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Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door: What Makes Music “Sacred”?

Posted in: General by Mary McDonough on November 7, 2009

Catholic liturgy is rooted in the Latin adage lex orandi, lex credenti which means the law of prayer is the law of belief. In other words, the way people pray establishes what they believe. For this reason, Catholic liturgies are highly structured with every biblical reading, prayer and song carefully chosen to reflect the Church’s theology. Moreover, when it comes to music, the Church makes an incredibly rigid distinction between what it considers sacred music and what it deems profane. Any rite that takes place in the Church, be it a baptism, wedding or funeral, is required to contain songs that have been approved as sacred and thereby reflect the Church’s theology.

My problem has always been that I simply do not like what the Church designates as “sacred” music. Perhaps it’s because I’ve always despised organs. Or maybe it’s my lack of appreciation for classical music (translation: I like it about as much as organs). Then there’s the Gregorian Chants, so loved by the Church hierarchy, which are sung in Latin, a language few people understand. As for “contemporary” hymns and praise songs (note: Catholics think something is contemporary if it’s written within the last 100 years or so!), they simply annoy me.

Okay, it wasn’t that big of a deal…until my father died. My mother and I went to the church to plan his funeral. We were presented with a book containing a list of songs from which we must choose for the ceremony. My father was Irish and very proud of his heritage so my mother told the music director that the only song she really wanted was the old Irish ballad “Danny Boy.” Not exactly an offensive tune. But no, we couldn’t have that song because, although it may have been sacred to my father, it was not sacred to the Church and therefore, absent from the list. So we were forced to choose songs my mother didn’t know and I didn’t like. That’s when I decided to hire the bagpiper. I left the church, called the funeral home and told them to find a piper to play “When Irish Eyes Are Smiling” at the cemetery. I didn’t, however, tell the priest. Some things were just better left unsaid. After the funeral mass we headed to the graveyard. When the cars arrived we all got out and proceeded to walk behind the casket. The bellow of the bagpipes began to fill the air with a joyful song that made everyone who had known my father smile broadly. Except for the priest. He just ignored the piper while occasionally glaring at me with a look of shock and disdain.

After my father’s death I fell into a deep grief. I had adored him, he’d been my biggest fan and best friend. Yet, in my darkness, I didn’t turn to “sacred” music for comfort. Instead, I turned to rock. Every night I would take a bath and crank up three songs: Pink Floyd’s “Wish You Were Here,” R.E.M.’s “Everybody Hurts,” and U2’s “Sometimes You Can’t Make it on Your Own” (written for Bono’s father who died of cancer). I would sit there in the bathtub, night after night, sobbing while listening to those songs. That music helped me acknowledge the enormity of my loss, deal with the despair and transcend my grief.


The events surrounding my father’s death got me thinking. What makes some music “sacred”? In 2003 Pope John Paul II defined sacred music as having “holiness as its reference point.” How does one determine what is holy? Must music reference God, Christ, or the Holy Spirit to be sacred? Many works of classical music are considered sacred but contain no lyrics at all. Is it the melody itself, the way it makes us feel, or the timelessness of a particular composition? What roles do culture and institutional authority play? Surely, to be sacred, music must evoke something deep inside of us—a special, transformative insight, emotion or experience. If so, can’t that killer guitar riff, throbbing bass beat, or powerful drum solo do the same thing? Don’t certain rock lyrics also touch the depths of our souls?

I’m not suggesting that rock music take the place of church hymns and chants, or even organs. Although, recently a friend of mine whose children go to the local Catholic school commented that today’s praise music would make “Jesus puke.” He went on to say that one of the best songs to play in church is “See Me, Feel Me” by The Who because what better lyrics are there for moving people spiritually than “see me, feel me, touch me, heal me…?”


Maybe he’s right. I don’t know. But what I’m pretty certain of is that when it comes to music, the disparity between the sacred and the profane is simply not that clear-cut.

Mary McDonough



  1. Thanks for this post. It really points to the central issue(s) very clearly. I’ll certainly point to it as a key statement of what this project is all about.

    Comment by Michael Iafrate — November 11, 2009 @ 8:22 pm

  2. As I read your post I ache with the knowledge that the religious practice and path offered by the church today is often deeply disconnected from my life experience and many truths I hold.

    Despite my love for the church, and all her quirks, it is a pain that continues to grow.

    O Come Holy Spirit!

    Comment by Nicole Reilly — November 16, 2009 @ 9:57 am

  3. What makes music sacred? In my opinion, all music is potentially sacred. Sound is an organizing principle, it will change anything open to change, anything open to vibration that will respond in kind (the definition of resonance). This ability of music to inspire a response in people, to arouse people, has made some folks very, very nervous over the years.

    Music is very hard to control. It goes over walls, under doors, and through the cracks. One way to try and control music is to marry it to text. We are much more used to controlling words, our favorite vehicle of communication, law, and knowledge. If words are printed, they stand still (even better – then they can be disposed of if necessary – or inscribed on a monument so that they have a grasp on eternity).

    So putting music at the service of text has been a long-standing practice, especially in religious settings. Restricting music to text that contains God/Jesus/Holy Spirit is one way of weeding out problems, making the field of possibility smaller and more containable. In my decades as a liturgical musician, I have seen this happen over and over again.

    Throughout the history of Western music in the churches, music and text have been posed against each other, with polyphony and homophony altering through the ages as the primacy of text either ascends or descends in importance. But at the heart of this tension is really not just theological instruction, or clarity of language: at heart is what to do about the way music causes people to respond?

    I have been fascinated for a long time by the need some people have to control music. One of my favorite snapshots of this tendency was written by musicologist Richard Taruskin for the NY Times on Dec. 9, 2001, following the attacks of 9/11 and subsequent overthrow of the Taliban regime in Afghanistan (the Taliban had banned all music during their tenure: cassette tapes were unrolled and wrapped around telephone poles; instruments burned or at best, buried and rotted; musicians caught playing had their hands cut off; some of the most moving testimonies to the life-affirming power of music in human life comes from these Afghani musicians who lived in a spiritual musical desert for so many years). Taruskin reminds his readers that the history of Western culture bears more than a few resemblances to the musical fear and oppression of the Taliban:

    “In the fourth century, St. Augustine confessed that as a result of his sensuous enjoyment of the melodies he heard in church, “I have become a problem unto myself.” In the 12th, John of Salisbury complained that the spectacular music sung in the Paris Cathedral of Notre Dame could ‘more easily occasion titillation between the legs than a sense of devotion in the brain.’ Protestant reformers in England and Switzerland seized and burned books containing ‘popish ditties’ with Talibanish zeal. Somewhat later, the Orthodox patriarch of Moscow ordered bonfires of musical instruments…Secular thinkers have been no less leery of music…Plato’s mingled awe and suspicion of music’s uncanny power over our minds and bodies have echoed through the ages wherever governments have tried to harness music to uphold the public order (or at least keep music from disrupting it).”

    Your conflict over the music for your father’s funeral stands in a time-honored tradition of power struggle. A further point: when music is joined with sounds meaningful to the contemporary age, it also shifts from a vehicle of preserving and conserving some idealized past (which someone can claim authority over) into a possibility of power and transcendence now and into the future. Very, very scary to some people – especially those who don’t understand it at all, and those who feel the power of music all too well.

    Years and years of singing and playing as a liturgical musician have brought me into continual conflicts of this kind. In my opinion, restrictions and reductions never work. There is quality music that is life-affirming, and there is music that is not quality. Explicit text has little to do with it. But the way people may respond: that has a lot to do with it!

    “Danny Boy” is one of the most beautiful songs to sing at a funeral or memorial. I’m not Irish – just a singer and a poet and a novice theology student – but the text alone of “Danny Boy” is a fragment of beauty, goodness and hope that points to a love that not even death can destroy. My husband played it on his trumpet at my grandmother’s grave.

    Kudos to you for having the sounds of your ancestors sound out from the bagpipes at your father’s funeral. And kudos also for turning your churning emotions to the music that could sustain them, recognize them, hold them, and organize you into healing wholeness.

    Comment by Lisa Radakovich Holsberg — November 11, 2010 @ 9:24 pm

  4. Dear seeker of truth

    Your description of planning your father’s funeral music is almost a universal experience.

    Quite sadly, almost all Catholics think that the funeral Mass is supposed to be about what they or their loved ones like or prefer. Quite honestly, it is not. It is about the soul that God has claimed for Himself.

    Let’s try this another way. Suppose the president of the United States invited you to dinner. He goes through all the trouble of cooking you a feast, hiring a band, and creating the right ambiance… all apropo to your date with the White House. After receiving your invitation from the President, you call him up (or his staff) and you tell them that you have picked out the music YOU want for your big day. Word goes to he who is up on high.

    Do you think you would ever consider doing this? Do you think the president is going to happy with you? Do you think he will switch the music so you can have Guns n Roses instead of his military band playing Sousa? Of course not!

    But you and the most people expect to do this with God himself at the throne of his Sacrifice of His Holy Mass. Think again!

    Comment by Francis — December 12, 2010 @ 10:46 pm

  5. Amen. Just…Amen.

    Comment by Tripp Hudgins — November 26, 2012 @ 10:42 am

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