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Sunday, August 3, 2014

The Lowest Common Denominator

H/T to Cartman who manages to capture the accuracy of a situation.

In November 22, 1903, Pope St. Pius X issued his famous Motu Proprio on music in the sacred liturgy, Tra Le Sollecitudini.   The Motu Proprio addressed the major problem of secular influences creeping into the sacred liturgy.  At the time of the venerable Supreme Pontiff, opera started infiltrating the music used at the Mass.

Pope St. Pius X wrote that:
Sacred music, being a complementary part of the solemn liturgy, participates in the general scope of the liturgy, which is the glory of God and the sanctification and edification of the faithful. It contributes to the decorum and the splendor of the ecclesiastical ceremonies, and since its principal office is to clothe with suitable melody the liturgical text proposed for the understanding of the faithful, its proper aim is to add greater efficacy to the text, in order that through it the faithful may be the more easily moved to devotion and better disposed for the reception of the fruits of grace belonging to the celebration of the most holy mysteries. 
The liturgical texts use beautiful, elevated language as a means of worshipping the Lord.  Thus, the musical settings for these sacred texts should certainly provide fitting "clothing" for these words.  While opera certainly has its elements of beauty, its profane nature does not lend itself to the solemn majesty and dignity that the liturgical rites require.
Now we hit the fast-forward button to the 21st century.  Lamentably, the same issues that Pope St. Pius X sought to correct persist 110 years later, only now, the secular pop musical genre has replaced opera as the chief culprit.  Rather than clothe the sacred liturgical texts with fitting music, this particular genre, especially the Praise and Worship style, tends to cheapen the solemn majesty of the liturgy with a casual tone that is more suitable for the Sirius XM pop stations than for the Mass.

In 2003, another canonized Pontiff, Pope St. John Paul II, revisited this issue when he wrote his Chirograph on Sacred Music.  The venerable Pope wrote that
3. On various occasions I too have recalled the precious role and great importance of music and song for a more active and intense participation in liturgical celebrations[9]. I have also stressed the need to "purify worship from ugliness of style, from distasteful forms of expression, from uninspired musical texts which are not worthy of the great act that is being celebrated"[10], to guarantee dignity and excellence to liturgical compositions.  
In this perspective, in the light of the Magisterium of St Pius X and my other Predecessors and taking into account in particular the pronouncements of the Second Vatican Council, I would like to re-propose several fundamental principles for this important sector of the life of the Church, with the intention of ensuring that liturgical music corresponds ever more closely to its specific function.  
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.
St. John Paul II stressed the importance of maintaining continuity with St. Pius X meaning that the essence of the 1903 Motu Proprio's teaching has not changed.  What was problematic then remains problematic now.  For whatever reasons, banal music crept into the Mass immediately after the Second Vatican Council with such insipid and uninspired compositions as "You are Near", "Glory and Praise" and "Sing to the Mountains".  Recently, compositions such as "Rain Down", "Table of Plenty", "Bread of Life", and other stuff from OCP's "Spirit and Song" collections have also seeped into the Mass, especially within those liturgies "targeted" towards youth.

Oddly enough, the Fathers of the 2005 Synod on the Eucharist echoed the similar observation that both Sts. Pius X and John Paul II made when they issued their Instrumentum Laboris:
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.
Incidentally, while the Fathers specifically mentioned the problem with "Youth Masses", their observation is not merely limited to this particular matter.  At least in the United States, the music used in Spanish-language liturgies is just as problematic, if not worse.  Sadly, OCP is also the chief culprit.  In most cases, the genre of music used ranges anywhere from Mariachi to Caribbean to Ranchero and everything in between.  Even the texts tend to be problematic, as some of the compositions, such as "Pueblos Nuevos" seem to be inflicted with tinges of Liberation Theology.  This certainly contributes to a "weakening of Church teaching and to a misunderstanding of prayer" that the Synod Fathers warned against.

In 2007, Pope Benedict XVI, in his Apostolic Exhortation, Sacramentum Caritatis, maintained this hermeneutic of continuity with the teachings on sacred music held by his predecessors when he wrote that:
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). 
Unfortunately, this particularly important teaching has been lost on composers and publishing houses and those at both the diocesan and parochial level who oversee liturgical music.  It is as though all four groups, with some rare exceptions, tend to resort to the lowest common denominator when it comes to selecting music for the Mass.  Sadly, a lot of what these folks promote and use winds up sounding like Faith +1, the pseudo Praise and Worship band featuring South Park character Cartman and his animated cohorts.  The baselines, drums and keyboards may sound great on the radio, but, it is hardly a joyfully sacred noise.

According to Pope St. Pius X (and repeatedly affirmed by his successors, most notably, Venerable Pope Pius XII, St. John Paul II and Benedict XVI):
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.

The aforementioned "Rain Down" sounds more like a piece that one would hear at a jazz bar than within the context of the sacred liturgy. "Alabare" sounds more like a Ranchera-type piece that one could listen to at a fiesta, but, not at Mass.

St. John Paul II echoed his venerable predecessor's words when he noted that:
12. With regard to compositions of liturgical music, I make my own the "general rule" that St Pius X formulated in these words:  "The more closely a composition for church approaches in its movement, inspiration and savour the Gregorian melodic form, the more sacred and liturgical it becomes; and the more out of harmony it is with that supreme model, the less worthy it is of the temple"[33]. It is not, of course, a question of imitating Gregorian chant but rather of ensuring that new compositions are imbued with the same spirit that inspired and little by little came to shape it. Only an artist who is profoundly steeped in the sensus Ecclesiae can attempt to perceive and express in melody the truth of the Mystery that is celebrated in the Liturgy[34]. In this perspective, in my Letter to Artists I wrote: "How many sacred works have been composed through the centuries by people deeply imbued with the sense of mystery! The faith of countless believers has been nourished by melodies flowing from the hearts of other believers, either introduced into the Liturgy or used as an aid to dignified worship. In song, faith is experienced as vibrant joy, love and confident expectation of the saving intervention of God"[35]. 
Thus, for St. John Paul II, the issue of sacred music for the Mass was not an "anything goes" style; rather, it needs to be "worthy...of the temple."  It needs to "perceive and express in melody the truth of the Mystery that is celebrated in the Liturgy."

We cannot and should not settle for the lowest common denominator when it comes to the Mass.  When we use substandard music, pieces that fail to respect the dignity of the Mass, we contribute to the erosion of the solemnity of the Sacred Liturgy.

Authentic sacred music, such as Chant (Propers come to mind), enhances the beauty of the liturgy and allows our minds and hearts to be elevated to the sublime Mysteries that unfold before us.  It brings us in tune with the heavenly realities that unfold before us.  It is too precious to be relegated to the lowest common denominator.

1 comment:

  1. Indeed the chants edify and are essential to the Liturgy. If we're to pray the Mass as Pope St Pius X wishes, we can't do that by substituting hymns for the propers and using non sacred music. Praying the propers assures us of orthodox teaching.