We don’t just play songs at Mass

We don’t just play songs at Mass

posted in: liturgical music | 0

After Mass one Sunday, one of the worshipers was so moved by the music that he went home and wrote this in in journal:

How I wept, deeply moved by your hymns, songs, and the voices that echoed through your Church! What emotion I experienced in them! Those sounds flowed into my ears distilling the truth in my heart. A feeling of devotion surged within me, and tears streamed down my face — tears that did me good.

Okay, the worshiper was St. Augustine, so maybe he had a little extra Spirit within him. But I don’t think so. I think he was at an ordinary Sunday Mass, just as the rest of us are each week. So do our parishioners experience that kind of music each week? Does our liturgical music move them to tears?

Not in my parish. Not usually. The musicians in my parish and probably in yours are reasonably talented. They are probably a little more spiritual and a little more prayerful than most of the parishioners. They work hard to provide liturgical music each week. But something is missing.

There have been occasions when the music of the liturgy has moved me deeply. And when that happens, it is because of one key difference. The musicians understand that liturgy is not a script into which they are supposed to insert songs. Instead, they get it that liturgy is musical prayer.

The Catechism of the Catholic Church says that in order for our prayer to become musical, the sacred song of the liturgy has to meet three criteria:

  1. The music must be beautiful
  2. The music must move everyone to participate unanimously
  3. The music must be solemn (see 1157)


Beauty is not in the eye of the beholder. But we might say that beauty is in the eye of the culture. Personally, I don’t like rap music, country and western, or polka. But within the cultures where those genres have meaning, music in each of those styles can be beautiful. Beautiful music isn’t necessarily music that I consider traditional or “holy.” It is music that reveals the true nature of God. To the extent the music we sing gives us a window into the mystery of the Divine, it is beautiful.

In order to provide beautiful music, musicians must be deeply immersed in the culture of their parish. And they need to spend time learning the standards of the musical genres the parishioners sing or listen to. Share on X

In order to provide beautiful music, musicians must be deeply immersed in the culture of their parish. And they need to spend time learning the standards of the musical genres the parishioners sing or listen to. Rap music has standards. CW has standards. So does modern pop, which is the style of music that is in most of our hymnals and missalettes. Some of it is beautiful. A lot of it is not. Parish musicians need to know the difference.


The overarching reason for the liturgical reform of the Second Vatican Council is to rejuvenate the full and active participation of the faithful in the liturgy. It is the “aim to be considered before all else” (Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy, 14).

Liturgical music leaders who hold to this principle are willing to make sacrifices for the sake of moving everyone to participate unanimously in the signing. Frequently, those with musical gifts are reluctant to make choices that do not showcase their gifts to their maximum potential. A song that is not very challenging for the choir or a melody that seems trite to the music leader will be shelved in favor of more sophisticated music. And yet on the rare occasion they bring out the “old standard” for a summer Ordinary Time Mass, the worshipers lift the roof of the place with their signing.

This kind of singing is possible in most parishes on most Sundays. But it requires a special discipline and commitment on the part of music planners to make unanimous assembly participation the first priority.


Solemn is a difficult word to understand. We first of all tend to associate it with words like somber and sad. When we use solemn in connection with liturgy, we might intend it to mean dignified, stately, or reverent. It can mean all of those things. But when the church says our music must be solemn, I think a deeper meaning is intended.

In the liturgical calendar, our liturgies are organized from least to greatest as memorials, feasts, and solemnities. Solemnities require the highest degree of celebration and festivity. Solemnities also commemorate the most awe-filled mysteries or saints of our faith. No matter what the level of liturgy we are celebrating, the music must always be solemn in this sense of celebration, festivity, and awe.

Finding music that fulfils this criteria is not easy, and I don’t envy music leaders who are charged with that responsibility. But it is what you signed up for. And, in fact, it is what you are gifted at. Most music leaders have found their way to this ministry because they love the solemnity (in the awesome celebration sense) of the liturgy and liturgical music. You know what makes music rock. If through prayer and reflection you allow yourself to be guided by the Holy Spirit, you won’t fail to lead your parish in solemn singing.

What is your goal for liturgical music?

If you think of your ministry as plugging songs into someone else’s liturgy script, you will never inspire the kind of devotion Augustine writes about. On the other hand, if you treat the liturgy as a musical event of prayer and worship, you may see some tears begin to flow. Moving your assembly to tears with music that is beautiful, participative, and solemn may not be an achievable weekly goal. But it is certainly a goal you should strive for.

See also these related articles:

  1. You are witnesses
  2. Pastoral liturgists are “keepers of the fire”: The third level of liturgical participation
  3. Moving from technique to artistry: Three levels of liturgical participation
  4. How your liturgical ministry changes the world
  5. Do you remember the liturgical revolution of Vatican II?
  6. Liturgical participation: if you’re not doing, you’re not learning
  7. How Madison Avenue is sabotaging our worship
  8. A singing church is symbolic of the divine Trinity
  9. Singing with our ancestors in faith
  10. Music is the sacramental sign of God’s love for us

Image credit: Tadas Mikuckis, Unsplash

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