The Role of Music in the Mass

How much does music determine which Mass, or even which parish, you go to each Sunday? Some are drawn to a Mass with a traditional choir singing hymns, others may be drawn to Gregorian Chant specifically, while still others prefer a ‘contemporary’ Mass with praise and worship music.

Recently on St. Joseph’s Workshop, Father Matthew Spencer, OSJ told the story of a man who asked him, “Can’t we just have a Mass without any music in it?” This prompted him to reflect on the the important role that music plays in the Mass, and how we should approach music during the liturgy.

“This is something that touches all of us,” he said. “I think, in part, music becomes so important in the celebration of the liturgy, and it takes on such an important role in how we celebrate Mass and how we participate in Mass. I know people who will shop around for Masses based on what kind of music they hear. And I know people who will become upset when the music at their ‘own’ Mass changes, or is adjusted, or if a pastor comes in with a different pastoral plan.”

Recognizing the significance of music in the Mass, Fr. Matthew referred to a new document that can help guide the faithful in how to discern which music is most suited for the celebration of the liturgy. He said, “Last week, the Archbishop of Portland, Archbishop Sample, published a pastoral letter called Sing to the Lord a New Song. And the letter is a long look at sacred music. It’s an important pastoral letter indicating his direction and his desires for his diocese. And so I’ve been reading through this document. And it’s a fantastic document.”

While Fr. Matthew clarified that this letter is not universal, but for the Archdiocese of Portland, there were certain aspects of the document that can be illuminating for everyone. One key point that Fr. Matthew pointed out was, “[Archbishop Sample] makes an interesting point when he says ‘it’s important to keep in the mind that we do not plan Holy Mass. The Church has already provided us with a plan. We prepare to celebrate the Mass.'”

“He teases out this distinction and it’s a really important one, I think,” Fr. Matthew said. “Because the Church actually provides the paradigm, the ideals, of what music takes place at Mass. There are the formal music books of the church, the Graduale Romanum, the Graduale Simplex. Our bishops can approve collected hymns and collections of hymns and music books for us at liturgy.”

Many feel moved when they hear a secular love song, or a praise and worship song, and want to incorporate them into the Mass. But having clear guidelines for what music should be in the Mass, and why, is a gift that the Church gives us.

“Too often songs creep into collections that shouldn’t be at Mass,” Fr. Matthew said. “But that’s why we have to be careful and look and say, what’s the plan that Holy Mother Church has given us for Mass? What does the Church say about how Mass should go? And then we, as humble instruments in the hands of God, try to implement that plan right and we prepare to celebrate Mass in that way.”

“I know that some people would read this and think, ‘This is not how I understand music to be, this is not how I understand the liturgical principles to be,'” he continued. “And what I would say is maybe read it and be open to the fact that maybe there’s some training that you and I both need to be formed and shaped in. That maybe the music I’ve heard at Mass very often could be improved. Maybe there’s something else that the Church is inviting me to see in beauty and to appreciate.”

Listen to the full reflection below:

St. Joseph’s Workshop with Father Matthew Spencer airs weekdays at 7:00 p.m. Eastern/4:00 p.m. Pacific on Relevant Radio® and the Relevant Radio App.