The Sound of Music

North Texas Catholic
(Nov 13, 2023) Understanding-the-Mystery

Daniel Flores and other choir members sing during the blessing of the pipe organ at St. Philip the Apostle Parish. (NTC/Juan Guajardo)

In the last issue, Father Thu Nguyen, pastor of St. Paul the Apostle Parish in Fort Worth and diocesan director of liturgy, introduced the purpose and a little history of music’s place in the celebration of the Mass. 

In this issue, Fr. Nguyen continues with some specific questions about sacred music. 

What is the difference between sacred music and religious music? 

Fr. Nguyen: Sacred music is sung prayer used in the worship of the Mass and also our Catholic sacraments. Music used in liturgy expresses the presence of God and guides the assembly to encounter the presence of God. 

Its lyrics also portray the language of God through biblical Scripture. When we sing lines from Scripture, we are using God’s own language to speak to God. 

Only sacred music belongs at Mass. If the words of a song are religious, any song can be said to be religious. Religious music is fine, in its place. 

Popular secular Christian music is not adequate for liturgical celebration. Its lyrics or melody draw out feelings and emotions but don’t connect with the theological meaning of the liturgy or the doctrinal teaching of the Catholic Church. 

For one simple example, music with the instruments and beats of a rock song may stir up the same kinds of emotions evoked at a rock concert, which is not liturgically correct for the celebration of Mass. 

Is there a place for praise music?

 Fr. Nguyen: A youth gathering, retreat, or devotional service would be an appropriate setting for Christian music.


How does a parish music director select music for the liturgy? 

Fr. Nguyen: Music directors bear in mind that the liturgy of the Mass is primary, and sacred music supports and enhances the liturgy. Musical selections must allow the rite to unfold with the proper participation and express the nature of worship according to its theological requirement. 

Music directors need to follow the instructions from “Sing to the Lord – Music in Divine Worship,” a 2007 document from the USCCB that conforms to Musicam Sacram (Instruction on Music in the Liturgy). 

What are some of those guidelines?

Fr. Nguyen: Sacred music is holy when it mediates the holiness of God and forms the holy people of God more fully into communion with Him and with each other in Christ. 

Music must be based on Scripture and relevant to the readings of its celebration. 

The music director must evaluate the qualities of music for Mass using liturgical judgment (a theme that relates to the readings of its celebration), pastoral judgment (relating to the spirituality of its community and culture), and musical judgment (the ability of the assembly in music)

The music director is aware that the bishop is the chief liturgist of the diocese, and the parish pastor oversees musical selection for liturgy. 

Is it important for everyone to sing the hymns and responses? What if I’m not a great singer? 

Fr. Nguyen: The human voice is the first instrument of music. 

In Pope Paul VI’s Sacrosanctum Concilium (Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy), the Church reminds us that at liturgical celebration, all those who are present at the celebration must enter with active, conscious, and full participation (14). 

Regardless of whether singing prayer or chanting responses, everyone needs to participate.  

In the chanting mode, all responses and acclamations are easy for any person. You are not required to be a great singer, just listen and join with others in the same tune.   

In the third edition of the Roman Missal, the simple melody of the Mass parts has been created so all can enter in sung prayer.  

What are the two levels of sung prayers at Mass? 

Fr. Nguyen: The Ordinary, the first degree of sung prayer, is the unchangeable prayers of the liturgy. Many of the 16 ordinary sung prayers are quite familiar, such as the Gloria, the Holy Holy, and the Lamb of God. Parishioners may not hear it often, but Mass chant is also written for the Signing of the Cross, the Creed, and the invitation to the Sign of Peace, among others.

Some priests in the diocese will chant the Ordinary Mass parts because chanting uplifts your heart and makes you grow spiritually in the celebration of Mass.

The Proper, or second degree of sung prayer, varies according to the particular celebration because of the fixed readings of that celebration. It includes the antiphons at Entrance, Offertory, and Communion, as well as the Responsorial Psalm and Alleluia and sequence, if appropriate. A recessional hymn is optional but in the early tradition has been instrumental organ music.

To see Fr. Nguyen’s previous columns, go to 

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