top of page

What Happens to Organ Music During Advent and Lent?


No pope before or since Pope Pius X addressed issues related to music in the liturgy more than Pope Pius X (1903-1914). As Cardinal Sarto, he had been advocating reform related to music in liturgy. Thus, within a few short months of his becoming the leader of the Catholic Church he was in a position to issue a motu proprio. In Catholic canon law, motu proprio refers to a document issued by the pope on his own initiative and personally signed by him. In general, the document was a push-back on the encroachment of secular music styles into the liturgy, calling for chant to take its rightful place in the liturgy, and for choirs, music directors, and organists to return to a sacred music style.

The motu proprio did not arise suddenly. Reform had already been spreading of its own initiative. The battle over which texts and chants were the purest had already been won by the 1890s with the Benedictine monks of the Solesmes Abbey winning the day. Alexander Guilmant, Vincent d’Indy, and Charles Bordes had founded Schola Cantorum de Paris in 1894 with an emphasis on Gregorian chant and training of organists to reject the secular popular music styles that had been dominating parish churches following the Napoleonic Revolution.

To kick off this reform, Cardinal Pietro Vicario, prefect of the Congregation of Sacred Rites, prepared a circular letter dated 29 December 1903... “We have every assurance that the Reverend Pastors, the Rectors of churches, and the Reverend Superiors of seminaries, colleges, and other institutions of learning, and all the secular and regular clergy, and the musical directors and church singers will, by their good will and cooperation help us, material towards the attainment of the above objectives. This will obviate any need of our having to resort to any disciplinary measures.”

A further clarification was made specifically for the province of Rome with a document issued on 2 February 1912. Pius X wanted to make sure that the performance of all music in Rome should conform to the legislation of the Church in order that the religious and diocesan clergy trained there would return to their own countries with the knowledge they gained in Rome. The document issued by the vicar of Rome, Cardinal Pietro Respighi, gave explicit directions for the performance of ecclesiastical functions and ceremonies. Included in this document was a Rules for Choirmasters, Organists and Choristers section.

Paragraph 26 of Special Regulations reads, “On the Ferias and Sundays of Advent and Lent, except Gaudete and Laetare Sunday, no instrument whatever must be played even simply as an accompaniment to the voices.” In the very next sentence, in what might appear to be a direct contradiction we read, “Yet a discreet accompaniment is allowed if solely to sustain the voices, and this only when Gregorian chant is sung and in case of real necessity acknowledged by us.”

Perhaps these two statements appear to the modern American mind to be in direct opposition to one another. Or, perhaps the sum of the paragraph written by an early 20th century Italian cardinal is that the Sundays of Advent and Lent should be different, set apart from all other Sundays in order to bring to the minds of the people that these are seasons of preparation and introspection. The taking away of organ or instrumental music or drastically reducing their normal function during Advent sends a signal. Also, it makes anticipation of Christmas Eve and Christmas Day all the more intense, creating a sense of mystery and awe.

MUSICAM SACRAM Congregation for Divine Worship


Sacred Congregation of Rites

5 March 1967

After a paragraph related to which instruments can or cannot be used in liturgy, we read in paragraph 65… ““In sung or said Masses, the organ, or other instrument legitimately admitted, can be used to accompany the singing of the choir and the people; it can also be played solo at the beginning before the priest reaches the altar, at the Offertory, at the Communion, and at the end of Mass. The same rule, with the necessary adaptations, can be applied to other sacred celebrations.

Then in paragraph 66, “The playing of these same instruments as solos is not permitted in Advent, Lent, during the Sacred Triduum and in the Offices and Masses of the Dead.

Clearly, the reforming Church following Vatican II (1967 document above) understood the spiritual intent for withdrawing organ solo music during Advent excepting Gaudete Sunday.


From the Vatican English translation of GIRM with Adaptations for the Dioceses of the United States of America, we read under The Place for the Choir and the Musical Instruments…

“In Advent the organ and other musical instruments should be used with a moderation that is consistent with the season’s character and does not anticipate the full joy of the Nativity of the Lord.” Neither the motu proprio of 1903 nor the 1967 Instruction on Ministry in the Liturgy have been rescinded, but in the GIRM we have an exception for American, England, and Wales cultures.

Fifty three years after Vatican II we have suffered from allowing secular music styles into our liturgy. In too many parish churches it is impossible to tell the difference between secular and sacred, the two styles having been married in the minds of too many parishioners. It is common now to have theatrical, bar-style, piano playing with a pianist-singer crooning into a microphone as though whispering to a lover sweet songs of erotica. The American Church exception meant we lost a golden opportunity to teach Catholics the difference in secular and sacred music styles.

My response to the GIRM’s American exception is that the fuller meaning behind the withdrawal of solo organ music during Advent, advocated by the 1903 motu proprio and strengthened by the Vatican’s letter of 1912, and the 1967 Musicam Sacram, serves a larger, spiritual purpose. By making “adaptations” we circumvent the intended spiritual purpose of Mother Church and the Mass becomes servant to the music instead of music serving the Mass.

The organist who continues playing solo organ music through Advent, denies to the gathered parishioners a rich spiritual experience. Mystery and awe can be found in silence! We want to recognize the deeper, spiritual purpose behind the withdrawal of solo instrumental organ music, and moderation in use during Advent and Lent.


bottom of page