What is Sacred Music?

The Catholic Church has long been an avid patron of the arts, especially in music. Yet standing out in her patronage is a special category of musical achievement that she’s claimed as uniquely her own, sacred ecclesiastical chant. At the dawn of the Church’s history, she spread throughout the world and assimilated the cultures she came into contact with, baptizing them of whatever in them was contrary to the Faith. This wedding of culture and conviction gave birth to the rich variety of sacred music, which became similarly wedded to the liturgical rites which were rapidly developing in Christendom.

During the time of Pope St. Gregory the Great (d. 604), the liturgical rite of the Church of Rome began to stabilize. Her ancient anaphora, the Roman Canon, remained largely fixed from Gregory’s pontificate on, and her uniquely Roman sacred music had achieved a definite character. Named after St. Gregory, this Roman chant would forever be known as Gregorian chant, though it continued to develop under the influence of Gaulish forms of chant in the eighth century. Gregorian chant is the single most important form of sacred music in the Catholic Church for three important reasons.

First, it has a primacy of honor in Christendom on account of being the liturgical music of the first see in the Catholic Church, the Church of Rome. Second, after the Council of Trent (1545-1563), the Western or Latin Church greatly encouraged and, in some cases, mandated that the Roman rite be adopted by other cities and states in Europe. It spread rapidly and became almost universally the norm in the West, and with it Gregorian chant. This was done on account of the corruptions of Protestantism, which had by that time infected many other liturgical rites in Europe, leavening them with heretical prayers and attitudes. The rite of the Roman Church, the Chair of St. Peter, was considered to be unassailable and a guarantee of orthodoxy in worship. Lastly, because of the confusion that has been inflicted on the Roman rite by the unorthodox since the mid-20th century, the ancient art of sacred chant has been all but lost in the Catholic West. It’s vital therefore to study the question of sacred music from the Roman perspective, in the hope that Gregorian chant may be cherished by the children of the Western Church once again.

Returning to the original question, what, then, is sacred music? What is its character, its special charism, that consecrates it as uniquely suitable to divine worship? The magisterium of the Apostolic see in the twentieth century has not been at all vague in this question, but has provided a clear answer:

Sacred music should consequently possess, in the highest degree, the qualities proper to the liturgy, and in particular sanctity and goodness of form, which will spontaneously produce the final quality of universality.

It must be holy, and must, therefore, exclude all profanity not only in itself, but in the manner in which it is presented by those who execute it.

It must be true art, for otherwise it will be impossible for it to exercise on the minds of those who listen to it that efficacy which the Church aims at obtaining in admitting into her liturgy the art of musical sounds…

These qualities are to be found, in the highest degree, in Gregorian chant, which is, consequently the chant proper to the Roman Church, the only chant she has inherited from the ancient fathers, which she has jealously guarded for centuries in her liturgical codices, which she directly proposes to the faithful as her own, which she prescribes exclusively for some parts of the liturgy, and which the most recent studies have so happily restored to their integrity and purity.

On these grounds Gregorian chant has always been regarded as the supreme model for sacred music, so that it is fully legitimate to lay down the following rule: the more closely a composition for church approaches in its movement, inspiration and savor the Gregorian 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.

The ancient traditional Gregorian chant must, therefore, in a large measure be restored to the functions of public worship.

– Pope St. Pius X, Tra le Sollecitudini, promulgated motu proprio on November 22, 1903

Sacred music, then, is characterized by the definite traits of sanctity, exclusion of profane elements, and artistic excellence. Anything, therefore, that is not hallowed by ancient use, anything that smacks of worldliness in form or setting, and anything lacking in artistic excellence is not sacred music. Because of Gregorian chant’s usage in Rome, the sacred see of Sts. Peter and Paul, in which the Tradition must be kept purely and without attenuation, it coincides with these traits and is their supreme model. Musical forms and settings that diverge from the traits of sacred music are, by the degree of divergence, in that same measure unworthy of the Church’s public worship.