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Should Musical Instruments Be Played at Mass?

Dear Atila,

May I please impose upon you for a moment, in regard to my confusion over what is appropriate for music during the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass?

It is my understanding that Pope Pius X deplored the use of orchestral instruments during the Mass, or perhaps it was the operatic music and not the instruments. From what I’ve read, it seems to me he wanted Gregorian Chant to have pride of place during the Holy Sacrifice, and men’s voices, not women’s; however, today I frequently see and hear women and orchestras at traditional Latin Masses, playing beautiful, traditional music.

But does an orchestra draw one towards God, or away towards the intricacies of the music and one’s own listening pleasure?

Thank you for your help in my confusion.

     In Maria,


The Editor responds:

Dear C.,

It is always a pleasure to receive your correspondence and to be of some help to you.

Basically, you asked two questions: one about the type of instruments suitable to be played during Mass, and other whether women should sing in church choirs.

Given that I have been busy with the publication of another book on the Council, I asked Dr. Carol Byrne the favor of answering the first of your questions. Her knowledgeable reply follows this introductory note.

Regarding your second question – should women be part of a choir singing at Mass – the main problem is that as Dr. Byrne showed in this article, feminine participation in choirs had been forbidden by Pope St. Pius X, but was encouraged by Pius XI. So, we have one Pope against another on this subject.

In practical terms, it means that any traditionalist priest who does not want to return to the true Catholic and sound counter-revolutionary position of Pope St. Pius X is at ease to allow women in choirs, alleging he is following the ”tradition” coming from Pius XI.

On whether musical instrument are suitable to be played at Mass, the answer by Dr. Carol Byrne follows.



Dr. Carol Byrne responds:

Dear Mrs. C.C.,

The short answer to your question is that the Church has, until Vatican II, never encouraged, and at most only tolerated, the use of instrumental music in the liturgy, with the noble exception of the pipe organ. In fact, in all its centuries of history, the Sistine Chapel never had an organ until very recent times, the tradition being that its choir sang without accompaniment. In the Papal Letter to Cardinal Respighi, the Vicar of Rome, Pope St. Pius X mentioned the scandal that could be given to visitors coming to Rome and hearing instruments being played in church of the type used in the theatre and concert hall.

The longer answer will attempt to explain why this was so and why Pius X considered the organ as the most suitable instrument for the Mass. It has been the Church’s experience that elements harmful to the faith and piety of the faithful could easily enter the sacred precincts by means of musical instruments associated with secular or immoral practices.

St Thomas Aquinas explained: “For such like musical instruments move the soul to pleasure rather than create a good disposition within it” (Summa Theologica, question 91, article 2). In other words, they tend to entertain the congregation by conveying the spirit, tastes and passions of the world rather than to put them in the right frame of mind for prayer.

Pope Pius X’s 1903 Motu Proprio Tra le Sollecitudini issued principles for Sacred Music that would support the purposes of the Liturgy, which he defined as the glorification of God and the sanctification and edification of the faithful. While he held up “purely vocal music” as the ideal, i.e. unaccompanied Gregorian Chant and sacred polyphony, he permitted the use of the organ and added:

“In some special cases, within due limits and with proper safeguards, other instruments may be allowed, but never without the special permission of the Ordinary, according to prescriptions of the Caeremoniale Episcoporum” (15). The only instruments he specifically banned from use in the liturgy were of the percussive variety: the piano, drums, cymbals, bells etc. and those used in bands.

The difference in the suitability of the organ and other instruments as far as the liturgy is concerned is not merely a question of taste. The nature of the organ is, for the most part, a protection against its misuse; its majestic sonorities, its power and tone, are specially suited to the celebration of transcendent realities, while other instruments more readily serve profane purposes. It demands sobriety and is, therefore, conducive to the calm necessary for prayer and meditation.

Because the organ is more in conformity with the religious mood, it has one distinct advantage over orchestral instruments, that of being perfectly adapted to the character of the Gregorian modes, which is why it is considered to be the most suitable accompaniment to the Chant. As a competent musician himself, Pope Pius X would have appreciated that the modes are a symbol of moderation and restraint which encourage modesty and humility in the worshipper, whether clerical or lay. When well sung by a well trained choir, they support and bring out the meaning of the liturgical texts in a way that no musical instrument, apart from the organ, can do.

To put all this in perspective, the destruction of the Church’s musical heritage has reached such a point in the Novus Ordo regime that many Catholics today have become estranged from Gregorian Chant and polyphony and would not recognize them as a form of prayer.

With the proliferation of musical instruments allowed by Vatican II, they use their freedom to create musical “experiences” that reflect man-centered concerns. So they blithely plug in a Yamaha synthesizer/workstation with its pop culture associations as a background to their guitars, giving the impression that the main purpose of the Mass is to entertain the assembly. One would never know that Pius X had produced a legislative text on Sacred Music or that any such rules ever existed.

I hope this answer throws some light on the reasons why the Church has always been leery about the use of musical instruments in the liturgy.

     Dr. Carol Byrne


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Posted February 19, 2015


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