Contemporary Catholic liturgical music encompasses a comprehensive variety of styles of music for Catholic liturgy that grew both before and after the reforms of the Second Vatican Council (Vatican II). The dominant style in English-speaking Canada and the United States began as Gregorian chant and folk hymns, superseded after the 1970s by a folk-based musical genre, generally acoustic and often slow in tempo, but that has evolved into a broad contemporary range of styles reflective of certain aspects of age, culture, and language. There is a marked difference between this style and those that were both common and valued in Catholic churches before Vatican II.
In the early 1950s the Jesuit priest Joseph Gelineau was active in liturgical development in several movements leading toward Vatican II. In particular, the new Gelineau psalmody in French (1953) and English (1963) demonstrated the feasibility and welcome use of such vernacular language settings.
Contemporary Catholic liturgical music grew after the reforms that followed the Second Vatican Council, which called for wider use of the vernacular language in the Roman Catholic Mass. The General Instruction of the Roman Missal states:
Great importance should ... be attached to the use of singing in the celebration of the Mass, with due consideration for the culture of the people and abilities of each liturgical assembly. Although it is not always necessary (e.g. in weekday Masses) to sing all the texts that are of themselves meant to be sung, every care should be taken that singing by the ministers and the people is not absent in celebrations that occur on Sundays and on holy days of obligation.
All other things being equal, Gregorian chant holds pride of place because it is proper to the Roman Liturgy. Other types of sacred music, in particular polyphony, are in no way excluded, provided that they correspond to the spirit of the liturgical action and that they foster the participation of all the faithful. Since the faithful from different countries come together ever more frequently, it is fitting that they know how to sing together at least some parts of the Ordinary of the Mass in Latin, especially the Creed and the Lord's Prayer, set to the simpler melodies.
The first English language Mass was of Gregorian chant style. It was created by De Paul University graduate Dennis Fitzpatrick and entitled simply "Demonstration English Mass". Fitzpatrick composed and recorded it on vinyl in mid-1963. He distributed it to many of the US bishops who were returning from a break in the Second Vatican Council. The Mass was well received by many US Catholic cleric and is said to have furthered their acceptance of Sacrosanctum Concilium (SC). This Vatican document on the sacred liturgy restructured the Mass and permitted the use of vernacular. Fitzpatrick's Mass had allowed the bishops to imagine what an English Catholic liturgy might sound like. Along with the music that Fitzpatrick wrote, he also penned the "Demonstration English Liturgy Altar Missal".
The first official Mass in English in the United States was held during the 1964 National Liturgical Conference in St Louis. The Communion Hymn was Fr Clarence Rivers' "God is Love", which combined Gregorian Chant with the melodic patterns and rhythms of Negro Spirituals. It received a 10-minute standing ovation. Rivers would go on to play a major role in the Black Catholic Movement, wherein the "Gospel Mass" tradition took hold in Black Catholic parishes and introduced Black gospel music to the larger Catholic world. Other major players in this movement included Servant of God Sr Thea Bowman, Archbishop James P. Lyke, Fr George Clements, and Fr George Stallings Jr.
The revision of music in the liturgy took place in March 1967, with the passage of Musicam Sacram ("Instruction on music in the liturgy"). In paragraph 46 of this document, it states that music could be played during the sacred liturgy on "instruments characteristic of a particular people." Previously the pipe organ was used for accompaniment. The use of instruments native to the culture was an important step in the multiplication of songs written to accompany the Catholic liturgy.
In addition to his role in creating this first English language Mass, Dennis had a large stake in F.E.L. (Friends of the English Liturgy). Many of the contemporary artists who authored the folk music that was used in American Catholic Liturgy choose F.E.L. to be their publisher, as did Ray Repp, who pioneered contemporary Catholic liturgical music and authored the "First Mass for Young Americans," a suite of folk-style musical pieces designed for the Catholic liturgy. Repp gave an impetus to the development of "guitar masses."
The reforms sparked a wide movement in the English-speaking Roman Catholic church where an entire body of older Protestant hymnody and newly composed contemporary Catholic liturgical music was introduced through new hymnals such as World Library Publication's People's Mass Book, the Living Parish, We Celebrate, NALR's three volumes of Glory and Praise, and Mayhew-McCrimmon's 20th Century Folk Hymnal volumes.
A great deal of the early composed Contemporary Catholic Liturgical Music of the 70s was inspired by popular music of the day, which used guitars and other instruments commonly associated with "folk" music, and included songwriters such as Ray Repp, Joe Wise, and later members of American groups such as the St. Louis Jesuits and the Dameans. Of this group, the St. Louis Jesuits music spread widely and many of their compositions continue to be popular today.
In the United Kingdom, the Catholic Charismatic Movement also contributed to these changes, introducing the "praise and worship" approach to liturgical music which was incorporated into publications by Mayhew-McCrimmond.
By the 1990s and into the early 21st century, this style of music drew less on its folk roots than on a number of different styles and influences from contemporary society. In many areas of the United States and in regions throughout the English-speaking world, most or all of the music played during Sunday Mass was taken from this late-20th-century body of work. As a result, traditional forms of Catholic music (such as Gregorian chant) had become rare in many churches, and unknown in some. By the year 2000 most Catholic songbooks preferred contemporary Catholic liturgical music, some hymnody, and a very small collection of chant (which had once been the sine qua non of Catholic Church Music).
Besides its spread within the Catholic community, a number of pieces from the late 20th century Catholic corpus became commonplace among American mainline Protestants. This is true of Lutherans - particularly the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America - where both the more hymn-like assembly songs, as well as portions of Mass and psalm settings, can be found among recent hymnals such as Evangelical Lutheran Worship and With One Voice. Marty Haugen, a Lutheran and one of the commonly known composers, creates both Roman Catholic and Lutheran versions of his Mass settings, as well as writing pieces for specifically Lutheran rites.
Although musical Mass settings are not as widely used in most mainline Protestant denominations, a number of the more well-known songs have been added to the traditional hymn repertoire of these churches, and appear in many late-20th-century denominational hymnals. These include compositions such as Bernadette Farrell's "Christ be our Light", Dan Schutte's "Here I Am, Lord", John Foley's "One Bread, One Body", David Haas's "Blest Are They", and several of Haugen's pieces including "All Are Welcome", "Gather Us In", "Awake, Awake, and Greet the New Morn", and "Healer of Our Every Ill".
The musical style of 21st-century Catholic music varies greatly. Much of it is composed so that choir and assembly can be accompanied by organ, piano, or guitar. More recently, due to style preferences and cost, trends show fewer and fewer parishes use the traditional pipe organ, therefore this music has generally been written for chorus with piano, guitar, and/or percussion accompaniment. Some songs including "One Bread, One Body" (Foley) were arranged, often by others than the composers, for pipe organ. Although initially, the late 20th-century genre was "folk-sounding", it has matured over the last 30 years to a much more eclectic sound of its own.
Contemporary Catholic liturgical music makes heavy use of "responsorial" settings in which the congregation sings only a short refrain (like "Glory to God in the highest") between verses entrusted to the cantor or choir. This differs from the "responsive" antiphony of Gregorian chant, in which alternate verses are divided between two bodies. The responsorial form is eminently practical in performing the psalmody of the Easter Vigil which occurs in darkness, as well as in the absence of pew hymnals or video projectors. It has the disadvantage of excluding the congregation from full participation, and some contemporary composers have preferred to through-compose their Mass settings: A much-anthologized "Gloria" is that from Carroll T. Andrews' A New Mass for Congregations.
American composers of this music, with some of their most well known compositions, include:
Notable composers of contemporary Catholic liturgical music from outside the US include:
A significant percentage of American contemporary liturgical music has been published under the names of three publishers: Oregon Catholic Press (OCP), Gregorian Institute of America (GIA), and World Library Publications (WLP, the music and liturgy division of the J.S. Paluch company).
Oregon Catholic Press (OCP) is a not-for-profit affiliation of the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Portland in Oregon. Archbishop Alexander K. Sample of Portland is de facto head of OCP. Archbishop Sample is the eleventh bishop of the Archdiocese of Portland and was installed on April 2, 2013. Cardinal William Levada who became Prefect for the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith in the Roman Curia was a former member of the Board of Directors. Levada as Archbishop of Portland (1986-1995) led OCP during its expansive growth, and this style of music became the principal style among many English-speaking communities. Francis George, prior to becoming Archbishop of Chicago and cardinal, was also Archbishop of Portland and de facto head of OCP. OCP grew to represent approximately two-thirds of Catholic liturgical music market sales.
Contemporary music aims to enable the entire congregation to take part in the song, in accord with the call in Sacrosanctum Concilium for full, conscious, active participation of the congregation during the Eucharistic celebration. What its advocates call a direct and accessible style of music gives participation of the gathered community higher priority than the beauty added to the liturgy by a choir skilled in polyphony. 
Music for worship, according to the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, is to be judged by three sets of criteria - pastoral, liturgical, and musical, with the place of honor accorded to Gregorian chant and the organ. On this basis it has been argued that the adoption of the more popular musical styles is alien to the Roman Rite, and weakens the distinctiveness of Catholic worship. Others complain that certain songs in this genre put the singer in the position of God, singing His part in the first person. Suzanne Toolan's "I Am the Bread of Life", was composed in this manner. However there many examples of this first-person usage in the chants used at Latin Mass, as found in the Roman Gradual. And due to "inclusive language" becoming an issue by the 1980s, this was one of many songs that were edited in newer hymnals. Dan Schutte's "Here I Am, Lord" (based on a Scripture text) was composed with the intent that the cantor would sing God's part, but over time people in the pews began to sing both parts.[failed verification] This style contrasts with the traditional form where the congregation sings to God.
In 1990, Thomas Day wrote Why Catholics Can't Sing--The Culture of Catholicism and the Triumph of Bad Taste, assailing the then-current style of music in the American Church, but today its use has become lingua franca as multicultural and new youth styles of worship have emerged.
Pundit George Weigel said that "[a]n extraordinary number of trashy liturgical hymns have been written in the years since the Second Vatican Council." Weigel called "Ashes" a "prime example" of "[h]ymns that teach heresy", criticizing the lyric "We rise again from ashes to create ourselves anew" as "Pelagian drivel".