What kind of music is liturgical music?
With the constant flood of new music pouring forth from liturgical music publishers, we can easily lose the importance of the musical and ritual
forms called for in our liturgical rites. It is good every so often to renew and refine our understanding of what makes liturgical music different
from other kinds of religious or sacred music.
Criteria and judgments
The Bishops’ Committee on the Liturgy document Music in Catholic Worship (1972) still provides a visionary and helpful standard for
establishing criteria for and evaluation of appropriate music in a ritual context. Many parish musicians still have not discovered this document
and need to do so. For those of us who know it well, it should be revisited from time to time to assist us in our approach to preparation and
The document unapologetically calls for music that is participatory. The primary minister of music is the gathered assembly, not the choir,
soloists, or other musical ensembles and instrumentalists. The sung participation of the community should be our primary concern. Music for
performance focuses on the artist or leader; liturgical music keeps the assembly as its focus.
At the heart of this document are three “judgments” that establish the values governing liturgical music and what makes music sung prayer.
These three lenses can help to redirect and focus our musical choices.
The musical judgment. This first judgment gets to the crux of musical craft. Good music has basic elements that make it so: a sense of form,
rhythmic vitality and good melodic development. The praying assembly deserves the best music we have available. The fundamental elements
of good composition do more than provide a blueprint for our musical choices. They also seriously challenge all of us to continually improve
our present level of musical skill as singers and instrumentalists.
The liturgical judgment. Does our music help support the ritual actions? There is much religious music that may express a sincere Christian
message, but these selections do not always necessarily provide a partnership with the ritual actions found in the liturgy. This judgment
requires that the music be participatory. Who sings the music? When do they sing it? Is it proportional to the rite, or does it overwhelm the
action? This is a clarion call for ministers of music to study the liturgy and become better acquainted with the different ritual units and their
relationship to each other.
Texts should also be given consideration under this judgment: Does the music respect the text and its demands? For example, does the musical
setting of the “Holy, Holy” truly render this text as a powerful acclamatory response to the preface, or does it just whimper along? Does it sing
itself while at the same time provide a lasting expression for a community offering its praise? Is the selection inclusive? Does it echo the
readings for this celebration? Do the metaphors and images build a communal sense of worship? Is it good poetry, or is it ordinary and overly
simplistic? Is it correct theology, grounded in Scripture and other aspects of the tradition?
The pastoral judgment. This is the most difficult and complex of these three judgments and, at the same time, the most important. It reveals
what makes music liturgical music. Liturgical music is people-centered and faith-centered. Remember that the purpose of our music in the
liturgy is not to satisfy our own personal musical desires but to deepen our faith and call us to mission. Are we better Christians, more authentic
people of faith, as a result of what we do? Does the music we pray with contribute to our transformation as a church? Liturgical music must be
centered in the lives, joys, concerns and tears of the people whom we serve, both in our parish communities and out of concern and solidarity
with the global church.
These three judgments may seem to be a huge burden, but they are worthy of our call and a burden from which we cannot run. When we let
these criteria guide the ministry of music in our communities, that ministry can become a more authentic expression of our call, and the result is
pure gift. ML
David Haas is director of The Emmaus Center for Music, Prayer and Ministry and campus minister and artist in residence at Benilde-St. Margaret's High School in St. Louis Park, Minn. As a composer, he has published and recorded more than 35 collections of liturgical music. He is an active author, workshop and retreat leader, pastoral musician and recording artist.
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