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Church choirs: The good, the bad and the ugly

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In Part 2 of our interview with Dr. Peter Kwasniewski on choirs in the Church today, we consider Benedict XVI’s contribution and the many benefits of children being raised singing sacred music.

In Part I of our interview with Dr. Kwasniewski, we discussed the historical role of the choir in the liturgy, the origins of polyphonic music, the pro-choir teaching of the Second Vatican Council, and the commentary of John Paul II on the real meaning of active participation. Today we take up Benedict XVI’s contribution to the topic, congregational singing, orchestral Masses, children’s choirs, and resources for budding groups.

Dr. Peter Kwasniewski

Dr. Kwasnieswki, Benedict XVI is a fierce critic of what he calls “utility music,” saying that its banality is unworthy of the Christian liturgy. How does this fit in with what you are saying about choirs?

Pope Benedict says somewhere that it is not enough to have music that “works,” that supplies a certain function, in the manner of a commercial ditty; it has to be better than that. It needs to be suitable for God by being worthy of Him, as much as we can make it. The Church’s tradition is overflowing with such worthy offerings and, although we can and should add to this treasury (otherwise I myself would not be a composer of church music), we would be fools if we did not continue to value what we have inherited from the past. Who but a fool would say that gold from yesterday is worth less than gold from today, or that a diamond a thousand years old is no longer up-to-date and relevant? Beautiful things are never outdated; they are always valid, always suitable, always worthy, always new.

In 2012, Pope Benedict addressed some inspiring words to members of scholae cantorum from across Italy. His whole address is worth reading. He asks why the Council says music is a “necessary and integral” part of the liturgy, and says: “Certainly not for purely aesthetic reasons, in a superficial sense, but because it cooperates, precisely through its beauty, in nourishing and expressing the faith, and so to the glory of God and the sanctification of the faithful, which are the ends of sacred music. For this reason I wish to thank you for the precious service that you render: the music that you perform is not an accessory or only an external ornament of the liturgy, but it is liturgy itself. You help the whole assembly to praise God, to make his Word enter into the depths of the heart: with song you pray and help others pray, and you participate in the song and prayer of the liturgy that embraces the whole of creation in glorifying the Creator.” What a pep talk for any and every church choir!

Then, recalling how the famous poet Paul Claudel was converted by the beauty of the Christmas liturgy at Notre Dame, Pope Benedict continues: “We need not have recourse to illustrious persons to think of how many people have been touched in their depths of their soul listening to sacred music, and of how many more have felt themselves, like Claudel, newly drawn to God by the beauty of liturgical music. And, here dear friends, you have an important role: work to improve the quality of liturgical song without being afraid to recover and value the great musical tradition of the Church, which has in Gregorian Chant and polyphony two of its highest expressions, as Vatican II itself states (SC 116). And I would like to stress that the active participation of the whole people of God in the liturgy does not consist only in speaking, but also in listening, in welcoming the Word with the senses and the spirit; and this holds also for sacred music. You, who have the gift of song, can make the heart of many people sing in liturgical celebrations.”

Here we see how Pope John Paul II and Pope Benedict XVI were of one mind in their understanding of the nuanced teaching of Vatican II.

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