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Monday, November 8, 2010

After 107 years, has anything really changed?

On November 22, 1903, the Memorial of St. Cecilia, Pope St. Pius X issued a  Motu Propio on Sacred Music, Tra le Sollectitudini.   The document states in part that:
2. Sacred music should consequently possess, in the highest degree, the qualities proper to the liturgy, and in particular sanctity and goodness of form, which will spontaneously produce the final quality of universality.

It must be holy, and must, therefore, exclude all profanity not only in itself, but in the manner in which it is presented by those who execute it.

It must be true art, for otherwise it will be impossible for it to exercise on the minds of those who listen to it that efficacy which the Church aims at obtaining in admitting into her liturgy the art of musical sounds.

But it must, at the same time, be universal in the sense that while every nation is permitted to admit into its ecclesiastical compositions those special forms which may be said to constitute its native music, still these forms must be subordinated in such a manner to the general characteristics of sacred music that nobody of any nation may receive an impression other than good on hearing them.

The saintly Pontiff notes that sacred music must, first and foremost, be holy in nature and "exclude all profanity, not only in itself, but in the manner in which it is presented by those who execute it."

Recall that when he wrote this document some 107 years ago, Pope St. Pius X was facing the problem of opera infiltrating the Sacred Liturgy, as well as other forms of music from the theatrical genre. He meant business with what he wrote. He knew that the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass is the most important act of worship that we do as Catholics and he valiantly sought to protect its integrity. In fact, like Pope Benedict XVI, Pope St. Pius X made the Liturgy the centerpiece of his reign as Supreme Pontiff.

I fear that in the 107 years since the MP was promulgated, nothing much has changed. While we no longer contend with opera, several profane genres have crept into the Mass that are not at all suitable to cross the threshhold. As I see it, these include the Protestant Praise and Worship genre, Mariachi music and songs that sound more like they belong on the 70s on 7 (Sirius radio) than in the Mass.

Note what he says further along in the document:

5. The Church has always recognized and favored the progress of the arts, admitting to the service of religion everything good and beautiful discovered by genius in the course of ages -- always, however, with due regard to the liturgical laws. Consequently modern music is also admitted to the Church, since it, too, furnishes compositions of such excellence, sobriety and gravity, that they are in no way unworthy of the liturgical functions.

Still, since modern music has risen mainly to serve profane uses, greater care must be taken with regard to it, in order that the musical compositions of modern style which are admitted in the Church may contain nothing profane, be free from reminiscences of motifs adopted in the theaters, and be not fashioned even in their external forms after the manner of profane pieces.

6. Among the different kinds of modern music, that which appears less suitable for accompanying the functions of public worship is the theatrical style, which was in the greatest vogue, especially in Italy, during the last century. This of its very nature is diametrically opposed to Gregorian Chant and classic polyphony, and therefore to the most important law of all good sacred music. Besides the intrinsic structure, the rhythm and what is known as the conventionalism of this style adapt themselves but badly to the requirements of true liturgical music.

Inasmuch as he respected modern music, he also believed that a fence needed to be built to reign in these compositions. I believe that we need this fence more than ever. While there may be some who will read this thread and dismiss it, I would urge them to read this document. While many may consider it dated, there is still much truth contained in his words.

Even the Venerable Pope John Paul II kept many of his saintly predecessors ideas and took them to heart.  Exactly 100 years to the date of the promulgation of the MP, John Paul wrote his Chirograph on Sacred Music, updating what Pope St. Pius X wrote and making his own observations as the Church entered the 21st century.   He observes that:

4. In continuity with the teachings of St Pius X and the Second Vatican Council, it is necessary first of all to emphasize that music destined for sacred rites must have holiness as its reference point: indeed, "sacred music increases in holiness to the degree that it is intimately linked with liturgical action"[11]. For this very reason, "not all without distinction that is outside the temple (profanum) is fit to cross its threshold", my venerable Predecessor Paul VI wisely said, commenting on a Decree of the Council of Trent[12]. And he explained that "if music - instrumental and vocal - does not possess at the same time the sense of prayer, dignity and beauty, it precludes the entry into the sphere of the sacred and the religious"[13]. Today, moreover, the meaning of the category "sacred music" has been broadened to include repertoires that cannot be part of the celebration without violating the spirit and norms of the Liturgy itself.

St Pius X's reform aimed specifically at purifying Church music from the contamination of profane theatrical music that in many countries had polluted the repertoire and musical praxis of the Liturgy. In our day too, careful thought, as I emphasized in the Encyclical Ecclesia de Eucharistia, should be given to the fact that not all the expressions of figurative art or of music are able "to express adequately the mystery grasped in the fullness of the Church's faith"[14]. Consequently, not all forms of music can be considered suitable for liturgical celebrations.

...6. The music and song requested by the liturgical reform - it is right to stress this point - must comply with the legitimate demands of adaptation and inculturation. It is clear, however, that any innovation in this sensitive matter must respect specific criteria such as the search for musical expressions which respond to the necessary involvement of the entire assembly in the celebration and which, at the same time, avoid any concessions to frivolity or superficiality. Likewise, on the whole, those elitist forms of "inculturation" which introduce into the Liturgy ancient or contemporary compositions of possible artistic value, but that indulge in a language that is incomprehensible to the majority, should be avoided.

In this regard St Pius X pointed out - using the term universal - a further prerequisite of music destined for worship: "...while every nation", he noted, "is permitted to admit into its ecclesiastical compositions those special forms which may be said to constitute its native music, still these forms must be subordinate in such a manner to the general character of sacred music, that nobody of any nation may receive an impression other than good on hearing them"[16]. In other words, the sacred context of the celebration must never become a laboratory for experimentation or permit forms of composition and performance to be introduced without careful review.

Sadly, much of the music used for Mass seems to not have careful review.  It's funny.  We have quality control measures to safeguard the food we eat, the beverages we drink, the clothes we wear and even (at least for women), the cosmetics we put on our faces.  But, when it comes to the most important act that we, as Catholics do, we really don't have any quality control measures for the music used for the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass.  Everything, it seems, is crossing the threshhold, not quite what the late Pope Paul VI was advocating.  We tend to blindly trust the publishing houses and slavishly follow their suggestions without doing a little detective work ourselves on the music these goups push. 

I strongly believe that if we were to take the time to sit down with the documents and then measure the songs up to the standard the Church sets, we might be in for a surprise. For some, it might be a pleasant one.  For others, it might be very unsettling, unsettling to the point that it might very well shake us out of our complacency about music.  In any case, two Popes, 100 years apart, can't be wrong.

For more information on the Chirograph on Sacred Music written by Pope John Paul II, please follow this link:

St. Cecilia and Pope St. Pius X, pray for us!

1 comment:

  1. What I find both amusing and scary is this: if you take the music on Montani's Black List, which was judged to be in violation of TLS, and compare it to what happens in a typical parish, it would be a vast improvement. In other words, we have 107 years of regress.