An Interesting Roman Initiative: “Sacred Music: Fifty Years after the Council”

In a letter dated 17 December 2013, Antonio Cardinal Cañizares Llovera and Gianfranco Cardinal Ravasi announced a joint venture by the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments and the Pontifical Council for Culture: a questionnaire entitled “Sacred Music: Fifty Years after the Council” intended to “foster, at the Episcopal Conference, in the liturgical Commissions, formation Centres, pastoral, musical or liturgical journals, and intense and enriching reflection on the musical patrimony of the Church, the liturgical music composed in the last 50 years, and the influence of both on the quality of liturgical participation and the dialogue between the Church and the panorama of contemporary art and culture.” Formally addressed to Episcopal Conferences and Major Religious Instituted and Faculties of Theology, the questionnaire is intended as an “enquiry into the state of sacred music in all its aspects (liturgy, formation, pastoral activity, concerts) with the aim of reflecting on the developments in the field of music and the desire to offer a contribution to the ministry of musicians for the glory of God and the sanctification of the faithful.”

The questionnaire is divided into seven major sections totaling 40 questions. Each section includes an orienting paragraph exploring the topic and a series of appended questions. The sections comprise: 1) Formation of those cultivating music for ministerial service (7 questions); 2) Musical Heritage (4 questions on the Church’s musical patrimony and inculturation; 1 question on regulation of concerts in churches); 3) Contemporary musical culture (3 questions on the use and evaluation of new musical registers in contemporary cultures); 4) Eucharistic celebrations, other sacraments and the Liturgy of the Hours (5 questions on the use of music in various liturgical settings); 5) Composition (10 questions identifying who the main composers of sacred music have been in the past fifty years, how their compositions have been received by worshiping assemblies, and what procedures are in place to foster and control liturgical music composition); 6) Choir (5 questions on the existence, function and placement of choir and animator); 7) Instruments (5 questions on the pipe organ and other instruments in use during worship, regulation by episcopal conferences, and funding for performance and distribution of musical scores).

What may be of the greatest interest in the questionnaire, however, is a seven-article “Accompanying Text,” “offered as a support to the questionnaire…, and considers particularly the instruction Musicam Sacram of 5 March 1967….” Articles2-5 and 7 are dense reflections on sacred/liturgical music that will repay much study and discussion. For example:

2. Sacred music, an integral part of the ars celebrandi, has a particular bond with the liturgical celebration and is called to foster in the faithful a full, prayerful and respectful participation of the sacred silence. The celebrative style of liturgical music should tell aloud the primacy of God and His work of salvation for us, testifying to the centrality of Christ who died and rose again, and renews his sacrificial offering in the Eucharist. The language of sound, which reaches across every geographic-cultural boundary and can be understood in every time and place, is the privileged instrument with which to celebrate the universality of the Church, whose Mystery of Unity is made present in every community reunited around the Eucharistic table. As with the liturgy, sacred Music must aspire to a noble beauty, and be able to bring together the treasures of the past with the real art of our time.

Given the richness of this kind of writing it is somewhat surprising to find in article 6 the condemnation of a particular genre of music:

6…. In daily liturgical celebrations use is made, in some parts of the world, of a music of a minimalist character defined “ambiental music” or “new age”. Often, for example, it is used as background music for Eucharistic adoration, but it is not really conducive to a state of personal prayer. While prayer opens up, through the action of the Spirit, to the mystical contemplation of the mystery of Christ, ambiental music raises states of consciousness that are artificial and inadequate, being similar to some techniques of mind manipulation commonly used in subliminal psychology. Liturgical music does not induce silence but conduces it; it welcomes as a gift and fruit of grace what ambiental music achieve through mere human effort…

Since no other genres of music are similarly brought forward for condemnation, one wonders if the entire exercise may be a thinly disguised attempt to make sure that “ambiental/new age music” is not used in the liturgy.

The questionnaire in English, French, Italian, Spanish and Portuguese can be found at the Pontifical Council for Culture. Responses to the questionnaire should be sent before 30 April 2014 to the Pontifical Council for Culture, Vatican City, or via email to


  1. HEARTS OF SPACE for several decades has been my favorite Sunday listening along with WITH HEART AND VOICE and PIPEDREAMS. If this is what they mean by ambient or new age music, I like it and have used some of it in my prayer life.

    I often use the first section of NOVUS MAGNIFICAT by Constance Demby as a background to Psalm 104 Bless the Lord, My Soul / Lord God, how great your are etc. for Saturday Evening Prayer (i.e. First Vespers of Sunday as in the Byzantine tradition). I mentally use the words in complex ways, sometime repeating them as in polyphony, sometime imagining them in the music.

    Try it yourself

    I have also used KITARO’s music sometimes when I want to add exercise choreography to the Divine Office. There was one particular section that was a really dramatic background to the Lord’s Prayer choreographed.

    I think this music works well if one has a lot of silence already in one’s life. I agree that it not a way to silence although it may help many people to chill out after a hard day much like a glass of wine. Merton was not against such creature comforts as long as they were not mistaken for contemplation.

    It is interesting that although I have used contemporary music, Latin Chant and polyphony, Eastern Church and Anglican Church music in gatherings in my house, I never have used any New Age music. It does not seem to lend itself to community.

    There are probably some women religious out there who really like this music, and these clerics are probably just trying to make life miserable for them as usual.

    Remember Francis advice, sisters: just give them the reply that you feel they need (whether it is the one they want to hear or the one they don’t want to hear is up to you- Jack) and then, of course go about your business as usual.

    Francis needs to accelerate the reform of the Curia, and get these guys some real work to do.

  2. KLS reminded me that I have a gripe with the document:

    At the diocesan, regional, or national levels, are there structures for musical, liturgical or spiritual formation for the various roles in animation (animator of the assembly, psalmist, organist, composition, etc.)?

    The full participation of the liturgical assembly needs animators of all the assembly so as to be able to reach the highest expressions of solemnity.

    I don’t particularly like the word “animator.” I reminds me of cartoons and puppets. What is the idea behind “animator” and is there a better English word?

    I have enough “soul” and “spirit” I hardly need an animator. I suspect however that the “animators” are largely responsible for our boring liturgies. Or maybe the formators of the animators are responsible for all our problems?

    1. @Jack Rakosky – comment #3:
      Thanks for the Music from the Hearts of Space reference! Many late summer Sunday nights in the dorms at Collegeville were graced by the wonderfully “out there” music from that show. I haven’t thought of the show in years.

      And I think your preferred word for animator may simply be cantor.

  3. Wow. “Artificial and inadequate”?

    Well, I suppose if the music is artless.

    Sure, I would sometimes prefer silence. But what are the ostinato-based chants of Taize if not, at their hearts, minimal and ambient?

    Wow. Just wow.

  4. The problem with cantor is that it can be interpreted simply as psalmist or even soloist. The French term animateur de chant, literally “one who gives life to the singing”, is probably best translated as “song leader” rather than animator, because of the Disney connotations of the latter. But for some reason that term doesn’t seem to be looked on favourably by some. In workshops I increasingly use song leader (like the German Gesangleiter) because cantor is so often misunderstood.

    1. @Paul Inwood – comment #6:

      Song leader sounds much better.

      Cantor has the connotation of a soloist, especially a virtuoso soloist. Choir director has the connotation of someone responsible for the choir, i.e. a specialized group of singers. Too often choir directors are too concerned about leading the choir and not enough concerned with leading the song as when they choose music the congregation does not know. Music director has the connotation of someone with overall responsibility for the music such as choosing music, accompanists, etc. Again these people often fail to be song leaders.

      Leader has a more primus inter pares flavor than director. Animator may be intended to have the same flavor but it does not come across that way, perhaps because of the history of words like director and conductor. It sounds like the singers do not have life rather than giving greater life to the song.

  5. I think there’s a very misleading part of the English version of the “Accompanying Text,” #2, which makes it seem that music’s aim in liturgy is “respectful participation of the sacred silence.” In fact, the other versions show, the goal of music should be described as “a participation [in the liturgy] that is full, prayerful, and respectful of sacred silence” (French: “qui est destiné à favoriser une participation
    plénière, priante et respectueuse du silence sacré”).


    1. @Gordon Truitt – comment #8:
      Thank you for addressing that Gordon. I too, was puzzled by what that might mean, but I thought it was just my own lack of understanding of “church speak” 🙂

  6. I can’t make head or tail of the paragraph on concerts:

    “As with other cultural initiatives, any concerts should respect the clear guidelines laid down by the Magisterium (cf. particularly, The Congregation for Divine Worship on Concerts in Churches), and show a spiritual character that places them clearly in the sacred context. In
    fact, if similar initiatives are to be a valid means to safeguard the traditional sacred music patrimony, stimulating an enriching encounter with civil life, and promoting the spiritual elevation of believers and non-believers, not for this should there be a general opening, but something motivated by cultural goals.”

    Particularly the end of the paragraph – “not for this…”
    Not for the reasons just listed? Or does it mean that even with these reasons, the opening should not be general? But what does that mean practically – is there a difference between a general opening and one motivated by cultural goals?

    I’m intrigued because we have so few guidelines for concerts outside of the CDW document mentioned from the 80’s. This institute seems to have something to say on the matter – I just can’t make out what it is. Any insights from other translations?

  7. Regarding this business with the nomenclature, correct me if I’m wrong, but I believe that the role of cantor is never actually mentioned in the Constitution, and only appears in later documents. “Cantor” just means “one who sings.” Traditionally, the cantor sings specific psalm verses in alternation with either the choir or the congregation. Given the liturgical ideals of the Constitution, that would seem to be an appropriate term. “Animator” doesn’t make much sense – in some places, the organist takes more responsibility for the “animation,” and ultimately, the people must “animate” themselves. Similarly, “song leader” takes away the responsibility from the people. Let’s not forget that ideally, the cantor (at least in the role it is commonly perceived) would be useless. There are plenty of Protestant communities who sing congregational song perfectly well without somebody to “lead” them. In certain traditions like the Mennonites, they don’t even have instruments to help them along. This is because they have a long culture of singing. Complicating the modern role of cantor is the presence of amplified sound, and if that is not achieved well in a natural manner, the cantor can actually hinder rather than help congregational song. Although the cantor role may be pastorally necessary in most places, and the role of assisting congregational song is laudable, let’s not forget the ultimate goal in which that is not needed at all.

    1. @Doug O’Neill – comment #11:

      I take it, then, that you would not have been in favour of the (quasi-ordained) ministry of (diocesan) cantors in the early Church? Cantors have been around a long time, both in parish and monastic settings.

      And the argument about Protestant congregational song is somewhat misleading because those denominations generally sing only hymns and mass chants, and occasionally psalms (but even then more often as paraphrase hymns). One of the great things about Roman Catholic ritual music today is the rich panoply of forms and textures available (admittedly not yet used by everyone!) for which the ministry of cantor is, if not indispensable, at least highly desirable. There’s far more to life than just hymns and chants.

      I agree with your view of over-amplified cantors, but that is a question of technique which does not have to entail disliking the principle of cantors as a ministry.

  8. Hmmmm. Animators. Much to be seen in France where one sometimes gets the impression that these petite-pretresses feel that they are actually presiding and only giving way at the presentation of gifts. Sadly there intrusiveness is often in inverse ratio to their music talent.
    Why people imagine that the congregation at a regular Sunday celebration needs either directing or animating is totally beyond me.

  9. Paul,

    Actually, I completely agree with you. First, the comment about amplification was probably tangential to the conversation. Were the church to really develop that rich diversity of forms and textures, the cantor would be crucial. However, the way congregational song is practiced in most Catholic churches, it is very similar to Protestant practice, and the cantor is utilized primarily to “lead” hymnody. I would love to see more full realization of the vision of the Vatican II liturgical reforms, which would include various forms and much more dialogue. In that case, the cantor would be absolutely necessary. I would be cautious about saying that there is “more to life than just hymns and chants.” If we boil the definition of chant down to its simplest form that includes all the sung responses/dialogue, then it is actually the most important aspect of music in the church, and the first thing we should encourage to be sung by the congregation.

  10. Msgr Richard Hilgartner has circulated the questionnaire to diocesan liturgy offices and commissions via the FDLC, asking for comments (one unified response per diocese) by March 30 so that they can be synthesized into a USCCB/BCDW response by the Rome deadline.

    I have not heard of anything comparable happening in other countries.

  11. Yeesh, over at the Cafe the kerfuffle over “animator” is an ant hill compared to PTB, that’s very odd I’d think. Upon my first reading of the inquiry document and those paragraphs containing that “nomenclature,” I regarded the word as de-personalized and apart from the post V2, primarily European conception of a specific office, like that of the “commentator.” I would think that we’re all quite well past those notions. We all animate, we all comment by our participation’s extent.
    Ought we discuss the great opportunity to, at least, help our Offices of Worship and Ordinaries to well-deliberate not only the well-framed questions and discussions posed in the letter? Can we not see an invitation to, for once, officially put onto the table the concerns of legislation, philosophy and praxis in the so-muddled waters of sacred music globally, whether or not they are received, recognized and acted upon?
    I hope this questionnaire provides an opportunity for consensus and clarity to emerge, however unified or divergent, for the future generations of worshippers.

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