‘A treasure of inestimable value’: Liturgical Music as a Continuation of the Incarnation

[EDITOR’S NOTE: For his contribution to our series on ‘Christian Doctrine and the Arts’, Cameron Shippee explores the ‘sacramental capacity’ of music in the Catholic liturgy. He argues that music is unique as an artform that ‘reveals the true presence of Jesus Christ in the Blessed Sacrament while preparing the believer to receive Him’. For more information on this series, see the series introduction.]

In order to untangle the web that is art’s role in the Catholic liturgy, this article will explore the music of the Mass from a practical perspective. While a philosophical notion of aesthetics undergirds the Church’s unspoken theology of sacred music, the pragmatic aspect of making music in a church context must also be considered. More specifically, this article will examine the music of the Mass in light of Sacrosanctum Concilium. The Second Vatican Council’s Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy instructs that ‘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.’[1] In this statement, the role of music in the liturgy seems to be simple. However, while the council document teaches that music in the liturgy should fulfil one of the four stated criteria, the aim of this article is to show that these requirements fall into two broader categories. The music of the Mass either is used to create a prayerful atmosphere, or it is liturgy transferred into sound.

While other artforms will not be discussed in this essay, all art utilised in the Catholic liturgy continues the revelatory nature of the Incarnation, in which God divulges His love for His people through the life, death, and resurrection of the Son.[2] The function of most music in the Mass is similar to that of sacred architecture and visual art that is incorporated into worship. Namely, they should encourage prayer. However, there are five texts that are chanted or sung in the Mass: the Ordinary of the Mass, which are prayers in and of themselves. They encompass yet move beyond the four stipulations outlined by the council. This article uses music from the Easter Day Mass to demonstrate this artform’s ‘sacramental capacity’, to borrow a term from Bishop James Conley of Lincoln, Nebraska.[3] These selections will illustrate that liturgical music, while liturgy transferred into sound at times, is also capable of forming an adoring surrounding. Music has the capacity to draw the worshipper naturally to the Lord in the spirit of prayer and affirm His presence.

To understand fully the role of music in the Mass, the dynamic element of liturgical music must be considered. Unlike architecture and the visual arts, liturgical music is not static. The part of the Mass most commonly set to music is divided into two categories: the Ordinary of the Mass, and the Proper of the Mass. The former is comprised of five acclamations that are said during every Mass: the Kyrie, the Gloria, the Credo, the Sanctus, and the Agnus Dei. The Mass Propers, on the contrary, change daily and are specific to the feast on the liturgical calendar. All music used in the liturgy is meant to foster divine praise, but the musical elements either create a prayerful environment, making them akin to sacred art and architecture (Ordinary chants), or are unique in that they are liturgy itself expressed through sound and change by the day (Proper chants).

The Proper of the Mass: Preparing for Unification

The introit in the Tridentine rite is sung as the clergy processes into the sanctuary. If not full psalms, introits are a collection of psalm verses relating to the theme of the feast being celebrated. The Graduale Romanum, one of many compendia of plainsong hymns, prayers and lessons for major Church feasts, specifies the hymn Resurrexi et adhuc as the introit for Easter Day.[4] The source of the text is Psalm 139: 18, 5-6, 1-2, in that order, forming a dialogue between the risen Christ and the worshipper. It translates as:

I am risen, and I am always with you, alleluia;

you have placed your hand on me,

your wisdom has been shown to be most wonderful, alleluia.

O Lord, you have searched me and know me;

you know when I sit down and when I rise up.[5]

As is true of many plainsongs, the final verse of the text is followed by a singing of the Lesser Doxology which lauds the Trinity. This makes Resurrexi, and most of the Proper chants, prayerful in nature, but they are not as revelatory in nature as the Ordinary chants, to be discussed below.

Music has the capacity to draw the worshipper naturally to the Lord in the spirit of prayer and affirm His presence.

The texts of most antiphons come from sacred scripture, bringing the word of God directly to the faithful in a medium that surpasses the power of the spoken word. Sacrosanctum Concilium states that, ‘The musical tradition of the universal Church is a treasure of inestimable value, greater even than that of any other art. The main reason for this pre-eminence is that, as sacred song united to the words, it forms a necessary or integral part of the solemn liturgy.’[6] Music is like no other artform employed in the service of the liturgy because the basis of much sacred music, and certainly the foundation of the plainsong repertoire, is the word of God itself. It has the potential to sanctify the believer by proclaiming the sacred text in a manner that moves beyond mere human speech and comes closer to revealing the divine to the worshipper than spoken text.

Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger’s theology of sacred music offers an explanation for why music in the liturgy is capable of generating communion with the transcendent. He asserts that ‘Liturgical music is a result of the demands and of the dynamism of the Incarnation of the Word, for music means that even among us the word cannot be mere speech.’[7] Simply put, the essence of God cannot be captured in words alone. Uniting religious texts with melody can move the worshipper toward God, who enters the mundane realm through the sacrament of the Eucharist. Quoting the Pope Emeritus, Peter F. Ryan writes, ‘The Eucharist guides us “towards our final goal,” which “is Christ himself” and “sacramentally accomplishes the eschatological gathering of the People of God.”’[8] Likewise, music gathers the congregation together into the spirit of prayer and into oneness with the heavenly. Thus, Bishop Conley can make the claim that music does, in fact, have the greatest sacramental capacity of the arts.

The hymn Resurrexi et adhuc also foreshadows the focus of the Catholic liturgy: the congregation’s encounter with the Lord that takes place in the Eucharist. In his Introduction to Christianity, Ratzinger writes that the liturgy is where ‘one encounters the risen Christ in the word and in the sacrament; worship is the way in which he becomes touchable to us and recognizable as the living Christ. And conversely, the liturgy is based on the mystery of Easter; it is to be understood as the Lord’s approach to us.’[9] Resurrexi et adhuc serves to unify the minds of the faithful and orient one’s focus toward the spiritual significance of the liturgy. This hymn speaks of the Lord approaching his believers, encapsulating Ratzinger’s theology of the Mass. Moreover, the introit fulfils another stipulation of music prescribed by the council, in that it is connected to the liturgical action of the clergy’s approach of the altar. In his essay ‘The Propers of the Mass as Integral to the Liturgy,’ William Peter Mahrt maintains that ‘[It] is first of all the solemn entrance of the ministers, optimally through the church and into the sanctuary to the focal point of the whole liturgy, the altar…The degree of elaboration of the introit allows the expression of significant solemnity as well as a sense of purposeful motion to a goal’.[10] The introit, while not a prayer, is like sacred art and architecture in that it contributes to the sense of awe as the Mass begins, reminding the worshipper of the significance of what will happen in the Liturgy of the Eucharist. Practically, it allows time for the priest to make a solemn entrance into the presence of the Lord.

The congregation does not participate in the singing of the introit because of its variable nature. Thus, the participatory role of the congregation is interior and spiritual in nature at this point in the Mass. The opening hymn assists in establishing a reverential mentality by serving as a background for the procession of the clergy to the altar. The music should not be the focal point of the liturgy at this time; music takes on a greater liturgical role at a later point in the Mass. The Proper chants, such as the introit, should direct the attention of the faithful to the divine on a purely spiritual level. Yet this cannot be achieved if the worshipper is concentrated on singing the correct words, notes, and rhythms.

Music…has the potential to sanctify the believer by proclaiming the sacred text in a manner that moves beyond mere human speech and comes closer to revealing the divine to the worshipper than spoken text.

The Ordinary of the Mass: Communion with the Divine

Unlike the introit, which anticipates the true presence of the Lord in the Eucharist, the Kyrie and Gloria are prayers that should be sung by all because they are the liturgy itself. The Mass Ordinary, when sung by the faithful, allow the believer to directly ask for the forgiveness of sins and laud the creator. In the Tridentine rite, the Kyrie is a ninefold prayer which embodies the communicative aspect of the Eucharist. Thirteenth century mystic Gertrude the Great offers a particularly telling theology of the chanted Kyrie when explaining her vision of the mystical liturgy, in which she saw Jesus celebrate the High Mass. She writes:

At the first Christe eleison, the Saint offered our Lord all the sweetness of human affection, returning it to Him as to its Source; and thus there was a wonderful influx of God into her soul, and of her soul into God, so that by the descending notes the ineffable delights of the Divine Heart flowed into her, and by the ascending notes the joy of her soul flowed back to God.[11]

For Gertrude, the Kyrie is the epitome of the twofold action of approach which both the believer and the creator engage in during the Mass. The prayer, when set to music, embodies the four markers of favourable music for the liturgy as outlined by the council. Yet Gertrude renders praise to God through the singing of the text, which unites not only the minds of the worshippers but also the hearts of the believers and the Lord.

Because they are text transformed into liturgical action, the chants of the Mass Ordinary transcend the criteria of sacred music that are outlined in Sacrosanctum Concilium. They make the act of worship all the more solemn, unite the hearts and minds of the faithful in the spirit of adoration, and add an aura of contentment to prayer. Musical settings of the Mass Ordinary surpass the Proper chants because these sung prayers are sonic liturgy. Music has unique artistic status in the liturgy because it can elicit a greater spiritual response from the believer. Its prayerful nature is a continuation of the Incarnation in which the believer is welcomed to encounter the heavenly in the midst of the fleshly.


An analysis of the intended purpose and function of the music of the Tridentine rite reminds liturgists that music is unlike any other form of art employed in the liturgy. It has the capacity to continue the Incarnation if it elicits prayer whilst being functional. At times, sacred music (the Mass Ordinary) is the liturgy itself, mirroring the communion of the divine and the believer that takes place with the reception of the Eucharist. At other points in the liturgy, music serves to create an environment which prepares the believer for that sacred union (the Propers of the Mass). Liturgists, ordained and lay alike, must remember these concepts when selecting music for worship, so that it fulfils its inherent sacramental capacity. When purposefully and prayerfully incorporated into the liturgy, sacred music reveals the true presence of Jesus Christ in the Blessed Sacrament while preparing the believer to receive Him.



[1] Vatican Council II, Sacrosanctum Concilium, accessed March 28, 2021, Vatican. va, 112.

[2] Michael Gorman, ‘Incarnation’, in The Oxford Handbook of Aquinas, ed. Brian Davies (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012), 430.

[3] James Bishop Conley, ‘“Foretaste of the Heavenly Liturgy:” Ars Celebrandi and the New Evangelization’, Sacred Music 143, no. 2 (2016): 15, https://media.musicasacra.com/publications/sacredmusic/pdf/sm143-2.pdf.

[4] Corpus Christi Watershed, ‘Introit for Easter Sunday, Extraordinary Form’ accessed March 31, 2021, https://archive.ccwatershed.org/media/pdfs/13/02/09/18-49-04_0.pdf.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Vatican Council II, Sacrosanctum Concilium, 112.

[7] Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, ‘Liturgy and Church Music’ (presented at the VIII International Church Music Congress, Rome, November 17, 1985), media.musicasacra.com/publications/sacredmusic/pdf/liturgy&music.pdf.

[8] Peter F. Ryan, ‘On Eschatology’, Nova et vera 15, no. 3 (2017): 913, https://doi.org/10.1353/nov.2017.0048.

[9] Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, Introduction to Christianity (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2004), 154.

[10] William Peter Mahrt, ‘The Propers of the Mass as integral to the liturgy’, in Benedict XVI and Beauty in Sacred Music, ed. Janet E. Rutherford (Dublin: Four Courts Press, 2012), 154.

[11] Ibid.


  • Cameron Shippee, an MLitt candidate, is the inaugural Cookie Matheson Scholar of Sacred Music at the University of St Andrews. His research focuses on the musical and theological development of the plainsong tradition and its influence on twenty-first century liturgical practices. Other interests include working with church choirs to create a meaningful and moving liturgy that speaks to all members of a congregation.

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