Cultural influences in sacred music

So when it comes to music at Mass, how much (if any) leeway should be given on cultural grounds? Like I’m from New Orleans and there are a few majority black parishes who have gospel choirs, and my friend went to Jamaica and said that the music at Mass there is very Caribbean-influenced. In both cases the musical tradition is descended from slaves who would sing spirituals in the fields. However, I have gone to a gospel Mass before out of curiosity, and it was very loud and distracting; almost more of a show than a Mass (no disrespect intended, but that was my takeaway). So is there a point at which tradition should yield to some level of cultural influence? Where should the line be drawn?

Go to a Melkite church, whilst it’s Byzantine, the use of Arabic scales is quite evident. The Church has ALWAYS had diversity in liturgy (although, some things absolutely cannot change), so I don’t see a problem with it, per se. I get what you’re saying though. I sometimes go to Spanish Mass, and it’s a mix of European, African, and Aboriginal music. Whilst the music can be interesting, and even holy, for someone not used to it, it can be a bit off putting.


Oh well, didn’t the Mass feature Gregorian chant as pride of place? :stuck_out_tongue_closed_eyes:

Personal taste doesn’t mean that cultural influence usurps traditionalism. Culture is subjective. When vacationing in Mexico or Hawaii, and I attend Mass there, the cultural influence on their Masses seems foreign (no pun intended) to me…The Mexican Mass music seemed like Mariachi Music to me, and the Hawaiian music sounded like a Luau…but while it wasn’t what I was used to, or even preferred, there was no doubt about their love for Jesus and the Catholic faith.

I personally think the local bishop is quite capable of drawing the lines appropriately without input or opinions from those who are not in the cultural group.


Oh yeah- I didn’t mean to say “where should the laity draw the line?” I just meant to ask if there is there a point at which cultural influence would objectively become wrong/irreverent? Sorry for the lack of clarity.

I responded but I think I accidentally posted another response to my question instead of responding to your response.

Not anywhere near where you think it should be drawn.

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Melkite is a different rite though, right? So it would make sense that they use Eastern music because they were an Orthodox Church that came back into communion with Rome. Is it just a facet of the Latin Rite that its celebrations can be so diverse? As far as I’m aware a Melkite church isn’t going to have a gospel choir- they’re going to speak Greek and use eastern chant regardless of congregational diversity.

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I didn’t say where a line should be drawn :slight_smile: I was just asking if there’s a point at which cultural influence does become irreverent.

Varietates Legitimae is the CDW(1994)’s thinking on the subject. Adoremus, the website I linked to, also has FAQS and articles for the 25th anniversary etc.

There is no simple answer to your question. @Tis_Bearself gives the basic one, that bishops make those decisions. Beyond that, there is probably lots to read about it out there.

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I would presume that if the cultural elements are coming from a non-European country or region, the bishop would be looking at whatever the norms were for Mass in that particular country or region. For example, if a parish that served many Jamaican immigrants wished to have a Mass similar to what they have in Jamaica, the bishop can certainly check on what’s normally done or permitted in Jamaica. I would further presume that the vast majority of the time, people are seeking to have the types of music, processions etc they would normally have back in their home countries and not be making up some new creative thing.

Regarding African-American song, I would first note that some such spirituals like “Were You There?” have been part of regular Catholic Mass hymnals for many decades now, so they are available for all choirs to sing (and indeed I’ve heard “Were You There?” sung by many a white choir or soloist during Passion Week). The USCCB recognizes the spirituality of gospel music in many documents, including this one by Sister Thea Bowman who is currently up for sainthood.

Given that gospel music at Mass is hardly a new idea and there are likely US priests, religious and bishops who are familiar with it, as well as resources from the USCCB, once again I’m sure the bishop is able to talk to whoever he needs to talk to and read whatever he needs to read in order to draw a line, if that is even needed. I would presume the gospel choir is singing their songs at the appropriate places in the Mass for such a song, and that the same guidelines that appear to Catholic choirs generally across the USA would apply to them as well.


Awesome. Thanks! I’ll be be sure to look deeper.

Thanks! Yeah I read my original post and realized it sounded sort of condemning, which is not what I was aiming for. I was just trying to use an example of something which, if taken to some extreme, may become wrong.

Arabic, Melkites are Middle Eastern (Although, Greek is used in the liturgy)

The meaning of “culture” in musical expression needs to be defined more carefully because of the enormous amount of exchange that occurs between diverse peoples who share the same purpose over the course of time. In the Christian religion, it is the liturgy that describes the overall purpose for the music being employed. Therefore, in the Catholic sense of the word, culture needs to be understood broadly; the liturgical setting doesn’t change, yet the means by which the musical expression does. And, there’s always been a certain generosity within the liturgy that allows for amplification or reduction to occur. There’s been a lot of “lend/lease” going on over the course of time. An example of this from the early days of the Church would be how “Roman Chant” ultimately became “Gregorian Chant,” and how, in turn, Gregorian Chant eventually supplanted the Roman.

As I understand it, there was a form of chant that came out of the city of Rome that had been developed and used for their liturgies for (perhaps) hundreds of years. The Roman style was more florid than what we associate with Gregorian Chant, with a higher degree of ornamentation and melismatic emphasis. But, sometime in the mid-700’s AD, the Roman form of the music traveled north into the Gothic/Frankish kingdoms where it was transformed into a form which we now commonly associate with Gregorian modalities of chant. The ornamentation over time was stripped away, but much of what was received by the Franks from the Romans remained in place because the liturgy itself was essentially the same. This Gregorian model, eventually then, became the norm even for the city of Rome.

Music changes over time and distance, and what was once the norm can also (and perhaps, inevitably, will) change.

That’s why when I hear the solemn and deeply moving 19th Century
Negro Spiritual “Were You There” during our Good Friday liturgy, I accept it as being totally appropriate for use the U.S. Church as a hymn for reflection. It’s a part of our collective American culture. While it’s not a formal part of the liturgy, it’s appropriate (I think) for use in the liturgy. Time will tell.

Traditional music was still based on the cultural artistic orientation of the day-primarily European in the case of the western Church. I don’t think its possible to avoid that here on planet earth.

My sense is that what is called “European” also has great diversity. Certainly the music of the Celts was different from the Gothic tribes on the mainland. And, even today, Nordic music has little in common with the Balkans; the music of the Iberian peoples was distinctively different as people traveled up the peninsula from south to north - and this is still true today. The Roman Empires’ contribution to the overall musical culture of Europe also had a significant impact, with Greek, Middle Eastern and North African modalities (to name only a few) being added into the mix. The people of the empire were both polyglot and polymusical. Liturgical music was not born “whole cloth.” It had to borrow from both the imperial and folkish traditions of the peoples it served. How that “borrowing” occurred has been lost in history.

All music is cultural. Every musical setting of the Mass comes from somebody’s culture.

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However, it didn’t say “pride of place, in every place, every time”!

And I say this as a Gregorian chorister and someone who sings the Liturgy of the Hours in Gregorian chant almost daily.

Fortunately there are places where it has pride of place, notably monasteries and in some places like the city where our schola sings. But only once a month, at a parish Mass, always in the Ordinary Form.

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