Q: At our parish during Lent, a Buddhist singing bowl is used at the start of Mass in place of the gathering or entrance song. According to one popular resource (Wikipedia), singing bowls are “used as a support for meditation, trance induction and prayer.” On the Internet several websites assert that singing bowls provide “positive energy” and provide “beneficial therapy” because their “specific vibrations … hit our energy bodies” (Sound Bliss). I know that instruments have to come from somewhere, but the background of singing bowls sounds as if it might be introducing a spirituality that is different from Catholicism. So my question is this: Is it appropriate to use a singing bowl or similar instrument in a Catholic Mass? — A.C., Texas
A: Singing bowls would be, technically speaking, a kind of bell, and, as our reader mentions, are used above all in the Buddhist religious tradition.
Regarding their legitimacy in Christian liturgy we must first recall that introducing new instruments into the liturgy is not left to the whim of musicians or even local pastors. The proper authority for authorizing new instruments is the bishops’ conference. No. 393 of the General Instruction of the Roman Missal [GIRM] states:
“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 appropriate office of the Conference of Bishops for review and approval prior to publication. The Conference is likewise to judge which musical forms, melodies, and musical instruments may be admitted in divine worship, provided that these are truly suitable, or can be made suitable, for sacred use.”
In the case of the United States, the bishops’ conference, while according pride of place to the pipe organ, has allowed for the introduction of some other instruments. Thus in the document “Sing to the Lord” the bishops affirm:
“89. However, from the days when the Ark of the Covenant was accompanied in procession by cymbals, harps, lyres, and trumpets, God’s people have, in various periods, used a variety of musical instruments to sing his praise. Each of these instruments, born of the culture and the traditions of a particular people, has given voice to a wide variety of forms and styles through which Christ’s faithful continue to join their voices to his perfect song of praise upon the Cross.
“90. Many other instruments also enrich the celebration of the Liturgy, such as wind, stringed, or percussion instruments ‘according to longstanding local usage, provided they are truly apt for sacred use or can be rendered apt.'”
Perhaps because of the great wealth of Catholic cultural and religious traditions present in the United States, the bishops decided against making a list of approved instruments.
The criterion of “longstanding local usage,” however, does provide a good benchmark for gauging the admissibility of a musical instrument. Based on this rule it would be advisable to consult with the appropriate liturgy office before introducing a novelty such as the singing bowl.
The second rule — that of the instrument being “truly suitable or can be made suitable” — would also invite prudence and caution before action. Once more, it would be necessary for a pastor to consult the proper authorities regarding this suitability or aptness before introducing an instrument.
While musical instruments can be fairly neutral in themselves, their social and religious connotations provide the bishops with elements to judge their liturgical suitability.
For example, a musical instrument strongly identified with secular music or profane situations such as dance or theater would probably be excluded if its use in the liturgy spontaneously evoked less-than-sacred mental associations in the assembly.
Instruments associated with non-Christian religions would have to be carefully evaluated so as to avoid any danger of interpreting their use in the sense of religious relativism or syncretism.
For example, in the case of the singing bowl, in its original context the music has a precise religious function which could well be judged foreign to the nature of Christian prayer.
I do not have enough knowledge to personally affirm that this is the case. But my point is that these questions warrant careful study before any decision is taken.
The U.S. bishops’ document also gives some advice regarding the proper use of instrumental music:
“91. Although instruments are used in Christian worship primarily to lead and sustain the singing of assembly, choir, psalmist, and cantor, they may also, when appropriate, be played by themselves. Such instrumental music can assist the gathering assembly in preparing for worship in the form of a prelude. It may give voice to the sentiments of the human heart through pieces played during the Liturgy and postludes after the Liturgy. Instrumentalists are to remember that the Liturgy calls for significant periods of silent reflection. Silence need not always be filled.
“92. Instrumentalists are encouraged to play pieces from the treasury of sacred music by composers of various eras and cultures. In addition, those with the requisite talent and training are encouraged to improvise ….”
Once more, the use of a prayer bowl would not likely be considered as forming part of the “treasury of sacred music” to be used in Christian worship.
Finally, our reader mentions that the prayer bowl is used during Lent — precisely the season when purely instrumental music is expressly excluded. As GIRM, No. 313, says: “In Lent the playing of the organ and musical instruments is allowed only to support the singing. Exceptions are Laetare Sunday (Fourth Sunday of Lent), Solemnities, and Feasts.”
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Readers may send questions to [email protected]. 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.