Answered by Legionary of Christ Father Edward McNamara, professor of liturgy and dean of theology at the Regina Apostolorum university.
Q: In the case of a small parish where there is not an organ or piano or a musically talented person to lead singing, is it acceptable to use taped music during Mass for people to sing to? — N.B., Arlington, Texas
A: We answered a similar question on November 23, 2004. We will reuse some of this material with some updates.
The relatively few norms that exist on this point tend to explicitly forbid using recorded music during the liturgy. This would also include, most of the time, pre-set accompaniment to live singing, a possibility offered by many modern organs.
The principal documents that deal with music in Church always emphasize the importance of singing and presume the presence of live musicians who are considered as being part of the assembly.
The 1958 instruction “De Musica Sacra” issued by the Congregation of Rites states: “Finally, only those musical instruments which are played by the personal action of the artist may be admitted to the sacred liturgy, and not those which are operated automatically or mechanically.”
This document followed Pope Pius XII’s 1955 encyclical “Musicae Sacrae,” in which he insisted that liturgical music be “true art” if it is to be a genuine act of worship and praise of God.
Although these documents precede the Second Vatican Council, there is practically nothing in the conciliar or post-conciliar documents which would contradict the principles enunciated or invalidate their general normative value.
Indeed the council’s insistence that choir and musicians form part of the liturgical assembly would even strengthen the presumption against the use of mechanical music.
According to the above documents, it is preferable to sing without musical accompaniment than resort to artificial means.
The General Instruction of the Roman Missal states in Nos. 39-40:
“The Christian faithful who gather together as one to await the Lord’s coming are instructed by the Apostle Paul to sing together psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs (cf. Col 3:16). Singing is the sign of the heart’s joy (cf. Acts 2:46). Thus Saint Augustine says rightly, ‘Singing is for one who loves.’ There is also the ancient proverb: ‘One who sings well prays twice.’
“Great importance should, therefore, be attached to the use of singing in the celebration of the Mass, with due consideration for the culture of the people and abilities of each liturgical assembly. Although it is not always necessary (e.g., in weekday Masses) to sing all the texts that are of themselves meant to be sung, every care should be taken that singing by the ministers and the people is not absent in celebrations that occur on Sundays and on holy days of obligation.”
Later, the same document (in No. 312) states:
“The choir should be positioned with respect to the design of each church so as to make clearly evident its character as a part of the gathered community of the faithful fulfilling a specific function. The location should also assist the choir to exercise its function more easily and conveniently allow each choir member full, sacramental participation in the Mass.”
The same principles are also valid for organists and other musicians.
All the same, there is one circumstance where universal norms have permitted pre-recorded music, if somewhat timidly, in the Directory for Children’s Masses. No. 32 of this document states:
“Care should always be taken, however, that the musical accompaniment does not overpower the singing or become a distraction rather than a help to the children. Music should correspond to the purpose intended for the different periods at which it is played during the Mass.
“With these precautions and with due and special discretion, recorded music may also be used in Masses with children, in accord with norms established by the conferences of bishops.”
Some bishops’ conferences have also published guidelines on this topic, for example, the U.S. bishops’ conference 2007 document “Sing to the Lord” says:
“93. Recorded music lacks the authenticity provided by a living liturgical assembly gathered for the Sacred Liturgy. While recorded music might be used advantageously outside the Liturgy as an aid in the teaching of new music, it should not, as a general norm, be used within the Liturgy.
“94. Some exceptions to this principle should be noted. Recorded music may be used to accompany the community’s song during a procession outside and, when used carefully, in Masses with children. Occasionally, it might be used as an aid to prayer, for example, during long periods of silence in a communal celebration of reconciliation. However, recorded music should never become a substitute for the community’s singing.”
A similar document from the Canadian bishops’ conference was issued in 2015, stating:
“33 The human voice: The human voice should always hold a primary place in the music-making of the Church. For this reason, recorded music must never replace the singing of the assembly, nor should it displace the ministry of other musicians. Only in cases of necessity may recorded music be used in the liturgy for the purpose of supporting the song of the assembly.”
It later repeats this principle when referring to music at a wedding in No. 137.
Strangely, however, when citing the possible exceptions “in cases of necessity” the footnote refers to the Directory for Masses with Children, No. 32. This would appear to be an extension of a limited exception to wider circumstances.
On the other hand, the Italian bishops’ conference has gone further and has explicitly forbidden the use of recorded music in the liturgy. This prohibition even covers children’s Masses by calling attention to the need for the “veracity” of important liturgical signs such as singing, and furthermore “stresses the duty of educating in song the assembly of little ones that participate in the Sacred Celebration.”
For this reason, the conference states, “It is good to use recorded music to teach the songs outside of the sacred celebration but it is not permitted to use it during Mass.”
The reason the Church insist on this point is that the use of music in the liturgy is always to enhance the quality of liturgical prayer and can never be considered as entertainment.
It is practically impossible for recorded music to serve the same function.
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Follow-up: Sign Language by a Celebrant
Pursuant to our brief comments on the use of sign language at Mass (March 5), a priest from England pointed out to me a development of which I was unaware. To wit:
“May I draw your attention to the unique Eucharistic Prayer for the Deaf for use in England and Wales. It responds to some of the issues raised in a recent Liturgy Q&A.
“The Eucharistic Prayer for the Deaf is authorized for use in England and Wales and is only for use in an assembly of the deaf and is to be signed by the celebrant himself. This prayer may never be used without it being signed.”
A Texan reader wrote, “The only suggestion I would make is to use the word ‘signs’ instead of ‘gestures.'”
He also asked, “In talking about verbum mentis, is this acceptable when praying the Office or blessing objects with no one present?”
I would say no. Practically all liturgy is essentially vocal and public, and the overarching principle would apply also to blessings.
A probable exception is the recitation of the Liturgy of the Hours. While the ideal is that it be prayed vocally and in community, it does not appear that in private recitation there is a requirement to vocalize.
My reasoning is that the norms once specified that priests were to at least move their lips when reciting the breviary even if they emitted no sound. This norm no longer exists in the official books.
When a clear rubrical directive is eliminated, this can usually be assumed to be done consciously by the legislator and is not an oversight. Therefore the new rubric is simply carried out with no need to refer to the former rubric for guidance.
I mention this with regard to specific and very precise rubrics and not to general rubrical principles which can be used to interpret and clarify the present liturgy in many cases.
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