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What Function Does Music Serve in the Liturgy?

Jeffrey Bruno
What function does music serve within the liturgy?
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All aspects of the liturgy should aid one in holiness

Music in the liturgy is an ancient biblical tradition, continued by Jesus and his disciples (Mt. 26:30, Eph. 5:19, Col 3:16), and has played an integral role in Christian liturgy ever since. This role has always been the same: to lead the participants to holiness. Holiness is therefore the “reference point” of sacred music, as Pope John Paul II wrote.
 
As an integral part of the liturgy, music “participates in the general purpose of the liturgy, which is the glory of God and the sanctification and edification of the faithful” (Pope St. Pius X, Pontificis Maximi Acta). Music is not the center of the liturgy, but it has a privileged place within it because it sets the stage for the heart’s encounter with God through a transcendental sensory experience. For this reason, Pope Paul VI explained, “if music – instrumental and vocal – does not possess at the same time the sense of prayer, dignity, and beauty, it precludes the entry into the sphere of the sacred and the religious” (Address to the Participants in the General Assembly of the Italian Association Santa Cecilia, 18 September 1968).
 
Gregorian chant remains the Church’s preeminent form of sacred music. Popes John Paul II and Benedict have echoed the words of St. Pius X: “The more closely a composition for church approaches in its movement, inspiration, and savour the Gregorian melodic form, the more sacred and liturgical it becomes; and the more out of harmony it is with that supreme model, the less worthy it is of the temple” (Moto Proprio Tra le Sollecitudini, n. 3).
 
Today, many repertoires pass for sacred music that in fact “cannot be part of the celebration without violating the spirit and norms of the liturgy itself.” It is not, says Bl. John Paul II, a question simply of imitating Gregorian chant but rather of “ensuring that new compositions are imbued with the same spirit that inspired and little by little came to shape it.” He called for renewed and deeper thought about the principles that must form the basis for sacred music because “only in this way will musical expression … serve appropriately its ultimate aim, which is ‘the glory of God and the sanctification of the faithful.’”
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