Our modern situation is more, not less, in need of the Church’s wise counsels and her rich tradition. We need to take her advice seriously. Human beings need beautiful things; human beings long for beautiful music that is suited to divine worship. The liturgy is supposed to be special; it’s not supposed to be an everyday affair. It’s not supposed to look or sound like the prevailing popular culture. It’s supposed to be different, distinctive, an encounter with the transcendent God. When Catholics encounter this mystery through music—and also, of course, through other things: vestments, architecture, the ars celebrandi, the way the priest and the ministers bear themselves at the altar—it actually helps them to know their faith better. This is not just some abstract aesthetic preference. It’s about recognizing the distinctiveness of the Catholic Faith and living it more fully. The music we use at Mass is not just window dressing; it’s essential to who we are and what we’re doing. Why has there been a hundred years of papal teaching on this subject? If it was just a small matter, it wouldn’t have been on the agenda for such a long time and gotten into the Second Vatican Council. People who want to be faithful to the magisterial documents and who want to bring out the treasures of the Christian tradition know what to do. The path is clear for those who have the right understanding of what the liturgy is, and, sadly, the path is not clear for those who don’t.
You say the liturgy is “not supposed to look or sound like popular culture.” Why is this?
I learned this crucial point from Benedict XVI, who is concerned about the deplorable state of church music in most places. He recognizes it as an invasion of secularism, a sort of pathetic attempt on the part of the Church to compete with secular culture. Somebody once said about Christian rock music that “it’s only relevant for five minutes, and four of those minutes were not worth it.” Or as another person said: “If you can’t deliver a product that’s ten times better than your competitor, you shouldn’t even bother.” And the Church can’t do that with secular culture. She’s not meant to do that, and she’ll never succeed. What’s necessary is to bend the stick in the opposite direction and make sure that the liturgy is absolutely holy and sacred and reverent in every way. Music plays a huge role in that necessary orientation to God. In fact, music is the most obvious element of the liturgy, even if it’s not the most important. It’s the thing that hits you most, affects you most immediately. If it’s wrong, the whole experience is wrong, and the meaning of the event will be compromised, too—maybe even corrupted. But if it’s right, it gives glory to God and assists in the sanctification of the faithful. What a noble ministry, what an immense responsibility!
(Read the final part of the interview, on how to introduce good sacred music and learn more about it, here. Check out Dr. Kwasniewski’s sacred music project here.)