Pope Francis and Sacred Musicians Call for the Reform of the Refrain

The Holy Father asks the faithful to renew the music tradition of the Church.

Choir for the papal general audience Nov. 14, 2012, in Paul VI Hall.
Choir for the papal general audience Nov. 14, 2012, in Paul VI Hall. (photo: Matthew Rarey/CNA)

VATICAN CITY — Pope Francis has called for the renewal of sacred music in the life of the Church and urged the faithful to restore sacred music’s position within the Church and its engagement with culture.

The Holy Father’s March 4 address to a conference convened for the 50th anniversary of Musicam Sacram recognized that sacred music had often suffered since the Second Vatican Council. The “Instruction on the Music of the Liturgy,” released March 5, 1967, addressed the “ministerial role” of sacred music and established norms for pastors, musicians and the faithful to observe regarding music in the liturgy.

The instruction set out four types of sacred music: “Gregorian chant, sacred polyphony in its various forms, both ancient and modern, sacred music for the organ and other approved instruments, and sacred popular music, be it liturgical or simply religious.”

In his remarks, Pope Francis highlighted that sacred music has suffered in modernity: “At times, a certain mediocrity, superficiality and banality have prevailed, to the detriment of the beauty and intensity of liturgical celebrations.”

Musicians, composers, conductors and singers in scholae cantorum, he said, “can make a precious contribution to the renewal” of sacred music, he said, while also highlighting the need for “appropriate musical formation” of the faithful, including seminarians, to accompany their contributions.

One day later, an international statement, Cantate Domino, was published by 200 pastors, musicians and scholars to highlight the history of sacred music since Vatican II and to suggest means to restore what “will always be a gift of beauty to future generations.”


Making a New Song

One of the Church’s key challenges in renewing sacred music involves how contemporary culture understands the role of music in the first place.

Jennifer Donelson, music director at St. Joseph’s Seminary in the Archdiocese of New York, told the Register that “music has tended to be something consumed rather than produced.”

“People are used to listening to professionals make music rather than making it on their own,” she said.

Another aspect of sacred music in parish life predates the Second Vatican Council. Kurt Poterack, a music professor at Christendom College, a Catholic liberal arts college in northern Virginia, told the Register that Catholics in the U.S. have generally had a “low Mass culture [in which the congregation remains silent], and it continues into this day, long past Vatican II.”

“Whether the style of music is the Church’s traditional music, or pop, people prefer to be mute,” he explained.

The constant challenge, he said, is getting people to sing, “and the only way you can do that is by constant repetition.”


Teaching Seminarians

Seminaries are ground zero for training the Church’s future leadership in the lived experience of sacred music.

At St. Joseph’s Seminary, Donelson said, students are taught “a repertoire of hymnody and settings of the Mass ordinary, how to sing the Liturgy of the Hours in common, and how to sing the priest’s parts of the Mass.”

At the Athenaeum, the Archdiocese of Cincinnati’s seminary, every seminarian cantors a daily Mass and belongs to the seminary schola. Mary Catherine Levri, the music director, said that, for seminarians, “It takes a lot of courage. It can be a vulnerable thing, hearing your voice out there all on its own.”

But, she said, “The Church is their bride, and it only makes sense to me that they would be educated in the beauty of their bride.”

Levri told the Register that educating seminarians in sacred music has a ripple effect.

“What I teach them, they take to their parishes. Every priest well educated in music might be 5,000 people well-educated, or 200 people well-educated, if it’s a small parish.”


Singing From an Early Age

Many church musicians believe that restoring the Church’s sacred music tradition will depend on successfully teaching it to children.

“We’re really missing the boat if we start with adults. By then, it’s too late,” Jeffrey Morse, a Gregorian chant teacher living in California, told the Register.

Morse told the Register that children’s choirs that offer a thorough education in sacred music, like Gregorian chant, and voice instruction can happen in parishes. But it requires hiring professionals.

“By hiring a musician who knows what he’s doing, they can become a real cultural center,” he said.

Scott Turkington, the sacred music director at Church of the Holy Family and its school in St. Louis Park, Minnesota, agreed. He told the Register that, in his experience, “Kids love chant.” At the school, they begin learning simple chants in third grade and can sing complicated chant in eighth grade.

“Singing is a normal part of our kid’s lives. They sing six times a week at Mass, and they have music classes,” he said.

Turkington feels that if children do not gain those skills in school, they will never get the same opportunity again. The negative effects of not teaching students to sing can extend to the parish, Turkington said. Because if the priest, parents and children are not singing, “at the end of the day, nobody’s singing.”

In the Diocese of Marquette, Michigan, Bishop John Doerfler released a letter in 2016 with directives to help the faithful sing the Mass. All parishes and schools within the diocese will learn to chant “the ordinary parts of the Mass,” the Kyrie, Sanctus and Agnus Dei, and the Communion antiphon.

Bishop Doerfler told the Register, “Building a culture of sacred music is something that takes some time,” but “beauty has this capacity of moving the heart and mind to God,” and embracing it, in the form of sacred music, “has a way of really lifting us to a deeper union with the Lord.”


Composers Respond

Peter Kwasniewski, a professor at Wyoming Catholic College and a sacred music composer, told the Register that new music should reflect the individuality of the composer, but also belong to the tradition that precedes it.

“All great art is necessarily in a kind of creative continuity with the past; it’s always a dialogue of this generation with the past,” he said.

Daniel Knaggs, a composer and music director at St. Martha Catholic Church in Kingwood, Texas, told the Register in an email that “the most important way to contribute to the renewal of sacred music is to do so in love. The very first priority is to realize the big picture: It’s not about winning arguments about this style versus that one.”

While education and technical expertise are important, he said, “It’s about loving others and loving God first and foremost.”

“If true charity is the reason behind what we are doing,” said Knaggs, “that already accomplishes so much good.”



Register correspondent Nicholas Wolfram Smith writes from Rochester, New York.