Introduction to
The Roman Catholic Musical Tradition

By Rev. Robert Skeris

Roman Catholics believe that the Sacred Liturgy is the
worship ("divine service") that the mystical Christ--that is,
the Church as a community in association with Christ its
Head--offers to the Heavenly Father. The Mass consists in
the celebration and application of the Redemption that takes
place through the hierarchical priesthood and the universal
priesthood of the baptized, in the form of sacramental
actions. "Worthy art thou, our Lord and God, to receive glory
and honour and power, for Thou didst create all things, and
by Thy will they existed and were created" (Apoc. 4:11).

Musica sacra (sacred music), or cultic song, is both sung
prayer and prayerful song: those holy words that are offered
to God together with the cultic action itself, being sung as a
part of the very ritual of worship. Song in Catholic worship is
prayer that is simultaneously intensified and enhanced by
increased fervor and devotion. It is by no means a
decorative adjunct or a mere ornament but rather, according
to St. Pius X, a "necessary or integral part of the solemn
liturgy." Sacred music, in other words, is a part of the whole
that shares in the basic meaning of that total action and
serves its fundamental purpose, namely, the glory of God
and the sanctification of the faithful. It is a "necessary" part
and not merely a peripheral addition, for it belongs integrally
to worship, to the full and complete form of sacred ritual
action--at least, whenever that sacred action makes use not
only of the signs and symbols but also of words.

Sacred music will fulfill its task and "function as a sign" the
more meaningfully, the more intimately it is linked to the
liturgical action. And the liturgical action to which sacred
music is so intimately linked, is in fact an actio
praecellenter sacra
, that is, a sacred action surpassing all
others (Vatican II). In accordance with this clear statement
of Catholic teaching, therefore, one demand must be made
of singing and music in liturgy as an integral part of worship:
They must be holy. Sacred music is called for, which
means in practice that it must be free from all that is
profane, both in itself and in the manner of performance.
Such sacred music significantly contributes to the glory of
God and the sanctification of the faithful by its winning
expression of prayerfulness, by its promotion of solidarity
through unanimous congregational participation at specified
times, and by enriching the Divine Liturgy with heightened

The treasure of immeasurable value, greater than even that
of any other art, which is the musical tradition of the Church
Universal, is to be preserved and fostered with very great
care (Vatican II). In present usage, the term "sacred music"
includes Gregorian chant, sacred choral music (polyphony)
both ancient and modern, sacred music for instruments
such as the organ and other approved instruments, and
sacred music for congregational hymnody. When a choral
(polyphonic) setting of the chants for the Ordinary of the
Mass is used, these chants may be sung by the choir alone
in the customary way, that is, either a cappella or with
instrumental accompaniment. The congregation, however,
must not be altogether left out of the singing for the Mass.

The Roman Catholic church acknowledges Gregorian chant
as proper to the Roman liturgy and therefore states that,
other things being equal, it should be given pride of place in
liturgical services (Vatican II). What makes Gregorian chant
"liturgical" to such a great degree is the unity between text
and music that the chant exemplifies so perfectly. The
melody is at the service of the word: it adapts itself both to
the accentual structure of the text and to its liturgical
function. A truly sacred music must, so to speak, be ready to
serve as the body in which the spirit contained in the words
manifests itself in sound. It can rightly be called the "sonic
vesture of the liturgy." Today, such music is frequently
regarded as superfluous in a world governed by technology
and economics; and that constitutes its misery as well as its

Back to the Roman Catholic Musical Tradition


St. Peters Basilica, Rome
(Click the image for a larger view)
The papal altar in St. Peter’s