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Catholic musicians call for a return to reverence in the liturgy

More than 200 musicians and music experts signed a document on the current state of sacred music.

Choir members sing during Christmas Eve Mass at a church in Taiyuan, China. (CNS photo/Jon Woo, Reuters)

March 5th marked the 50th anniversary of the instruction Musicam Sacram, issued by the Sacred Congregation of Rites (later divided into divided by Pope Paul VI into the Congregation for the Causes of Saints and the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments) on sacred music. In honor of the occasion the Pontifical Council for Culture and the Congregation for Catholic Education, in collaboration with the Pontifical Institute of Sacred Music and the Pontifical Liturgical Institute of the Athenaeum Sant’Anselmo, organized a conference on “Music and Church: Cult and Culture, 50 years after Musicam Sacram.”

In his message to conference participants delivered on March 4, Pope Francis highlighted the importance of aesthetic and musical formation for clergy, religious, and lay people involved in pastoral life. On the one hand the Holy Father called for “safeguarding and enhancing the rich and manifold patrimony inherited from the past,” and on the other hand asked those present “to ensure that sacred music and liturgical chant be fully ‘inculturated’ in the artistic and musical language of the current time…to incarnate and translate the Word of God into song, sound, and harmony capable of making the hearts of our contemporaries resonate, also creating an appropriate emotional climate which disposes people to faith and stirs openness and full participation in the mystery being celebrated.”

Acknowledging that “at times a certain mediocrity, superficiality, and banality have prevailed, to the detriment of the beauty and intensity of liturgical celebrations,” Pope Francis concluded his address by calling upon “the various key figures in this sphere, musicians, composers, conductors, and choristers of the scholae cantorum, with liturgical coordinators,” to make “a precious contribution to the renewal, especially in qualitative terms, of sacred music and of liturgical chant.”

The following day, more than 200 musicians, musicologists, and sacred-music experts issued a petition titled “A Statement on the Current Situation of Sacred Music” to Church authorities. This petition was jointly promoted by two renowned musicians and musicologists—Aurelio Porfiri, director of the international magazine Altare Dei and author of books and essays on sacred music and liturgy, and the American Peter A. Kwasniewski, a professor of theology and philosophy and choir director at Wyoming Catholic College.

After recalling Church documents on sacred music and the history of the love the Church has always had for such expressive forms, the petition then summarizes some of the most significant motivations underlying the present deplorable situation of sacred music and of the liturgy:

1. There has been a loss of understanding of the “musical shape of the liturgy,” that is, that music is an inherent part of the very essence of liturgy as public, formal, solemn worship of God. We are not merely to sing at Mass, but to sing the Mass. Hence, as Musicam Sacram itself reminded us, the priest’s parts should be chanted to the tones given in the Missal, with the people making the responses; the singing of the Ordinary of the Mass in Gregorian chant or music inspired by it should be encouraged; and the Propers of the Mass, too, should be given the pride of place that befits their historical prominence, their liturgical function, and their theological depth.

2. This loss of liturgical and theological understanding goes hand-in-hand with an embrace of secularism. The secularism of popular musical styles has contributed to a desacralization of the liturgy, while the secularism of profit-based commercialism has reinforced the imposition of mediocre collections of music upon parishes. It has encouraged an anthropocentrism in the liturgy that undermines its very nature. …

3. There are groups in the Church that push for a “renewal” that does not reflect Church teaching but rather serves their own agenda, worldview, and interests. These groups have members in key leadership positions from which they put into practice their plans, their idea of culture, and the way we have to deal with contemporary issues. In some countries powerful lobbies have contributed to the de facto replacement of liturgical repertoires faithful to the directives of Vatican II with low-quality repertoires. Thus, we end up with repertoires of new liturgical music of very low standards as regards both the text and the music. …

4. This disdain for Gregorian chant and traditional repertoires is one sign of a much bigger problem, that of disdain for Tradition. Sacrosanctum Conciliumteaches that the musical and artistic heritage of the Church should be respected and cherished, because it is the embodiment of centuries of worship and prayer, and an expression of the highest peak of human creativity and spirituality. There was a time when the Church did not run after the latest fashion, but was the maker and arbiter of culture. The lack of commitment to tradition has put the Church and her liturgy on an uncertain and meandering path. …

5. Another cause of the decadence of sacred music is clericalism, the abuse of clerical position and status. Clergy who are often poorly educated in the great tradition of sacred music continue to make decisions about personnel and policies that contravene the authentic spirit of the liturgy and the renewal of sacred music repeatedly called for in our times. Often they contradict Vatican II teachings in the name of a supposed “spirit of the Council.” Moreover, especially in countries of ancient Christian heritage, members of the clergy have access to positions that are not available to laity, when there are lay musicians fully capable of offering an equal or superior professional service to the Church.

Despite the above gloomy picture, the petition promoters still “maintain the hope that there is a way out of this winter” and to this purpose offer a set of proposals in spiritu humilitatis, for the dignity of the liturgy and of its music in the Church to be fully restored:

1. As musicians, pastors, scholars, and Catholics who love Gregorian chant and sacred polyphony, so frequently praised and recommended by the Magisterium, we ask for a re-affirmation of this heritage alongside modern sacred compositions in Latin or vernacular languages that take their inspiration from this great tradition; and we ask for concrete steps to promote it everywhere, in every church across the globe, so that all Catholics can sing the praises of God with one voice, one mind and heart, one common culture that transcends all their differences. …

2. It is necessary that the education to good taste in music and liturgy start with children. Often educators without musical training believe that children cannot appreciate the beauty of true art. This is far from the truth. Using a pedagogy that will help them approach the beauty of the liturgy, children will be formed in a way that will fortify their strength, because they will be offered nourishing spiritual bread and not the apparently tasty but unhealthy food of industrial origin (as when “Masses for children” feature pop-inspired music).

3. If children are to appreciate the beauty of music and art, if they are to understand the importance of the liturgy as fons et culmen of the life of the Church, we must have a strong laity who will follow the Magisterium. We need to give space to well-trained laity in areas that have to do with art and with music. This “professional” status must be recognized, respected, and promoted in practical ways.

4. Higher standards for musical repertoire and skill should be insisted on for cathedrals and basilicas. Bishops in every diocese should hire at least a professional music director and/or an organist who would follow clear directions on how to foster excellent liturgical music in that cathedral or basilica and who would offer a shining example of combining works of the great tradition with appropriate new compositions.

5. We suggest that in every basilica and cathedral there be the encouragement of a weekly Mass celebrated in Latin (in either form of the Roman Rite) so as to maintain the link we have with our liturgical, cultural, artistic, and theological heritage. …

6. Liturgical and musical training of clergy should be a priority for the Bishops. Clergy have a responsibility to learn and practice their liturgical melodies, since, according to Musicam Sacram and other documents, they should be able to chant the prayers of the liturgy, not merely say the words. …

7. In the past, Catholic publishers played a great role in spreading good examples of sacred music, old and new. Today, the same publishers, even if they belong to dioceses or religious institutions, often spread music that is not right for the liturgy, following only commercial considerations. Many faithful Catholics think that what mainstream publishers offer is in line with the doctrine of the Catholic Church regarding liturgy and music, when it is frequently not so.

8. The formation of liturgists is also fundamental. Just as musicians need to understand the essentials of liturgical history and theology, so too must liturgists be educated in Gregorian chant, polyphony, and the entire musical tradition of the Church, so that they may discern between what is good and what is bad.

The remembrance, memory, and treasure represented by the Catholic sacred-music tradition “is not something of the past alone,” the petition concludes. “It is still a vital force in the present, and will always be a gift of beauty to future generations.”

Among the many notable signatories of the petitions are Msgr. Nicola Bux, Auxiliary Bishop Athanasius Schneider of Kazakhstan, composer Sir James MacMillan, Martin Mosebach, Father James V. Schall, SJ, blogger Father John Zuhlsdorf, Father George Rutler, Father Joseph Koterski, SJ, Dr. Thomas Howard, artist David Clayton, author Robert Reilly, and Professor Michael Foley.

(Editor’s note: An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated that Musicam Sacram, which was issued in 1967, was a document of the Second Vatican Council, which concluded in December 1965.)

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About Alberto Carosa 42 Articles
Alberto Carosa is a Catholic journalist who writes from Rome, especially for US Catholic newspapers and periodicals.

1 Comment

  1. Gregorian chant can be adapted-modernized. Paul Simon demonstrated this in some of his songs in the ’60s. You can hear the Gregorian cadence. This Jewish boy from Queens had spent some time living in a Benedictine Monastery over in England. Maybe a Catholic who knows music and is talented can bring back a 2021 version of its rhythmic tempo.

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