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Sacred Music and Religious Music, a Distinction

By Dr. Jeff Mirus (bio - articles - email) | Jun 06, 2012

I hope you’ll read Paul Jernberg’s In Depth Analysis on The Logos of Sacred Music. By way of introduction, let me note that Jernberg’s presentation is made all the more relevant by a recent essay by Bishop Thomas J. Olmsted, Singing the Mass, which has been published in several places, most notably by our favorite organization working on improving the liturgy, Adoremus.

Like Jernberg, Bishop Olmsted is attempting to recover the practice of singing the Divine liturgy itself, even in preference to merely singing thematic songs in the spaces of the liturgy. He explains:

The Mass itself is a song; it is meant to be sung. Recall that the Gospels only tell us of one time when Jesus sings: when He institutes the Holy Eucharist (cf. Mt 26:30; Mk 14:26). We should not be surprised, then, that Christ sings when He institutes the Sacramentum caritatis (the Sacrament of love), and that for the vast majority of the past 2,000 years, the various parts of the Mass have been sung by priests and lay faithful.

The assertion that “Mass itself is a song” is, perhaps, a bit of hyperbole (actually, Our Lord and the apostles sang a hymn after He had instituted the Eucharist), but the most solemn forms of both Jewish and Catholic liturgy have certainly traditionally been sung, creating a patrimony of sacred music that has come to characterize our fullest participation in the Mass. In any case, Bishop Olmsted’s exposition is well worth reading, and it is a perfect backgrounder to Paul Jernberg’s analysis.

Olmsted includes a brief definition of Sacred Music, a short history of liturgical music, the role of music in evangelization and inculturation, and practical points for singing the Mass. This last section notes that the General Instruction of the Roman Missal specifies that the most important parts of the Mass to be sung are “those which are to be sung by the Priest or the Deacon or a reader, with the people replying, or by the Priest and people together” (Article 40). These are divided into three “degrees”:

  1. The Order of the Mass (which can be sung in dialogue between the priest or the deacon and the people);
  2. The Ordinary of the Mass (Kyrie, Gloria, Credo, Sanctus and Agnus Dei);
  3. The Proper of the Mass (chants sung at the Entrance, Offertory, and Communion; the Responsorial Psalm and Alleluia, with its verse before the Gospel.

According to Bishop Olmsted, sacred music, strictly defined, means music “created to support, elevate, and better express the words and actions of the sacred liturgy”. And according to the Second Vatican Council’s Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy (Sacrosanctum Concilium), this music is to be closely connected to the liturgical action, that is, the parts of the Mass identified above (# 112). Sacred music, then, is essentially liturgical music, and it can be distinguished from the broader category of religious music, which gives voice to the more general spiritual ideas and aspirations of a given culture.

Bishop Olmsted develops this distinction very effectively. He is worth quoting at length:

[R]eligious music is, we might say, the earthly expression of a given culture’s faith in Christ; liturgical music is the sacramental expression of Christ and the true nature of the Church. The former tends to be particular, individual, temporal, and profane; the latter tends to be universal, communal, eternal, and sacred. Religious music comes from human hearts yearning for God; liturgical music comes from Christ’s heart, the heart of the Church, longing for us.
Because religious music is marked by the particular and profane, it is especially useful for evangelization. Like Saint Francis Xavier donning the silk garments of Japanese nobility in his missionary work in Japan, religious music “wears the clothes” of those it seeks to evangelize; it becomes familiar, taking in much of the cultural forms, and where possible doing this with minimal alteration. In religious music, the Church learns to sing, in many voices, through the familiar melodies and rhythms of various cultures.
But in the sacred liturgy, we enter the precincts not of man’s culture but the heavenly courts of Christ, the culture of the Church, the wedding feast of the Lamb: and new festive garments are required for this feast (cf. Mt 22:1-14). In liturgical music, the peoples drawn into the sacred liturgy learn to sing, in one voice, through the often unfamiliar melody and rhythm of the Church’s sacred music. This oneness is exemplified (for us Roman Rite Catholics) primarily in Gregorian Chant and polyphony, the musical “garments” of the texts of the sacred liturgy.

All of this bears reflection and prayer, and while thinking and praying, don’t forget to listen to the Mass of St. Philip Neri which Paul Jernberg has recently composed for the ordinary form of the Roman Rite. Links to the music are provided at the end of Jernberg’s excellent essay.

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