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Monday, March 21, 2011

Why Sacred Music matters

For the past several weeks, I have lamented the dearth of Sacred Music here in the South Texas hinterland.   Now that we are in the second week of Lent, that absence is quite acute. 

Sacred music forms an integral part of the Mass as it helps us to delve deeper into the Paschal Mystery and to immerse ourselves in the times and seasons of the Church (in this case Lent).   However, it seems to me that the music publishers don't seem to get this and, instead, choose to promote their own compositions rather than what the Church proposes.

I have been engaged in some rather animated discussions on Facebook about this dearth that exists in the South Texas hinterland.   One of my Facebook friends writes that he chooses music based on the Gospel; however, during this time of Lent, we need to also take this holy season into account.  Furthermore, the quality of the music matters, as Pope Benedict XVI notes in Sacramentum Caritatis, No. 42:

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 bold red letters serves as solid criteria for judging a song's worthiness for use in the Mass.  A lot of time, parish music directors (and parishes) will go by the suggestions that the publishers make for a given Sunday.  However, many of the suggestions do not take the liturgical seasons into account.  Furthermore, the suggested music is rarely traditional and is drawn from the publishers' composers.  Thus, as I have experienced it, there is a very strong disconnect between the liturgy and the music.

Yesterday, during the homily, the celebrant talked about the apostles being in holy fear as the glory cloud descended upon Jesus, Moses, Elijah and themselves.   The celebrant noted that this kind of holy fear is a good fear to have.  It is, in fact, awe and reverence before God.  He noted that it is the same attitude that we should have when approaching the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass.   We need to realize that we are in the presence of the Lord in a very real and concrete way, much as Sts. Peter, James and John were.   We should not be casual about the liturgy.  The celebrant reminded us that God spent considerable time dictating to Moses just how, when, and where He should be worshipped.  Ancient Israel took her cultic sacrificial worship very seriously.  God took it very seriously to the point that any infractions were dealt with severely and swiftly. 

Quality matters.  That is the message that the Holy Father sends the Church in SC No. 42.  About a little over a week ago, the Most Rev. Peter Elliott, an auxiliary bishop for the diocese of Melbourne (Australia) and a former consultor to the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments, addressed a conference in Oklahoma where he touched upon the same issue.  Bishop Elliot noted that:

Liturgical music should never be “utility music”, that is, music used to prop up worship or function as a teaching device. Just consider the sentimental songs still sung in so many churches, preachy songs that make God speak to us, giving us “messages”, or sacro-pop songs we sing about ourselves. True liturgical singing is addressed mainly to God. And we should always speak with reverence of our God, which is why the Pope has forbidden the use of the sacred Name in Hebrew which crept into singing and readings after the Council.
The music of the Church is the divine praise of the Logos in the cosmos, therefore this unique form of music must never to be left to subjectivist fashions or whims.
26 Music also helps us see that the strong theme of beauty in his writing on liturgy was not mere aestheticism, rather beauty understood as a revelation of the divine Logos, “the harmony of the spheres” echoing the beautiful God of cosmic order and design. He insists that singing, human word and voice, always should take priority over instrumental music. 
Unfortunately, much of what is used in the Mass today falls under the descriptions highlighted in bold, red letters.  Footnote 26 actually comes from the Holy Father's own book, The Spirit of the Liturgy.   What Pope Benedict says in his book (writing as Cardinal Ratzinger) is no different than what he writes as Supreme Pontiff in Sacramentum Caritatis.

It is also the vision that he is setting forth for the Church.  It is, as Fr. Z would say, the Holy Father's "Marshall Plan" and something that should be embraced by dioceses and parishes the world over.

In the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass, everything should be in synch.  The dots should connect.  Even if the celebrant were to preside over the Sacred Rites with the utmost care, devotion and reverence, bad music manages to cast a blemish over the liturgy.  That is why what we sing is very important.  That is why Sacred Music matters.

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