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  • Writer's pictureBrandon Harvey

Saint Cecilia, Vatican II, and the Sung Mass

Saint Cecilia is a saint whose intercession is often sought by those involved in liturgical music at a parish. In honor of Saint Cecilia, let us briefly review the life of this saint and with her intercession, review the use of music in the celebration of Mass.

Saint Cecilia

saint cecilia

Saint Cecilia was a virgin martyr from the early centuries of the Church. The Roman Martyrology explains that she brought to faith her pagan spouse Valerian and her brother-in-law Tiburtius. Almachius ordered their arrest, and they were martyred during the time of emperor Marcus Aurelius Severus Alexandar. Saint Cecilia was not martyred during the first attempt on her life, but later by the sword.


She is most often associated with music because she sang to God in her heart during the music at her wedding feast. She had made a consecration to God to remain a virgin, one which her husband respected. She is also associated with music because she sang during the first attempt to kill her for not abandoning the faith. Her importance for the Roman Catholic Church is reflected by her inclusion in the Roman Canon of the Mass (Eucharist Prayer I). Saint Cecilia’s memorial is celebrated on November 22nd.

The Second Vatican Council and Music at Mass

The Second Vatican Council teaching on Sacred Music can be found near the end of its document on the Sacred Liturgy, Sactosanctum Concilium (Chapter VI). It begins with stating the importance of Sacred Music over other forms of liturgical art because of the unity it forms between music and words within the liturgy and because of its long history from the biblical and ecclesial traditions. The council then provides a general guideline for the music used within the liturgy. Sacred music “is to be considered the more holy in proportion as it is more closely connected with the liturgical action, whether it adds delight to prayer, fosters unity of minds, or confers greater solemnity upon the sacred rites” while “keeping to the norms and precepts of ecclesiastical tradition and discipline” (SC 112).

It is then not a surprise that the council taught that the “Church acknowledges Gregorian chant as specially suited to the Roman liturgy: therefore, other things being equal, it should be given pride of place in liturgical services. But other kinds of sacred music, especially polyphony, are by no means excluded from the liturgical celebration” (SC 116). While the council does go through additional principles, it will be in ecclesial documents following the Second Vatican Council that greater specifics will be outlined. One such document was Musicam Sacram (1969).

music notes

Musicam Sacram’s Teaching on the Music at Mass

This blog post is not the place to go into detail the teachings of this document or others like it. I would like to simply offer a selection of the document for your reflections. This excerpt demonstrates our need to rethink the role of music at Mass to avoid the view that we simply have songs at Mass but that the Mass is a song to be sung.

The distinction between solemn, sung and read Mass, sanctioned by the Instruction of 1958 (n. 3), is retained, according to the traditional liturgical laws at present in force. However, for the sung Mass (Missa cantata), different degrees of participation are put forward here for reasons of pastoral usefulness, so that it may become easier to make the celebration of Mass more beautiful by singing, according to the capabilities of each congregation.


These degrees are so arranged that the first may be used even by itself, but the second and third, wholly or partially, may never be used without the first. In this way the faithful will be continually led towards an ever greater participation in the singing.


The following belong to the first degree:


(a) In the entrance rites: the greeting of the priest together with the reply of the people; the prayer.


(b) In the Liturgy of the Word: the acclamations at the Gospel.


(c) In the Eucharistic Liturgy: the prayer over the offerings; the preface with its dialogue and the Sanctus; the final doxology of the Canon, the Lord's prayer with its introduction and embolism; the Pax Domini; the prayer after the Communion; the formulas of dismissal.


30. The following belong to the second degree:


(a) the Kyrie, Gloria and Agnus Dei;


(b) the Creed;


(c) the prayer of the faithful.


The following belong to the third degree:


(a) the songs at the Entrance and Communion processions;


(b) the songs after the Lesson or Epistle;


(c) the Alleluia before the Gospel;


(d) the song at the Offertory;


(e) the readings of Sacred Scripture, unless it seems more suitable to proclaim them without singing. -Musicam Sacram 28-31

Concluding Thought

Notice the emphasis is on singing or chanting the prayers of the Mass. Songs at the start of Mass, the Offertory, and at Communion are not given the same emphasis. This emphasis for the priest and people to sing prayers is a reminder to pray during, with, and through music like Saint Cecilia did. Through her intercession may we all enter more deeply into the glory of God through the beauty of the Mass. Saint Cecilia, Pray for us.

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