Changes in Musical Compositions

Answered by Legionary of Christ Father Edward McNamara, professor of liturgy and dean of theology at the Regina Apostolorum university.

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Q: I am curious as to the use of liturgically approved music during the celebration of the Mass. In our parish the director of music frequently uses his own compositions for the Gloria, the Sanctus, the memorial acclamation, and the Great Amen. He prefers to use the piano, so there is little organ music used during Mass. He also plays his own choice of music during any silent times during the Mass, which I find detracts from quiet meditation. When the priest approaches the altar at the beginning of Mass, the music director always continues playing the entrance hymn, sometimes as many as two additional verses, even when it is obvious the priest is just waiting for him to finish. It was always my understanding that liturgical music was approved by a bishop, and that is why there is an imprimatur in our hymnals and missalettes. Am I incorrect, and should I just learn to accept his music? — P.B., Winter Garden, Florida

A: This question has been dealt with at several levels in the United States.

The most authoritative document is the translation to the General Instruction of the Roman Missal approved for the United States. No. 393 of this document says:

«Bearing in mind the important place that singing has in a celebration as a necessary or integral part of the Liturgy, 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 Secretariat for the Liturgy [now the Committee on Divine Worship] of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops for review and approval prior to publication.»

Translations in other languages have similar norms referring to the relevant offices of each bishops’ conference. This is because the approval of such settings is the competence of the national bishops’ conference, some of which have policies of their own.

The U.S. bishops fleshed out this norm in the 2007 document «Sing to the Lord,» guidelines for composers and musicians. This document states:

«107. The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops has delegated to the Committee on Divine Worship the responsibility of overseeing the publication of liturgical books that describe and guide the reformed rites developed in the years since the Second Vatican Council. In light of this responsibility, Guidelines for the Publication of Participation Aids has been developed for publishers of popular participation materials.

«108. Hymns, songs, and acclamations written for the liturgical assembly are approved for use in the Liturgy by the bishop of the diocese wherein they are published, in order to ensure that these texts truly express the faith of the Church with theological accuracy and are appropriate to the liturgical context.

«109. Composers who set liturgical texts to musical settings must respect the integrity of the approved text. Only with the approval of the USCCB Secretariat for Divine Worship may minor adaptations be made to approved liturgical texts.»

Among the «minor adaptations» that could be allowed, the document foresaw the possibility of adding tropes (additional texts or invocations not present in the missal) during the «Lamb of God» at the fraction. This proposal was deemed to contrast with universal liturgical norms, and the Congregation for Divine Worship requested that the text be amended so as to exclude this possibility.

Thus in September 2012 number 188 of «Sing to the Lord» was amended so that it now reads:

«188. The supplicatory chant Agnus Dei accompanies the Fraction Rite. It is, ‘as a rule, sung by the choir or cantor with the congregation responding; or it is, at least, recited aloud. This invocation accompanies the fraction and, for this reason, may be repeated as many times as necessary until the rite has reached its conclusion, the last time ending with the words dona nobis pacem (grant us peace)’ (GIRM, no. 83). The Agnus Dei should not be prolonged unnecessarily (see GIRM, no. 83) nor may other texts be added to this chant.»

A statement explaining the change clarified a further point, with an eye toward preparing musical settings for the implementation of the new translation of the Roman Missal:

«Composers of new musical settings of the parts of the Order of Mass from the Roman Missal were prohibited from including alternate texts for the Lamb of God. All new approved musical settings of the Order of Mass are, therefore, in conformity with this change.»

Likewise it stated that the alteration of No. 188 «is effective immediately, and affects all existing and future musical settings of the Lamb of God.»

Therefore, if the musical director of your parish has submitted his compositions to the proper authorities and received their approval, the pieces may be used. If not, then he should refrain from using them in liturgical settings until proper permission is obtained.

This does not mean that no new settings will be allowed. Indeed, «Sing to the Lord» has an exhortation for composers:

«81. The Church needs artists, and artists need the Church. In every age, the Church has called upon creative artists to give new voice to praise and prayer. Throughout history, God has continued to breathe forth his creative Spirit, making noble the work of musicians’ hearts and hands. The forms of expression have been many and varied.

«82. The Church has safeguarded and celebrated these expressions for centuries. In our own day, she continues to desire to bring forth the new with the old. The Church joyfully urges composers and text writers to draw upon their special genius so that she can continue to augment the treasure house of sacred musical art.»

Finally, regarding other elements such as the use of the piano and the choice of music for moments of meditation, this is best addressed by the pastor in a spirit of service to divine worship and proper reverence.

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Readers may send questions to Please put the word «Liturgy» in the subject field. The text should include your initials, your city and your state, province or country. Father McNamara can only answer a small selection of the great number of questions that arrive.

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Fr. Edward McNamara

Padre Edward McNamara, L.C., è professore di Teologia e direttore spirituale

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