Music in the Mass
For nearly two millenia, the Church has sung its worship to the Father, using as its basis the Psalms and Scripture, the very words of Christ modeling for us right worship of God, worship which we join in the Liturgy of the Church.
The selection of music for Mass is important to draw out the meaning of the particular moment, day, feast, or season. The Scripture readings provide one source of inspiration, and traditionally, the Church has meditated on the Gospel and day’s readings especially during the Communion procession. However, historically, hymns and songs based on the readings have not made up the primary musical material of the Mass processions, but rather sung Scripture and Psalms in a musical form that evolved directly out of Jewish psalm singing.
Vatican II put great emphasis on singing the Mass (“Singing is for one who loves” said St. Augustine), and it made clear the level of importance of what should be sung. The most important part of Mass to be sung, by the faithful, is also the briefest: the dialogues and responses, such as “The Lord be with you/And with your Spirit” or “Amen.” That is because these are most expressive of the people’s participation in the Mass, and the music is very easy to internalize once it is sung a few times.
The second most important element of the Mass for the people to sing is called the Ordinary, consisting of those longer hymns, litanies, and acclamations that are sung every week, such as the Kyrie (Lord, Have Mercy), Gloria, Agnus Dei (Lamb of God), and even the Creed! These are expressions of our faith, and as St. Augustine suggested, our love for God elicits song.
The third element to be sung includes the parts we sing most often, the processions at the Entrance, Offertory, and Communion, as well as the Recessional, whose part in the Mass is not specified by liturgical law. Despite its place in the ranking, accompanying these processions with music draws out the ceremonial nature of the Mass.
We celebrate the Mass, the priest in a particular way, as we worship God by offering, through Christ, the sacrifice of Calvary. Our response to God’s merciful saving action should be praise and thanksgiving, sorrow for our sins, and, above all, love. As lovers sing (at least in musicals and operas), so should we sing the Mass, showing God how much we love him, and through him communing with the whole Church.
Here you will find videos from the Liturgical Institute, Mundelein Seminary, Illinois, describing the elements of the Catholic Mass. These beautiful reflections will help to put into context the function of sacred music in the liturgy.
Here you can find other videos of interest from the Liturgical Institute, especially from Denis McNamara about a theology of sacred architecture that relates to the art of the Mass.
The Second Vatican Council’s first document focuses on the liturgy of the Roman Rite, the Catholic Church’s most prominent form of worship. An entire chapter (VI) is devoted to sacred music, which is well worth reading. Take this bold statement, for example:
112. The musical tradition of the universal Church is a treasure of inestimable value, greater even than that of any other art. The main reason for this pre-eminence is that, as sacred song united to the words, it forms a necessary or integral part of the solemn liturgy.
The liturgy is meant to be sung, and the Church has given much consideration to this important topic.