Carol Fiel directs the choir and urges the congregation to join in during a 2017 St. John the Baptist Mission in Clatskanie. (Ed Langlois/Catholic Sentinel)
Carol Fiel directs the choir and urges the congregation to join in during a 2017 St. John the Baptist Mission in Clatskanie. (Ed Langlois/Catholic Sentinel)

Archbishop Alexander Sample on Jan. 25 released a pastoral letter to the Archdiocese of Portland on sacred music for Mass, seeking to highlight “perennial truths”: sanctity, beauty and universality.

“Only music which possesses all three of these qualities is worthy of Holy Mass,” Archbishop Sample writes, explaining that ancient or modern music can qualify but that Gregorian chant is the preferred music for Roman Catholic worship.

“Sing to the Lord a New Song,” a 21-page letter, seeks more chant at Masses and urges all parishes to try to get a pipe organ.

“The beauty, dignity and prayerfulness of the Mass depend to a large extent on the music that accompanies the liturgical action,” the archbishop writes.  

He cites many popes, including Pope Francis, who warned of “mediocrity, superficiality and banality” in liturgy.

When it comes to choosing music for Mass, the archbishop holds that there are objective principles, not simply taste.

Sacred music’s purpose is the glory of God and the sanctification of the faithful, he writes, explaining that sanctity, beauty and universality are the essential qualities that flow from that dual purpose.

Not every form or style of music is capable of being rendered suitable for the Mass, he writes. As examples, he says that the Gloria of the Mass in a polka beat or in rock style is not sacred.

The archbishop explains that Gregorian chant has long held “pride of place” in Roman Catholic liturgical music, a statement reiterated during Vatican II. Popes John Paul II and Benedict XVI and the U.S. Catholic bishops restated this teaching.

Pope Pius XI urged that the faithful be taught to sing chant.

“Given all of this strong teaching from the Popes, the Second Vatican Council, and the U.S. Bishops, how is it that this ideal concerning Gregorian chant has not been realized in the Church?” the archbishop writes. “Far from enjoying a pride of place in the Church’s Sacred Liturgy, one rarely if ever hears Gregorian chant. This is a situation which must be rectified.”

The Vatican II documents, the archbishop reminds readers, also laud Renaissance polyphony by artists such as Palestrina and Thomas Tallis.

Popular sacred music is part of the church’s treasury of music, the archbishop writes. That does not mean pop culture, he explains, but hymns and vernacular Mass settings. The archbishop said European musical culture is not the only source of sacred music. In mission lands, sacred music from other cultures is part of the treasure of the church, he writes.

But “any composition of sacred music, even one which reflects the unique culture of a particular region, would still be easily recognized as having a sacred character,” he writes. Holiness, he concludes, “is a universal principle that transcends culture.” 

The archbishop thanks and lauds musicians who labored after the Second Vatican Council to help renew sacred liturgy and acknowledged that his letter will create a difficult shift for some of them. 

“Change can be difficult, but this can also be an exciting time of rediscovering the spirit of the liturgy and exploring new horizons of sacred music,” he writes. “Through education and formation, the Archdiocese will attempt to provide all the support, encouragement and assistance it can to musicians in implementing the Church’s vision and norms for sacred music.”

Guidelines set out in the letter should be integrated into the life of parishes, missions and schools in the archdiocese, the archbishop writes, saying they also apply to weddings and funerals.

The change will take time and patience, he explains, adding that he is counting on church musicians to carry the renewal forward.

I am very excited about Archbishop Sample's pastoral letter on sacred music,” says Msgr. Gerard O’Connor, director of divine worship for the archdiocese. “It is an excellent document, written with a realistic view of the current pastoral situation in light of an objective look at what the Church teaches and promotes with regard to sacred music.”

According to Msgr. O’Connor, Mass is strongly impacted by the musical forms used. “When we talk about the celebration of the Church’s rites we have to understand the mind of the Church with regard to music they require.”

The letter promotes “a Vatican II vision of music in the liturgy,” Msgr. O’Connor says. “It brings to the forefront the Vatican II vision that Sunday Mass should be sung and not that we should just place three or four hymns throughout the Mass.”

He will be helping parishes apply ideas from the pastoral letter.

“We share Archbishop Sample’s concern and passion for the quality and beauty of the liturgy,” said Wade Wisler, publisher of Portland-based Oregon Catholic Press, the largest U.S. producer of Catholic liturgical music and owner of this newspaper. “We invest enormous resources on that, helping parishes to prepare and celebrate rich, beautiful, inspiring liturgies that conform to the mind of the church and encourage the ‘full, conscious and active participation’ of the faithful.”

Archbishop Sample is chairman of the board for OCP, which serves dioceses all over the world and includes music with influences from Latin America and Asia.

“I look forward to continuing our partnership with the archbishop and the Archdiocese of Portland in whatever way we can to achieve that common goal,” Wisler said, explaining that OCP “publishes music from all eras, in many styles, and in many languages, including more traditional forms.”

The Archdiocese of Omaha recently created a tradition-minded core repertoire of worship music for Mass and OCP had more titles on the list than any other publisher. Wisler said that songs considered for addition to OCP missals go out to a committee of theologians for review to make sure they abide by church documents and guidelines.

Wisler did affirm the notion that modern music can be sacred. “The Spirit is constantly inspiring new forms that speak to and address the needs of every age, which are unique,” he said.