Contemporary Catholic liturgical music

Contemporary Catholic liturgical music encompasses a comprehensive number of styles of music for Catholic liturgy that grew both before and after the reforms of Vatican II. The dominant style in English speaking Canada and the United States began as Gregorian chant and folk hymns, superseded after the 1970s by a folk-based musical genre, generally acoustic and often slow in tempo but that has evolved into a broad contemporary range of styles reflective of certain aspects of age, culture and language. There is a marked difference between this style and those that were both common and valued in Catholic churches before Vatican II.


In the early 1950s the Jesuit priest Joseph Gelineau was active in liturgical development in several movements leading toward Vatican II.[1] In particular the new Gelineau psalmody in French (1953) and English (1963) demonstrated the feasibility and welcome use of such vernacular language settings.

Contemporary Catholic liturgical music grew after the reforms that followed the Second Vatican Council, which called for wider use of the vernacular language in the Roman Catholic Mass. The General Instruction of the Roman Missal states:

Great importance should ... be attached to the use of singing in the celebration of the Mass, with due consideration for the culture of the people and abilities of each liturgical assembly.
Although it is not always necessary (e.g. in weekday Masses) to sing all the texts that are of themselves meant to be sung, every care should be taken that singing by the ministers and the people is not absent in celebrations that occur on Sundays and on holy days of obligation.[2]

It adds:

All other things being equal, Gregorian chant holds pride of place because it is proper to the Roman Liturgy. Other types of sacred music, in particular polyphony, are in no way excluded, provided that they correspond to the spirit of the liturgical action and that they foster the participation of all the faithful.
Since the faithful from different countries come together ever more frequently, it is fitting that they know how to sing together at least some parts of the Ordinary of the Mass in Latin, especially the Creed and the Lord's Prayer, set to the simpler melodies.[3]

The reforms sparked a wide movement in the English-speaking Roman Catholic church where an entire body of older Protestant hymnody and newly composed Contemporary Catholic Liturgical Music was introduced through new hymnals such as World Library Publication's People's Mass Book, the Living Parish, We Celebrate, NALR's three volumes of Glory and Praise, and Mayhew-McCrimmon's 20th Century Folk Hymnal volumes.

A great deal of the early composed Contemporary Catholic liturgical Music of the 70s was inspired by popular music of the day, which used guitars and other instruments commonly associated with "folk" music, and included songwriters such as Ray Repp, and Joe Wise and later members of American groups such as the St. Louis Jesuits, and the Dameans. Of this group, the St. Louis Jesuits music spread widely and many compositions continue to be popular today.

In the United Kingdom, the Catholic Charismatic Movement also contributed to these changes, introducing the "praise and worship" approach to liturgical music, which was incorporated into publications by Mayhew-McCrimmond.

By the 1990s, and into the early 21st century, this style of music drew less on its folk roots but rather on a number of different styles and influences from contemporary society. In many areas of the United States, and regions throughout the English-speaking world, most or all of the music played during Sunday Mass was taken from this late 20th century body of work. As a result, traditional forms of Catholic music (such as Gregorian chant) had become rare in many churches, and unknown in some. By the year 2000 most Catholic Songbooks preferred Contemporary Catholic Liturgical Music, some hymnody, and a very small collection of Chant (which, at one point was the sine qua non of Catholic Church Music).

In addition to its spread within the American Roman Catholic community, a number of pieces from the body of late 20th century Catholic liturgical music had become commonplace among American mainline Protestants. This is true of Lutherans—particularly the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America—where both the more hymn-like assembly songs as well as portions of mass and psalm settings can be found among recent hymnals such as Evangelical Lutheran Worship and With One Voice. Marty Haugen, a Lutheran, and one of the commonly known composers, creates both Roman Catholic and Lutheran versions of his mass settings, as well as writing pieces for specifically Lutheran rites.

Although musical mass settings are not as widely used in most mainline Protestant denominations, a number of the more well-known hymns / assembly songs have been added to the traditional hymn repertoire of these churches, and appear in many late 20th century denominational hymnals. These include compositions such as Bernadette Farrell's "Christ be our Light", Dan Schutte's "Here I Am, Lord", John Foley's "One Bread, One Body", David Haas's "Blest Are They", and a number of Haugen's pieces, including "All Are Welcome", "Gather Us In", "Awake, Awake, and Greet the New Morn", and "Healer of Our Every Ill".

Musical style

The musical style of 21st Century Catholic Music varies greatly. Much of it is composed so that choir and assembly can be accompanied by organ, piano or guitar. More recently, due to style preferences and cost, trends show more and more parishes do not use the traditional pipe organ, therefore this music has generally been written for chorus with piano, guitar and/or percussion accompaniment.[4] It should be noted that some classics including "One Bread, One Body" (Foley) were arranged, often by others than the composers, for pipe organ. Although initially the late 20th century genre was "folk-sounding", it has matured over the last 30 years to a much more eclectic sound of its own.

Contemporary Catholic liturgical music makes heavy use of "responsorial" settings in which the congregation sings only a short refrain ("Glory to God in the highest") between verses entrusted to the cantor or choir. This differs from the "responsive" antiphony of Gregorian chant, in which alternate verses are divided between two bodies. Responsorial form is eminently practical in performing the psalmody of the Easter Vigil, which occurs in darkness, as well as in the absence of pew hymnals or video projectors. It has the disadvantage of excluding the congregation from full participation and some contemporary composers have preferred to through-compose their mass settings: a much anthologized "Gloria" is that from Carroll T. Andrews' A New Mass for Congregations.

The vernacular mass texts have also drawn composers who stand outside the dominant folk–popular music tradition, such as Giancarlo Menotti and Richard Proulx.

American composers of this music, with some of their most well known compositions, include:[5]

Notable composers of contemporary Catholic liturgical music from outside the US include:

Publishers of this music

A significant percentage of American contemporary liturgical music has been published under the names of three publishers: Oregon Catholic Press (OCP), Gregorian Institute of America (GIA), and World Library Publications (WLP, the music and liturgy division of the J.S. Paluch company).

Oregon Catholic Press (OCP) is a not-for-profit affiliation of the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Portland in Oregon. Archbishop Alexander K. Sample of Portland is de facto head of OCP.[11] Archbishop Sample is the eleventh bishop of the Archdiocese of Portland and was installed on April 2, 2013. Cardinal William Levada, Prefect for the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith in the Roman Curia is a former member of the Board of Directors.[11] In his former capacity of Archbishop of Portland, (1986–1995), Cardinal Levada led OCP during the company's expansive growth and this style of music became the principal style among many English-speaking communities. Francis George, prior to becoming Archbishop of Chicago and cardinal, was also Archbishop of Portland and de facto head of OCP. Today, OCP represents approximately two-thirds of Catholic liturgical music market sales.[12]

Differing views surrounding this music

Contemporary music aims to enable the entire congregation to take part in song, a goal its proponents claim agrees with the Second Vatican Council’s attempt to engender a more inclusive liturgy. What its advocates call a direct and accessible style of music places the participation of the gathered assembly higher in priority than the aesthetic values characterized by earlier sacred music. [13]

Music for worship, according to the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, is to be judged by three sets of criteria: pastoral, liturgical, and musical, with the place of honor accorded to Gregorian chant and the organ. Coming from this foundation, it has been argued that the adoption of the more popular musical styles is alien to the Roman Rite, and weakens the distinctiveness of Catholic worship.[13][14][15] Certain songs in this genre, for example, put the singer in the position of God, singing His part in the first person. Suzanne Toolan's "I Am the Bread of Life", was composed in this manner. Due to "inclusive language" becoming an issue by the 1980s, this was one of many songs that was edited in newer hymnals.

Dan Schutte's "Here I Am, Lord", (based on a Scripture text) was composed with the intent that the cantor would sing God's part but over time, people in the pews began to sing both parts."[16] This style contrasts with the traditional form where the congregation sings to God.[17]

In 1990, Thomas Day wrote Why Catholics Can't Sing, assailing the then-current style of music in the American Church but today its use has become lingua franca as multicultural and new youth styles of worship have emerged.[18]

Pundit George Weigel said that "[a]n extraordinary number of trashy liturgical hymns have been written in the years since the Second Vatican Council". Weigel called "Ashes" a "prime example" of "[h]ymns that teach heresy", criticizing the lyric "We rise again from ashes to create ourselves anew" as "Pelagian drivel".[19]

See also


Hymnals and song collections

Opinion pieces


^ Available on a blog by the author


  1. "Joseph Gelineau". GIA music. Retrieved 2009-02-28.
  2. General Instruction of the Roman Missal, 40
  3. General Instruction of the Roman Missal, 41
  4. The American Guild of Organists
  5. Dates of birth and religious affiliations taken from Gather: Comprehensive, eds. Robert J. Batastini and Michael A. Cymbala (Chicago: GIA Publications, 1994), from the Oregon Catholic Press website, and from the St. Louis Jesuits' news page on Dan Schutte's website.
  6. "Ian Callanan Biography". GIA Publications.
  7. "Paul Inwood". OCP.
  8. Hawn, C. Michael. 2013. History of Hymns: Priest bases hymn on call to be ‘fishers of men.’ Carrollton, TX: CircuitWriter Media, LLC Retrieved, July 12, 2013
  9. & . 2002. Cesáreo Gabarain. Grand Rapids, MI: Christians Classics Ethereal Library, Calvin College Retrieved, July 12, 2013
  10. "Brendan Kelly".
  11. 1 2 Oregon Catholic Press
  12. Catholic Book Publishers Association
  13. 1 2 Hovda, Robert W.; Huck, Gabe; Funk, Virgil C.; Joncas, J. Michael; Mitchell, Nathan D.; Savage, James; Foley, John (2003). Toward Ritual Transformation: Remembering Robert W. Hovda. Liturgical Press. ISBN 978-0-8146-6196-3.
  14. Snow Bird Agreement, 1993
  15. USCCB, Sing to the Lord, November 2007
  16. "Dan Schutte".
  17. Day, Thomas (1990). Why Catholics Can't Sing: The Culture of Catholicism and the Triumph of Bad Taste, Crossroad Pub Co. ISBN 978-0-8245-1035-0
  18. Steinfels, Peter (September 29, 1990). "Beliefs". New York Times.
  19. Weigel, George (2013). Evangelical Catholicism. New York: Basic Books. pp. 164–65. ISBN 978-0-465-02768-2.
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