Bp. Sample’s great Pastoral Letter on Sacred Music

My old friend now-Archbishop Alex Sample, before his translation to Portland, issued a Pastoral Letter on Sacred Music for the Diocese of Marquette.  It is called “Rejoice in the Lord” and it is a hit.

First, remember his spectacular sermon about the older form of Holy Mass?  HERE.   Sample is the real deal.

Find the pastoral letter HERE.

Here are some samples (sorry!) from the letter:

This is an important discussion to have, since so often the music selected for Mass is reduced to a matter of subjective “taste,” i.e. what style of music appeals to this or that person or group, as if there were no objective principles to be followed. There are indeed objective principles worthy of study and proper implementation, as will be shown.


Church teaching emphasizes that the music proper to the Sacred Liturgy possesses three qualities: sanctity, beauty, and universality. Only music which possesses all three of these qualities is worthy of the Mass.


Finally, the third essential quality of sacred music must be considered, i.e. its universality. This quality means that any composition of sacred music, even one which reflects the unique culture of a particular region, would still be easily recognized as having a sacred character. The quality of holiness, in other words, is a universal principle that transcends culture.

[… I think you can see where this is going …]

Any discussion of the different forms of sacred music must start with Gregorian chant.


Given all of this strong teaching from the Popes, the Second Vatican Council, and the U.S. Bishops, how is it that this ideal concerning Gregorian chant has not been realized in the Church? Far from enjoying a “pride of place” in the Church’s sacred liturgy, one rarely if ever hears Gregorian chant.

This is a situation which must be rectified. It will require great effort and serious catechesis for the clergy and faithful, but Gregorian chant must be introduced more widely as a normal part of the Mass. Some practical steps toward this are outlined in the Directive section of this pastoral letter.

[… OORAH! …]

The Church recognizes an objective difference between sacred music and secular music. 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, which was alluded to earlier, is not supported by the Church’s norms either before or since the Second Vatican Council.


Hymns are a musical form pertaining more properly to the Liturgy of the Hours, rather than the Mass. Hymn-singing at Mass originated in the custom of the people singing vernacular devotional hymns at Low Mass during the celebrant’s silent recitation of the Latin prayers. However, the current Missal as well as official liturgical documents envision a singing of the Mass as outlined above. [You’ll have to go read that part on your own.  You won’t be wasting your time.]


The texts of the Roman Missal and the Lectionary, and none others, constitute the official Mass in English. No one in the diocese, including the Bishop, has the authority to add to, subtract from or change the words of the Mass, either sung or recited. The only exceptions are when the Missal specifically gives an option, using expressions such as “in these or similar words.” This is to be strictly interpreted and observed.


Then there are norms.

Have a look at the letter and then reflect on what you experience in your parish.

About Fr. John Zuhlsdorf

Fr. Z is the guy who runs this blog. o{]:¬)
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  1. Matt P. says:

    Music to my ears!

  2. Athelstan says:

    Over at a progressive liturgical blog I won’t name here, some are having kittens because His Excellency’s second most cited source is . . . St. Pius X’s motu proprio “Tra le sollecitudini.”

    Dear heavens. A preconciliar document. I knew at that point that I had, as Fr. Z puts it, a hit on my hands.

  3. Athelstan says:

    I do worry, however, that unless Bishop Sample’s successor is of a like mind, this letter will be a dead letter in the Diocese of Marquette, given that he’s about to depart for Portland.

  4. Clemens Romanus says:

    A Bishop who knows! Excellent!

  5. Richard says:

    Portland, you say? As in the Archdiocese in which Oregon Catholic Press (OCP) resides? This might be interesting to watch.

  6. Sword40 says:

    I live just north of the Portland Archdiocese, in the Seattle Archdiocese but close enough to drive to Portland on ocassion for Mass. Perhaps with the libs now surrounded we can make some real progress in getting more TLM’s. Vasa, Cordelione, Sartain and now Sample. What a team!

    I just hope to live long enough to see something very exciting happen.

  7. wmeyer says:

    One of the beauties of this document is that as it has already been beautifully written, only small modifications would be needed to render it suitable for issue in Portland. People so often overlook that reuse is even better than recycling!

  8. Athelstan says:

    Hello Richard,

    Even better, the Archbishop of Portland is ex officio the chairman of the board of OCP. http://www.ocp.org/about/board

    Interesting times are coming, methinks. Hopefully they won’t have finished barricading the door before he arrives.

  9. The Masked Chicken says:

    It is a fairly comprehensive document, which if implemented properly, would greatly improve the solemnity of liturgical worship. I especially like his references to the Graduale Romanum and Graduale Simplex.

    That being said, the term, “Gregorian Chant,” is a somewhat equivocal term that gets thrown around way too easily. When the Church says that, “Gregorian Chant should have pride-of-place,” do they mean the Gregorian Chant as it existed in the Tenth-century or the Nineteenth-Century attempted reconstructions? Gregorian Chant does not begin and end with the Liber Usualis. The Gregorian Chant one would have heard int 1750 is very different, at least in performance, than the Gregorian Chant one might have heard in 1950. There are technical reasons for this involving printed editions vs. the manuscript tradition and more than one Pope has contradicted another in deciding exactly what is and is not proper Gregorian Chant for the Mass and the Office.

    The current state of Gregorian Chant developed, largely, from Pope Pius X (of Tra le sollecitudini, fame) who accepted the LU as a standard, although his predecessor, Pope Leo XIII (and Pope Pius IX before him) refused to. There was, when I was in graduate school (and still is) a spirited debate as to whether or not the Solesme interpretation of performance practices of Chant is actually, historically, correct (my, personal, opinion, is that it is not).

    Gregorian Chant has no real terminus ad quem. It is true that Trent may have issued Chant books, but they never set a definitive, closed corpus. Chant died, essentially, because of the development of polyphony as well as a settled scalar structure which was somewhat at odds with the older modal system. The modern, “Chants,” and Chant tones being developed by such places as Meinrad Abbey bear only a slight resemblance to earlier Gregorian Chant and the Council documents and earlier are largely silent about the creation of new forms of Chant, per se (although they do permit the creation of new Liturgical music, if it has the proper characteristics).

    So, while I want Chant to have pride-of-place as much as the next person, just be careful when you use the term to realize that the exact definition is still somewhat fluid.

    The Chicken

  10. Reginald Pole says:

    As the new bishop of Portland do you think Bishop Sample can now do something about the OCP and their horrid little missalettes that are chock-full of Protestant hymns and have wormed their way into almost every parish in the country.

  11. frjim4321 says:

    I found it curious that he begins by protesting that liturgical music is not about “personal taste,” but then he cherry picks citations which are supportive of his personal taste. And it also seems that he is equating his personal taste with “objective standards.” Sheesh!

  12. Arele says:

    “Finally, the third essential quality of sacred music must be considered, i.e. its universality. This quality means that any composition of sacred music, even one which reflects the unique culture of a particular region, would still be easily recognized as having a sacred character. The quality of holiness, in other words, is a universal principle that transcends culture.”

    I love this! It really is true that we all know what sounds and is sacred in character, even in any culture or tongue. It really does transcend culture.

    And so much of the stuff in OCP isn’t that.

    I agree: with OCP owned by the Archdiocese of Portland, this should be interesting…

    To quote Winnie the Pooh: and I’m “ding danged glad of it!”

  13. Jeanette says:

    Sing the consecration, Bishop Sample? Really??

  14. Suburbanbanshee says:

    The idea is to have the mind of the Church down through the ages, not to have a mind of the moment only.

    Gregorian chant doesn’t care whether you like it or not. It’s not really even music. It’s the native vocal sound of the Latin Rite Church at prayer. For those of us from that Rite, to hate it is to hate where you come from. To hide from learning it is to hide from yourself.

    And singing the consecration is the most normal way to do it.

  15. frjim: I can guarantee you that you wouldn’t have liked the Latin Church too much sixty, seventy, or eighty years ago, when most Bishops, and certainly the Holy See, actually believed what Archbishop Sample is saying.

    He’s hardly cherry picking. The consistent tradition of the Latin Church and the statements of the Holy See, as well as the norm established by the Second Vatican Council, speak to the fact that he’s teaching from the wealth of Sacred Tradition, not merely preaching his own opinions.

  16. Wayward Lamb says:

    Two weeks I heard for the first time the consecration sung during Mass. It was beautiful and joyful and very much added to the mystery of the Eucharistic sacrifice.

  17. Reginald Pole says:

    The third typical edition of the Roman Missal contains musical notation for all four of the Eucharistic Prayers.

  18. The Masked Chicken says:

    “Gregorian chant doesn’t care whether you like it or not. It’s not really even music. It’s the native vocal sound of the Latin Rite Church at prayer.”


    That was a rhetorical flourish, right?

    Gregorian Chant is music and prayer. There are four qualities (if memory serves) that sound must have in order to be music: melody, rhythm, volume, and timbre. Rap is not music because it lacks melody. It is, technically, a form of rhetoric: third-rate poetry with a backbeat, as it were.

    The Chicken

  19. Jeanette says:

    I see that this singing of the consecration formula is a new thing in the Latin Rite…wow…talk about culture shock. :) There’s all this jabber about protecting the orientals from “Latinizing” but apparently that Latins are “easternizing!” Hahaha!

  20. uptoncp says:

    Quoted from Pius XII on page 9: “and do not
    spring from a desire of achieving extraordinary and unusual effects”

    Well, that’s the Venetian polychoral tradition out, for starters.

  21. MangiaMamma says:

    As a member of a parish in the Portland Archdiocese, I am really excited about reading this! Our parish’s music was fairly typical of many Catholic Churches throughout the U.S. until our new music director came last autumn. Now, not only do we have beautiful organ music being played at almost every Mass, our 10 a.m. Mass choir sings the communion antiphon the way it’s supposed to be sung. We also have a Latin schola. Our music director also gave a great presentation for mystagogy on sacred music that mirrored what our Archbishop elect wrote. Needless to say, many of us in Oregon are praying for Bishop Sample and what he’s bringing to our archdiocese!

  22. jaykay says:

    “… and then reflect on what you experience in your parish”

    Well, as to the music, in my church in Ireland it’s not TOO bad (Beagles’ Things has long been banished) and we do occasionally use chant – and not only the Missa de Angelis – but all too seldom. The choir director has a habit of throwing in bits of stuff because it seems “right” e.g. at a requiem Mass we’ll sing bits of the Missa pro Defunctis but for some reason never the Kyrie (which is dead simple) and we don’t use “dona eis requiem” in the Agnus Dei, because I honestly don’t think he knows you’re supposed to do that! Despite all the liturgical conferences et alia. Or maybe because of… here in Ireland with the current liturgical mafia I suspect the latter.

    We sing the psalm every week to not-too-bad settings, but recently the practice has developed of only singing the first and last verse. This is an abuse and I cannot understand why it’s being done. When the Archbishop came at Christmas we were suddenly told to reinstate the entire psalm… for that occassion. Pathetic.

    So all-in-all a pretty mixed bag with us right now, and given the dearth of leadership unlikely to improve for the foreseeable future. We could certainly do with an Abp. Sample here all right.

  23. BLB Oregon says:

    First off, I’ll note that the priests coming out of Mt. Angel Seminary seem to sing much more of the Mass than the older priests in the archdiocese tend to do. There is good reason to believe that Archbishop Sample will not only be the right archbishop for us in Western Oregon, but also that (due in no small part to the work of Archbishop Vlazny) he’ll be arriving at a good time. There is plenty left for him to do and there are plenty who will want to drag their feet over the changes he’s likely to make, but at least he won’t have to turn the whole ship around 180 degrees before he gets going.

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