In defence of the pipe organ

A few days ago, a post appeared on Facebook, correcting people who promote and subscribe to one page’s post claiming that the piano is not allowed to be used in the Holy Eucharist even in livestreamed Masses. This correction quickly turned into an apologia against the organ.

The anti-piano post founded its claim on Musicam sacram 60. The anti-organ post, on the hand, founded its correction on the same norm, just the second paragraph. In reality, Musicam sacram 60 is just a rehash of Sacrosanctum Concilium 120. Both single out the pipe organ because it is the king of all instruments, allowing others to be admitted on the condition that they are “suitable, or can be made suitable, for sacred use, accord with the dignity of the temple, and truly contribute to the edification of the faithful.” Half a century after this clause saw the light of day, people still consider it the magna carta for admitting all other instruments, even those previously forbidden, even those patently unsuited, into the sacred liturgy, to the utter detriment of the organ.

The arguments pushed forward in this apologia are redolent of that unarticulated belief that the Church of today existed only after the aggiornamento. Everything in the past, except Holy Writ and the few papal bulls worthy of mention, deserves no attention. This limited emphasis drives people to search for authorities only in the recent past, not knowing that a treasure trove of scholarship lies beyond the temporal boundary, where reside the pithy and mighty pronouncements of John XXII in Docta sanctorum, Benedict XIV in Annus qui hunc, Pius X in Tra le sollecitudini, and Pius XI in Divini cultus, to name a few popes who wrote about sacred music.

Holy Mother Church already outlined the instruments that fall within the context of the aforesaid clause. On 14 February 1749, Pope Benedict XIV issued the encyclical Annus qui hunc, providing guidance on how to ensure the fruitful celebration of the Holy Year of 1750. In it, he instructs bishops to forbid the timpani, the natural horns, the trumpets, the oboes, the flutes, the piccolos, the orchestral harps, the mandolins, other instruments more indissolubly associated with the theatre. He instructs them likewise to only allow the violone, the violoncello, the bassoon, the violas, and the violins, as these instruments strengthen and sustain the voice of the singers.

Sacredness of sacred music

Calling sacred music “sacred” merely by the words sung is reductive, myopic, and ignorant. The sacred texts are sacred in and of themselves. Sacred music, on the other hand, is sacred because of three qualities: holiness, which means the total exclusion of profanity in itself and in its manner of execution; excellence of form, which means the fulfilment of the purpose of the Church’s admission of music into the liturgy, that is, to lift the minds of the faithful to the heavens; and universality, which means the general characteristics to which sacred music tend, that every nation, regardless of language, derives only goodness from hearing it. That Saint Pius X outlined these qualities in his landmark bull Tra le sollecitudini of 22 November 1903 doesn’t diminish their importance, or render them outdated. After all, norm 4a of Musicam sacram, which we still quote, summarises the three under one quality it calls “holy sincerity of form” (in the English translation; the original Latin uses still uses the Pian terms holiness and excellence of form).

So, yes, the qualities stand. And if holiness is the first criterion, the guitar and the piano almost immediately get disqualified in the eliminations round. (No wonder they don’t even appear in Benedict XIV’s encyclical!) They and their varied forms figure in almost every profane activity modern man participates in, from the theatre to the bar, from parties to concerts, from variety shows to drinking sessions. This is the downside of the easy and the familiar, profanity pedestrianises them. Setting aside for the supreme act of worship that we offer to God a musical instrument that is reserved to the most solemn and most momentous occasions of our life makes sense. Dissociation from anything profane ensures that no mundanity tarnishes an instrument’s dignity in so sacred an action as the public prayer of the Church. This makes the organ a suitable instrument to unimpeachably communicate the sacredness of the liturgy.

Sacred music and the pipe organ

Stating, however, that the organ is a sacred instrument builds a strawman. The Church’s sacromusical scholarship never establishes the organ as a sacred instrument. Rather, Holy Mother Church favours the pipe organ, above all other musical instruments, as the instrument most suited to the liturgy. Supreme Pontiffs of the past never canonised the organ. (How can they? Up until the eighteenth century, the papal chapel did not admit any musical instrument, not even the organ.) Calling it sacred leads us only to note in it an attempt to cast the organ as a holy oppressor, cancelling other instruments on account of their failure to attain sanctity. And this obsession with elevating an object of opposition to a make-believe status virtue-signals humility, and deftly masks an appeal to mercy. Public outcry and compassion almost always favour the underdog.

Now that we’ve smashed the strawman, we can tackle the outlandish claims.

First, that the organ is an instrument most suited to the liturgy is neither perception nor subjective conjecture. The first axiom of sacred music is that the music proper to the Church is purely vocal. It follows that any music not produced in the human larynx is merely ancillary, that is, they exist to support the voice, not replace it. The music of any instrument, fashioned by human hands, falls under this category. And yet, of all these instruments, one rises above the rest. That is the pipe organ. Why so? Simply because it is the analogue of the human vocal apparatus. Air passes through the windpipe, and the vocal cords vibrate, producing sound. Similarly, in the organ, pressurised air flows through the pipe, and vibrates within the column, producing pitch. And we say analogue because the human larynx is infinitely superior to the pipe organ. How so? Man needs only one set of vocal cords to sound various notes; a pipe organ needs hundreds of tubes to produce different pitches. Above all, the human voice can articulate words, that is, the sacred texts themselves.

Objectively speaking, the human voice, on which the music purely proper to the Church is founded, depends on air and wind to produce sound. It is, therefore, no wonder that the first dissertations and legislations on the use of musical instruments in the liturgy were confined to wind instruments. By this alone we can exclude strings, under which guitars fall, and percussions, under which pianos fall. There is nothing perceptive or subjective in ensuring the place of the organ in the liturgy. No other musical instrument replicates the architecture and operation of the human larynx. Beyond the organ, subsequent discussions on what instruments to allow in the liturgy focused on suitability. Pope Benedict XIV expresses the golden rule for this: Musical instruments “should only be used to strengthen in a certain manner some force of the words of the chant, that their sense be more and more instilled in the minds of the listeners, and the minds of the faithful be moved unto the contemplation of spiritual things, and be stirred towards God and the love of divine things.”

Pipe organ and human experience

Next, we get to the economic dimension of this opposition to the pipe organ. As expected, it juxtaposes pet adjectives, such as expensive and immobile, against antonymous pet adjectives, such as practical. These are magic words that favour transience and the cult of fads, a subconscious rejection of permanence and the eternal. When we buy a digital keyboard, we go to a music store, try what’s available, select one that, more often than not, came out of a mass production factory, pay, and leave. That’s it. No strings attached. But putting up an organ generates jobs and builds lasting relationships, from the builders who install the organ, to the tuners who tune each pipe, to the organists who man the console and pulsate the organ, down to the technicians who repair and maintain the organ. The notion of a practicality that escapes the symbiosis engendered by a pipe organ can only nucleate in a mindset that sees a parish not outlasting the lifespan of the faux keys of a piano or the tautened strings of a guitar.

Then it segues into the anthropological dimension by referring to the clash between antiquarians and the common churchgoer. Putting antiquarians in the plural and the common churchgoer in the singular might suggest that antiquarians outnumber common churchgoers, but, quite interestingly, that achieves the opposite effect. The confidence to raise this argument is rooted on the presumption that partisans of the pipe organ are no longer the majority in the churchgoing public. This is where we say, anyone who makes bold claims, shaded with appeal to an unquantified majority, but presenting no real statistics, is just making an opinion. Placing Catholic interest in the pipe organ, masterfully likened to the typewriter, within the realm of antiquarianism, implies that the pipe organ was once prevalent, but now has departed the currency of time as to alienate itself from the common churchgoer. But then, we just don’t accept this observation. We ask the question: Whose fault is it that that happened? Do we blame the pipe organ for not going out of its way to meet and encounter the common churchgoer? Or do we blame the people in charge of liturgical music for not ensuring that the pipe organ continues its acquaintance with the common churchgoer? Choose your answer wisely. Only one of the two options has free will.

Suppose actual statistics support the thesis that the pipe organ has indeed become irrelevant, unfamiliar, and out of touch with human experience. What of it then? What should be the Catholic reaction to this situation? The answer is clear. Restore the pipe organ. There must be a reason why the pipe organ is the only instrument mentioned in Musicam sacram and Sacrosanctum Concilium. These documents are not concerned with trivial things. Hence, the organ is of paramount concern. All other instruments are, well, secondary and trivial (that’s why they are not even enumerated!), obtaining an importance proportionately inferior to that of the pipe organ. Long have we trifled with the trivial! It’s time we seize the opportunity to hoist what’s important. We can, of course, invoke free will, and discard the organ on the basis of its perceived irrelevance, and it may not weigh on our consciences for now, but this blatant invitation to disobedience will surely figure in our particular judgment. Human experience does lead us to many places.

Then again, how come human experience ought to be the barometer for deciding what is best to use in the liturgy? If human experience were solely to determine the Church’s teachings then we’re bound to accept contraception and abortion as morally acceptable. What a relief it is indeed that the Church’s authentic musical choices have never been governed by human experience alone. Their basis, first and foremost, is the anatomy of man, the only creature fashioned in the image and likeness of God. As singing requires reasonable ability to phonate properly and produce pitches pleasing to the ear and appropriate to the text, so pulsating an organ demands tantamount ability in order to produce harmony that supports the singing, excite grave veneration towards the Sacred Mysteries and assist the interior articulation of the intention of souls. And that is our benchmark. We set aside the best and the highest for the liturgy. We never go down the easy road, when the difficult is not beyond human artifice and ingenuity.

Pipe organ and reality

So far, we’ve tackled the scholarship upholding the primacy of the pipe organ. But what is the situation on the ground? The apologia does not disappoint in this province. Athwart it casts the relevant questions. And so, we offer our answers.

Yes, not all churches have pipe organs. Yes, playing it demands a skill quite different from what we learned from our piano teachers. Yes, not all digital keyboards have organ settings. But these are remediable situations, not insurmountable impediments. The solution to these should obviously not be agnostic to particular circumstances. Parishes of generous means can always allocate funds to install an organ and train an organist. These two must go hand in hand. It is simply preposterous to put up an organ with no plans of hiring an organist. Parishes of moderate means can get a digital keyboard. Make sure its settings include church organ and pipe organ. If the current keyboard has none, well, chuck it out, put it inside the rehearsal room or the multipurpose hall, and get a new one. Parishes of lesser means can always go back to the basics: vocal music. We will not go as far as to advise them to use the guitar. If theologians and liturgists of old rejected the flute and the harp on the basis of their association with the theatre, a respectable art form, then we have to subject the guitar, which graces roadside conventicles conducted over booze, to the same standard.

Yes, yes, it’s easy for us to vomit all these things, because we’re not running the parishes. But there’s a simple lesson for this situation. If it’s outside our means, then we mustn’t insist. This is a simple reality we want to shove back to the faces of the naysayers after they’ve shoved in ours the acutely real anti-organ scenarios they are fond of enumerating. At the end of their jeremiad, the only human sensation left in us forces us to complain: “Katapusan na ba ng mundo? Hindi na talaga kayang gawan ng paraan?” People retreat to the defeatist corner, surrendering to incapability, when action is undesirable, when it endangers their most cherished principles and advocacies, which are not necessarily principles and advocacies honoured by the Church.

Now, what if there are no instruments at all (because Father has to travel for hours by foot just to say Mass)? No problem! Remember what Saint Pius X taught, and what the Fathers of the First Plenary Council of the Philippines taught? The music proper of the Church is purely vocal! Sing the proper and ordinary texts of the Mass! The Church has done that for hundreds of years. The Italian historian, Father Ludovico Muratori, describes how the Jesuit missionaries of Latin America trained the natives to sing for the Sacred Mysteries. The absence and scarcity of musical instruments was never a hindrance. It was instead an incentive for the indigenous communities to build their own versions of these instruments. Says the cliché: When there’s a will, there’s a way. Have the years we spent in pastoral music, which we never forget to mention in passing, rendered us incapable of singing without accompaniment? Forgetting the basics of the celebration of the Eucharist, which is the centre of the communities of the faithful, defeats the purpose of focusing on basic ecclesial communities.

Sacred music and spirituality

After this outline of an interior unwillingness to render to the organ its proper place, comes an inane question prefaced by an earth-shaking expedition to tap into the spiritual realm. Does the pipe organ speak and express the faith? Any answer to the question “Does the piano speak and express the faith?” or “Does the guitar speak and express the faith?” is as good as ours. It is again an invitation to relativise the faith, to philander with the notion that its articulation and expression ought to latch on material things. Questions such as these attempt to bite more than what they can chew. The purpose of employing musical instruments in the liturgy of the Church is rather simpler. Cosmic, but still simple. On this, we borrow the words of a Spanish Jesuit theologian, Father Gregorio de Valencia: “To stir the interior affection not only of one’s self but also of others, especially of the multitudes, who sometimes thus far are feeble, that they may be roused unto the perception of spiritual things, not only by the singing of voices, but by organ and musical instruments as well.”

Improvisation, as we know, is a euphemism for liturgical abuse. It positivises evil. Even before the community quarantine, to which we are now consigned, that has been a big problem. In view of this quarantine, our bishops only suspended public Masses and our obligation to assist on Sundays. They never suspended the laws governing sacred liturgy and sacred music, because, frankly speaking, that is beyond their power. In fact, we’ve never heard of any Filipino bishop issuing a formal instruction on sacred music. That is the reason why we are in this quandary in the first place. People assume they have canonical authority to run the establishment in open contradiction to the Magisterium. Very appropriate for this is Saint John Paul II’s warning in Mosso dal vivo, his chirograph on sacred music issued on the centenary of Saint Pius X’s Tra le sollecitudini, 22 November 2003: “The musical aspect of liturgical celebrations cannot, therefore, be left to improvisation or to the arbitration of individuals but must be well conducted and rehearsed in accordance with the norms and competencies resulting from a satisfactory liturgical formation.”

Pinpointing the exact point where the general desire to improvise springs from is not easy. The symptoms suggest that it comes from the fact that we’ve become too familiar with music in the liturgy to the point that losing that music renders the liturgy to our perception less solemn, less edifying, less interesting. In other words, alien. The problem with familiarity is its propensity towards complacency and faulty toleration. The congregation likes this, the congregation likes that. Are these predilections even aligned with the norms of the liturgy? Attempts to justify our answers route us back to the question of human experience, its unwarranted canonisation, and its flawed spirituality.

As a final bonus, we get to read psalm 150, detached from its historical context, and presented as though it singlehandedly ought to guide our decisions on sacred music. Its purpose, we can divine from its strategic position, and that is to provoke us into asking: “Hey the psalm tells us to praise God with harp and trumpet, but why are these instruments forbidden? The psalm mentions many instruments, why doesn’t it speak about the organ, the king of all instruments?” Questions such as these tend to be revolutionary in our age, and program us to challenge authority. This is the problem of woke liturgical intellectualism. It is anchored on present issues, but divorced from the flow of time. It militates on behalf of issues that have already been settled. Saint Thomas Aquinas answered this question long ago in the Summa. Head over to II, II, q. 91, art. 2 for a splash of refreshing context: “In the Old Testament instruments of this description were employed, both because the people were more coarse and carnal—so that they needed to be aroused by such instruments as also by earthly promises—and because these material instruments were figures of something else.”

As a final note, we leave three reflections:

First, the pipe organ started its journey towards perceived irrelevance when the liturgical establishment interpreted Musicam sacram 60 as an amnesty for all forbidden instruments. That misconception altered the ecology of sacred music. The behaviour of biological and ecclesiastical ecosystems is the same. Introduce a new species. Expect the endemic species, usually superior and rarer, to dwindle. What the brown tree snake has done to Guam’s native bird population is the same thing inferior musical instruments are doing to the pipe organ.

Second, upholding the pipe organ does not invalidate the traditions of the Eastern Church. The vocal nature of sacred music comes out more clearly in the East than in the West. Where liturgical chant is alive, there the necessity for musical accompaniment obtains less import. The Church understands this, and She has long ago spoken about this, in the voice of Pope Benedict XIV. Where the use of musical instruments is not the norm, they must not be unadvisedly and forcibly introduced.

Third, behind the firm opposition to employing the organ hides the fear of losing livelihood. Discarding the organ deprives communities the opportunity to execute a vast repertoire of sacred music. That creates a dearth, a demand for new compositions. To this market niche respond groups that churn out pieces that pretend to meet communitarian necessities and liturgical standards at the same time. A few select we can except for their genius, but the norm remains. Emotional and financial investment bends sympathies towards mediocrity. Holiness is not measured by the ability to affect emotion by pathopoeia, the kakayanang umantig ng damdamin.

We end this with a reminder from Pope Benedict XVI’s speech Dieses altehrwürdige Gotteshaus, on the occasion of the blessing of the new organ of Regensburg’s Alte Kapelle on 13 September 2006: “The organ has always been considered, and rightly so, the king of musical instruments, because it takes up all the sounds of creation—as was just said—and gives resonance to the fullness of human sentiments, from joy to sadness, from praise to lamentation. By transcending the merely human sphere, as all music of quality does, it evokes the divine.”

Ut in omnibus laudetur Dominus.


Second Ecumenical Vatican Council, Constitution Musicam sacram.
Second Ecumenical Vatican Council, Constitution Sacrosanctum Concilium.
Pope Benedict XIV, Encyclical Letter Annus qui hunc.
Pope Saint Pius X, Apostolic Constitution Tra le sollecitudini.
Father Ludovico Antonio Muratori, Il cristianesimo felice.
Father Gregorio de Valencia, S. J., Commentaria Theologica III, disp. 6, q. 9.
Pope Saint John Paul II, Apostolic Constitution Mosso dal vivo.
Saint Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologica II, II, q. 91, art. 2, obj. 4.
Pope Benedict XVI, Speech Dieses altehrwürdige Gotteshaus.

Sacred music during the epidemic

Our desire to render honour to God, and to be united with others in our efforts to celebrate the Sacred Liturgy with greater solemnity and befitting ornament, during this current epidemic, must be tempered according to the laws governing Sacred Liturgy and Sacred Music. By virtue of its character of special law, Summorum Pontificum, as clarified by norm 28 of Universæ Ecclesiæ, instituted a tempus ad quod for the Extraordinary Form, in that Summorum Pontificum “derogates from those provisions of law, connected with the sacred Rites, promulgated from 1962 onwards and incompatible with the rubrics of the liturgical books in effect in 1962”. That means that the last major Roman legislation on sacred music applicable to the Extraordinary Form is Pius XII’s De musica sacra of 3 September 1958.

Norm 74 establishes that:

74. For any radio or television broadcast of liturgical functions or private devotions, the local Ordinary must give his express permission; this is required whether they are being held inside or outside the church. Before granting permission, the Ordinary must be sure that: a) the singing and music fully comply with the laws of the liturgy, and sacred music; b) in the case of a television broadcast, all those taking part in the ceremonies are so well instructed that the ceremonies may be carried out in full conformity with the rubrics, and with fitting dignity.

74. Ad actiones liturgicas vel pia exercitia, quæ cum intra tum extra ecclesiam peraguntur, ope radiophoniæ vel televisionis diffundenda, expressa requiritur Ordinarii loci licentia ; quam ipse ne concedat, nisi prius sibi constet : a) Cantum et Musicam sacram, legibus sive liturgicis sive Musicæ sacræ apprime respondere ; b) Insuper, si agatur de diffusione televisifica, omnes, qui in functione sacra partem habent, ita bene instructos ess, ut celebration rubricis plane conformis et omnino digna evadat.

The permission from the Ordinary is now de facto on account of the current epidemic. It is now our duty to exercise this permission compliant “with the laws of the liturgy, and sacred music”. And so, we draw our attention again to norm 71.

71. The use of automatic instruments and machines, such as the automatic organ, phonograph, radio, tape or wire recorders, and other similar machines, is absolutely forbidden in liturgical functions and private devotions, whether they are held inside or outside the church, even if these machines be used only to transmit sermons or sacred music, or to substitute for the singing of the choir or faithful, or even just to support it.

71. Usus instrumentorum et machinarum « automaticarum », uti sunt : autoorganum, grammophonium, radiophonium, dictaphonium seu magnetophonium, et alia eiusdem generis, in actionibus liturgicis et piis exercitiis, sive intra sive extra ecclesiam peragendis, absolute vetatur, etsi agatur tantum de sacris sermonibus vel Musica sacra transmittenda, vel de cantoribus aut fidelibus in cantu substituendis aut etiam sustentandis.

There are several notions that demand highlighting. First, “other similar machines”, by the qualifier similar, are machines and devices that can function like an automatic organ, phonograph, radio, and tape or wire recorders. Without going into electronic details, the modern smartphone, being enabled by applications and built-in functions, falls within the ambit of these similar machines. Second, the prohibition covers purposes of “[transmitting] sermons or sacred music”, “[substituting] for the singing of the choir or the faithful”, and “even just [supporting the singing]”. This gamut embraces all praiseworthy activities that livestreaming from handheld devices are capable of remotely transmitting. As for broadcasting vis-à-vis livestreaming, skip to the penultimate full paragraph.

But what does choir mean? Does it have to be physically present? The laws governing sacred music have always made it clear that the choir is located within the consecrated edifice. If we cast our glance to the wealth of guidance that our patrimony provides, we will discover that the word choir signifies three elements. First, in a strictly historical sense, the choir is that group of clerics who, since the early days of the Church, sang and chanted praises in the form of a crown standing around the altar [1]. Second, in a strictly architectural sense, the quire is that place inside the consecrated church or that part of the sacred edifice set off on four sides, and surrounded by choir stalls for cantors and clerics, and separated in front of the altar by latticework or by walls decorated with art, in which layfolk ought not presume to enter [2]. Third, having attained in the Church the custom of admitting laymen or persons without holy orders into the choir to perform chant, in a broadly choral sense, the choir also signifies that assembly which laymen constitute, singing for the celebration of the Liturgy, but assisting outside the quire, in another designated place separated from the rest of those attending Mass [3].

And here we must realise, as the various canons of past Councils in the footnotes have disposed—Tours II (567), Toledo IV (633), Milan I (1565), Manila I (1907)—that when Holy Church speaks of the choir, She always treats it as if it were present in the celebration of the Liturgy. (And this parallels the way Holy Mother Church speaks of contraception only within the context of the marital act.) It is fitting that just as the Lord is really present at Mass, all who serve and assist at the Sacrifice must be really present as well. The minimum condition therefore for a choir of laypersons, be it of one cantor or more, is that it must be within the church (or any place where the Liturgy is being celebrated) but situated separate from the sanctuary (or away from the space where the Mysteries are confected), at the very moment the Liturgy is being celebrated.

Note as well that Pius XII enjoined organisers in norm 79 “to remind the radio and television audiences before the program that listening to the broadcast does not fulfill their obligation to attend Mass.” We might nitpick on terms, livestreaming vis-à-vis broadcasting, because livestream has not yet been coined back in 1958, but the entire section E of De musica sacra’s Chapter III.2 encompasses the “transmission of sacred functions by means of radiophony and television”. And livestreaming is transmission, and smartphones utilise radio technology and television signal to transmit. But we must not worry about this, since our Ordinaries have already dispensed us from the spiritual obligation to attend Mass on Sunday.

The temptation to be creative haunts us and taunts us, when resources are meagre, and we are overwhelmed with a sincere desire to adorn the Liturgy with music. We advise others to fast and abstain, and our superiors advise us likewise in order to live the true spirit of Lent. More than any other season, this is the time to fast and abstain from creativity. For creativity itself was one of the viruses that infected the prime movers of modern liturgical upheaval, one of whose victims is Holy Week. And so, mindful of the unique purpose to which we have devoted our lives, every time we sense the temptation rising, we must confront it, and perish it forthwith. For in this case, as in the case we have tackled before, the via pastoralis is to celebrate Low Mass without musical ornament.

Ut in omnibus laudetur Dominus.

[1] Honorius of Autun, Sacramentary, ch. 33: PL 172 (Paris 1874) 764: “The Choir is the coherence of those who are singing: it is said that they are called a Choir because in the beginning they would stand and chant in the form of a crown around the altar. The Cantors are singers of God’s praises, and the ones who encourage others unto praise. The vestments of Cantors are made of linen, white, and long: made of linen, that they may be refined in ability; white, that they may be clean and chaste; long, that they may be persevering in goodness unto the end. The slack of the copes is the breadth of charity; the tassels, good works.”
Cf.: Idem, The gem of the soul, bk. 1, ch. 143: op. cit., 588: “The Choir is named after the harmony of those who are singing, or the coherence of those who are standing around. For indeed, those who sing once stood in the form of a crown around the altar; but the Bishops Flavian and Diodorus instructed the Choirs to chant alternately. The two Choirs of Cantors represent the angels and the spirits of the just, as though praising the Lord with an interchanging voice. The stalls in which they stand represent the many mansions in the house of the Father (Jn. 14). That sometimes they go from the Choir in procession into some altar, and thither in attention sing, signifies that souls departing from this life come to Christ and in the company of angels sing together unto God.”
[2] Charles du Fresne, Glossarium (Frankfurt am Main 1681) 972: “The part of the Church in which the Choir gathers and sings.”
Cf.: Second Council of Tours, can. 4: Sacrorum Conciliorum 9 (Florence 1763) 793: “Let the layfolk absolutely not presume to stand before the altar, where the Holy Mysteries are celebrated, amongst Clerics both during Vigils and during Masses: but let that part, which is separated by latticework facing the altar, be only visible to the Choir of Clerics who are chanting. But during prayer and Communion, as is the custom, let the Holy of holies by shewn to laymen and laywomen.”
Cf.: Fourth Council of Toledo, can. 18: Sacrorum Conciliorum 10 (Florence 1764) 624: “Some Priests, after the Lord’s prayer is said, immediately receive Communion, and afterwards, give the blessing upon the people; which henceforth we forbid: but after the Lord’s prayer, and the mixing together of the Bread and the Chalice, let the blessing upon the people follow, and then finally, let the Sacrament of the Body and Blood of the Lord be consumed; in such order, of course, that the Priest and the Deacon receive Communion at the altar, the Clergy in the quire, and the people outside the quire.”
[3] First Provincial Council of Milan, part 1: Acta Ecclesiæ Mediolanensis (Lyon 1599) 31: “Let the Cantors, where it is possible, be Clerics: but absolutely let them make use of clerical vestments and the surplice in Choir. But in processions, let neither Cantors nor musicians proceed together with the Choir in clerical vestments.”
Cf.: First Provincial Council of Manila, tit. 4, ch. 10, no. 521: Acta et Decreta Concilii Provincialis Manilani I (Rome 1907) 213: “Let lay Cantors be religious and commendable in the integrity of their ways: but by no means let the irreligious and the scandalous be admitted.”
Cf.: Pius XII, Encyclical Letter Musicæ sacræ (25 December 1955) 74.

Celebrating Mass on the tomb of a deceased person

It is with deepest sadness that we report another travesty perpetrated against the Most August Sacrifice of the Mass. On 2 November 2018, Mass was celebrated on top of a tomb in a cemetery. This is canonically forbidden.


The prohibition entered our canonical books after the First Provincial Council of Milan, convoked by Saint Charles Borromeo, archbishop of the see, in 1565, during the reign of Pope Pius IV.

The opening of these tombs that are afterwards to be built ought to stand at least three cubits away from the wooden stalls or the predella of the altar, but these tombs ought not touch the wooden stall. Wherefore, nobody is to be buried near altars or beneath the predellas, and if thither be found tombs that have been constructed, the altars are interdicted, until, having removed the bones of those buried thither, the tombs have been filled with soil, and barricaded with a wall.

Sepulchrorum ipsorum inposterum ædificandorum ostium longe ab altaris scabellis ligneis vel prædella cubitis ad minus tribus, sepulchra vero ipsa ad scabellum ligneum non pertingant. Hinc nemo sepeliendus est prope altaria seu sub prædellis et si quæ inibi reperiantur constructæ sepulturæ, interdicuntur altaria, donec amotis ossibus ibi sepultorum sepulturæ terra repleantur et muro obstruantur.

Thirty years later, on 10 November 1599, the Sacred Congregation of Bishops and Regulars issued a decree voicing the same prohibition.

Altars, beneath whose predellas were entombed cadavers, even though they may not lose their consecration for this reason, must nevertheless be interdicted until the cadavers have been transferred to another place.

Altaria, sub quorum prædellis cadavera sunt sepulta, licet propterea consecrationem non amittant, debent tamen interdici donec cadavera in alium deferentur locum.

One notices above that the prohibitions apply when the corpses are buried near the altar, not under the altar itself. If this is the case, how much more when the cadaver is beneath the altar itself? After the above decrees, clarifications and prohibitions came out one after another from the Sacred Congregation of Rites. Let us look first at the rescript issued to the Archdiocese of Sassari in Sardinia, issued on 11 June 1629.

The Bishop of Sassari petitioned: whether the Liturgy can be celebrated in an altar under which have been entombed the cadavers of the departed?

And the Sacred Congregation of Rites responded: “It cannot be celebrated.”

Episcopus Turritanus petiit : an possit celebrari in Altare, sub quo sint sepulta cadavera defunctorum ?

Et S. R. C. respondit : « Non posse ».

Next, we have the rescript to the Diocese of Tropea (now merged as one with the Dioceses of Melito and Nicotera) on 9 June 1657.

Antonio de Alulys of Tropea persisted to be enjoined by the Capitular Vicar that he remove the suspension from the celebration of the Liturgy imposed by the deceased Bishop on the altar of the chapel under his patronage, due to the reason that the cadavers of the deceased have been buried under the predella of that altar.

And the Sacred Congregation of Rites responded: “No suspension is removed.”

Antonius de Alulys Tropien. institit, iniungi Vicario Capitulari, ut amoveat suspensionem a celebratione in Altari Cappellæ eius patronatus positam a defuncto Episcopo, ex quo sub suppedaneo Altaris condita sint defunctorum cadavera.

Et S. R. C. respondit : « Nihil ».

Finally, the Sacred Congregation of Rites issued a general decree, clarifying certain points from the Missal, on 13 February 1666.

In an altar, under which or under whose predella the bodies of the deceased are inhumed, Mass must not be celebrated, until the bodies are transferred elsewhere.

In eo Altari, sub quo vel sub cuius prædella humata sunt corpora defunctorum, non debet celebrari Missa, donec alio transferantur.

And, on 7 July 1766, we read a specific rescript issued to Venice, concerning Masses said for the souls of the noble patrician family Renier.

Concerning the continuation of the celebration of Masses in the altar of the noble family of Renier in the Church known as Santa Maria dell’Orto, under which are found entombed the cadavers of its forefathers, etc.: “The Most Holy Father, in confirming by the Decree of the Congregation of Sacred Rites, concerning the prohibition of the celebration of the Most Holy Sacrifice of the Mass in an altar under which are entombed the cadavers of the deceased, commanded that Masses are not to be celebrated in said altar, for which reasons, during prayers, while there be cadavers under it and its predella, which should be exhumed according to the mind of the Decree, which the Supreme Pontiff Benedict XIV elsewhere granted to similar petitions: these having been explained orally by the Reverend Father Lord Secretary of the same Congregation, [the Most Holy Father] granted that, in the meantime, if Masses should be celebrated in it due to some obligation, it ought to be celebrated in another altar.”

Quoad continuationem celebrationis Missarum in Altari nobilis Familiæ Renier in Ecclesia S. Mariæ de Horto nuncupatæ, sub quo humata reperiuntur cadavera suorum maiorum, etc. « Ssmus, confirmando Decreto Congregationis Sacrorum Rituum de non celebrando Sacrosancto Missæ Sacrificio in Altari sub quo sepulta exsistunt cadavera defunctorum, mandavit Missas non esse celebrandas in Altari, de quo in precibus, donec sint sub eo eiusque prædella cadavera, quæ exhumari debebunt iuxta mentem Decreti, quod alias ad similes preces edidit Pontifex Benedictus XIV : his oretenus explicatis R. P. D. Secretario eiusdem Congregationis, concessit ut interim, si Missæ ex aliqua obligatione in eodem celebrari deberent, celebrentur in alio Altari ».

Holy Mother Church tolerates altars made of inferior materials, on top of war tanks, on planks and driftwood propped and balanced upon barrels and kegs, as long as gravis necessitas id urgeat. This is merely a question of ritual and ceremonial decorum. Paucitas is never a hindrance to nobilitas. But when one throws in a cadaver in the mixture, in whatever state of decomposition or preservation it may be, whether it be morally visible or perceptible, permanently entombed under and within the material of such makeshift altars, then the question escalates to the realm of the canonical. Such prohibition do not excuse materials and contraptions that were never meant to be an altar, such as a tomb. The moment one places an altar stone on that tomb for the celebration of the Mass, that tomb becomes an ad hoc altar, contrary to the laws and canons of the Holy Roman Catholic and Apostolic Church.

Parce, Domine, parce populo tuo.

Substituting the choir with recordings at Mass

It has come to our attention that certain Traditional groups push forward with the celebration of a misa cantada even when no schola is present to sing. Now, we can dispense with the schola when we deal with the ordinaries of the Mass. The congregation can sing Missa de Angelis from memory, supposing they still remember it, and have a collective vocal apparatus capable of executing it. We all know, however, that a misa cantada requires at least one cantor, trained or at least experienced in chant or psalm tones, to sing the propers. So, in the case presented above, schola carente vel cantoribus absentibus, the propers were played from recordings.


Is this allowed? The resounding answer is: No, it is not allowed!

If there is no schola, the logical, human, and pastoral recourse would be to celebrate a misa rezada.

But, sir! But, sir! Is playing the propers from recordings forbidden? Of course, it is forbidden! By Pope Pius XII, no less! Below are extracts from the 1958 Instruction De musica sacra (English here; original Latin here). First, that instruments at Mass should be played personally:


60. c) Finally, only instruments which are personally played by a performer are to be used in the sacred liturgy, not those which are played mechanically or automatically.

60. c) Denique ea tantum musica instrumenta in sacra Liturgia admittuntur, quae personali artificis actione tractantur, non autem quae modo mechanico seu automatico.

And, second, that sound-producing machines which mimic, and not merely amplify, the capabilities of the human voice, can be used only outside the liturgical action:


71. The use of automatic instruments and machines, such as the automatic organ, phonograph, radio, tape or wire recorders, and other similar machines, is absolutely forbidden in liturgical functions and private devotions, whether they are held inside or outside the church, even if these machines be used only to transmit sermons or sacred music, or to substitute for the singing of the choir or faithful, or even just to support it.

However, such machines may be used, even inside the church, but not during services of any kind, whether liturgical or private, in order to give the people a chance to listen to the voice of the Supreme Pontiff or the local Ordinary, or the sermons of others. These mechanical devices may be also be used to instruct the faithful in Christian doctrine or in the sacred chant or hymn singing; finally they may be used in processions which take place outside the church, as a means of directing, and supporting the singing of the people.

71. Usus instrumentorum et machinarum « automaticarum », uti sunt : autoorganum, grammophonium, radiophonium, dictaphonium seu magnetophonium, et alia eiusdem generis, in actionibus liturgicis et piis exercitiis, sive intra sive extra ecclesiam peragendis, absolute vetatur, etsi agatur tantum de sacris sermonibus vel Musica sacra transmittenda, vel de cantoribus aut fidelibus in cantu substituendis aut etiam sustentandis.

His tamen machinis uti licet, etiam in ecclesiis, sed extra actiones liturgicas et pia exercitia, cum agitur de audienda voce Summi Pontificis, Ordinarii loci, vel aliorum oratorum sacrorum ; vel etiam ad fideles in doctrina christiana vel in cantu sacro aut religioso populari instituendos ; denique ad populi cantum dirigendum et sustentandum in processionibus extra ecclesiam peragendis.

Actuosa participatio is predicated on the actual and present action of the human person, a sentient, rational, and intelligent being created by God in His very image, capable of recognising God his own Creator, worshipping Him, and rendering Him adoration, veneration, and honour.


Use the recordings for practice, for seminars, for conventions, for talks. Chuck the record player out when it’s time for Mass, or the First Friday Benediction, or the fiesta novena. God forfend we transform the Mass into mere aesthetic experience replete with a panoply of pleasing vocals produced from the throat of a creature formed by human hands! God is not worshipped by machine.

Ut in omnibus laudetur Dominus.