Archbishop of Portland releases Pastoral Letter on Sacred Music in Divine Worship

On today’s Feast of the Conversion of Saint Paul, Most Reverend Alexander K. Sample shared “Sing to the Lord a New Song,” a Pastoral Letter on Sacred Music in Divine Worship, addressed to the Priests, Deacons, Religious, Musicians and Faithful of the Archdiocese of Portland.

Pray Tell commentary on the letter will follow soon.


  1. A Portland pal gave me a sneak preview-synopsis a few weeks ago. I am looking forward to the PTB response!

  2. I recently visited Portland and was brought to tears daily by the number of homeless laying in the streets. Every evening at sundown, hundreds, maybe thousands of homeless came out and were fighting for good spots to spend the night. Recently there were political flights in the streets of Portland.

    So this document makes me wonder if the bishop is aware of the needs of his people ? With all the problems in Portland and his priority is messing with something that’s not broken. We just have to wonder? Clericalism?

    1. Do Portland parishes see a high number of baptisms at the Easter vigil? Fewer defections to Protestantism or atheism among teens and twenty somethings? Less nominalism? More reverts? People on fire for the faith?

      If so then maybe no need for an adjustment. If not, maybe time to change course. Change hearts, then change the world. The bishop is in the business of saving souls; these problems in the temporal order are for us laymen to address.

      1. The letter says almost nothing about changing hearts – or about faith, or community, or sacraments, or the Reign of God. The emphasis is on the intrinsic value of some historic repertoires, and on exacting observance of regulations. I don’t see how it’s addressing any of the important concerns you mention in your first paragraph.

        Your last sentence is simply false. Bishops and popes have addressed these “problems in the temporal order” strongly and repeatedly in the course of Church history.

      2. Apostolicam actuositatem has it that “…The laity likewise share in the priestly, prophetic, and royal office of Christ and therefore have their own share in the mission of the whole people of God in the Church and in the world. They exercise the apostolate in fact by their activity directed to the evangelization and sanctification of men and to the penetrating and perfecting of the temporal order through the spirit of the Gospel.”

        Perhaps the bishops have involved themselves in the renewal of the temporal order repeadedly throughout history, but it seems clear per the teachings of the last council that this is the apostolate of the laity. A claim that it is “clericalism” when the bishop works on liturgical renewal so long as there are poor people out on the street is, if seen in that light, backwards.

    2. The Church isn’t a zero-sum operation, wanting good liturgy doesn’t make one guilty of clericalism. As an example, a very traditional parish near me (like 20 servers at each Sunday mass) is also the single largest donor to the municipal food bank. Prayer and service can go hand in hand folks.

      1. “Prayer and service can go hand in hand folks.”

        I don’t think anyone said that they couldn’t; what I read suggested that they might not be going hand in hand in this particular archdiocese.

  3. Sadly, Archbishop Sample is a devotee of Cardinal Burke. There is a small, but incredibly powerful, group of Catholics in our Archdiocese who seem to believe that GIRM stands for “God’s Irrefutable Rubrics Manual,” and who would have women ‘taking the veil’ and all of us using the altar rail to receive the Holy Eucharist. But only on the tongue, of course…If only then Arch would focus on the actual Gospels…

    1. Please note that the 2016 article you refer to is commentary on the new bishop’s “follow-up” to Archbishop Sample’s 2013 letter (which is in many respects identical to the one he put out this week.) That process has been at least partially implemented with the arrival of the new hymnals on the First Sunday of Advent. We have been using them since that time. Our repertoire has contracted somewhat but it is not as bad as everyone was expecting. There are some 500 hymns to choose from and seven mass settings, including the Chant Mass that is in the “Order Of the Mass” in the front of the book. The hymns include ancient and modern pieces. After discussion with the music directors of the diocese the requirement of submitting octavos to the committee was lifted. Communion Antiphons for the most part (except for the Cathedral and one parish in my city- not mine) are still being phased in but are not required until next year. We have opted to continue using Respond and Acclaim as our psalm resource to help the people in the assembly have some continuity. We will be slowly phasing in the use of the psalm melodies that are in the book (as the cantors learn them).

  4. My four take aways.

    1) Use antiphons and psalms instead of hymns as preferable.

    2) If hymns are used, they should focus on God and not on the congregation.

    3) Pay your musicians well.

    4) Priest should chant their prayers if even in the same note.

    1. 1. I observe that settings of psalms (and other lyrical passages from the Bible) were indeed the staple of post-conciliar composition from the 70s onward. Ironically, it was part of the fusion phenomenon of the 80s that saw some composers move away from antiphon+verse and partly into hymn formats, and a number of publishers promoting their own writers separate from composers. Hymns have been part of the celebration of Mass as long as people alive today remember it.

      2. The psalms themselves don’t focus on God exclusively. Sometimes its about community, history, or other human things. But in the context of Temple worship, we understand the rootedness. Likewise in Catholic worship when “I” or “we” is used in the nominative case, (such as in the Creed or Psalm 100) an insightful believer knows the context is different from something like a pep rally.

      3. Amen, brother. Do we know if diocesan musicians are on the same pay scale as lawyers and administrators?

      4. Including bedtime prayers?

      I observe that a lot of what is made of this direction in sacred music doesn’t hold up to scrutiny. On the antigospel front, it can often be delivered in ways truthfully characterized as petty, envious, musically and theologically ignorant, among other things. While the immediate post-conciliar Church had enormous struggles finding any quality in vernacular church music, it did have a few virtues I find lacking today. There was an optimism and openness that might have resulted in a few bruisings among some believers, but there were also young people involved in music in droves. Perhaps it’s hindsight to suggest that if bishops commissioned works based on the Mass ordinary and propers in the 60s and 70s that some movement along Archb Sample’s suggestions might have taken root and borne more fruit. But they didn’t. So that ship has sailed. So have a few generations of Catholics. But believe like you can sing Credo: old-timey music isn’t going to evangelize. To be sure, electric guitars and drums won’t either. Likewise the mean-spiritedness of reform2. Maybe big families are a sign of hope for those wanting to return to an Eisenhower Catholicism, but I see them as fertile ground for the next rebellion and reform. Vatican III, here we come.

    2. As a musician I appreciate number three. The Catholic church in the U.S. is the only one I’ve worked with that doesn’t pay their musicians a reasonable wage. Which tells musicians that our work is not valued. Those of you on music committees, please remember that for every hour the musician is playing or singing, there are several hours that go into preparation, more so if he/she is picking the music.

      1. You should try the Catholic Church in the UK, where hardly any musicians get paid anything at all (except for weddings and funerals, where it is not the Church that is paying). No wonder our standards are generally low.

  5. After reading the document I recall the statement of Pope Francis about the sacred liturgy and the so called reform of the reform, “there is no going back”. Maybe the archbishop is a huge fan of “Back to the Future”. Wonder what this means for O C P?

    1. Fr. Feehily: Pope Francis also said recently “At times a certain mediocrity, superficiality and banality have prevailed, to the detriment of the beauty and intensity of liturgical celebrations. For this reason, the various key figures in this sphere, musicians, composers, conductors and choristers of the scholae cantorum, with liturgical coordinators, can make a precious contribution to the renewal, especially in qualitative terms, of sacred music and of liturgical chant.” The Archbishop quotes that with approval, can I take it you would not disagree?

  6. He basically just reiterated what a bunch of documents say, as well as quotes from some recent popes. I don’t know what’s so controversial about an archbishop writing what the Church teaches.

    For what it’s worth, if the Liturgy is truly source and summit of our faith, ongoing pursuit of good liturgy can’t be a bad thing, unless it’s to the neglect of everything else. But simply writing his letter doesn’t imply that in the least.

  7. There’s nothing ground-breaking here; just a summary look through the same basic 20th-century documents and statements we are all familiar with. If anything, this is a marked improvement over the Marquette document, in that it is more streamlined and non-reliant on subjective opinions of the writer (and is thus less specific in approbation and condemnation than the Marquette document).

    I’m not sure what would be seen as controversial here – I’m interested to read the PTB commentary. What would ruffle my feathers, personally, is not found here (namely, an approach like Marquette’s, with a required repertoire, octavos submitted to a central office, etc.). If the argument is that the Church DOES NOT say what is outlined in this document, I think it would be very difficult to support. If the argument is that the Church SHOULD NOT say what is outlined in the document, there is certainly more room for intellectual activity (although the question remains whether such intellectual activity is of more importance than what is officially stated). If the question is how we should proceed, given that the Church DOES say what is outlined here, then we are at the practical intersection of theory and pastoral reality where most of us live. In any case, I see nothing astonishing about a bishop summarizing a broad range of church documents on a particular topic.

    1. That’s my general reaction to the document, such as it is. The first nine or so pages are general, the next nine or so pages are more specific, and there’s a fair bit of overlap with what many (not all) progressive liturgists/musicians have advocated over the years. If Abp Sample were looking to pick a reform-of-the-reform fight, this is notably milder than it would otherwise have been. Then again, people who want to pick fights will always find them.

      I do quibble with one of those items: “Optimally at Mass the Ordinary should consist of one musically unified suite rather than mixing together parts of different settings.” I think I understand (and if so, don’t entirely disagree with) the idea behind that, but it’s one of those things that has over the years tended to come across for the worse once someone tries to make an excessively distilled rule. (A more modest negative exhortation to avoid a jumble of settings that might evoke more distraction or cause more confusion than is appropriate for worship might work better, but can still suffer in the distillation process.) For one thing, many contemporary settings of the Ordinary are uneven in quality, some markedly so, and there’s a benefit from having their weaker portions omitted rather than included for the sake of the optimum of the rule.

      1. Karl,

        I have the same feeling about Ordinary settings. The texts are of such extremely different character and length that I’m not even quite sure what it would mean to have a “musically unified suite”. And they are separated from each other by so much liturgical time that I’m not sure it matters what key they are in. Attempts I have seen to actually unify melodies between texts often seem procrustean to me. In practice I just take that to mean if the Gloria is chant-style the rest will be chant-style. And if the Gloria is metrical vernacular hymn style, I look for a a similar style in the other texts.

      2. Jared

        I have less particular concern about the style of the introductory rites parts of the Ordinary differing from the style of later ritual parts thereof. But in any event, I’ve yet to encounter a setting by a major market publisher that doesn’t have un-even quality issues (that doesn’t mean I’ve witnessed them all, just witnessing what appears for better or worse to attract the leadership of parishes I’ve encountered in the US New England and Mid-Atlantic states), with some have more than others. Unfortunately, the amberizing effects of copyright law obstruct crowd-sourced modification for improvement, as it were.

        For example, were someone to implement this particular directive to require that all of the parts of the Mass of Creation needed to be deployed, I’d ditch it from the repertoire – that Lamb of God has never persuaded me of its merit. It’s hardly as egregious as others, but regardless of pre vs post 2011, it’s always stuck out like a sore thumb, not even homely or even useful as a vocalise… (I would describe the Memorial Acclamation and Amen of that setting as homely, not lovely, but OK enough). (And I am on record as saying that not all chants are equally lovely or meritorious, so I am not coming at this from uncritical nostalgia for Liturgical Never Never Land).

  8. By treating liturgical music (or liturgical translations) in isolation as in this letter, we miss a unified view of the liturgy as the work of our redemption. That is why documents that treat all aspects of the liturgy, such as Sacrosanctum Concilium, are so much more valuable. Then we can see that we are not merely singing in fulfillment of this or that directive.

    Our brother Alexander places strong weight on the principle of singing the mass, rather than singing at mass. I would like to hear our colleagues from Psallite chime in here, given what they are trying to achieve. Personally, I don’t think it would matter which of the two we end up singing if presider, lectors and other ministers, as well as assembly, just repeat passively without engaging. I heartily agree with him that houses of prayer should not be turned into recital halls.

    Our brother makes no mention of that nationally known music publishing house located in Portland. Could it be that he feels that publishers don’t measure up as gatekeepers for acceptable sacred music? Or is it that too many music directors have abandoned the Spirit for the Dove? Music editors, your turn!

  9. I too am looking forward to Pray-Tell’s commentary.
    Archbishop Sample’s PDX letter is a word-for word copy of his 2013 Letter to the Archdiocese of Marquette, with a few additions and one subtraction (copyrights). OCP has published a letter in response to the Letter.
    The NPM Chapter in Portland begins a discussion of the letter next month, so ideas/reactions/specific comments about specific points from around the country would be most helpful locally. In the meantime, some thoughts…
    A central reason for this “school of thought” about music is a desire to restore/maintain the transcendent experience of God in ritual music. The pre-Vatican II principles developed to support/justify the Chant revival (1905-1960) in the Caecilian Movement regarding chant, namely, Holiness, Beauty and Universality are being used as THE (only) criteria by which post-Vatican II music is being judged. Of course, we know that Univera Laus expanded the Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy’s directive regarding music’s relationship to the Sacred Action of the Liturgy [i.e., the ministerial function of SC 112] and uses this principle to evaluate [post-Vatican II] vernacular music. In the Archbishop’s Letter, this sacred action is mentioned, but the principle is not utilized to evaluate music. Nor is it used in the CIMS material .
    Something fundamental happened in our religious experience when the importance of the assembly’s participation in the act of worship was re-discovered in the Liturgical Movement and codified at Vatican II. Something fundamental happened when the Concillium mandated the vernacular in the liturgy. Something fundamental happened when Catholics worshiped in their own language. The fundamental meaning of the Liturgy changed, not just in theory, but in experience. There is a connection between Assembly participation and the use of the vernacular to the use of hymnody…obvious in the 500 years of ecumenically experience. We have not yet sufficiently explored this connection academically. I look forward to comments.
    Rev. Virgil C. Funk,
    President Emeritus, Nat. Assn…

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