William Byrd and the beckoning of beauty

Style and class have been banished from most Catholic sanctuaries in our land – and we are all the poorer for it. The transient, the ephemeral, the cheap have replaced the beautiful, the uplifting, the inspiring.

Editor’s note: The following is a homily preached by the Reverend Peter M. J. Stravinskas, Ph.D., S.T.D., on October 17, 2016, at the Votive Mass in honor of the English Martyrs, at the Church of the Holy Innocents in New York City. 

As spiritual preparation for our lecture later this evening, we are celebrating a votive Mass in honor of the English martyrs. I am not going to preach about them, however, because Joanna Bogle knows infinitely more about them than I. Instead, I want to connect those martyrs and that era to other very important realities. Philosophers talk about “the transcendentals,” among which we count the good, the true and the beautiful. After all, it was none other than Aristotle who taught us that “the good, the true and the beautiful” coinhere, that is, you can’t have one without the other.

We Catholics are often very intent on leading others to “the true,” that is, to a submission of the intellect to Catholic doctrine and dogma – and that is a good and holy goal. However, resistance to “the true” is not uncommon. Indeed, when the intellect is darkened by habitual sin, “the true” not infrequently cannot be perceived as worthy of acceptance and is thus rejected out of hand as either incredible or absurd.

I suspect that people most often are brought to the truth by being exposed to “the good” or “the beautiful.” William Byrd, arguably the most accomplished liturgical musician in Reformation England along with Thomas Tallis, can provide us with flesh-and-blood evidence for this intuition of mine.

Byrd was born into a Protestant family and eventually became the court composer (with Tallis) under Queen Elizabeth. By the 1570s, Byrd was increasingly attracted to Catholicism. This was, humanly speaking, a strange attraction – a fatal attraction, one could say – given that the martyrdom of those loyal to “the old religion” was in full swing. Yet precisely under those circumstances did Byrd become a Catholic. I would maintain that he was drawn to the truth of Catholicism by the goodness, the holiness of the martyrs.

Byrd’s Catholic commitment found expression in his many motets with themes highlighting the persecution of the Chosen People in the Old Testament and their long-awaited deliverance. Who could not see (and hear) in these works an application to the plight of Catholics during the reign of Elizabeth? Interestingly, even though known to be a recusant (that is, one who refused to attend Anglican services), he continued to enjoy royal favor. Can we say that the Queen was so captivated by the beauty of his work that she was led to a good action in his regard – turning a blind eye to his practice of the Catholic Faith? Even more bizarre is the fact that the Episcopal Church in the United States honors Byrd with a feast in their liturgical calendar on November 21; just another sign of Anglican confusion, I suppose.

Byrd is also well known for his magnificent Mass compositions for three, four and five voices. You have heard some of them in this very church, and his Mass for Four Voices enhances our worship this evening. Most devotees of Byrd’s Masses, however, do not realize that they were not composed for and performed in grand cathedrals – those edifices had been purloined by the Protestants. No, those masterpieces were sung at “priest-hole” Masses – clandestine liturgies celebrated by priests under a death sentence and attended by laity whose very lives and fortunes were at stake for participating in “popish” worship.

Even in such dire straits, Byrd and the Catholic faithful wished to offer to the Triune God their very best and to be nourished themselves by those soaring melodies which brought them to contemplate heavenly realities.

Twenty years ago in this church on the feast of St. Gregory the Great, I bemoaned the reduction of language, art and music to the least common denominator. In 1993, Thomas Day tweaked the liturgical establishment with his insightful and popular book, Where Have You Gone, Michelangelo? The sign of their discomfort was their near-total silence in response. So much of the external dimension of Catholic worship in the post-Vatican II period is impoverished, banal, and bleak. A visitor from Mars would never imagine that we are supposed to be the spiritual descendants of a Giotto or Mozart, a Da Vinci or Vittoria, a Boromini or Palestrina. Style and class have been banished from most Catholic sanctuaries in our land – and we are all the poorer for it. The transient, the ephemeral, the cheap have replaced the beautiful, the uplifting, the inspiring.

A year later, on the same feast I asserted that we need beauty in our worship: Beautiful vestments, beautiful vessels, and beautiful places of worship. St. Francis – the saint of holy poverty, remember – had this attitude, recorded by one of his early biographers: “He wished at one time to send his brothers through the world with precious pyxes, so that wherever they should see the price of our redemption [that is the Holy Eucharist] kept in an unbecoming manner, they should place it in the very best place.” And in his own Testament, the little man of Assisi wrote: “Above everything else, I want this most holy Sacrament to be honored and venerated and reserved in places which are richly ornamented.”1 While the Council surely called for what is simple, Cardinal Ratzinger was certainly correct to remind us, “but that is not the same as being cheap.”2 The preeminent theologian of beauty, we might say, was Hans Urs Von Balthasar, who rhapsodized on this notion thus:

Beauty is the last thing which the thinking intellect dares to approach . . . Our situation today shows that beauty demands for itself at least as much courage and decision as do truth and goodness, and she will not allow herself to be separated and banned from her two sisters without taking them along with herself in an act of mysterious vengeance. We can be sure that whoever sneers at her name as if she were the ornament of a bourgeois past – whether he admits it or not – can no longer pray and soon will no longer be able to love.3

Which is to say, that beauty here below allows us, in the gracious words of Michael Gaudoin-Parker, “to pierce through the crust of our commonplace experiences,”4 to gain at least a glimpse of the glory and splendor of God. We also need a very special kind of beauty – good music. How can we forget that it was not erudite theological debate which won St. Augustine’s mind and heart? The sweet chants he heard outside St. Ambrose’s cathedral did the job; it was the “singing Church”5 which brought him and countless millions of others down the centuries into the communion of saints. St. Thomas Aquinas saw this clearly when he taught that liturgical music had a most important mission: ad provocandum alios ad laudem Dei [to stimulate others to the praise of God].6

Cardinal Ratzinger aptly summarized the musical development since the Council as that “grim impoverishment which follows when beauty for its own sake is banished from the Church and all is subordinated to the principle of ‘utility’.”7 With what result? Most congregations, he says with grim accuracy, “endure [it all] with polite stoicism.”8 What a damning analysis, yet how sadly true. Mahatma Gandhi spoke of the three modes of being found in the cosmos: The fish live in the sea and are silent; the animals who inhabit the earth scream and shout; the birds who soar through the heavens sing. He spelled it out in this way: Silence is proper to the sea, shouting to the earth, and singing to the heavens. Man, by nature, ought to participate in all three, yet what so many would-be liturgists have done to our worship is to eliminate silence and to proscribe good, uplifting music, so that contemporary worshipers are left with little to do but scream!9

Dostoevsky taught us that “beauty will save the world.” Pope Benedict lifted up this truth in referring to the “Via Pulchritudinis” (The Way of Beauty). May the beauty of Byrd’s music and the goodness of the English martyrs keep us in the truth of our holy Catholic Faith. May those same means bring countless other souls to the same consoling truths.


1Benedict J. Groeschel and James Monti, In the Presence of Our Lord (OSV, 1997), 123f.

2Feast of Faith: Approaches to a Theology of the Liturgy (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1986), 122.

3Hans Urs Balthasar, The Glory of the Lord (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1984 Volume I, 18.

4Michael L. Gaudoin-Parker, Heart in Pilgrimage: Meditating Christian Spirituality in the Light of the Eucharistic Prayer (New York: Alba House, 1994), 88.

5Confessions, IX 6, 14.

6Summa Theologica, q 91 a 1 ad 2.

7Feast of Faith, 100.

8Ibid., 85.

9Cf. Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, A New Song for the Lord: Faith in Christ and Liturgy Today (New York: Crossroad Publishing Co., 1996), 127.

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About Peter M.J. Stravinskas 280 Articles
Reverend Peter M.J. Stravinskas founded The Catholic Answer in 1987 and The Catholic Response in 2004, as well as the Priestly Society of Blessed John Henry Cardinal Newman, a clerical association of the faithful, committed to Catholic education, liturgical renewal and the new evangelization. Father Stravinskas is also the President of the Catholic Education Foundation, an organization, which serves as a resource for heightening the Catholic identity of Catholic schools.