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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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“How can we enter into this interior disposition except by turning physically—all together, priest and faithful—toward the Lord who comes, toward the East symbolized by the apse where the cross is enthroned? The outward orientation leads us to the interior orientation that it symbolizes. Since apostolic times, Christians have been familiar with this way of praying. It is not a matter of celebrating with one’s back to the people or facing them, but toward the East, «ad Dominum», toward the Lord.”
— Robert Cardinal Sarah, Prefect of the Vatican's Congregation for Divine Worship (October 2016)

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Instruction on Sacred Music by Bishop John Doerfler
published 24 April 2016 by Fr. David Friel

ARLIER THIS YEAR, Bishop John Doerfler, the Ordinary of the Diocese of Marquette, Michigan, issued a very brief Instruction on Sacred Music in Divine Worship. This short letter crafts a bold vision for the future of sacred music in his territory, laying out a very concrete 5-year plan. Much of what the Instruction requires seems very good, but there are a few aspects of its requirements that leave open questions.

First, among the strongest points of Bishop Doerfler’s letter is the requirement that every parish & school “learn to chant the Communion Antiphon in English to a very simple tone that everyone can sing.” The letter further stipulates that this will be required at every Sunday Mass, permitting a hymn to be sung only after the chanting of the Communion Antiphon. The antiphons in the Missal, of course, are not the actual propers of the Mass, but chanting the antiphon would constitute, in most places, an enormous step in the direction of the propers.

Another part of the Instruction that I was pleased to see is the Bishop’s encouragement for all parishes & schools to learn the English Mass Ordinary chants as given in the Missal and the Latin Ordinary as set in the Missa Iubilate Deo. These settings should be universally known among Anglophones, and they should serve as the foundational ordinary chants for every parish & school. In Marquette, by December 31, 2020, they will.

Perhaps the best part of the Instruction is not a requirement, but a promise. Toward the end of the letter, Bishop Doerfler writes this:

The Diocesan Director of Sacred Music will provide annual, regional workshops for parish musicians to assist them in the implementation of these directives. He will also assist music teachers in Catholic schools to implement Sacred Music in the school curriculum and at school Masses. Finally, he stands at the service of parishes upon request to help implement Sacred Music in other ways.

It is no good, of course, to make mandates without the promise of support & resources. That Bishop Doerfler included this promise of multi-faceted support is essential.

This brief Instruction offers limited detail about a major reform to be undertaken, namely, the institution of a diocesan hymnal. Such a project will surely by criticized by some as too much of a micromanaging approach. Given the low quality of most mainstream publications, however, a case could be made in favor of the uniform approach that Marquette is embracing.

What is not entirely clear from the Instruction is whether parish and school choirs will be permitted to sing pieces from the choral tradition that one would not find published in a hymnal. Will polyphonic Masses, for example, be permitted? Will music directors be free to maintain their repertoire of quality motets and anthems? The bishop’s letter states that, after the publication of the new diocesan hymnal, “permission may be requested from the Diocesan Bishop to use choral settings that are not for congregational singing and are not in the diocesan hymnal.” Does this really mean that singing anything not published in the pages of the diocesan hymnal must receive the express permission of the bishop? It is hard to imagine a diocesan liturgy office efficiently responding to such requests.

Whether or not a diocesan hymnal is a good idea will be debated, I am sure. Of more significance to me, though, is the shape that this hymnal will take. So many English language hymnals are heavily slanted toward hymnody, with very little space devoted to the propers & ordinary. This is largely due to the influence of the Protestant liturgical tradition. I am hopeful that the structure and balance of this new hymnal, however, will reflect the priority on the propers and ordinary that is so prevalent throughout the bishop’s Instruction.

What are your thoughts about Bishop Doerfler’s Instruction on Sacred Music in Divine Worship? Are you grateful for it? What strengths/weaknesses do you see in it? What opportunities/limitations do you see in it?