The Role of Music within the Liturgy

Fr. Robert Schreiner, priest for the Diocese of Crookston, shares the role of music within the Liturgy. If you have ever had a question about music, the Liturgy, and Life Teen, this is a must watch video. Share this with your friends, priests, music ministers, and liturgists.

The video comes from the 2010 Life Teen Liturgy and Music Conference. Transcription follows below. You may reprint this talk. Please reference Life Teen and this URL.


I must admit to you as I begin this talk on music and the role of music in the Liturgy, my first movie clip running through my head isn’t from Immortal Beloved but rather Footloose. I feel very much like Kevin Bacon before the town council trying to argue why dancing is biblically mandated for the prom.

I have better hair. That’s the only difference. And you are not the town council in the sense, I suspect we are all of like mind in this regard, how it is we lead teens to Christ through our Life Teen liturgies. We’re all on board with it, by in large. But if you were like me and especially my brother priest in this room if you have my experience and I suspect that at some level that you do, we’ve been on the hook for the manner and means by which we worship the Lord in the Holy Eucharist of the Mass and usually the hit comes with the type of music.

I was in a conversation with a friend of mine from the east coast who could not conceive why a guy like me, who to him had bona fide credentials for orthodoxy and thinking with the Church, why on the next level I have Life Teen at my parish and why we do that debacle of a Mass in the evenings. He could not get that in his head.

And that conversation continues to this day, but the hostility toward that type of way of worship that we embrace for our teenagers is a difficulty in argumentation and so we need to make the case. And I am here to say this afternoon that the scope of the question is very broad, very large. And it would seem the gulf is immeasurable between the two points of contention on the question of the role of music in the Liturgy.

The Scope of the Argument

And so one way I’d like to demonstrate for you just how broad is this gulf that we are trying to cover in living the life and the spirit of Church’s Liturgy. I’d like to demonstrate for you how broad that gulf is.

So for example in the discussion and in the dialogue of music and the Liturgy we have on one hand this. (Hosanna Filio David – Antiphon of Palm Sunday) On the one hand and on the other. (Kazoo sound). That’s the scope.

To find agreement between those extremes is impossible. We all agree that the former is so fitting for the Liturgy, no one argues. We all agree that the Kazoo can’t quite hold up its end for worship. But once we move from either one of those ends, the battle rages. And we who have a passion to bring our teens to Christ are caught in that.

And again, let me give you the scope of what it is we’re facing in this question. We find this, Pope Benedict XVI address to church musicians of November ’06.

“So then dear church musicians, you would be thinking the pope would tell us that we should sing only Gregorian chant. I would say so instinctively and with great emotion.”

The scope of the challenge of what we face from John Paul, a letter to the bishops of 2003.

“In the area of music during the recent decades and also during my pontificate, I’ve witnessed a phenomenon harmful to the entire church. I’ve favored in everything the fashion for banality. Permitting a tide of bizarre noises to smother the Gregorian melodies which are prayers before they are songs. Why? Because of the simple fact that at a certain moment we were concerned more with filling the places of worship with anonymous crowds than with exerting ourselves as much as possible to fill the hearts of the faithful with the Word of God. I have permitted among other things the explosion of Gregorian chant from the Liturgy and favored instead the spread of noisy and sappy things which apart from their artistic incoherence are not capable of orienting hearts toward God.”

“And I have something to say to you, young people from all over the world whom I hold close to my heart. I think with sadness of the euphoria that has pervaded so many of our massive encounters which have been like soap bubbles that have disappeared into nothingness leaving bitter tears of burning disappointment.”

Does anybody know that? Of course you didn’t. They’re fakes, but they’re published fakes in the name of Pope Benedict and Pope John Paul. They were published on a website that’s very well known around the world, Chiesa.

And it’s published by the former director of the pontifical school of Gregorian Chant, Giacomo Baroffio. And he published them as pseudonymous, under the names of Benedict and John Paul. Though he offered them, and to the Chiesa’s websites credit, they lead into both of these as written by Giacomo.

But the secret thoughts of Joseph Ratzinger and the apology that John Paul never gave. But they’re fake. But on the website themselves they indicate they were offered by Benedict and John Paul. Now this is part of the rough and tumble of this fight over the roll of music in worship.

Folks are willing to fake quotes because they don’t hear the Pope saying what they want them to say, so they make it up. And the reason I cite these is that that last quote from John Paul, quote and quote, was given to me by east coast friend in our argument about Life Teen’s Liturgy.

And the minute I read it I thought that is not John Paul’s voice. And so I said to him cite the source because I don’t believe for a moment he wrote that. Plus earlier he used the word sappy and I just don’t think world class intellect like John Paul needed to resort to sappy.

Going to the Source

And he couldn’t cite the source. He said it was just passed on to him in an email. And in our cut and paste world, there is a lot going on in the name of our Holy Father’s in music and the Liturgy that just ain’t so. And so, we have a world of confusion out there about what is okay and what’s not okay.

And we will be able to stand toe to toe with anyone who would argue that Life Teen’s worship in the Liturgy is not appropriate by going to the sources. We have no fear of going to the sources. The real sources, not the made up sources of the Church to articulate the manner and style of worship and we will live by its principles and we do live by the high calling that worship calls us to. And so we go to the sources of the church that guide and affect the way in which we do form our worship and which this whole conference participates in.

Oh I forgot, Jesus is weighed in on this too. How can I forget the private revelation that base side of Jesus on all this. In 1989, he said, “The institution itself was said remains to be true however the cavorting” Jesus using the word cavorting, anyway, “…the cavorting and the banjoes,” I knew the minute I saw deliverance something was up with banjoes. “…and the guitars, and the musical interludes and the dancing are all created by Satan. So you are going to understand that Satan has entered now with his armies and full regalia appearing as humans. However, they are demons in disguise and they have one ultimate aim, try to destroy my Church, the Roman Catholic Church, the seat of Peter as the head.”

Curiously on this webpage in which Jesus is weighed in, right underneath this quote from Jesus is a Zenith interview with Cardinal Arinze in 2005, in which he cited and he said this, “No I do not say no guitars. That is too severe.” Apparently Jesus is not happy with Cardinal Arinze on not being severe enough, but anyway.

These are the sources, my friends, we go to and we gladly embrace. From the Second Vatican Council’s Sancrosanctum Concilium and it’s specifically chapter 6 on music in the Liturgy. Music of Sacram, in YouTube if you type that in, you’ll get a whole serious of videos of why we are just so whacked and if you are not seeing Gregorian Chant, you somehow sinning.

But that document is solid and we have no difficulty embracing it. And I would particularly recommend to all of you if you have not read it, the USCCB document Sing to the Lord on music on the Liturgy. It is a fantastic summation document of all of these magisterial sources that lead and guide us, to be able to put together fitting encounters with the Lord in Holy worship. And I’ll be drawing on those a lot for this talk. And I put them lesser because they’re papal but not magisterial in the sense.

For today’s talk I’m drawing on what’s called the Chirograph on the Centenary of the Motu Proprio ‘Tra Le Sollecitudini’ on Sacred Music which was in 2003. He’s got some beautiful things and I’ll draw some principles from that. And this has been referenced many times already. Pope Benedict has gorgeous stuff to say about the Liturgy. We embrace all of it, joyfully, gladly, and in its fullness and Spirit of the Liturgy that book he wrote long before is a piece of that.

Principles from the Sources

So let’s move to a few of the principles from the sources. The first one that I would like to speak about comes from John Paul when he spoke to the Institute of Sacred Music in 2001. “That sacred music is the beauty that invites prayer.” Simple.

It’s not unlike what Beethoven in Immortal Beloved clip we are saying. Beethoven in that clip in the movie and John Paul was saying the same thing. Music isn’t it. It sets the stage. So the question is what is it setting the stage for? And so music is the beauty that sets the stage for the encounter with the Incarnate Lord. It sets the stage for the heart, the mind, the body to be elevated into the celestial worship.

Music serves and prepares the table but it’s not the feast. It clears the room of the heart and mind that comes in so busy but doesn’t fill it with its own busyness. Sacred music is a beauty that prepares us to be able to receive the fullness of grace in the Holy Sacrifice of the Altar.

It does not replace it as worship. It does not become an end in itself and as Beauty is not self-indulgent but points to the Ethereal. Sacred music is that beauty that prepares us to pray, that opens our heart to receive the Word within us.

That God made flesh, the Triune love. That alone my friends should end the debate on a whole bunch of stuff. If we use that alone as a principle, those of us who are committed to Christ in His Holy Church should be done with the fight over what’s right in music in Liturgy.

Is it leading us to the moment of encounter with Christ? And if we’ve left worship far more engaged with the musicians and the composition than the fact we met our Lord, then yes we need some correcting. But that can happen in any style of music. It’s not the style necessarily; it’s not the musicians necessarily. It’s what we’ve done with it and how it’s been used. Does it set the plate? It is that beauty that prepares the heart for prayer.

John Paul in the Chirograph said, “sacred music must have holiness as its reference point.” Oh my gosh this one is so huge and it central to the pontificate of John Paul and the New Evangelization. Holiness is the centerpiece of everything we are about. Our missionary activity, our witness, our efforts at transforming culture. Holiness, sanctity, the saints are center to the whole thing. Without that centrifugal force of the saint at the middle of anything it has the risk of collapsing.

Thus, sacred music must have holiness at the center. And that’s not only of its intention as in that movie clip, Beethoven rightly points out, you’re going to be brought in to the mind of the composer. If it’s a march, you’re going to feel like marching. If it’s a waltz, you’re going to feel like dancing. If it’s sacred, you’re going to feel like praying. You’re going to get in to the mind of the composer which means that the composers have to have holiness at the center of their life.

Which means the musicians who are going to be interpreting this composition have to have holiness as the center of their life. The people receiving the music have to have a passion to be holy. Sacred music rises or falls in its sacred dignity on whether or not holiness is at the center. Let it be so, because if you start with a holy seed, you’ll get holy fruit. And as music serves the worship, so will it serve holiness if it starts in holiness and is brought by holiness.

John Paul also teaches sacred music must be obedient to the Logos of the Liturgy. This is not John Paul alone, this is all the papal magisteriums that have ever addressed the question of music and it is a particularly passionate for Pope Benedict. Both when he was writing as a Cardinal and now as our Holy Father.

It has to serve the Logos, the Greek word for Word, which implies many things but first of all, the second person of the Holy Trinity, the Word made Flesh. It has to serve Christ. Music must bring us to His feet and not any other. It has to serve Him and his mission and no other agenda.

If music is going to serve the Mass well, it must serve the Christ who is anointed in love for the salvation of the world. Music must meet that criteria. It must serve the Logos, the second person of the Trinity and in so doing brings us into the life of the Trinity. Music has the capacity to deliver us to the feat of the Holy Communion of Father, Son, and Spirit, if it serves Christ. If it bends humbly before Him. If the notes bend in recognition of the creator of all things.

Logos also implies the Logos of the Liturgy. The sacred word and text that are given us both from Tradition and Scripture. We cannot go in Mass into flights of our own fancy and we can’t serve other tasks that we think are more relevant. Stick to the Word. The saving Word that’s given us in the Scriptures and given us into prayer text of the Holy Mass. Music must serve the Word given and we must receive it with love and pay homage to it in our notes. It must serve the Logos.

And Logos can also imply then the reason, the Logos, the rational or the structure of the Liturgy itself, know what you are singing in the middle of the Mass. Know what you are singing when you’re in the Mass. Make it serve the moment of the Liturgy. Don’t indulge saying, “I really love this song because it’s really peppy and after Communion everybody’s tired.” That’s not the rational of the Mass. It must serve, it must be obedient, it must be Marian in its approach to her Son. Receive Him and the fullness of His Reason, His Logos, His Word.

The Question of Enculturation

And lastly as a principle from John Paul, sacred music must adapt to the legitimate demands of enculturation. And here by the way is the dividing line, the fault line, the gulf that opens up this division between otherwise like-minded Catholic Christians. The question of enculturation.

Giacomo wins in his fake documents and their arguments if John Paul’s point of enculturation is false. If Liturgy really does belong to one strain of western tradition, then we got to pack up the conference right now and go home.

But the fact of the matter is, John Paul is right and has been right with every Pope all along and is absolutely a prophetic voice for the third millennium of faith. We must bring the universal Truth of our Liturgy to bear into each hut, each marble cathedral, each home and lift them up. But with a voice and a sound that they recognize. The Liturgy must serve the heavenly Liturgy and never cheapen it. But we’ve got to be able to reach into every place on the planet that has its own beat and own heartbeat.

The question of enculturation is a non-negotiable and for us who are reaching out to teenagers, the question is absolutely predicated on this. Do teens have a culture of their own or not? If they don’t, then we really need to pack up and go home. What we’re doing is folly and Giacomo’s quote of what he wish John Paul has said that it’s all just a bubble that bursts in tears, he’s right.

There’s not one of us in this room that believes that. To the contrary, I’m a convert to it. I was one of those priests, newly ordained, classically trained. I group up in my minor seminar learning Gregorian Chant. I know the difference between a ponctus and a turcolus. Anyone else? I grew up with that. I grew up with classical music. I play organ, I play piano. I grew up playing Beethoven and Bach. I hated the Romantics until my mother died it’s a long story, and I need a couch, but anyway. Huge tangent which would be so fun but I can’t.

I was one of those that was absolutely resolved that the teens needed to grow up and then we can work on them. Let’s just hope they don’t burn anything down and then once they’ve got it out of their system, now we can be reasonable. And so when our diocesan youth minister introduced the possibility of Life Teen on our parishes and I heard the idea of a 6pm Mass with its own music. I grilled the guy. He was almost reduced to tears because I would hear none of it.

Well then I had the incredible grace to go away for doctoral studies and sit at the feet of John Paul’s teaching for two and a half years and I got it. I got what he was doing. I got what he was doing with youth.

The question of enculturation, recognizing each culture in its place and bring it to Christ. So when I came back and I thought, if I’m going to have a parish again, I’ve got to find a way to bring teens to Christ. And loe and behold, I wonder where I’ve heard that before. Oh yeah, this thing called Life Teen, 6 o’clock Mass on Sunday night.

And then the music, please. But if I got to, then I got to, whatever. So I thought I need the right youth minister, praise be Jesus Christ, I got the right youth minister so I said to Mark, teach me, we are going in. And we are going in full bore. I’m not going to put the brakes on this thing. I believe Life Teen is a sister spirit of John Paul’s new evangelization but I don’t get the music.

So he handed me a Matt Maher CD. He said listen to it. So I listened to it. I don’t get it. I mean sometimes praise and worship music strikes me as obsessive compulsive. They repeat the line over and over and over. It’s like yeah, I know, we got that. Jesus is alive, he’s alive, move on.

So I went back to Mark and said I don’t get it. He gave me another one. It’s like how many CD’s does the guy have? So I listened to another one and I said I don’t get it. Then he said well that’s okay we’re going to the conference in June and you can hear the guy live. So I was like, okay.

So came here to a 116 degree weather, first time ever, that was its own transition moment. And in our first night before we went off for Mass, Matt and the gang were playing. And I wasn’t more than 30 seconds into his first song,

In “Your Grace is Enough,” was the song. I’ll never forget it. I got it. The guys pursuing holiness and he was inviting us to pray in that room and the invitation was welcome and I put down my classical guard and I embraced it and I met the Lord Jesus.

I got it. I became a convert. It’s like, “Oh! Okay then.” And then the teens have been teaching me their culture. Life Teen has been introducing me to their culture. And like every enculturation moment, some of it’s got to be converted and some of it is absolutely hard-wired made for the Gospel lifted up.

And so John Paul’s comment here that sacred music needs to find its voice in enculturation is our pass. To do exactly what we are doing, in consort with the Church and always in obedience to Her. And so, from some of these principles of John Paul, just quickly some practical’s among the principles.

The Practical Parts of a Youth Mass

You know instruments are one of the issues in our style of worship. But we have no difficulty bringing in the electric guitar, the drums, the percussionists, the flautist — who got just a little bit during the break this morning but it was fun, the bass guitars and everybody, but they all have to be humble. Every one of them has to serve the Logos.

First Christ, then his Church, and then his Liturgy which brings us to the celestial heights of heavenly Liturgy. And among all the instruments and worship, the Church is very clear about this. The human voice is primary.

Bring in all the instruments you want but they better not drown out the voice. The human voice, the voice of prayer. Josh has made the point with you. Music ministers back off. When they get it, they get it, let them have it. Let them hear themselves be brought into the heavenly chambers. And so it must serve the voice, the human voice.

No showmanship, it has to be humble. And this is the amazing thing, and Josh made reference to this also. That when you watch true liturgical musicians, when they are having a jam session between sessions, or if it’s just a Life Night or whatever, and they’re jamming and they’re jumping, that’s great.

But watch them, watch Ike, watch Audrey, watch Matt, watch all of them, the minute we go into worship, I’m so inspired by the humility. I think, many of them if they could, they’d crawl under the stage except they know they need to lead us.

And that’s it. That’s it. And thus we need to work on an ensemble sound, there’s no show dogging it. If you’ve got a drummer who’s excessive, good for him, put him out in the garage.

The text have to be true. That is, we want to lead people in the truth of Jesus Christ, not fantasy. So they got to be orthodox and in our praise and worship, life drawing from that genre of worship music. We do have to be careful because our protestant brothers and sisters do have a different take on some of our creed and so some of the text are not appropriate. Some of them are not fitting of a Catholic Ecclesiology of who we are and where we are going and how we are going to get there. So we got to be careful but we don’t have to be snobbish.

But we just have to be careful and never trite. You know when father Rick was going through some of the words, I was thinking those should not show up in worship songs and in the text of melodies. We don’t want to be … on Christ the King, talking about him going to His Throne with lots of bling.

And in compositions and I would say just simply the execution of the compositions of sacred music, Pope Benedict really has examined this both “Spirit of the Liturgy” and then in a document where he addressed musicians in 1977, really explored this deeply.

We have to avoid the two extremes of elitism in sacred music and utilitarianism. The elitism he was talking about is classical music which has become and elitist dead end. I mean it’s only the folks who were highly trained and who have a highly trained ear. The Mozart Mass for Mass today isn’t necessarily going to serve the Liturgy well.

It’s beautiful and it still can elevate the heart and mind but it belongs now to an elite group to be able to perform well. And that doesn’t necessarily serve the Church well. But may I say I’ve met plenty of folks in the praise and worship genre who are elitist. Who will not go to the 9:00 Mass when we sing solid hymnody thinking it is boring.

Now who’s wearing the snob hat? “Faith of our Fathers” is still pretty darn solid, thank you very much. And it can lead you to the openness of prayer. So it goes both ways, but also utilitarianism it’s like okay, C major we use three notes, you should be able to get it. Okay, that’s just dumbing it down. And then the question of progressive solemnity, which I’ll talk about in a minute.

The Pipe Organ and Gregorian Chant

I got to rifle through this because I am running out of time here. But I do want to talk about the lessons from the greats, the pipe organ and the Gregorian Chants.

You cannot read the document on music, sacred music in the church without homage being paid to the growl of the pipe organ and to Gregorian chant. Absolutely true we embrace the lessons. But one of the things we learned is that both of these great instruments for worship are not argued as normative for faith.

That is unlike Giacomo’s quote or Benedict says with emotion, I say only Gregorian chant, No, and you are not going to hear that. You are not going to hear the exclusivity of the church saying these two instruments may be used for worship. You are not going to.

But you do hear and you will hear repeated over and over again that they are formative of everything else. The pipe organ as an instrument Benedict celebrated in the dedication of the new pipe organ in Regensburg when he was a pope. And it’s interesting to read that quote because he essentially says it incorporates all the sounds of creation and covers the whole range of human emotion. Look how Benedict lifts up the pipe organ as an Incarnational instrument. It takes humanity’s experience and lifts it up into ethereal dignity. That’s what he loves about the pipe organ and thus that’s how we should form our use of all instruments.

Another lesson, by the way, of the pipe organ is this. What is a pipe organ except hundreds, and in large organs, thousands of flutes? That’s what it is. Each one of those pipes is a flute stuck upside down and having bellows blow air through it. It’s a thousand or more flutes. Well, here’s the dirty little secret.

In the 3rd century, the Fathers of the Church riled against the use of flutes, alloy, in worship because it was too pagan. It was to pagan. It was too associated with the Baconalia and the Cult of Aphrodite. And it got people’s passions all together too riled up.

And so Cyril of Alexandria, Tertullian, Chrysostom, you’ll hear them rail against Christian’s use of alloy, the flutes at all the wedding feasts. It was guilt by association. What wouldn’t they be surprised to learn that in time the Church not only embraced the flute put stuck a thousand of them on a huge bellow and now lifts it up as the greatest instrument of the Church. So I’m pulling for the Kazoo, it can still come through. Never say never to instruments the church hasn’t.

John Paul, the same thing … he gives us the understanding that the pipe organ is formative for the church. We must learn from what it does in instrumentation. But it isn’t the only instrument.

And the same thing with Gregorian chant. The reason why the church embraces Gregorian chant throughout its history and unto this day is its absolute servitude to the Word, Christ and the text. When you listen to Gregorian chant, it is so one with the Word. It is the Word. It is a true Incarnation of music and word. There’s no distraction. That’s formative of all of our compositions. Benedict has said it, the documents of the Church has said it, John Paul has said it. That’s what we value.

Yes or No? More about Principles, not Rules

My time is out, I’m going to leave you then with this. Go to the USCCB document, “Sing to the Lord.” Because in the end, we’re still somewhat frustrated because, can we can’t we? Say yes or no? is this in is this out? Well, you’re not going to get a list folks and don’t beg for one. Because the Church is wiser than that.

There are three principles all of them must pass master. Each musical piece must be judged liturgically, pastorally and musically.

In so far, must it be judged liturgical? It’s what we have been saying all along. Does this serve the Mass and the moment in which we are in the Mass? And the words we are using in the Mass? Does this musical composition, does this arrangement, and does this association of instruments serve this text that we’re praying?

Pastoral judgment, John Paul’s incarnational thing. Gather and understand who you’ve got in front of you and does your music lead them into prayer? If it doesn’t then it’s not appropriate. Again, enculturation question.

And lastly the musical judgment. Essentially it’s got to be solid music. And that’s the role of experts in music. They’ve got to know what they are doing. And a lot of us in pastoral life don’t know that. That’s why we got to rely well on good sources. And the folks that teach us that these compositions are in fact solid musically. And those who have a trained ear just kind of know when something is really awful and bad.

And obey your bishop. And this isn’t just a throw away line, but because we live in such a contentious time on music and Liturgy, it is the Apostles among us who are charged in keeping us all together. And this is a very hard task for our bishops. And so you need to obey the bishop’s directives and your diocese because he’s the one charged with keeping everybody together. And so don’t make it difficult for him. And if he said okay, I don’t want drums, you know what the church teach us but he’s got a local community he needs to hold together. And maybe this particular moment in time, that became an issue and he needs to say obey it.

Life Teen knows this. That Life Teen is a true movement in the Church of the Holy Spirit only into the degree that it is obedient to Christ and his Church. And that comes to us ultimately in our local ordinaries.

So whatever you hear in the national conference, we pray here that it has been completely of the mind and heart of the Church. But when you go home, make sure that you integrate it and inculturate it into your own diocese and the bishop who has given the task of shepherding you. Nothing will be served by ignoring it.

And in the end, again, a simple quote from Pope Benedict. “It’s about love.” When we’ve got a room full of song, from Gregorian chant to praise and worship and its love that is motivated and love that is fruitful, you’ve done the right thing. And in this all through Mary, she’s the eternal hymn of the church. Her Magnificat is a song that will always s[limit]

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