From the Days of Paul and Luke

By McMahon, J. Michael; Colloton, Paul et al. | Pastoral Music, August 2009 | Go to article overview

From the Days of Paul and Luke


McMahon, J. Michael, Colloton, Paul, Truitt, Gordon E., Pastoral Music


Background to Sing to the Lord: Music in Divine Worship

How long has the Church been concerned about what is sung in the liturgy? Ever since St. Paul adapted (or corrected) the work of an anonymous poet who created one of the earliest Christian hymns so he could include it in his letter to the Philippians (Phil 2:6-11), and ever since St. Luke wrote or borrowed the texts of some liturgical hymns for his Gospel, putting them on the lips of Mary, Zechariah, and Simeon (Luke 1:46-55, 68-79; 2:29-32).

How long has the Church been interested in adapting the liturgy and its music so that people could understand it? Ever since those early days, when the Church borrowed music from the synagogue and adapted it for Christian use, borrowed musical styles from surrounding cultures, and translated hymns from one language to another - the Gloria, for example, translated (in part) from Greek to Latin for use in the Roman liturgy at a time when people no longer spoke Greek.

Recent History

What about our recent history? Every pope of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, from Pope St. Pius X through Pope Benedict XVI, has been concerned about music in worship and has encouraged sung worship, and many have provided guidelines to help us choose appropriate music, find the best way to accompany it, and adapt music from various cultures for use in the liturgy.

Two key phrases guiding what the recent popes have said about music's liturgical role appeared in Pius X's motu proprio Tra le sollecitudini (hereafter TLS, November 22, 1903). The first is that "music, as part of the solemn liturgy, participates in liturgy's general purpose, which is the glory of God and the sanctification and edification of the faithful" (TLS, 1). The second is that music accomplishes this purpose by engaging the faithful in "a more active participation ["parte più attiva" in the original Italian] in the ecclesiastical offices, as was the case in ancient times" (TLS, 3).

In his bull Divini cultus (December 20, 1928), Pope Pius XI observed that "the faithful come to church in order to derive piety from its chief source, by taking an active part ["partecipando attivamente" in the original Italian] in the venerated mysteries and the public solemn prayers of the Church" (Divini, paragraph 7, emphasis added). He also noted that, particularly through the revival of Gregorian chant, which had led to a revival of sung worship, "the faithful have gained a deeper understanding of the sacred Liturgy and have taken part with greater zest in the ceremonies of the Mass, in the singing of the psalms and the public prayers" (Divini, paragraph 8).

These points were repeated and expanded by Pope Pius XII. In his encyclical on the liturgy Mediator Dei (November 20, 1947), he explained that active participation must be interior as well as exterior (Mediator, 24), and he pointed to congregational involvement in singing the chants and even vernacular hymns as a way to engage that participation (Mediator, 105). He explained: "It is not merely a question of recitation or of singing which, however perfect according to norms of music and the sacred rites, only reaches the ear, but it is especially a question of the ascent of the mind and heart to God so that, united with Christ, we may completely dedicate ourselves and all our actions to him" (Mediator, 145). Pius XII repeated similar points in his encyclical on sacred music Musicae sacrae (December 25, 1955; see 31-33), and he encouraged the use of chant, polyphony, and even vernacular hymns-under limited circumstances-to keep "the faithful from attending the Holy Sacrifice like dumb and idle spectators" (Musicae, 64).

All the bishops of the Second Vatican Council addressed the same concerns and offered similar guidelines, calling music in the liturgy a "treasure of inestimable value," "a necessary or integral part of the solemn liturgy," and a vehicle to promote "the glory of God and the sanctification of the faithful" (Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy Sacrosanctum Concilium [SC], 112). …

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