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What About 1967's "Musicam Sacram"?

1/14/2004 - 6:00 AM PST

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ROME, JAN. 13, 2004 (Zenit) - Answered by Father Edward McNamara, professor of liturgy at the Regina Apostolorum Pontifical Athenaeum.

Q: What norms should be followed regarding music during celebrations of the Eucharist? On March 5, 1967, the Sacred Congregation of Rites issued the instruction "Musicam Sacram" (AAS 59 [1967] 300-320) with the approval and confirmation of Paul VI, indicating its provisions should go into force on Pentecost Sunday, May 14, 1967. So far as I know, the document's provisions never have been followed in the U.S. But also, so far as I know, the document's provisions never have been replaced or abrogated. -- G.G., Emmitsburg, Maryland

A: The following extract (below) from the new General Instruction on the Roman Missal should respond in part to the question. From the footnotes it is clear that "Musicam Sacram" has not been abrogated and indeed its principles are still in force.

Some details of the document have been rendered obsolete by the publication of the Missal at a later date -- such as the formal distinction between solemn, sung and read Mass -- but on the whole it is still valid.

The new Roman Missal in Latin clearly shows the desire to remain faithful to the principles of "Musicam Sacram" by printing the musical notations for the ordinary of the Mass and for all of the major Prefaces. It even goes further in providing chant tones for the readings and for all four Eucharistic Prayers.

The reason why much of the document has remained a dead letter was perhaps, to paraphrase Chesterton, not that it was tried and found wanting but found difficult and left untried.

In some cases the document specified tasks for the episcopal conferences or the bishop to regulate sacred music. Unfortunately, with so much on their hands after the Second Vatican Council, many episcopal conferences did not consider liturgical music a priority. Thus in many cases the document was left without any regulatory organs on the local or national level to implement its dispositions. The choice of music was thus often left to each parish with relatively little official guidance and supervision -- at the same time other sources, sometimes motivated by commercial concerns, offered parishes a wide range of music of disparate quality.

In part this situation has been redressed by the U.S. episcopal conference, which has inserted into the new General Instruction a requirement that all musical settings of the texts for the people's responses and acclamations in the Order of Mass and for special rites that occur in the course of the liturgical year must be submitted to the bishops' Secretariat for the Liturgy, for review and approval prior to publication (No. 393).

Some episcopal conferences, such as in Italy and Spain, have published official repertoires of songs and psalms for liturgical use.

A further reason is the mistaken idea that the people have to sing everything, and even that Latin was forbidden. This led to the disbandment of many choirs who had no outlet for their repertoires. Once gone, they were difficult to start again.

Finally, another reason is that many priests either cannot sing, or else found the English translations too difficult to sing according to the traditional chants and so, never applied the norms regarding the order of choice in singing the liturgy.

There are probably other reasons also but I think these are among the principal ones.

-- Extract from the General Instruction --

The Importance of Singing

39. The Christian faithful who gather together as one to await the Lord's coming are instructed by the Apostle Paul to sing together psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs (cf. Col 3:16). Singing is the sign of the heart's joy (cf. Acts 2:46). Thus Saint Augustine says rightly, "Singing is for one who loves."1 There is also the ancient proverb: "One who sings well prays twice."

40. Great importance should therefore be attached to the use of singing in the celebration of the Mass, with due consideration for the culture of the people and abilities of each liturgical assembly. Although it is not always necessary (e.g., in weekday Masses) to sing all the texts that are of themselves meant to be sung, every care should be taken that singing by the ministers and the people is not absent in celebrations that occur on Sundays and on holy days of obligation.

In the choosing of the parts actually to be sung, however, preference should be given to those that are of greater importance and especially to those to be sung by the priest or the deacon or the lector, with the people responding, or by the priest and people together.2

41. All other things being equal, Gregorian chant holds pride of place because it is proper to the Roman Liturgy. Other types of sacred music, ...

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