The Mass: Psalms & hymns & spiritual songs

EDITOR’S NOTE: This is the third part of Fr. Longenecker’s series in which he explains the deeper significance of the elements of the Catholic Mass. Part one is “The Mass: Praising & Processing.” Part two is “The Mass: The Living Word.” 

One of the most contentious points in the American Catholic Church is music. Should we sing Gregorian chant or Taize chant? Is modern music the best or should we sing the tried-and-true older hymns? Pipe organ or a praise band? Guitars and old folks singing folk songs or a choir singing Latin hymns?

The debates over church music usually indicate a person’s prejudice, but they also indicate personality types. We sometimes imagine that young people like up-to-date music and older people like traditional hymns. In fact, however, plenty of older people like contemporary music while lots of young people favor traditional music. The question of church music, therefore, seems to come down to a matter of taste.

Or does it?

To get past the mere matters of taste, we should stop and ask ourselves, “What is church music for? Why do we have music in church at all?” When we find the answers to those questions, the other questions will take care of themselves.

The document from the Second Vatican Council on church music is called Musicam Sacram (Instruction on Music in the Liturgy). There we learn about the function of music in the liturgy, and that helps us decide what music is best. First of all, sacred music is defined as for “the glory of God and the sanctification of the faithful” (4).

Sacred music is understood to be that which, being created for the celebration of divine worship, is endowed with a certain holy sincerity of form. The following come under the title of sacred music here: Gregorian chant, sacred polyphony in its various forms both ancient and modern, sacred music for the organ and other approved instruments, and sacred popular music, be it liturgical or simply religious (Musicam Sacram, 4).

With great enthusiasm the document observes, “One cannot find anything more religious and more joyful in sacred celebrations than a whole congregation expressing its faith and devotion in song” (16).

The same joyful spirit radiates from St. Paul’s letter to the Ephesians. He encourages them to sing.

Be filled with the Spirit, addressing one another [in] psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and playing to the Lord in your hearts, giving thanks always and for everything in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ to God the Father (5:18–20). 

Therefore, in both the teaching of the Church and the New Testament, we can see that music is to be encouraged in the liturgy. We also see that there are three types of music: psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs.


The psalms are part of Sacred Scripture; therefore, they are inspired by the Holy Spirit. The psalms are the ancient hymnbook of the Jews, and they have therefore been sung during worship for thousands of years. Within the Catholic tradition, the psalms make up the larger portion of the Divine Office, which is sung in monasteries and convents several times each day.

More traditional monks and nuns sing the psalms in Gregorian chant, but there are other forms of chant which are also used. Singing the psalms connects us back to the days of monastic worship, but the early chant tunes also connect us back to the Jewish chanting of the psalms.

Many people think there is nothing as gloomy as psalms sung to Gregorian chant, and certainly it is possible to sing Gregorian chant badly. However, the best-selling recordings of monks and nuns singing Gregorian chant well remind us that there is nothing more reverent and otherworldly than Gregorian chant.

Within the liturgy the psalm is sung in a responsorial manner. This is to encourage the people to participate fully in the Liturgy of the Word. As the psalm is sung, we enter into the timeless human joys and sorrows expressed by the psalmist. This is where the heart is within the Liturgy of the Word, and we should pay attention and put our own hearts into it!

In the liturgy the psalms are “sung Sacred Scripture,” but the other parts of the Mass that are sung are almost all from Scripture. The opening antiphons, Communion antiphons, and Gospel Acclamation are verses from Scripture that are sung. The Sanctus (the Holy, Holy, Holy) is Scripture, as is the Lord’s Prayer and the Agnus Dei (Lamb of God). If the category psalms means “sung Scripture,” then all these parts of the Mass can be considered psalms.


Remembering that the point of sacred music is to “give glory to God,” a hymn is, therefore, a piece of music through which we worship God and praise his glory. Many hymns from the first centuries of the Church have come down to us and are still in use today. Likewise, some of the great saints like Thomas Aquinas were hymn writers.

The best example of a perfect hymn is the Gloria, which we sing at Mass every Sunday before the opening prayer. This ancient composition is sung around the world every week in every language and to many different tunes, but it is always the greatest and most ancient hymn of praise to God.

Knowing the reason for sacred music helps us assess the worth of other music that is often presented as a hymn. If the words do not help us to give praise and glory to God, then it is not really a hymn. The problem with much contemporary church music is that it is about us — not God!

When you analyze many modern “hymns,” they are about us gathering together or doing good work in the world or feeling good about God’s love. While all these sentiments may be worthy, if the piece of music does not praise God, then it is not a hymn, and it should be used sparingly in the liturgy.

Hymns that give praise to God should, therefore, be used at the processional or offertory procession. Songs that emphasize our close love for the Lord are best used during Communion, while those songs that remind us of our duty to do God’s work in the world are best used at the end of Mass when we are going out into the world to serve.

Spiritual songs

St. Paul’s third category of sacred music is “spiritual songs.” Musicam Sacram also allows for “sacred popular music.” Spiritual songs can be categorized as the music that is more contemporary and likely to be popular for a time and then pass out of popularity. Often they are quickly composed, arise from the heart, and touch the emotions. Such spiritual songs can be very uplifting for the congregation and inspire their worship and work in the world.

“Praise and worship music” often uses contemporary instruments, modern idiom, and a strong emotional appeal. There is nothing wrong with this sort of sacred music in its proper place. At a retreat or conference, a youth jubilee or a church celebration, praise and worship music brings people together, lifts the spirits, and fosters a sense of fellowship.

Within the liturgy, however, it should be used sparingly, too. With praise bands, almost always there is a dimension of performance. Borrowing styles from popular culture, the instrumentalists and soloists find it difficult to resist going into performance mode. This clashes with the purpose of the liturgy, which is formal and timeless, so the use of praise and worship music in the liturgy needs to be carefully thought out.

Music as service

At the end of the day, sacred music serves the liturgy; the liturgy does not serve the sacred music. In other words, every psalm, hymn, and spiritual song is chosen carefully and performed well in order to give God the glory and sanctify the people of God. When we keep that in mind, the question of whether we like a particular brand of music or not becomes secondary.

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