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Ordained in 2011, Father Friel served for five years as Parochial Vicar at St. Anselm Parish in Northeast Philly. He is currently studying toward an STL in sacred liturgy at The Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C.
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The soul is distracted from that which is sung by a chant that is employed for the purpose of giving pleasure. But if the singer chant for the sake of devotion, he pays more attention to what he says, both because he lingers more thereon, and because, as Augustine remarks (Confess. x, 33), “each affection of our spirit, according to its variety, has its own appropriate measure in the voice, and singing, by some hidden correspondence wherewith it is stirred.” The same applies to the hearers, for even if some of them understand not what is sung, yet they understand why it is sung, namely, for God's glory: and this is enough to arouse their devotion.
— St. Thomas Aquinas

What to Do with Musicam Sacram
published 11 January 2015 by Fr. David Friel

N THE ONE HAND, Musicam Sacram (MS) is a post-conciliar document, published two years after the close of the Second Vatican Council in 1965. On the other hand, it came two years before the publication of the revised Missal of Paul VI, which was promulgated in 1969. So, what should be done with it? Does it have any relevance or binding force today?

I received this question by email recently, and it prompted me to do a bit of thinking and researching. This is a difficult matter to address, and it is a question likely to elicit different answers from different authorities.

First, it should be established that MS is an “Instruction on Music in the Liturgy” published by the Sacred Congregation of Rites. An “Instruction” is a text that stands not so much on its own, but as a complement to another document. In this case, MS is meant as a companion to Sacrosanctum Concilium, the Council’s Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy. Thus, it is clear that MS is a document with a high level of authority.

Yet, while the document has never been formally abrogated, there are countless scholars and liturgical musicians who consider its teachings no longer applicable. The publication of the new Roman Missal in 1969, they believe, made MS obsolete. Is this true?

I would say not. After all, in the GIRM, which is a companion document to the revised Roman Missal, Musicam Sacram is cited 11 times. If MS had no binding force on the reformed liturgy, then these citations would not exist.

ERHAPS A BETTER approach, then, would be to say that certain specifics contained with MS no longer apply. For example, the former distinction between solemn, sung, and read Masses has not been retained in what we now call the Ordinary Form. Still, the general principles outlined in MS remain quite valid and very much in force.

Especially in the Ordinary Form, which allows for so many options and so much leeway, it is hard to make an argument against incorporating the principles of MS. If the principles of a more recent, non-authoritative document (such as Sing to the Lord) can be taken into account, who is to say, in the OF, that the principles of MS cannot also be taken to heart? To my mind, it seems quite laudable to apply the guidelines of MS to our present celebration of Mass.

If you are interested in a fuller treatment of this topic, there is something you should read that comes from an unlikely source. Available online is a TRANSCRIPT of five separate presentations given during the 2007 NPM Convention which (believe it or not) addressed this topic. The five lectures represent rather disparate points of view. Each lecture is worth reading, but I would say that the lecture by Dr. Ed Schaefer deserves special notice.

What to do with Musicam Sacram remains a thorny issue. Trying to reconcile, for example, the principle of “progressive solemnity” in SttL with the three-tiered structure of singing given in MS is difficult work. At the very least, the principles of MS must not be discounted outright. They should, instead, be welcomed—even studied—so as to improve our celebration of the sacred liturgy.