What should Catholic music sound like?

Music in the Liturgy is a new CTS title, an introduction for those with some interest though perhaps not an expertise in this area.

Here the author, Ben Whitworth, explains the genesis of the text and his reasons for writing it.

What does the Catholic Mass sound like? Most people outside the Church would expect the music of Catholic worship to involve Gregorian chant and choral polyphony. This was certainly how I imagined Catholic Church music before I had ever been to a Mass. And, as it happens, my expectations were fulfilled: at the age of eighteen I went to the Catholic Chaplaincy in Cambridge, and experienced a sung Latin Mass with a polyphonic choir.

However, I soon discovered that this was far from typical of Catholic Sunday worship; and I began to wonder why. Now, after twenty years in the pews, and fifteen years in the choir lofts of Catholic parish churches, I am still intrigued by the wide variety of music that is heard in our Eucharistic celebrations.

Pope Benedict XVI has stated: “Certainly, as far as the liturgy is concerned, we cannot say that one song is as good as another.”

But what are the criteria for evaluating liturgical song? What does the Church propose as suitable music for Mass? What can we draw from the long tradition of Catholic music? How should we choose what is sung, and by whom? What, indeed, is liturgical music for?

These questions came into focus for me a few years ago, when I was asked to help with music for Masses at the Italian Chapel in Orkney. This is an extraordinary place of worship – built and decorated by Italian prisoners-of-war during World War II – and it seemed imperative to get things right. But how?

I have tried to address this question in my booklet by returning to the sources of a Christian understanding of music: sacred Scripture; the lives of the Saints; the writings of the Fathers and the great theologians; the teaching of Popes and Councils; the history of sacred music; and the liturgical books themselves.

Of course, whole books have been written on this subject (recent volumes by William Mahrt, Joseph P. Swain, and Anthony Ruff are particularly stimulating). What I have tried to produce is a concise overview, for the non-specialist reader, of the theology, history, and current practice of music at Mass, taking into account the new English translation of the Roman Missal and the resources that are available today. I hope it will prove interesting, informative and thought-provoking for musicians, clergy, or anyone who simply wants to know more about what we sing in church.

Music in the Liturgy by Ben Whitworth, is available from CTS priced £2.50

Read an extract


Of related interest:

Sacrifice in the Liturgy –Bishop Peter Elliot helps us to understand the Christian sacrifice given to us at the Last Supper by reflecting on the shape of the liturgy, its actions and symbols, particularly the altar and sacred space set apart for the Eucharistic sacrifice.
Participating in the Mass – Abbot Cuthbert Johnson OSB, provides an informative, step-by-step guide to the celebration of the Mass, to enable the Liturgy to be celebrated with reverence, dignity and beauty.
RM08 Missa Cantata – Organ music to accompany the singing of those parts of the new English Mass translation sung by the entire assembly.

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