“There was a time when the Church did not run after the latest fashion, but was the maker and arbiter of culture.”
VATICAN CITY —Pope Francis last week called for an end to the “mediocrity, superficiality and banality” that has entered into liturgical music in the Catholic Church since Vatican II.
The pope’s appeal comes as a group of “musicians, pastors, teachers, scholars, and lovers of sacred music” have issued a statement expressing their “great love for the Church’s treasury of sacred music,” and their “deep concerns about its current plight.”
Cantate Domino Canticum Novum [Sing to the Lord a new song] surveys the current horizon of sacred music and offers positive proposals for its restoration in the Catholic liturgy. It was issued to mark the fiftieth anniversary of the promulgation of the Instruction on Music in the Liturgy, Musicam Sacram, on March 5, 1967, under the pontificate of Paul VI.
“Sacred Scripture and Sacred Tradition alike bear witness to a great love for the beauty and power of music in the worship of Almighty God,” the signatories observe in the introduction. “The treasury of sacred music has always been cherished in the Catholic Church by her saints, theologians, popes, and laypeople.”
The “vast amount” of Christian literature and papal pronouncements extolling the beauty of sacred music, and the importance of its role in the liturgy, was reaffirmed by the Fathers of Vatican II in the document Sacrosanctum Concilium.
Yet in the years after the Council, the Mystical Body’s hymn to her Head, the Bride’s sweet song to her Beloved, was often despised and rejected, and the decades following Vatican II became “the via dolorosa of sacred music.”
“Indeed,” the signatories observe, “what was happening in some factions of the Church at that time (1967) was not at all in line with Sacrosantum Concilium or with Musicam Sacram. Certain ideas that were never present in the Council’s documents were forced into practice, sometimes with a lack of vigilance from clergy and ecclesiastical hierarchy. In some countries the treasury of sacred music that the Council asked to be preserved was not only not preserved, but even opposed.”
The Current Situation
Rooted in Sacred Scripture, andsurrounded by a chorus of Church fathers and Roman pontiffs, Sacrosanctum Concilium stated that “the musical tradition of the universal Church is … a treasure greater even than that of any other art.” (SC 112).
In light of this, the signatories call the current situation “nothing short of desperate, with abuses in the area of sacred music now almost the norm rather than the exception.”
Identifying key elements that contribute to the present situation, they point first to the loss of understanding of the “musical shape of the liturgy” (i.e., that music is an inherent part of the very essence of liturgy), and “an embrace of secularism” which “has contributed to a desacralization of the liturgy.”
“Today, the Church is not actively using her cultural riches to evangelize, but is mostly used by a prevalent secular culture, born in opposition to Christianity, which destabilizes the sense of adoration that is at the heart of the Christian faith,” they write.
In fact, they argue, we are seeing a widespread loss of a sense of contemplation, adoration, and astonishment for the mystery of the Eucharist, because “we are living a sort of spiritual Alzheimer’s, a disease that is taking our spiritual, theological, artistic, musical and cultural memories away from us.”
This present “deplorable” situation, they say, may also be attributed to “groups in the Church that push for a ‘renewal’ that does not reflect Church teaching but rather serves their own agenda,” as well as “powerful lobbies” that contribute to replacing liturgical repertoires faithful to Vatican II with “low-quality repertoires.”
Such agendas are bound to end in failure, they argue. “We will not invite people to our house, the Church, to give them a by-product of music and art, when they can find a much better pop music style outside the Church.”
Meanwhile, they observe, Gregorian Chant — which for centuries the Church has regarded as “the supreme model for sacred music” — is often “discarded, if not despised.” But according to the signatories, this disdain for Gregorian chant and traditional repertoires is “one sign of a much bigger problem, that of disdain for Tradition.”
“Sacrosanctum Concilium teaches that the musical and artistic heritage of the Church should be respected and cherished, because it is the embodiment of centuries of worship and prayer, and an expression of the highest peak of human creativity and spirituality,” they write. “There was a time when the Church did not run after the latest fashion, but was the maker and arbiter of culture.”
“Recovering the unity, integrity, and harmony of Catholic teaching,” they argue, is therefore “the condition for restoring both the liturgy and its music to a noble condition.”
Finally, the signatories cite “clericalism” as a further cause of the decadence of sacred music, along with the “inadequate (at times, unjust) remuneration of lay musicians.”
While acknowledging that their view many seem pessimistic, the signatories believe there is “a way out of this winter” and a hope for the resurrection of sacred music in the liturgy.
To this end, they offer several positive proposals.
First, they ask for a re-affirmation of the Church’s musical heritage “alongside modern sacred compositions in Latin or vernacular languages that take their inspiration from this great tradition,” and ask that “concrete steps” be taken to promote it everywhere.
Second, they emphasize the need for formation and underscore the necessity that “education to good taste in music and liturgy start with children.”
“Often educators without musical training believe that children cannot appreciate the beauty of true art,” they observe. “This is far from the truth.”
However, they note, “if children are to appreciate the beauty of music and art … we must have a strong laity who will follow the Magisterium. We need to give space to well-trained laity in areas that have to do with art and with music.”
They ask bishops to hire a professional music director and/or an organist who will foster excellent liturgical music in cathedrals or basilicas. And they propose that a weekly Mass in Latin (in either Form of the Roman Rite) be celebrated in every basilica and cathedral so as “to maintain the link we have with our liturgical, cultural, artistic, and theological heritage.”
“The fact that many young people today are rediscovering the beauty of Latin in the liturgy is surely a sign of the times,” they write, “and prompts us to bury the battles of the past and seek a more ‘catholic’ approach that draws upon all the centuries of Catholic worship.”
In addition to forming children and the lay adults, the signatories ask bishops to make liturgical and musical training of clergy a priority.
Lastly, the signatories note the great role Catholic publishers have had in spreading good examples of sacred music, old and new. Yet, they note, today “the same publishers, even if they belong to dioceses or religious institutions, often spread music that is not right for the liturgy, following only commercial considerations.”
“Many faithful Catholics think that what mainstream publishers offer is in line with the doctrine of the Catholic Church regarding liturgy and music, when it is frequently not so.”
The authors of Cantate Domino conclude by reminding us that “the treasure that is our Catholic tradition is not something of the past alone. It is still a vital force in the present, and will always be a gift of beauty to future generations.”
After the via dolorosa of sacred music, they therefore invite us to look forward in hope to its resurrection: “Sing praises to the Lord, for he has done gloriously; let this be known in all the earth. Shout, and sing for joy, O inhabitant of Zion, for great in your midst is the Holy One of Israel” (Is 12:5–6).
Cantate Domino Canticum Novum has been published in 9 languages.