top of page

Sacred Music Reflections

 Musicam Sacrum 

Happy Easter!  I hope the celebration of Christ's resurrection brings true joy to your heart this Easter season!  Over the next eight to nine months, Brad Cunningham and I will begin an education series, Musicam Sacram (Sacred Music).  This series will cover an array of topics including; the qualities defining sacred music, history of the Pipe Organ, Sacred Music Myths Debunked, and the evolution of sacred music in the Catholic church.  These weekly articles will be found in the bulletin, parish newsletter eblast, social media pages, and the sacred music portion of the St. Joseph website.  We will keep all the articles archived on our website so you can always easily access them.  If you find something interesting or have a question, please do not hesitate to reach out to either one of us.  Also, if you have a topic that you would like to learn more about, please let us know and we will be happy to incorporate it into this series.  Our first topic, What Is Sacred Music?, will begin next week.  We hope that you will find these short articles informative and that they will build excitement for the sacred liturgy among our parish family. 

In the meantime, as you feel comfortable, we invite you to continue to sing during Mass.  Studies that have been coming out over the past few months have shown masked singing with social distancing measures in place is effective at mitigating the risk of spreading COVID19.  As you feel comfortable, we invite you to join in singing together as we sing God’s praises this Easter season.  St. Joseph… Pray for us!

David J. Cochrane, Director of Music

 Article 1 of 4:  What is Sacred Music? 
In the Catholic Church, sacred music is considered THE music of the church, drawing its qualities and Holiness from the Solemn Liturgy. The Second Vatican Council in the Sacred Congregation of Rites (Musicam sacram) defines Sacred music as “that which, being created for the celebration of divine worship, is endowed with a certain holy sincerity of form.” The music used during liturgical celebrations must be altar-centric, drawing the prayers of the people towards the presence of Christ in the Holy Sacrifices of the Mass. When considering the music that is to be used to accompany liturgical action, there must be present qualities of Sanctity, intrinsic beauty, universality. The musical form of sacred music must also be absent from secular music qualities.

The statements above which are derived from many church documents leave many asking, “Well, how do we know what music processes these qualities and is worthy of use in Mass?” The next few articles presented in this series strive to help identify the qualities that define true sacred music and help our parish family grasp a better understanding of how your Sacred Music team prepares for liturgical celebrations at St. Joseph.

To conclude this introductory article, I propose the following question: have you ever walked into a church or other sacred space and immediately felt the presence of Christ? What factors of the sacred architecture and art contributed to the feeling you had that the place you entered is truly sacred?

 Article 2 of 4:  What is Sacred Music?

In last week’s article, we discussed the definition of Sacred Music. The article concluded by asking you to think about the moment you entered into a sacred space caused you to immediately feel the presence of Christ. In my own experience, I can recall the first moment I walked into the Cathedral of Christ the Savior in Moscow, Russia. When I was doing my undergraduate degree, I had the opportunity to study in Moscow. The first time I walked into this beautiful Cathedral in which the Divine Liturgy was being celebrated is still a memory I recall often. The deacon, priests, and bishop were all at the altar singing the chants of the Russian Orthodox Liturgy. The choir, in the balcony, not visible to the worshiping body responded with beautiful polyphony in dialogue with the celebrant. My Russian friends immediately stopped, made the sign of the cross, and maintained a high level of reverence. The sanctity of the iconography, sacred art, architecture, liturgical furniture, and sacred music immediately commanded the reverence and respect worthy of divine worship. Have you had a similar experience?

On September 29th, 2019, Pope Francis addressed the St. Cecilia Association, the 140-year-old sacred music association of the Catholic Church in Italy. In his address, Pope Francis reminded them that Pope Paul VI “wanted you to be renewed and active for a music that is integrated with the liturgy and draws its fundamental characteristics from it. Not just any music, but a holy music, because the rites are holy; adorned with nobility of art, because for God we must give the best; universal, so that everyone can understand and celebrate.” Pope Francis goes on to say that the music of the church “should be well distinct and different from the music used for other purposes.” Pope Francis in this speech again is reminding sacred music professionals of Italy that the music of the church is distinct, its music sounds Holy, and must be easily distinguished as music that is created from liturgy and not secular cultural 



 Article 3 of 4:  What is Sacred Music?

In the last two articles, we have discussed the definition and introduced qualities of sacred music. Often, in church documents, you will find three main qualities that are used to define sacred music: sanctity, intrinsic beauty, and universality. These three qualities, as expressed by Pope Pius X, have been quoted by popes, including Pope John Paul II and Benedict XVI, along with many other Bishops— recently by Archbishop Sample in his Pastoral Letter on Sacred Music in Divine Worship. As mentioned in previous articles, Sacred Music must possess qualities of Sanctity, which the Second Vatican Council defines as “[Music] considered the more holy in proportion as it is more closely connected with the liturgical action, whether it adds delight to prayer, fosters unity of minds, or confers greater solemnity upon the sacred rites (SC 112).”

Pope Pius X’s second quality of Sacred Music is Intrinsic Beauty. When we see sacred art we can easily identify artwork that is intrinsically beautiful. Archbishop Sample, in his Pastoral Letter on Sacred Music, quotes Pope Benedict XVI’s Address to priests at the Cathedral of Notre Dame, Paris, 13 September 2008 in which Benedict the XVI states, “Certainly, the beauty of our celebrations can never be sufficiently cultivated, fostered and refined, for nothing can be too beautiful for God, Who is Himself infinite Beauty. Yet our earthly liturgies will never be more than a pale reflection of the liturgy celebrated in the Jerusalem on high, the goal of our pilgrimage on earth. May our own celebrations nonetheless resemble that liturgy as closely as possible and grant us a foretaste of it!” Sacred Music must be true and authentic art that through its richness and beautify resembles the beauty of the liturgy. Pope Francis stated, “Liturgical and sacred music can be a powerful instrument of evangelization because it gives people a glimpse of the beauty of heaven.”

Next week we will cover the last quality of Sacred Music given to us by Pope Pius X, Universality. Stay tuned!

 Article 4 of 4:  What is Sacred Music?

Today’s article will discuss Universality which is one of the defining characteristics of the Catholic Church. We are a Universal Church, therefore, no matter where in the world you attend a liturgical celebration the music should be easily recognized as having a sacred character. Holiness is a principle that transcends all cultures.

Those of you who know me personally know I was born and raised in Scranton, Pennsylvania to an Italian and Irish Catholic family. A “cradle Catholic” some would say. The first time I attended Mass as a student at the Catholic Cathedral of the Blessed Virgin Mary in Moscow I walked into Mass having little Russian proficiency and was nervous about the language barrier. As the packed Mass began, celebrated in the vernacular (Russian), my stress was immediately relieved by the consistency of the Mass. I did not understand a word of Russian, however, I left Mass with a soul that was enriched by the presence of the Eucharist. It was at that moment I realized that ANYWHERE I traveled in the world the one thing that is always constant is the

Universal church. The universality of the sacred liturgy is what UNITES the Church’s faithful.


Although the Russian Orthodox Church has a rich canon of sacred music, the orthodox sacred was absent from the Mass in Moscow. The order of the Mass, the chants, the ordinaries, and choral repertoire were all familiar to me. It sounded Holy and Sacred. Pope St. Pius the X said, “While every nation is permitted to admit into its ecclesiastical compositions...these forms must be subordinate in such a manner to the general character of sacred music, that nobody of any nation may receive an impression other than good on hearing them.” No matter where we go in the entire world the music of the church must be Holy, it must be derived from liturgy with intrinsic beauty. It must sound sacred and be different from the music of secular culture. It must be truly Universal.


 Evolution of Sacred Music: Early Church through the Middle Ages 

The evolution of music is intimately connected with the history of liturgy. Through the middle ages, music that was sung during worship and religious songs is all that is known. The earliest music dates back to the first century when Christians continued the traditions of the Jewish synagogues by singing Psalms. These songs were monophonic (containing only one melody line) and would be sung in groups and passed down orally through the generations. Leading up to the development of Gregorian Chant in the 9th century, cantors began to sing parts of the psalms adding melismas and longer embellishments to the melody line. As the chants continued to evolve in the Roman church they became increasingly more complex for the worshiping body to sing. It became a common practice that the cantor would sing the verse while the congregation responded with the antiphon or refrain. Antiphonal singing (singing in dialogue) is still how we sing psalms today. Outside of Lent, the cantor sings the verses of the psalms and the congregation responds with the refrain.

Although Pope Gregory I is credited with attempting to bring some order and uniformity to the music of the Roman church, scholars believe Gregorian chant was developed later, in the 8th and 9th century, as a juxtaposition of Roman chant and Gallican chant. As notation emerges in the 9th century, the music begins to be spread more easily and new melodies are developed. Earliest notation was small squiggly lines, attributed to Anglo-Saxon monks, notated above the sacred text giving some guidance on duration and direction of notes (almost like little arrows). 


Over the next three-plus centuries, the notations continued to develop and evolve into four-line notation with neumes (the type of notation used in today’s Gregorian Chant). By the year 1000, the neumes started to give more concrete ideas on the rhythms and pitch of the given chant.

 Evolution of Sacred Music: Harmonies Emerge 

During the eighth century, all-male choirs began to add young boys to the chant choirs. The addition of the boys singing the same melody added a higher pitch, as boy voices are an octave (8 notes; Unison) above adult men. This opened the door for other notes and voices to be added. They began to experiment with adding more voices singing the chant on separate pitches, usually five or four notes higher than the melody. This technique was called organum which was given its title because the technique of singing in parallel motion sounded like an organ. Click Here or type “1. Music of the Middle Ages; Early Organum” into a YouTube search to listen to an example. By the ninth century, composers began to experiment with various combinations of notes within the eight-note octave.  Kassia of Constantinople was the first known female composer whose music began to use a chant melody combined with two other pitches. One pitch would move in parallel motion to the melody and the second pitch would stay on one note only and not change. Click Here or type “Kassia Byzantine hymns of the first female composer of the Occident” into YouTube to hear an example of Kassia’s music. The Organum techniques were the first experiments with multiple notes being heard at the same time, a technique known as harmony today.


 Evolution of Sacred Music: Harmony and Polyphony 

The exploration of harmony and the emergence of polyphony is known as a ‘transitional’ time in sacred music. Polyphony, or a compositional style where multiple melody lines are being sung at one time in harmony with each other, is most commonly associated with the Renaissance period of music (1400-1600). However, the earliest exploration of polyphony is credited to the Notre-Dame school of polyphony--directly referring to a group of composers working at the Notre-Dame Cathedral in Paris between 1160-1250.  Of those composers, the most well-known is Léonin, who is attributed with developing rhythmic modes and notational patterns that allowed for written music to communicate concrete timing (or rhythm). Léonin’s compositional techniques pushed the boundaries and expanded on organum techniques that were discussed in my previous article, “Evolution of Sacred Music: Harmonies Emerge” found on the St. Joseph Sacred music website (CLICK HERE to access).  With the ability to notate duration of chant melodies, the door was open for composers to write music for multiple singers to sing separate melodic lines at the same time making beautiful harmonies. Léonin is considered to be the father of the music for four voices. To hear what the music during liturgy may have sounded like in the 12th century, CLICK HERE or type “Leonin- Messe du Jour de Noel (Ensemble Organum)'' into YouTube. 

 Evolution of Sacred Music: Music of the Renaissance (1400-1600) 

The transition from the compositional styles of the Middle Ages to the Renaissance was directly influenced by the church. Because music was a central part of liturgy, the most famous composers during the Renaissance were employed by the church and were mass-producing music for liturgy. Guillaume Dufay (1397-1474) and other composers developed the signature style of the Renaissance period. These composers focused on using polyphony (see last week's article “Evolution of Sacred Music: Harmony and Polyphony” found on our website) to express the emotion of the text.

You might ask, “How do you do that?” Although the answer is complex, one example of this strategy is called Text painting. Text painting uses the shape of the melody to illustrate what’s being explained in the text. For example, we just celebrated ascension Sunday two weeks ago. It would be common to hear melody lines that ascend quickly to imitate the ascension of Jesus in the music. On the other hand, music for Good Friday would see descending lines and slower rhythms. Composers continued to develop new compositional techniques and embellish those of the past. Often the original Gregorian chant was used as a basis and was imitated and expanded in their new compositions.

As new techniques continued to develop so did the different types of choral music. One very common type of piece is the motet which is a short composition of sacred text that is not tied to a specific liturgy. For example, Palestrina (arguably the music well-known composer of the Renaissance) wrote his most famous motet Sicut cervus which the Schola cantorum at St. Joseph sings often. To hear this compositional style, CLICK HERE or type “Palestrina Westminster Cathedral Choir- Sicut Cervus” into YouTube. Sicut cervus is a sacred setting of Psalm 42 which can be used often throughout the liturgical calendar. 

Another form was the setting of the Mass. Composers wrote hundreds of settings of the Mass ordinaries sometimes even for use in a specific liturgy (i.e. an ordination, or a funeral, etc.). Ordinaries are the texts that are constant in Mass each week (i.e. Kyrie, Gloria, Sanctus, Agnus Dei, etc..). In the Renaissance these settings of the Mass became increasingly elaborate, complex, and quite controversial. Palestrina’s Pope Marcellus Mass is a very well-known setting that shows the peak of Renaissance Mass settings. Click Here or type “Missa Papae Marcelli: Gloria” into YouTube to listen. St. Joseph… Pray for us! David J. Cochrane, director of sacred music 

  Musicam Sacrum  

On behalf of the Sacred Music Office, we would like to thank you for reading and following our Musicam Sacram articles! Last week we discussed the evolution of sacred music in the Renaissance. Next week we will continue the discussion on how the music of the Renaissance became increasingly more complex and controversial. 


If you would like to find any of our previous articles, please visit the sacred music portion of the St. Joseph website at and click “Sacred Music Reflections.” 


If you have any questions about any of the sacred music articles or would like to ask us about a specific topic that interests you, please feel free to reach out to us at (David Cochrane) or (Brad Cunningham). Thanks for your support of Sacred Music at St. Joseph!

 Evolution of Sacred Music: Music of the Renaissance (1400-1600) 

As we’ve moved through the Renaissance, we’ve discovered that sacred polyphony was becoming increasingly complex and controversial. By the early 16th century, the Reformation – led by Martin Luther – had begun. Luther was a musician himself and began to publish spiritual songs, hymns, and motets. These publications launched the canon of music composed for the Lutheran church and generally changed the role of music in church. Luther’s hymns (chorales) were simple and consisted of texts focusing on teaching the Gospel to worshipers.


During the Catholic Church’s counter-reformation (the Council of Trent), polyphony remained controversial. The Council, challenged by what Luther had set out to do, determined that the clarity of text to the worshipers should be central to how composers set text to music. They remained focused on the worship and sanctity of sacred liturgy.


It is said that Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina (considered to be the most influential musical figure in the Catholic Church) was the composer who helped the council understand how polyphony was highly suitable for liturgy and how it could be composed in a manner that accompanied liturgical action with sanctity and intrinsic beauty. While the Council debated intelligibility of text, Palestrina composed his famous Missa papae Marcelli (Mass for Pope Marcellus).  It was then performed for the Council and it is said that the piece received such a welcoming response that Palestrina’s compositions would become a model of sacred music for the Catholic Church. While we do not know if the Missa papae Marcelli was actually composed to demonstrate the worthiness of polyphony to the council, we do know Palestrina served as a counselor to Pope Pius IV on sacred music and was an influential composer, setting the standard for generations of sacred music composition.

Type “ Sistine Chapel Choir, Massimo Palombella - Palestrina: Missa Papae Marcelli, Kyrie”  or CLICK HERE to listen to Palestrina’s Mass for Pope Marcellus.

 Evolution of Sacred Music: Baroque 

The religious divide in Europe, which resulted from the challenges brought about by Luther’s reformation, left north Europe practicing mostly under the Lutheran tradition, while the south remained largely Catholic. One of the most significant sources of division was the use of the vernacular during church services. The Lutheran church used the local language during church services, whereas the Catholic church continued to use Latin. If you study the music of notable composers from the late Renaissance and Baroque periods, you will notice that some composed sacred music in German—such as J.S. Bach—while others, such as Monteverdi, Gabrieli, and Allegri, composed in Latin.

The Protestant church continued to focus on the congregation participating in religious services. The Lutheran chorales, with simple melodies and a verse structure, borrowed from popular music of that time. These chorales continued to be used to develop a culture of congregational hymn singing during services. Over the years, the Catholic church adopted some of these traditions. Following the Second Vatican Council, multiple hymns are sung during the liturgy. In the order of worship at St. Joseph each week, the hymn tune is always written in all capital letters at the top right side of the hymn. You may notice that the titles of the hymn tunes are often German—these were composed for hymn singing that originated in the Lutheran church. Today’s entrance hymn, SALZBURG, is an example of a German hymn tune. Although the text has changed the melodies often can be traced back to a Lutheran chorale.

The year 1610 roughly defines the end of the Renaissance period and the beginning of the Baroque period, in terms of musical compositions. Claudio Monteverdi’s L'Orfeo, the first staged opera, was performed in 1610. Monteverdi, who was a Catholic Priest, composed both secular and sacred music. Monteverdi’s compositions prior to L’Orfeo explored the use of instruments to accompany singers, thus allowing a soloist to sing alone with the harmonies being played by an instrument. 

 Evolution of Sacred Music: 17th Century 

The early 17th century saw a boom in new genres of musical compositions due to the possibilities created by the addition of instrumental accompaniment. As discussed in the previous article, Monteverdi’s Opera L’Orfeo is one of the compositions that opened the doors for the new style of composition with dramatic expression and staged productions. The soloist lines were more virtuosic allowing the emotion of the text to be expressed through the music. The use of instruments to accompany choirs and soloists also allowed for a quasi-theatrical expression of religious texts. Composers began writing bigger concertos, which are larger works with soloists, chorus, andinstruments, that used dramatic and powerful musical expression to convey the church’s message.


Although new styles of music were being introduced, the Catholic church did not abandon the music of the Renaissance. The priests and bishops continued to define polyphony as the supreme model for sacred music, especially the music of Palestrina. Sacred polyphony and chant continued to be used as the standard accompaniment of liturgical action. Composers in the early 17th century were taught how to write music in both the stile antico (“old style” renaissance polyphony) and in the stile moderno (“modern style”).


It was common for composers, such as Monteverdi, to use both styles in one composition. Monteverdi often

composed his works in a format that alternated between soloists, duets, chorus, and instrumental interludes, combining compositional styles of both the old and new styles. An example of a composition that combines both the old and new styles is Monteverdi's Beatus Vir, which was composed around 1630. The piece, considered a concertato, is a setting of Psalm 112 that combines small choirs and soloists with full chorus passages accompanied by organ, basso continuo and two violins. Listen to Beatus Vir here  or type “Claudio Monteverdi Motet Beatus vir 6 parts” into YouTube. More next week!

 Evolution of Sacred Music: 17th Century (continued...) 

In the mid-to-late 17th century the sacred concerto, driven by the addition of instrumental accompaniment, continued to develop. Composers like Monteverdi and Giovanni Gabrieli in Italy, Marc-Antoine Charpentier in France, and Heinrich Schütz in Germany all wrote larger-scale works. These sacred concertos, religious in nature but not always written for use in sacred liturgy, adopted theatrical elements of opera. Composers combined instrumental accompaniment by a small instrumental ensemble (organ, cello, or harpsichord) with solo singers and small choral ensembles. These sacred concertos could be texts from psalms, vespers, prayers, Masses, biblical stories, etc., and could be divided into many different parts, which are called movements.


Orazio Benevoli (1605-1672) was a key composer in 17th-century Catholic sacred music. He wrote many sacred concertos in Italy and much of his music was written for St. Peter’s in Rome during the 17th century. Other composers like Lodovico Viadana (1560-1627) wrote shorter works that were often used in Catholic Cathedrals in Italy. Here at St. Joseph, our Schola cantorum sings Viadana’s music. Type “Lodovico da Viadana Exsultate justi” to hear a work of Viadana that you might hear during liturgies at St. Joseph!


During the same time in France, Marc-Antoine Charpentier was one of the most prolific composers of both sacred and secular music working for Louis XIV. Charpentier wrote both large and smaller sacred works that combine elements of polyphony, solo singing, and the new techniques of the Baroque. One of his most well-

known works is his Midnight Mass for Christmas. To listen, type “Marc-Antoine Charpentier Messe de minuit H.9, Marc Minkowski” into YouTube. More next week!

 Historical Context of Sacred Music: Baroque Oratorio and the end of the Baroque Period 

During the 17th Century in Italy there was a long tradition of religious music being performed outside of liturgy. In Rome there was a new genre of dramatic settings of religious texts and stories in the mid-1600s called the oratorio. The term oratorio, which means “prayer hall,” refers to a type of worship where lay people meet to hear sermons, pray, and sing devotional songs1. An oratorio was the religious version of Baroque opera. The most common themes found in opera were love or stories from Greek mythology, whereas oratorios were dramatic settings of religious texts and biblical stories. The format of an oratorio was the same as opera including recitatives, arias, duets, and instrumental interludes to accompany the drama of the text. Oratorios included a Baroque orchestra (flutes, oboes, bassons, strings, organ, lute, harpsichord, trumpets, and timpani), soloists, and double choruses singing on opposite sides of the room in dialogue with each other. While the composition style is similar, oratorios were rarely, if ever, staged. The action instead was described by a narrator instead of acted out.


One of the best examples of an oratorio is a setting of the Passion text. The most famous of the Baroque passion oratorios would be those of Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750). J. S. Bach is arguably the most influential composer of western music. His compositional output included organ works, concertos, oratorios, and his innovative instrumental music. Bach’s death in 1750 is thought of as the official end of the Baroque period, as his instrumental writing gave way to a completely new compositional style that is expanded on by classical composers of the late 18th century, such as Mozart and Haydn.

Bach’s settings of the Passion text are hailed as some of the most influential oratorios. The works were written for dramatic performance - they can be up to three hours long! In his settings, soloists play the roles of the narrator, Jesus, or others. The choir sings the parts of the crowd and also reflective texts that allow for moments of contemplation and prayer. To hear a recording of Bach’s St. Matthew Passion, Click Here or type “Bach - St Matthew Passion BWV 244 - Van Veldhoven | Netherlands Bach Society” into YouTube.

1 Burkholder, J. P., & Palisca, C. V. (2006). Norton anthology of Western music. W. W. Norton.

 Historical Context of Sacred Music: 18th and 19th Centuries 

By the mid-eighteenth century sacred music was being heavily influenced by secular forms, mainly opera. In this new era, compositions were composed for secular concert venues and not for the church. Composers like Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756-1791) and Franz Joseph Haydn (1732-1809) set many sacred texts in grand, operatic forms. For example, Mozart’s Great Mass in C Minor is composed for a full orchestra (strings, woodwinds, brass), soloists, and choir. The Mass is approximately one hour long and it would be very hard to find space for all these musicians in your local church gallery! Although sacred in nature, the musical settings of the Mass texts composed by classical and romantic composers focused more on the power and emotion of the text and less on the practical use for liturgy. Click here to listen to the Mozart Mass or type “Mozart: Great Mass in C minor, K. 427 - Radio Philharmonic Orchestra - Live Concert HD” into YouTube.

This pattern of huge operatic settings of sacred texts continued into the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Another trend of composing extremely grand Requiem Masses like those of Giuseppe Verdi (1813-1901) and Hector Berlioz (1803-1869) developed during this time. Hector Berlioz’s Requiem is one of the largest works ever composed. It utilizes a gigantic orchestra, multiple timpani, and several brass ensembles spread out throughout the concert hall. In his writings, Berlioz described the size of the choir to include numbers even as high as 1200 singers! Obviously, these works were not composed for your usual Sunday morning Mass. Take a listen to Berlioz’s Tuba Mirum, a movement in his Requiem, which is considered to be one of the loudest pieces of music ever composed (Type “Requiem de Berlioz, extrait Tuba” into YouTube).

While the compositional focus was on staged performances for the concert halls, there were some composers like Anton Bruckner (1824-1896) who wrote smaller forms of sacred music that could be used during liturgies. Other priests, bishops, and some composers worked to revive the use of Gregorian chant and the music of composers like Palestrina. These notions of bringing back the older styles of music that were more practical and more suitable for liturgy arguably foreshadowed the larger liturgical movement coming in the Second Vatican Council. More next week.

 Evolution of Sacred Music: Second Vatican Council 

In the mid-twentieth Century Pope Saint John XXIII surprised the Catholic community around the world by calling together the Second Vatican Council which had its first session in October of 1962. The goals Pope Saint John XXIII outlined for the Council were to address the needs of the Catholic Church in the modern world and to unite Christians around the world. Pope Saint John XXIII, with the assistance of the Curia (Vatican officials who assist the pope), prepared a set of documents for the council. The Bishops from around the world met and worked in committees to study, revise, and amend these documents creating a new vision for the Catholic Church. The work of the council continued under Pope Paul VI and was completed in December of 1965.


The Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy, Sacrosanctum Concilium (1963), was the first document completed. The document called for the full and active participation in liturgical celebrations by the faithful. Pope Saint John Paul II explained in 1998, “Active participation certainly means that, in gesture, word, song, and service, all the members of the community take part in an act of worship, which is anything but inert or passive.” The Council also permitted the use of the vernacular in some parts of the Mass including; the general intercessions, readings, etc. The use of the vernacular allowed for the faithful gathered to participate more fully in the liturgy. The use of Latin, however, was to be retained. “Steps should be taken so that the faithful may also be able to say or to sing together in Latin those parts of the Ordinary of the Mass which pertain to them (54).” Gregorian Chant was to have “Pride and Place” in the liturgy and was defined as “Specially suited to the Roman Liturgy.” New music used in liturgy today acknowledges that the Fathers of the Second Vatican Council defined chant as the first model of sacred music. More next week!


 Evolution of Sacred Music: Sacred Music Today 
Since the Second Vatican Council published Sacrosanctum Concilium (Constitution on The Sacred Liturgy) in 1963, there has been much discussion and research among scholars and clergy aimed at setting the standard for sacred music in a post- Vatican II era. The council specifies “..there must be no innovations unless the good of the Church genuinely and certainly requires them; and care must be taken that any new forms adopted should in some way grow organically from forms already existing.” In practical application of Sacrosanctum Concilium the sacred liturgy is to remain consistent and not adopt changes that are not in accord with the history of the Church. Sacred Music's primary function is to accompany liturgical action and it must do so with intrinsic beauty and sanctity. Pope Benedict XVI stated, “The People of God assembled for the liturgy sing the praises of God. In the course of her two-thousand-year history, the Church has created, and still creates, music and songs which represent a rich patrimony of faith and love. This heritage must not be lost.” The rich history of Gregorian chant, polyphony, and the evolution of sacred music present us with a perfect model for sacred music.


Here at St. Joseph, we should be proud of our liturgical celebrations. The celebration of sacred liturgy in the vernacular is accompanied by the worshiping body singing hymns together in praise, cantors singing the sacred chants, the Schola cantorum (choir) employing historical polyophy of the church, and our congregation singing some Latin hymns! All of these elements are what is asked of us by the Church!

Over the next few weeks we will begin our next series “Sacred Music Myths: Debunked.” The goal of this next series is to address some of the common questions—or in some cases misunderstandings—of sacred music. I hope I can shed some light on some of these interesting topics.

 "Sacred Music Myths Debunked #1:  The Parish's Music Director likes a certain type of music. That is all (s)he picks.  

The matter of “taste” in relation to Sacred Music is an important discussion to have! It is common – and even normal – to have subjective taste in regard to music in popular culture. For example, I personally love electronic music but do not enjoy country music. However, the same preferences often creep into the church regarding sacred music. Sacred music is often reduced to the musical styles of a particular group or personal taste as if there are no objective principles to follow.


Archbishop Sample, in his pastoral letter on sacred music, said this when discussing taste and preference:

“A Gloria for Mass set to a Polka beat or in the style of rock music is not sacred music.  Why not?  Because such styles of music, as delightful as they might be for the dance hall or a concert, do not possess all three of the intrinsic qualities of sanctity, artistic goodness (beauty), and universality proper to sacred music. While Catholics rightly expect genuine sacred music in all its forms to have spiritual and emotional impact, there is a necessary divide between that and what generally we call entertainment.”


In SACROSANCTUM CONCILIUM the council wrote, “The Church acknowledges Gregorian chant as specially suited to the Roman liturgy: therefore, other things being equal, it should be given pride of place in liturgical services. But other kinds of sacred music, especially polyphony, are by no means excluded from liturgical celebrations, so long as they accord with the spirit of the liturgical action.” The sacred music of the church must be in accord with the first model, Gregorian Chant, in which all other sacred music should be created and performed. The church calls us to put aside our personal “taste” and select music for liturgy that is derived from the rich history of liturgical celebration. Musicians do not plan music for liturgies; they prepare to celebrate liturgy with music that is given to us by the church and is most appropriate for use in the sacred liturgy.

 Sacred Music Myths Debunked #2: Music is supposed to make me feel good at Mass  

Music is one of the many art forms that has a profound emotional impact on the listener. Many of us have playlists of music we listen to and often the playlist we choose is a reflection of how we feel or our current emotions. However, sacred music serves a greater purpose in accompanying liturgical action, bringing us beyond our own personal emotions to a transcendent experience of the divine. Sacred music is an integral

part of liturgy that is necessary to help us see beyond our personal interests to the Heavenly Kingdom.


In season one, episode two of Square Notes: The Sacred Music Podcast, Dr. Jenniffer Donelson interviewed a young couple, Mr. and Mrs. Hernandez, who shared their conversion story to Catholicism after attending Mass at the Oxford Oratory in the United Kingdom. The young couple describe their experience as the first time they realized “..everything that was happening [in Holy Mass] was true. I was seeing the truth in the sacred liturgy that I have always learned about.” Mrs. Hernandez goes on to describe the sacred music by saying, “It felt like a piece of Heaven on earth. The polyphony choir was singing from the choir loft. You cannot see the singers, it is not a show, not a band presenting a musical performance for you but the music is coming from behind you so you can focus on the liturgy. It really felt like there were no human voices behind

us... it sounded like angels were singing from on high.”


Fr. Christopher Smith, a Priest of our diocese wrote, “All Liturgy is essentially a revelation of God to us. If the music at Mass reveals more about what we like and what makes us happy, it is doing us a disservice. If it brings us to true prayer and helps us contemplate the beauty of God’s holiness and love, it can reveal God to us in amazing ways” (The Catholic Miscellany, April 2009). Sacred Music in liturgical celebrations has a much greater role than helping the worshiping body feel good. We must focus our attention away from our earthly desires and on the truth and presence of Christ in the Sacred Liturgy. All music used in liturgy must be used in the light of the heavenly hosts descending on the faithful.

 Sacred Music Myths Debunked #3:  The Second Vatican Council put an end to the use of Gregorian Chant  

Music has been part of Christian worship since the earliest days of the church. “Since the psalms, part of Sacred Scripture, were meant to be sung, music was seen, ultimately, to be part of the very integrity of the Word of God. Furthermore, since Christian worship was moored to the Sacred Scriptures, music was seen as necessarily worthy of being preserved and fostered in the public worship of the Church” (Sample, “Sing to the Lord a New Song”).

Throughout the centuries, sacred music has been defined as an integral part of the sacred liturgy—not merely a nice add-on. Gregorian Chant is the earliest form of sacred music that we know today and the church directs us to use Gregorian chant as the “supreme model” of music for our liturgical celebrations.

When The Second Vatican Council published Sacrosanctum Concilium in 1963, the instructions read: “The Church acknowledges Gregorian chant as specially suited to the Roman liturgy: therefore, other things being equal, it should be given pride of place (principem locum obtineat) in liturgical services..”. Pope John Paul II also quoted Pope Pius X in saying, “The more closely a composition for church approaches in its movement, inspiration and savor the Gregorian form, the more sacred and liturgical it becomes; and the more out of harmony it is with that supreme model, the less worthy it is of the temple.”

We must acknowledge that, throughout the centuries, the shepherds of the church have written that Gregorian Chant IS the music we inherit from the ancient church. Chant is not a style of music, but is rather the music of the Mass itself. The Second Vatican Council did not move away from this teaching. The council reaffirms this and tells us that all music used in sacred liturgy must be created and sung through a lens that uses Gregorian Chant as the most authentic model for appropriate characteristics of sacred music.

 Sacred Music Myths Debunked #4:  The choir/cantor is present in Mass to lead the congregation in Song.  

The question “Who is the song leader?” is probably one of the most contentious debates in regards to sacred music. For a detailed answer to this question I invite you to read Richard J. Clark’s article “So, Who Is the ‘Leader of Song’ Anyway?” which we have posted on the St. Joseph Sacred Music website or by Clicking Here. Regarded as one of the leading scholars in Catholic sacred music in the United States, Mr. Clark serves as the Director of Music of the Archdiocese of Boston and the Cathedral of the Holy Cross. I have chosen a few excerpts from his article and included them below in an effort to shed some light on who the true ‘song leader’ is during Holy Mass.


“The role of cantor as ‘leader of song’ will be relegated to history as a late 20th Century Roman Catholic invention. Attend any Protestant service with a strong tradition of hymnody, and the concept of someone standing in the front of the church (amplified by a microphone, and sometimes waving their arms no less) is both foreign and highly unnecessary. In fact, the concept is downright silly (Clark, CC Watershed).”


The US Conference of Catholic Bishops’ 2007 Document Sing to the Lord: Music in Divine Worship states, “When the choir [schola] is not exercising its particular role, (see no. 30.) it joins the congregation in song. The choir’s role in this case is not to lead congregational singing, but to sing with the congregation, which sings on its own or under the leadership of the organ or other instruments.”


So what does this all mean? If you guessed “the Congregation is the song leader” you are correct! YOU are the St. Joseph choir! This might lead you to ask “Well, what about the organ?” The organ is the glue that keeps the congregation together. Use of the organ allows the congregation and the organist to work together to make a heavenly ensemble with the congregation as the leader! So SING OUT! Make a joyful noise! Let us lift our voices as one to the Glory of God!

St. Joseph... Pray for us!
David J. Cochrane, Director of Sacred Music


Please check out other resources below:

So, Who Is the “Leader of Song” Anyway?

Richard J. Clark

Sing to the LORD a New Song

Archbishop Alexander K. Sample

An Archbishop’s Reflections on Sacred Music 

Archbishop Alexander K. Sample 

Beauty and Catholic Culture: a Story of Conversion

Vida and Josh Hernandez:

Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy

Promulgated by his holiness Pope Paul VI, Dec. 4, 1963

Sing to the Lord: Music in Divine Worship

Sing to the Lord: Music in Divine Worship, guidelines approved by the bishops of the United States in 2007, recalls this vast, rich musical tradition as it provides basic guidelines for understanding the role and ministry of music in the liturgy.


bottom of page