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Musical Musings: Hymns and Hymnody

Protestant Songs at Mass?

by Fr. Edward McNamara

This question and answer first appeared on ZENIT (November 12, 2003). It is reprinted here with the kind permission of Cecile Borgeua.

The author, Father Edward McNamara, is professor of liturgy at the Regina Apostolorum Pontifical Athenæum in Rome.


What criteria should be used in judging the use of modern music in Mass? Is it OK to use Protestant songs? What criteria apply in those cases?

P.C., Honolulu, Hawaii


First it is necessary to recall that the choice of text and melody is not totally arbitrary but requires the use of properly authorized texts.

The new General Instruction on the Roman Missal (GIRM), explaining the different modes of singing the proper of the Mass, gives as the fourth and last alternative "a suitable liturgical song similarly approved by the Conference of Bishops or the Diocesan Bishop."

The other choices are:
  1. the antiphon from the Roman Missal or the psalm from the Roman Gradual as set to music there or in another musical setting
  2. the seasonal antiphon and psalm of the Simple Gradual
  3. a song from another collection of psalms and antiphons, approved by the bishops' conference or the diocesan bishop, including psalms arranged in responsorial or metrical forms (No. 48; see also Nos. 86 and 87).
Referring specifically to the United States, it states:
Bearing in mind the important place that singing has in a celebration as a necessary or integral part of the Liturgy, all musical settings of the texts for the people's responses and acclamations in the Order of Mass and for special rites that occur in the course of the liturgical year must be submitted to the Secretariat for the Liturgy of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops for review and approval prior to publication (No. 393).

Some episcopal conferences have published official repertoires of songs that may be used in the liturgy while others have yet to install a system for the approval of musical texts. The diocesan bishop may decide for himself the manner in which he approves hymns and songs for liturgical use. He may publish a diocesan repertoire or may simply limit himself to approve any hymnal or liturgical songbook containing an imprimatur from another bishop.

What is important is to understand that the choice of texts and music for the liturgy is not merely a question of personal taste but entails the deeper question of ecclesial communion.

In general the criteria used for the approval of suitable texts is that the hymn or song be inspired by Scripture or the liturgy although vested in a poetic form, and also that the text should be, in some way, a confession of faith, expressing perennial and orthodox truths rather than current issues.

This should be taken into account in the case of Protestant hymns. They may be used in the liturgy provided they conform to Catholic doctrine. Any hymn that contains doctrine contrary to Catholic teachings, or is ambiguous, should not be used.

Liturgical melodies are there to assist prayer and should be distinctive in style and tone from worldly music. Their function is to elevate the spirit — not set the foot tapping or the imagination rolling. Therefore, they should never be baptized versions of current hits — or, as is more common, hits from the previous generation — but should seek to express the religious value of the text for, in Catholic tradition, the text always has priority over the music and in a sense is its soul.

The dearth of good liturgical music is fairly understandable given that after the introduction of the vernacular, parishes found themselves almost overnight with the need for music adapted to the new liturgy. The repertoire of traditional vernacular and Latin compositions was unfortunately judged insufficient, or worse, out of fashion or irrelevant. As Mozarts don't come a dime a dozen, and the need for new music was pressing, most parishes took what they could get and they got a lot of dross although some fine pieces were also composed.

Almost every country experienced a period of generally dreadful music, especially in the 1970s. In Spain, for example, many traditional American or English tunes were adapted with new words, raising tourists' eyebrows as they heard Spanish versions of "Nobody Knows the Troubles I've Seen" or "Land of Hope and Glory" belted out at Mass, or even the "Lord Have Mercy" and the "Sanctus" sung to the Beatles' "Hey Jude" and "Help."

This invasion of the profane into the realm of the sacred is a recurring problem in Church music and has always been strenuously combated.

Around the time of the Council of Trent, for example, many bishops complained about the use of secular melodies as musical themes for polyphonic masses, such as the one inspired in a popular ditty called Bacciami, amica mia ("Kiss me, my dear"). Saint Pius X , both as bishop and pope, also fought against the fashion of individualistic opera style music in Italian churches.

In recent years there has been marked, albeit slow, improvement in many places. Along with the recovery of many traditional songs, and even some return to the use of Gregorian chant and classic polyphony, some serious contemporary composers are addressing the problems of music for the liturgy.

Italy, for example, has seen many excellent compositions that could easily provide a benchmark for the work of composers in other languages. Most notable perhaps is the work of Monsignor Marco Frisina, whose biblically and liturgically inspired music is both beautiful and easily memorable, being open to interpretation either by a simple congregation or a full-blown, four-voice choir.

Although it will probably take several decades, it is probable that a new corpus of good liturgical music will be formed in accordance with the principles of the Second Vatican Council and authentic Catholic tradition.

Copyright © 2003 ZENIT, Inc
Reprinted with permission.
Unauthorized reproduction prohibited.

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