What is Sacred Music?
The question, "What is sacred music," put to the average Catholic, will no doubt elicit the answer that "sacred music is hymns." And in the lived experience of most Catholics today, that is the extent of what they know to be sacred music. On Sunday, they sing four hymns at Mass. In most parishes, is there anything else?
For those people who attend symphony orchestra concerts, and those who have an interest in recorded music, there is the possibility of developing a knowledge of and an appreciation for the vast repertory of sacred music, the inheritance of centuries and a veritable treasure house of beauty, because many of these compositions, written originally for the Church, have become standard repertory in most concert series and record catalogs. Some may have sung one or the other great choral masterpiece of religious music in college choral ensembles, and even some high school groups have performed a few challenging selections.
The II Vatican Council clearly ordered the preservation and fostering of the great treasury of church music, beginning with the Gregorian chant up to the most modern compositions. This is to be done within the setting of liturgical worship, not merely in concert form. Most of this vast repertory that spreads across centuries of human achievement demands trained groups of singers and instrumentalists to perform. It is art and demands skill and training in the musicians needed to perform it. It is the highest form of human artistic endeavor, worthy of God and His worship.
"What is sacred music?," we must answer that it is the great treasury of music, written over the ages by the greatest composers for use in the sung liturgy of the Roman Catholic Church, beginning with the Gregorian melodies and continuing on through the polyphonic pieces of the middle ages and the renaissance, up to the orchestral settings of the last three centuries and into our own time; it is simple for the singing congregation and more elaborate as the degree of musicianship increases.