Catholic Diocese of Spokane, Washington

From the

Official News Magazine of the Diocese of Spokane

Deacon Eric Meisfjord, Editor
P.O. Box 48, Spokane WA 99210
(509) 358-7340; FAX: (509) 358-7302

Liturgy Reflections
What musical style is the liturgy?

by Father Jan Larson

(From the Dec. 7, 2006 edition of the Inland Register)

Father Jan Larson Liturgies may be said to have different styles due to a number of factors. There is the personality and personal style of the presiding priest, the preparations that went into the liturgy, and certainly the size and makeup and mood of the assembly. Even the design of the worship space dictates, to some extent, the style of the liturgy.

But certainly the factor which is noticed by so many worshippers is the music. In fact, it is still common today for people to speak of “the choir Mass” or “the guitar Mass” (originally known as “the folk Mass”). Some even speak of the “organ liturgy.”

Early Christians were opposed to the use of musical instruments in the liturgy. They believed, as did the pagans, that music promoted moral decay, and that there was a close relationship between music and the pagan cult of the idols. Thus St. Clement of Alexandria condemned flute music because it was “a chain in a bridge of sensual love and idle impulses,” and he rejected the noise of cymbal and tambourine because it made one forget propriety and morality.

This would change with the passage of time, and by the end of the first thousand years the organ was appearing in the great churches of Europe, an instrument that is still held in high esteem in the history and practice of liturgical music. The liturgical reforms of Vatican II would open the door for the possible use of any instrument in the liturgy: “Other instruments may also be admitted for use in divine worship, with the knowledge and consent of the competent territorial authority.… This applies, however, only on condition that the instruments are suitable, or can be made suitable, for sacred use, are in accord with the dignity of the place of worship, and truly contribute to the uplifting of the faithful.”

Most people have their favorite instrumental music, and there are always various opinions about what might be appropriate at the liturgy. We were so suspicious of guitars being allowed into the church after Vatican II that one bishop issued a decree that his parishes could introduce guitar music into the liturgy, but only if the guitarist was not visible to the congregation – the musician must play the instrument while hidden away in some adjoining room. There were also many people who were uncomfortable with the idea of a piano appearing in a church. A piano, after all, might suggest music for people who are happy, festive, and enjoying themselves – a concept that some people still feel is in conflict with liturgical celebration.

Today we realize that these kinds of suspicions hold little water. We confidently point to the ancient Psalm 150 with its invitation to “praise God with timbrel and dance, praise him with sounding cymbals!” So today, pianos and electronic keyboards are common in parishes, for they have met the test. The music that musicians offer on these instruments helps foster the full, conscious, and active participation of the assembly – the most important criterion for introducing anything into our liturgical rites.

(Father Larson is a priest of and liturgical consultant for the Archdiocese of Seattle.)

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