Keep Sacred Music Sacred

Like a voice calling out from the wilderness, there are times when some of the strongest and wisest words from a bishop arise not out of the cultural centers of the world, like Rome or New York, but rather from unexpected places. This should not really be a surprise, as bishops designated for the major sees often are the ones most politically cautious.

Today’s case in point is Archbishop Alexander Sample of Portland, Oregon, whose recent pastoral letter on sacred music deserves a much broader audience. The letter, titled “Sing to the Lord a New Song,” calls explicitly for music that is holy, beautiful, and universal.

“The Church recognizes an objective difference between sacred music and secular music,” Archbishop Sample writes. “Despite the Church’s norms, the idea persists among some that the lyrics alone determine whether a song is sacred or secular, while the music is exempt from any liturgical criteria and may be of any style. This erroneous idea is not supported by the Church’s norms.”

Orthodox. Faithful. Free.

Sign up to get Crisis articles delivered to your inbox daily

Email subscribe inline (#4)

Likewise, the organ is to be the pre-eminent musical instrument used at Mass. Archbishop Sample cites Vatican II here, specifically Chapter VI of Sacrosanctum concilium, the Constitution on the Divine Liturgy: “In the Latin Church the pipe organ is to be held in high esteem, for it is the traditional musical instrument which adds a wonderful splendor to the Church’s ceremonies and powerfully lifts up man’s mind to God and to higher things.”

Unfortunately, today, the musical instruments one hears at Mass often are the very ones that should not be heard—such as the piano or guitar—because they are associated with profane music, not sacred music. Citing Musicam sacram, the postconciliar Instruction on Music in the Liturgy, Archbishop Sample elaborates: “Those instruments, such as electric guitars, that are used in performing Rock Music, even Christian Rock, are not suitable for accompaniment at Holy Mass,” he writes. “Moreover, although certain percussion instruments can sometimes enhance select pieces used at Holy Mass, the rock drum kit is never appropriate.”

Even Pope Francis, whose priorities have not been as focused on the liturgy as his predecessors, recognizes that Catholics need and deserve something better. “At times a certain mediocrity, superficiality and banality have prevailed, to the detriment of the beauty and intensity of liturgical celebrations,” he noted in a 2017 address to participants of the International Conference on Sacred Music.

What is particularly striking about Archbishop Sample’s pastoral letter, in a coincidentally ironic way, is that Portland, Oregon, can be considered a cultural center in at least one sense for Catholics. It is the home of Oregon Catholic Press, which, it would be fair to say, has a monopoly on the Mass as it is experienced by the typical American layman. Song books and missals from OCP can be found in about two-thirds of parishes in the United States, the company states, and it is music of a predominantly modern approach. Visit the OCP website and you will instantly get a flavor for its preferences, where images of guitars predominate over images of organs.

Here’s the refrain from a popular OCP song one of my local parishes sang as its recessional on a recent Sunday:

Go make a diff’rence, we can make a diff’rence
Go make a diff’rence in the world
Go make a diff’rence we can make a diff’rence
Go make a diff’rence in the world

In these pages several years ago, Jeffrey Tucker did an outstanding job eviscerating the Oregon Catholic Press, however, its influence has yet to decrease. As Tucker puts it, “While the OCP dictates the liturgies of most US parishes, it has no ecclesiastical authority. It’s a large nonprofit corporation—a publishing wing of the Diocese of Portland—and nothing else. It has never been empowered by the US bishops, much less Rome, to oversee music or liturgy in American parishes.”

While it may not be quite right to speak of OCP as the “publishing wing” of the archdiocese, Archbishop Sample sits on its board as the local ordinary and has responsibility under canon law for its being considered a “Catholic” enterprise. One can only hope the good archbishop’s new pastoral letter will “make a diff’rence” and help the Oregon Catholic Press see the need for sacred music that clearly expresses the three qualities he cites: “sanctity, beauty, and universality.”

Editor’s note: Pictured above is “The Recital” painted by Augusto Daini (1860-1920).


  • K. E. Colombini

    K. E. Colombini is a former journalist who served as a political speechwriter before a career in corporate communications. A Thomas Aquinas College alumnus, he also studied English literature at Sonoma State University in Northern California. In addition to Crisis, Colombini has been published in First Things, Inside the Vatican, The American Conservative and the Homiletic and Pastoral Review. He and his wife live in suburban St. Louis, and have five children and ten grandchildren.

Join the Conversation

in our Telegram Chat

Or find us on

Editor's picks

Item added to cart.
0 items - $0.00

Orthodox. Faithful. Free.

Signup to receive new Crisis articles daily

Email subscribe stack
Share to...