In recent months I have received many questions from Liturgical Musicians as to what Instruments are appropriate for Liturgy and which are not? Some people feel that only the Organ is appropriate for the Liturgy while others feel it acceptable to use any instrument that can produce a sound.
Whenever a question like this comes up, before I answer it, I always think it is best to go to the documents of our Church instead of trying to just answer it myself. After all, the church is making its decisions on 2000 plus years of Sacred Scripture and Tradition and I’m only….well never mind, let’s just say the Church knows what it’s talking about and I’m not going to come up with a better answer.
As I was re-examining this topic in several different Liturgical Documents it’s clear that the Church holds the Organ and the human voice in high esteem. The United States Bishops Document Sing to the Lord, Music In Divine Worship says this in regards to the Human Voice:
86. Of all the sounds of which human beings, created in the image and likeness of God, are capable, voice is the most privileged and fundamental. Musical instruments in the Liturgy are best understood as an extension of and support to the primary liturgical instrument, which is the human voice.
Sing to the Lord also restates the following statement from the General Instruction of the Roman Missal (GIRM) that the Organ Holds “Pride of Place” In the Liturgy:
87. Among all other instruments which are suitable for divine worship, the organ is“accorded pride of place” because of its capacity to sustain the singing of a large gathered assembly, due to both its size and its ability to give “resonance to the fullness of human sentiments, from joy to sadness, from praise to lamentation.” Likewise, “the manifold possibilities of the organ in some way remind us of the immensity and the magnificence of God.”
It seems that sometimes people take these quotes above and use them almost use them as a weapon to state the case that no other instrument can be used besides the Organ and the human voice, but we need to look deeper into both Vatican Documents, and for those of us in the United States, we need to be obedient to what our Bishops are saying as well. As we read further in “Sing to Lord,” this statement is made in regards to the use of other instruments:
89. However, from the days when the Ark of the Covenant was accompanied in procession by cymbals, harps, lyres, and trumpets, God’s people have, in various periods, used a variety of musical instruments to sing his praise. Each of these instruments, born of the culture and the traditions of a particular people, has given voice to a wide variety of forms and styles through which Christ’s faithful continue to join their voices to his perfect song of praise upon the Cross.
90. Many other instruments also enrich the celebration of the Liturgy, such as wind, stringed, or percussion instruments “according to longstanding local usage, provided they are truly apt for sacred use or can be rendered apt.”
The Church also uses a term called “inculturation,” which is the ongoing dialogue of faith and culture which incorporates traditions from different cultures into the Liturgy. On March 29th, 1994 a Vatican Instruction was released from the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments called “Inculturation and the Roman Liturgy.” Part of this instruction refers to the use of Instruments in the Liturgy as well as gestures and postures. It states:
40…Musical forms, melodies and musical instruments could be used in divine worship as long as they “are suitable, or can be made suitable, for sacred use, and provided they are in accord with the dignity of the place of worship and truly contribute to the uplifting of the faithful.”
42. Among some peoples, singing is instinctively accompanied by hand-clapping, rhythmic swaying and dance movements on the part of the participants. Such forms of external expression can have a place in the liturgical actions of these peoples on condition that they are always the expression of true communal prayer of adoration, praise, offering and supplication, and not simply a performance.
As you can see from these important Church documents, the Church does hold music in the celebration of the Liturgy in very high esteem. The instruments we use should all support the human voice and not overpower or dominate it. We need to be sure that we take this into great consideration when choosing instruments to use and in mixing the sound in our own churches. It is also very important that our song and our gestures are not done as performance, but true worship of our God to bring glory to His name. Whichever instruments you use at liturgy, our highest goal should be the praising of our God in mind, heart and soul through our song and our gestures, not distracting from the Liturgy, but always bringing the focus to our Lord who is worthy of all of our Praise.