, express the fullness of the Christian mystery or even of any particular aspect of it. The Directory therefore says that the entire repertoire of any given worshiping community should be evaluated and that, taken as a whole, the songs of any given community "should reflect the full spectrum of the Catholic faith. …

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