About this blogger:
A theorist, organist, and conductor, Jeff Ostrowski holds his B.M. in Music Theory from the University of Kansas (2004), and did graduate work in Musicology. He serves as choirmaster for the new FSSP parish in Los Angeles, where he lives with his wife and two children.
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"No concession should ever be made for the singing of the Exultet, in whole or in part, in the vernacular."
— Fr. Augustin Bea, S.J. in the years immediately before the Second Vatican Council

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Archbishop Sample's Letter On Sacred Music (1 of 8)
published 16 June 2014 by Jeff Ostrowski

365 Archbishop Alexander K. Sample YPERBOLE IS RIFE on the internet, and writers who abuse it do great damage to their credibility. However, no hyperbole is involved in the following statement.

Anyone interested in the sacred liturgy must read this letter:

      * *  Archbishop Sample • 2013 Letter (PDF)

His document is so momentous that each of our contributors will be reflecting on it this week.

AS WATERSHED PRESIDENT, my job is to introduce this series. Where to begin? Every time I read it, I’m almost physically knocked down by its sheer power and brilliance. A year ago, I quoted some highlights, but these barely scratch the surface. Therefore, let’s start at the very beginning.

The current state of Catholic music is heartbreaking. For example, a Catholic Church near my house uses secular styles at Mass — complete with Rock 'n’ Roll drums & guitars — and the congregation usually applauds at the conclusion of the more “stirring” numbers. When I attend Mass at such churches, I can’t shake the feeling that music, more than anything else, sets the tone for worship. Now, consider how Archbishop Sample begins his letter:

In any discussion of the ars celebrandi (“art of celebrating”) as it relates to the Holy Mass, perhaps nothing is more important or has a greater impact than the place of sacred music. The beauty, dignity and prayerfulness of the Mass depend to a large extent on the music that accompanies the liturgical action.

His Excellency is standing up for the truth! He opposes the sentiment we so often encounter: “Give the people what they like. If they like Rock, give them Rock at church. If they like Jazz, give them Jazz during Mass.” Music directors know how difficult it is to respond to such an argument, especially when put forward by an angry parishioner. No matter what we say, the perception is that we want to take away “what people like.” Why should parishioners pay the salary of someone who “takes away” what they like? Archbishop Sample’s letter deals with this topic.

I recently attended a wedding reception, and everyone formed a giant formation on the dance floor. A rap song was calling out directions, and everyone had a blast hopping and swaying about. (Somehow, they all had the dance memorized.) It struck me: wouldn’t this music be fun at Mass? After all, we constantly hear how we must choose music that people can “enjoy” and easily take part in. What, then, would be wrong with this rap song & dancing? Archbishop Sample explains why this cannot happen, no matter what Catholics may have done over the last forty years in certain localities.

Again, I say: Read his letter! Once you’ve read it, do you not feel energized? Does he not treat this subject carefully? Is he not joyful, yet firm? Is he not hopeful, yet honest? Friends, I implore you … read his letter, and you’ll be inspired. If standing on my head would make you read this letter, I would stand on my head!

WHEN ARCHBISHOP SAMPLE’S LETTER first appeared, it infuriated certain groups who have been promoting secular musical styles at Mass (even though Vatican II never allowed such things). I remember reading a particularly silly assault wherein the attacker tallied Sample’s citations and then proceeded to pit pre-conciliar documents against post-conciliar documents. The attacker’s argument was that if Archbishop Sample used more citations from pre-1963, that “proved” he didn’t sufficiently accept Vatican II. However, such Mickey Mouse games determine nothing in the end, because the Church has produced tons of liturgical legislation over the last century — too much, if you ask me!  This “citation game” allowed the attacker to avoid addressing the letter’s substance.

By the way, I have nothing against citations: in fact, Watershed is second-to-none when it comes to supporting our claims with clear references. Whenever possible, we upload the entire source document, even though this has filled our servers with thousands of pages! The point is, for serious clerics like Archbishop Sample, who possess a deep understanding of prayer, citations are only a means to an end. To put it another way, approaching the Church’s prayer from an “academic” standpoint is only part of the equation: even more important is cultivation of a strong relationship with Jesus Christ.

THAT BRINGS ME to another important aspect of this document: its author refuses to get bogged down in legalism or technicalities. This feat is harder than one might think, since the subject matter is so complex, ancient, and mysterious. Perhaps an example will illustrate what I mean. The 2011 General Instruction of the Roman Missal makes this declaration:

Songs or hymns may not be used in place of the responsorial psalm.   [Section 61]

Yet, the official rubrics of the Ordinary Form (as found in the Ordo Cantus Missae) clearly state that the following may replace the Responsorial Psalm on Trinity Sunday:

364 General Instruction of the Roman Missal


It’s become popular to interpret the GIRM in a legalistic way that fails to take into account the Church’s musical tradition. When presented with items like this, those advocating legal positivism become perplexed.

But true liturgists like Archbishop Sample understand that the entire musical tradition of the Church must be taken into consideration, and unbalanced views — however “clever and imaginative” — must never be tolerated. Those in Sample’s camp continually study this tradition, allowing them to understand the context and nuance of ecclesiastical legislation. Just as “football” can refer to completely different sports, depending on whether you’re in the USA or Europe, the mere title of “hymn” does not convey all relevant information about a piece of music.

FOR THOSE OF US called to the field of Sacred music, Archbishop Sample’s memorandum is pure gold. Each sentence is better than the next. And, as an added bonus, what other USA bishop ever published a glorious sentence like this?

Sacred polyphony is composed in a particular musical form and is most often associated with the Renaissance and composers such as Palestrina, Victoria, Tallis, Allegri and the like.

Each of our contributors will be publishing an article talking about Archbishop Sample’s letter this week. Enjoy!


This is part of an 8-part series on Archbishop Sample’s historic letter:

FIRST REFLECTION • Jeff Ostrowski

SECOND REFLECTION • Aurelio Porfiri

THIRD REFLECTION • Andrew Motyka

FOURTH REFLECTION • Peter Kwasniewski

FIFTH REFLECTION • Richard Clark

SIXTH REFLECTION • Veronica Brandt

SEVENTH REFLECTION • Fr. David Friel

EIGHTH REFLECTION • Gwyneth Holston