How to Choose Songs for the Mass

Christmas is notorious for inappropriate song choices for mass. In the Parish of the Holy Sacrifice in the University of the Philippines, we were aghast when a choir sang, “Silver Bells” for communion, or “We, Three Kings” during the Season of Advent. In a remote island in Quezon Province, a Jesuit volunteer said that the locals sang “White Christmas” for the Preparation of the Gifts, while offering vegetables and a live goat for the holidays.

In sophisticated parishes, choirs perform Handel’s “For Unto Us A Child Is Born” from his famous opus, The Messiah, to an admiring crowd. During the singing of the Pater Noster, they sang Albert Malotte’s “The Lord’s Prayer” a cappella while the people stood quietly until the song ended.

How do we choose songs that are appropriate for a mass in a particular time and a particular place?

There are three judgments to follow, but one evaluation. Songs should pass the three judgments, not just one or two of them.

First, the Musical Judgment. Do you like the music? This is simple: why would you sing a song that does not speak to you, or a song you don’t like?

However, the music should be worthy of the mass. But artistic expression is not the same as musical style. Artistic expression is about quality. Musical styles are about genre. And “the Church has not adopted any particular style of art as her own. She has admitted styles from every period, in keeping with the natural characteristics and conditions of people and the needs of the various rites” (Sacrosanctum Concilium no. 123). That means the Church takes into consideration the congregation and the type of music that they can identify with; the type of music that would lead them to pray and worship the Lord. Here is one example from Himig Heswita that articulates the aspirations of people. Click this.

In recent times, the Church has welcomed different musical forms for liturgical worship. One hears rock music in masses with the young. Many Catholic charismatic communities use the songs of Don Moen and songs from the Hillsong Church in Australia. Don Moen and Hillsong are not Catholics. Albert Hay Malotte is an Episcopalian.

Choosing songs for the liturgy does not depend on the composer. We can use songs from a different faith tradition as long as they pass these three judgments. More importantly, the liturgical judgment. The lyrics should fit the Catholic faith.

Second, the Liturgical Judgment. Is the song right for the liturgy? To answer this question, you have to consider the following.

1. The Structure of the Mass. Every part of the mass has a corresponding function. The Entrance Song should be a song about gathering at the altar of the Lord. It should enhance the atmosphere of welcome and worship. The Psalms are sung prayers found in Scripture and they should foster meditation on the Word of God. Songs should meet the structural requirements of the mass.
2. The Liturgical Books. There are two main books in the liturgy. The Sacramentary gives you the present liturgical Season and the celebration of the day. It tells you whether the mass is a Solemnity, in which case, the Gloria will be recited or sung. It also indicates the saint of the day. In the Lectionary, you will find the readings of the mass.

The songs should fit the text of the liturgical books for a particular rite, in a particular season. For example, if we are celebrating Good Shepherd Sunday in the Easter Season, and the readings are about it, then it is proper to sing Psalm 23, The Lord is my Shepherd especially if it is the Responsorial Psalm.

If the reading is from 1 Corinthians 13 especially in weddings, then this song from the Jesuit Music Ministry will be right. Click this.

Finally, the Pastoral Judgment. Can the congregation sing the songs? We want a congregation who actively and consciously participates at mass. In other words, they respond to the dialogues and they sing the songs. The pastoral judgment takes into consideration the actual community gathered to celebrate in a particular place, at a particular time. Thus, we consider factors like age, culture, education, and language. This is the mandate of the 2nd Vatican Council.

So, we evaluate songs using these three judgments.

Silver Bells will not be acceptable liturgically, but favorable musically and pastorally. We, Three Kings, however, will be acceptable in all three judgments when sung on the Epiphany of the Lord — never on the Season of Advent!

Handel’s Messiah and Malotte’s The Lord’s Prayer are all liturgically and musically excellent. But ordinary churchgoers will not be able to sing them well. Unless, of course, it is a mass of the Philippine Madrigal Singers or the UP Concert Chorus.

However, this music from the Jesuit Music Ministry will pass these three judgments for the Preparation of the Gifts. And to say that it will pass with flying colors is an understatement. Enjoy Christify!

11 Comments

  1. Can I just say what a relief to discover someone who truly knows what theyre talking about over a internet. You truly know how to bring an difficulty to light and make it important. Much more folks must read this and understand this side in the story. I cant feel youre not more well-liked simply because you really have the gift.

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  2. Give you thanks just for this direction amazing evaluation; this is the step that keeps me although the day.I’ve eternally for ages been wanting around on your web-site precise subsequent to I seen about these from the near friend and was happy while i was at an incredibly position to educate yourself regarding it right right after hunting out for some time.

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  3. Thank you for these clear guidelines as regards liturgical music. When we were Ateneo students years (don’t ask how many, he-he), we were left to our devices when we sang during Masses. Perhaps the clergy then were too busy or did not want to ruin our artistic expressions, but looking back, there was inappropriate lyrics.

    Used to say the Church is too strict or rigid about music. Then, rediscovering the jewels of the Faith and being cloaked by them, a far deeper joyful appreciation why we should be particular what songs are fitting. Thanks again for this article.

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    1. I hear you. Yes, the process of being conscious about what to see and when is an ongoing affair and challenge even in the Ateneo. People graduate and move on, so you need to educate the incoming students who make liturgy as their apostolate like the Ateneo Campus Ministry Group. But it is getting there. Liturgical music such as those composed by Jesuits should also be seen as a response to the demand DURING their time; and their value was that it was composed as a response to VAt II reforms. We keep on improving out service.

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    1. Hi Frederick! I have not visited this site for a long time. Busy with work, but I am reviving this blog (and deleting the others).

      I do not know the song, In these days of Lenten Journey, but it seems appropriate. Maybe in Entrance Hymns (in all seasons), check these tips:

      1. Entrance Hymn can be a song of gathering, of acknowledging Jesus, of coming to worship, of the theme of the mass – so if I’ll just judge from the title, the song may be appropriate.

      2. Try a “fast paced” song for Entrance to let the people know that the liturgy is done in a spirit of joy – yes even Lent or Advent.

      3. Use these three judgments: is it good music (do you like the music?); Is it appropriate for the liturgy (check the liturgical season, the readings, the celebration); can the people sing it? (Not the choir only, but the people). Though for Entrance Hymns, it is ok if only the choir sings; but active participation is better.

      Do take care and God bless.

      Jboy SJ

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  4. Im so glad I stumbled upon your article on how to choose music for the mass. The guidelines you shared are clear and sensible, and a breath of fresh compared to the liturgical music forums I’ve come across in the internet. Sadly, many of them are confusing and shaded by debates (i.e. old music vs. new music) at best, and hatefully opinionated at worse. Thank you! I will surely follow your blog after this.

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    1. Thank you very much Ivy. I’ve worked as the Director of the Jesuit Music Ministry, and I encountered a lot of questions about choosing songs for mass. Many priests have different guidelines though, but I trust the judgment of many lay persons. It is easier to connect with me through twitter at @jboygonzalessj Keep in touch!

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  5. I am curious as to why you think a congregation should even attempt to sing Handel’s Messiah.

    Put another way, does everything that is sung in a Mass have to be congregation-singable? I don’t think the Sacramentary contemplates such a possibility.

    Many things, if not most, should; but certainly not all. The psalm response should, but the verses themselves need not, sung as they are by a cantor.

    Point being, if you have a choir capable of the great works of the Western canon, then sing them, especially at Mass, when appropriate. I would further argue that most great works of musical art are *in*capable of being sung by the people, and that is an important part of what makes them great, in the same way most people can’t paint a Ghirlandaio fresco, but all can appreciate its objective beauty.

    Otherwise the great musical patronage of the Church–Dufay to Palestrina to Mozart etc.–become the sole property of concerts or recordings: butterflies observed, but pinned and under glass, rather than in their natural habitat.

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    1. Well, I am a member of a choir. We do have masses here in the Philippines among us choirs, like the end of a workshop or a concert practice for Christmas where we would perform Handel, Palestrina, etc. Since we can sing them, then we sing them. But, those three judgements are in the liturgical books. In the Philippines, people WANT to sing. We’re a singing people, not like in other countries. Since our congregation wants to sing and they do complain if they can’t, well, why not? The choir IS at the service of the church, not a performer. So, maybe not in yours, but definitely in ours. And yes, many choirs here CAN sing those musical greats. 😀 God gave the Philippines music. 😀

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