Choral music and its place in the liturgy

Contrary to popular belief, active participation in the liturgy was not a concept created by the Second Vatican Council.

Jun 20, 2014

Contrary to popular belief, active participation in the liturgy was not a concept created by the Second Vatican Council. The words actuosa participatio can be found in the writings of the popes for the past century. Pope Pius X called for it in his Instruction on Sacred Music (Tra le sollecitudini) in 1903. Pope Pius XI also mentioned it in his apostolic constitution in 1928 on Divine Worship (Divini Cultus), and Pope Pius XIII in his encyclicals, on the Mystical Body of Christ (Mystici Corporis Christi) in 1943, and on the Sacred Liturgy (Mediator Dei) in 1947.

In 1958, the Sacred Congregation of Rites issued the instruction, De musica sacra, which distinguished several qualities of participation:

“22.a) Interior participation is the most important; this consists in paying devout attention, and in lifting up the heart to God in prayer….

b) The participation of the congregation becomes more complete, however, when, in addition to this interior disposition, exterior participation is manifested by external acts, such as bodily position (kneeling, standing, sitting), ceremonial signs, and especially responses, prayers, and singing.”

This is further solidified by the document Musicam Sacram (Instruction on Sacred Music and the Liturgy) issued by the Sacred Congregation for Divine Worship in 1967, in conjunction with the Second Vatican Council.

“15. The faithful carry out their proper liturgical function by offering their complete, conscious, and active participation. The very nature of the liturgy demands this and it is the right and duty of the Christian people by reason of their baptism.

This participation must be:
a. internal, that is, the faithful make their thoughts match what they say and hear, and cooperate with divine grace;

b. but also external, that is, they express their inner participation through their gestures, outward bearing, acclamations, responses, and song.

The faithful are also to be taught that they should try to raise their mind to God through interior participation as they listen to the singing of ministers or choir.”

It goes on to emphasise the importance of the role of choirs.

“19. Because of the liturgical ministry it performs, the choir — or the Capella musica, or schola cantorum — deserves particular mention…Its duty is, in effect, to ensure the proper performance of the parts which belong to it, according to the different kinds of music sung, and to encourage the active participation of the faithful in the singing. Therefore:

(a) There should be choirs...especially in cathedrals and other major churches, in seminaries and religious houses of studies, and they should be carefully encouraged.

(b) It would also be desirable for similar choirs to be set up in smaller churches.

20. Large choirs…existing in basilicas, cathedrals, monasteries and other major churches….should be retained for sacred celebrations of a more elaborate kind, according to their own traditional norms… However, the directors of these choirs and the rectors of the churches should take care that the people always associate themselves with the singing by performing at least the easier sections of those parts which belong to them.”

All liturgical documents pertaining to music say that choirs are to be encouraged, and that it is also to encourage active participation of the congregation. The problem is that when it comes to music, active participation has been interpreted as solely external participation. We now have an almost addiction to external participation when it comes to music in the liturgy that we consider it ‘bad liturgical practice’ if the congregation can’t sing along to every single thing.

What do we do then with the hundreds of years of music that has been written for the choir? Do we throw it all out? What do we do with new sacred choral music that is written for the liturgy? Do we disregard that?

Clearly not, as the Sacrocantun Concilium states that “The treasure of sacred music is to be preserved and fostered with great care” (114), and “Composers, filled with the Christian spirit, should feel that their vocation is to cultivate sacred music and increase its store of treasures” (121).

While it states in Musicam Sacram that “the practice of assigning the singing of the entire Proper and Ordinary of the Mass to the choir alone without the rest of the congregation is not to be permitted” (16c), it was never the Second Vatican Council’s intention to abolish choral singing.

There are many ways to balance the singing of the congregation with the choir. In most churches that have a choral tradition, the choir usually sings a mass setting in harmony with a melody that the congregation is able to sing along too. If they choose to sing polyphonic mass setting, they will usually sing the Kyrie, Gloria, Sanctus and Agnus Dei, but omit the choral setting of the Creed and the Our Father to allow the people to verbalise and sing these prayers. Here is where interior participation comes into place when the choir sings the Ordinaries (beautifully of course). In a normal parish with an existing choir or schola, this practice is usually reserved for the High/Sung Mass of that Sunday, or for particular feast days and liturgical celebrations. It is not the norm to have this for every single Mass.

There are also the other parts of Mass where the choir adds beauty with harmony by singing the harmony to the hymns, acclamations and responses with the congregation singing along. And there is of course the common practice of singing a motet during or after communion.

In all of these forms, the congregation is actively participating via interior participation by disposing themselves to the grace and beauty of choral music. But a deeper understanding of authentic participation must be realized.

Over the recent years, there has been much said about the interpretation of the term ‘active participation’, particularly by Pope Benedict XVI. The quote I will leave you with however is from St John Paul II Ad Limina Address to the Bishops of the United States On Active Participation in the Liturgy.

“Active participation certainly means that, in gesture, word, song and service, all the members of the community take part in an act of worship, which is anything but inert or passive. Yet active participation does not preclude the active passivity of silence, stillness and listening: indeed, it demands it. Worshippers are not passive, for instance, when listening to the readings or the homily, or following the prayers of the celebrant, and the chants and music of the liturgy. These are experiences of silence and stillness, but they are in their own way profoundly active. In a culture which neither favours nor fosters meditative quiet, the art of interior listening is learned only with difficulty. Here we see how the liturgy, though it must always be properly inculturated, must also be counter-cultural.”

--If you have any questions with regards to music in church please feel free to send your questions to the Archdiocesan Liturgical
Commission at

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