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Saturday, January 15, 2011

The Importance of Genuine Sacred Music and Youth


Of all of the subjects concerning liturgy, perhaps one of the most volatile revolves around the issue of music.  While I have written a few times about the subject in this blog, there are things that, I believe, merit revisiting. 

In 1903, Pope St. Pius X wrestled with this particular issue. At the time, secular influences like opera and theater were creeping into the Mass.  In his Motu Propio, Tra le Sollecitudini, the saintly pontiff addresses the issue and offers some concrete remedies.  He defines qualities that music used in the liturgical acts of the Church should have:

Sacred music must therefore eminently possess the qualities which belong to liturgical rites, especially holiness and beauty, from which its other characteristic, universality, will flow spontaneously.

It must be holy, and therefore avoid everything that is secular, both in itself and in the way in which it is performed. It must really be an art, since in no other way can it have on the mind of those who hear it that effect which the Church desires in using in her liturgy the art of sound.

But it must also be universal in this sense, namely, that although each , country may use in its ecclesiastical music whatever special forms may belong to its own national style, these forms must be subject to the proper nature of sacred music, so that it may never produce a bad impression on the mind of any stranger who may hear it.
Nearly 108  years later, that criteria still holds true.  Sadly, it seems that the more "popular" music publishers seem to not have taken these qualities in mind when releasing their latest musical offerings.  A friend of mine received the latest catalogue from one of the Big Three publishers.  The brochure is packed with buzzwords and phrases  like "engage", "vibrant melodies", "lively", "versatile" and "uplifting."  He leant me the catalogue so that I could browse through it.  The words "sacred", "sacrifice" and "solemn" did not appear in any of the pages of the catalogue.

I must say that the marketing ploy is rather crafty.  However, looking through the booklet, I could not find anything that quoted from the authoritative documents of the Church.  The content of some of the song books left me rather perplexed.  One of the books, marketed for use with youth in mind, Spirit and Song, claims to "increase participation" and "draw youth into worship."  However, leafing through this book, I wonder just what it has that is appropriate for use in the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass.

Pope St. Pius X makes a clear distinction about what  music should and should not be used for the Holy Sacrifice:

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.

Most of what is found in Spirit and Song sounds pretty much like what you would encounter on a secular pop station.  Quite a few of the songs are actually Protestant Praise and Worship anthems that are not necessarily consistent with Catholic teachings, let alone Catholic sacrificial worship.  There is just a huge disconnect, as I see it (and as I have experienced it) with the sacred, majestic act of the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass and this particular genre of music.  Now, while Pope St. Pius X specifically writes about the theatrical genre, certainly the pop/rock genre can apply here, as well.

It also seems to me that the purveyors of Spirit and Song have probably not read any of the writings of Pope Benedict XVI/Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger when it comes to genre.  Perhaps, it's worth revisiting what the former cardinal wrote about the particular genre heavily promoted in Spirit and Song:

On the one hand, there is pop music, which is certainly no longer supported by the people in the ancient sense (populus). It is aimed at the phenomenon of the masses, is industrially produced, and ultimately has to be described as a cult of the banal. "Rock", on the other hand, is the expression of elemental passions, and at rock festivals it assumes a cultic character, a form of worship, in fact, in opposition to Christian worship. People are, so to speak, released from themselves by the emotional shock of rhythm, noise, and special lighting effects. However, in the ecstasy of having all their defenses torn down, the participants sink, as it were, beneath the elemental force of the universe. The music of the Holy Spirit's sober inebriation seems to have little chance when self has become a prison, the mind is a shackle, and breaking out from both appears as a true promise of redemption that can be tasted at least for a few moments.
Now, as Pope Benedict XVI, he has carried this theme even in his official papal writings.  Let's look at Sacramentum Caritatis:

42. In the ars celebrandi, liturgical song has a pre-eminent place. (126) Saint Augustine rightly says in a famous sermon that "the new man sings a new song. Singing is an expression of joy and, if we consider the matter, an expression of love" (127). The People of God assembled for the liturgy sings the praises of God. In the course of her two-thousand-year history, the Church has created, and still creates, music and songs which represent a rich patrimony of faith and love. This heritage must not be lost. Certainly as far as the liturgy is concerned, we cannot say that one song is as good as another. Generic improvisation or the introduction of musical genres which fail to respect the meaning of the liturgy should be avoided. As an element of the liturgy, song should be well integrated into the overall celebration (128). Consequently everything -- texts, music, execution -- ought to correspond to the meaning of the mystery being celebrated, the structure of the rite and the liturgical seasons (129). Finally, while respecting various styles and different and highly praiseworthy traditions, I desire, in accordance with the request advanced by the Synod Fathers, that Gregorian chant be suitably esteemed and employed (130) as the chant proper to the Roman liturgy (131).
What I highlighted in red is something that I believe that the publishers tend to ignore.  Music used in the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass is not merely about being "vibrant" and "engaging".  The music needs to be at the service of the liturgy, not the other way around.  Pope  Benedict is not saying anything new nor different from what he said as Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger.  The Church has her standards and, sadly, a lot of what is used for music at Mass today does not live up to it.

This point was made quite clear back in 2005 when the Instrumentum Laboris for the Synod on the Eucharist indicated that:

In other responses some lamented the poor quality of translations of liturgical texts and many musical texts in current languages, maintaining that they lacked beauty and were sometimes theologically unclear, thereby contributing to a weakening of Church teaching and to a misunderstanding of prayer. A few responses made particular mention of music and singing at Youth Masses. In this regard, it is important to avoid musical forms which, because of their profane use, are not conducive to prayer. Some responses note a certain eagerness in composing new songs, to the point of almost yielding to a consumer mentality, showing little concern for the quality of the music and text, and easily overlooking the artistic patrimony which has been theologically and musically effective in the Church’s liturgy.
It is not the fault of the youth that they are not exposed to music that is proper to the Mass.  The fault lies with the ones who compose, publish and ulitimately select this kind of genre for use in the liturgy.  At some point, those involved both in music and youth ministry need to have proper formation in what is proper and appropriate music for the Holy Sacrifice.  Those who serve at these ministries need to have proper formation, something that is sorely lacking in many places.  However, given the wide resources available online, music directors and youth ministers can certainly consult the authoritative documents of the Holy See to at least gain some rudimentary formation.  The publishing house is not the end-all and be-all.  The publishing house is not the supreme authority.  The Church ultimately is.

Even the founder of World Youth Day, Venerable Pope John Paul II, did not shy away from the subject of music in the Mass.  In 2003, to mark the 100th anniversary of his saintly predecessor's Motu Propio, John Paul released his Chirograph on Sacred Music.  He wrote, in part, 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.

5. Another principle, affirmed by St Pius X in the Motu Proprio Tra le Sollecitudini and which is closely connected with the previous one, is that of sound form. There can be no music composed for the celebration of sacred rites which is not first of all "true art" or which does not have that efficacy "which the Church aims at obtaining in admitting into her Liturgy the art of musical sounds"[15].

Yet this quality alone does not suffice. Indeed, liturgical music must meet the specific prerequisites of the Liturgy: full adherence to the text it presents, synchronization with the time and moment in the Liturgy for which it is intended, appropriately reflecting the gestures proposed by the rite. The various moments in the Liturgy require a musical expression of their own. From time to time this must fittingly bring out the nature proper to a specific rite, now proclaiming God's marvels, now expressing praise, supplication or even sorrow for the experience of human suffering which, however, faith opens to the prospect of Christian hope.
Clearly, the venerable pontiff does not mince words here, even including an admonishment from his predecessor, Pope Paul VI.  It just makes me wonder if the publishing houses even read the authoritative documents of the Holy See and the writings of the popes as they are preparing their materials for sale.  It is not enough for a song to be vibrant, engaging and moving.  It needs to be sacred.  That should be the most important criterion.

What we pray at the Mass is just as important as how we pray.  As both the authoritative documents and the writings of the popes have shown, what we sing at the Mass is also just as important.

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