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Archives Local music director takes part in international conference at the Vatican
What is sacred music?

April 26, 2017

By Deacon Kevin Mastellon
Staff writer

A folk music group called the Highwaymen, a quintet from Wesleyan University in Connecticut, recorded an Sacred musicAfrican slave song in 1961 entitled “Michael.”  We know it as “Michael, Row the Boat Ashore.”  It was a hit.

The first time I heard it sung by a folk choir during Mass something just did not ring true with me. 

My musical Church training came under the direction of a Dominican Sister in Queens, New York. Our school choir of 50 children was drilled in Gregorian Chant and Latin hymns. At Mass we sang the Gloria, the Creed, the Mass parts and various hymns all in four-part harmony; all in Latin. 

The Second Vatican Ecumenical Council opened the door, at least as interpreted by some, to varied forms of music at Mass: “other kinds of sacred music, especially polyphony (ed. simultaneously combining a number of parts, each forming an individual melody and harmonizing with each other), are by no means excluded from liturgical celebrations, so long as they accord with the spirit of the liturgical action.” (Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy). 

That “so long as” limitation was widely interpreted by pastors and music directors. 

With Mass now celebrated in the vernacular (English) came a deluge of new hymns and settings for the principal Mass parts.

In the folk music era it was only reasonable some folk songs would find their way into the Mass….”Michael, Row the Boat Ashore,” “Kumbaya, My Lord” and others on the same music board with Kyrie Eleison and Agnus Dei.
Things were perceived, not just in the United States, to be getting a tad out of control.  In 1967 the Sacred Congregation for Divine Worship issued Musicam Sacram, an Instruction on Music in the Liturgy.

It was an attempt to bring order to the varied interpretations of the Council Degree.  “Sacred music is understood (to be) that which, being created for the celebration of divine worship, is endowed with a certain holy sincerity of form.”

The document also offered this: “One cannot find anything more religious and more joyful in sacred celebrations than a whole congregation expressing its faith and devotion in song. Therefore the active participation of the whole people, which is shown in singing, is to be carefully promoted.”

So how were pastors and music director supposed to keep the music at Mass relevant and current so people would participate but keep the music sacred?

Now 50 years after the publication of Musicam Sacram the Church is revisiting the question, “what is sacred music?”

In early March The Congregation for Catholic Education and the Pontifical Council for Culture convened an international conference in Rome on the theme: Music and the Church: cult and culture fifty years after Musicam Sacram.

Rebecca “Becky” Rose, Musical Director of St. Cyril Church in Alexandria Bay attended the conference.

“I am a Catholic who is musically trained,” Mrs. Rose said. “Being present to play or direct the choir at Mass on Saturday and Sunday is not a concert, it is not a performance.  It is not about the money or the gig; it is about bringing the Word of God to the people” through music.

Indeed one of the impressions Rose took from her time at the conference is the notion that too many musical directors in our parishes today are not liturgically prepared.  They are fine musicians; singers and instrumentalists, but they do not understand the Mass.

“Sacred music must be an expression of God’s Word,” she said.  “Singing the Word of God opens our minds and spirit. 

“The choir, the cantor are instruments of piety and prayer,” she said. “It is their job to animate the assembly, to fuel the faithful  to pray and participate in the liturgy.”

Conference participants were presented numerous papers during the conference laying-out the issues that exist today. 

Coinciding with the conference and the anniversary of Musicam Sacram, 200 musicians, pastors and scholars published a declaration Cantate Domino canticum novum (Psalm 96: Sing to the Lord a new song).

In it the authors call on the Church to:
• reaffirm the musical heritage of the Roman rite: Gregorian chant and sacred polyphony;
• give children an exposure to the beauty of true musical art;
• promote the professional training of lay church musicians;
• insist on high standards for music in cathedrals and basilicas;
• encourage every parish to offer at least one fully sung Mass every Sunday;
• provide musical training for the clergy to enable them to sing their part of the liturgy; and
• educate liturgists in the musical tradition of the Church.

Becky Rose referred to the “call to action” during our interview.  Referring to her notes she quoted one presenter:

“Music is the choreography that accompanies creation.  All human beings can sing,” said Cardinal Gianfranco Ravasi an Italian prelate who currently serves as President of the Pontifical Council for Culture.

Rose agrees and added, “When everyone is singing at Mass there is a bond; it is a glue that binds our community together.”

At least two more sessions are scheduled in Rome to celebrate the anniversary of the Sacred Music document.  Becky Rose hopes to attend.  The dialogue and ultimate report of the conference “will be big” she said as it helps to direct the future of the Church’s new songs to the Lord.

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