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Why do we never sing “De Spiritu Sancto” (St. Athenogenes) in our churches? There are a dozen translations in English verse. Where could anyone find a better evening hymn than this, coming right down from the catacombs? Our hymnbooks know nothing of such a treasure as this, and give us pages of poor sentiment in doggerel lines by some tenth-rate modern versifier.
— Rev’d Adrian Fortescue (d. 1923)

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Sacred Music As Entertainment
published 10 July 2014 by Guest Author

0319_Card-Flute-LG UMMER AND AUTUMN in the Midwestern United States are filled with church and parish festivals. Anyone armed with a copy of the diocesan newspaper, opened to the “date book” section, could spend every weekend or so visiting a new city, a new parish, and taking in the sights and sounds of the parish festival. These festivals, however, also bring out the annual “Polka Mass” for the parish.

If you’re not familiar with the “Polka Mass,” it is a regularly celebrated Ordinary Form Mass in which the music is done by a polka band and choir. The Ordinary of the Mass and all the hymns are sung in the style of polka music. Unfortunately, very often the texts of the Ordinary are paraphrased, changed, or from previous English translations. The melodies are often traditional polka tunes with the Mass text or hymn pasted onto the melody. While it’s not my desire now to critique these so-called “Polka Masses,” a recent headline in a Midwestern newspaper encouraged me to think.

The headline read Polka choir marks 40 years of entertaining. Entertaining? A church choir is all about entertaining? I wasn’t taught that in my years of seminary. And yet there are so many people who feel that Mass needs to be more “fun” (or, in other words, “entertaining”). If only the choir wasn’t so dull, some say, those pews might be full. It’s really one symptom of a larger problem that the headline alludes to: is Sacred Music simply for entertainment value?

ET’S TAKE A LOOK AT SOME of the Church’s teaching in regard to Sacred Music. St. Pius X in his motu proprio Tra le Sollecitudini calls Sacred Music “a complementary part of the solemn liturgy” and states that its “principal office is to clothe with suitable melody the liturgical text proposed for the understanding of the faithful” and that its “proper aim is to add greater efficacy to the text.” I don’t see anything in there about Sacred Music’s entertainment of the congregation.

In Pius XII’s encyclical Musicae Sacrae, Pius explains that Sacred Music has a special power and excellence that should lift up to God the minds of the faithful who are present. Pius further explains that Sacred Music “should make the liturgical prayers of the Christian community more alive and fervent so that everyone can praise and beseech the Triune God more powerfully, more intently, and more effectively.”

Finally, the 1967 Instruction on Music in the Liturgy, Musicam Sacram, from the Sacred Congregation of Rites, written after the Second Vatican Council, makes clear that the duty of the choir is “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.”

HAT IS THE POINT OF ALL THIS? Sacred Music and the choir of a church aren’t there for entertainment value. Music isn’t part of the liturgy to add “spice and flavor” to the liturgical action. St. Pius X described Sacred Music’s function as “suitably clothing” the liturgical text and its aim as adding greater value to the text. Pius XII elucidated the effect that Sacred Music has on making the community’s prayers more alive and more fervent, so that everyone can praise and entreat God “more powerfully, more intently and more effectively.” Musicam Sacram continues in this thread by stating clearly that a choir should encourage the active participation of the faithful in the singing.

The Liturgy and Sacred Music aren’t the theatre―a place built for entertainment―but rather a place for worship of God and prayer to Him. The Liturgy is “a sacred action surpassing all others; no other action of the Church can equal its efficacy by the same title and to the same degree” (as says Sacrosanctum Concilium). We go to theatres and cinemas for entertainment. The newspaper article I read headlined the forty years of “entertaining” that that polka choir has done: I hope there’s also been forty years of encouraging the active participation of the faithful in the singing; and “suitably clothing” the liturgical text so that the community’s prayers can be more alive and fervent.


We hope you enjoyed this guest post by Fr. Alan M. Guanella.