Reflecting on 21 Centuries of Faith

The Melodic Voice of the Bride

There are many issues that we like to argue about in the Church. The most volatile subject is music – hands down. And, we should not be surprised. Music touches the very depths of our hearts. It expresses our greatest joys and deepest sorrows. Scripture even proclaims that it ministers to the spirit and even exorcism:

And whenever the evil spirit from God was upon Saul, David took the lyre and played it with his hand; so Saul was refreshed, and was well, and the evil spirit departed from him. (1 Samuel 16:23)

Music used during the liturgy is properly termed as Sacred Music. I believe our discussion should probably include a definition of Sacred Music. The Second Vatican Council did not provide a definition but sought to reclaim,

Pope Saint Pius X’s treatment of the subject; the enduring validity of which the Council clearly affirmed. (‘Religious Music’ Not Necessarily Sacred, Sept 24, 2010)

The Council Father’s made a distinction between religious music and sacred music. They were clear that much of the body of music used in the liturgy had little place in the liturgy. After the Second Vatican Council, all would have to admit that an explosion of music came about and used within the liturgy. As I have remarked in the past,

I am a particular fan of Praise and Worship music. It has played a huge part in my life and historically has been part of our tradition since the beginning – but it does not constitute sacred music. Not because it does not raise our hearts and minds to the highest heavens but it is transitory in nature. That is easily illustrated by just the simple observation in changes of style every few years. Sacred Music, and yes, I mean Gregorian and Plainchant, have an enduring quality about them that is shaped by the use of Latin. The language and the way it is expressed shapes how we express ourselves in worship. I suspect that you would never find hands raised in praise during the O Salutaris. It seems out of place which does not mean that folded hands are more reverent than raised – just different expressions for different liturgical actions.

The Council Fathers said,

Holy Scripture, indeed, has bestowed praise upon sacred song, and the same may be said of the fathers of the Church and of the Roman pontiffs who in recent times, led by St. Pius X, have explained more precisely the ministerial function supplied by sacred music in the service of the Lord. (Sacrosanctum Concilium, 112)

Pope St. Pius X is mentioned because of his motu proprio on November 22, 1903 Tra le Sollecitudini. It is interesting to note, that this document was his first action as the Pontiff. The former Choir Master of the Sistine Chapel, earnestly desired liturgical renewal within the Church (much to the chagrin of those of us that think that liturgical renewal was an exclusive fruit of the Second Vatican Council). In fact, a great deal of liturgical renewal took place at the beginning of the twentieth century.

The following selection from the motu proprio really focuses in how the Church defines sacred music:

Sacred music participates in the general scope of the liturgy which is the glory of God and the sanctification and edification of the faithful. 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 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. It should consequently possess, in the highest degree, the qualities proper to the liturgy. Sacred music 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. (cf Tra le Sollecitudini 1,2)

As we read this quote, we might take note of the word “profanity.” Profanity in this sense, does not mean vulgarity but that which is oriented to secular use. Then, Cardinal Ratzinger, in his interview, The Ratzinger Reports, shares that sacred music should have nothing in common with secular music. He continues that it is not because it is intrinsically bad or doesn’t lift our hearts, but sacred music should engender a quality that makes it easily understood that these “songs” within the liturgy take place in heaven. Meaning, it should have an “otherworldliness” about it.

The otherworldliness qualities that the Council intended can be described as the following:

These qualities of the liturgy that are also necessary in order for music to be considered sacred are, according to the Council, those that “manifest the mystery of Christ and the real nature of the true Church,” and through which “the human is directed and subordinated to the divine, the visible likewise to the invisible, action to contemplation…” (SC 2)

Louie Verrecchio summarizes this by stating

Music, in other words, is only truly sacred and has its proper place in the liturgy – most commonly in our experience as it relates to Holy Mass – when it reflects the truth that “we are taking part in a foretaste of that heavenly liturgy where Christ is sitting at the right hand of God, a minister of the holies and of the true tabernacle; as we sing a hymn to the Lord’s glory with all the warriors of the heavenly army; venerating the memory of the saints as we hope for some part and fellowship with them.” (cf SC 8)

Furthermore, sacred music is so far above the ordinary, or profane, that it reflects the true nature of the liturgy as “an exercise of the priestly office of Jesus Christ who, in the liturgy, sanctifies man by signs perceptible to the senses;” (cf SC 7) in this case, the glorious sounds that intoxicate the soul with an awareness of God’s operative presence, drawing both heart and mind toward heaven through, with, and in Christ by the power of the Holy Spirit.

It is true that sacred words set to a modern or catchy tune is very effective to draw the congregation in – especially teenagers. The problem is that the context. The frame of reference is not only suppose to draw you in but raise the mind to contemplation and “sound” like the heavenly song of the elect mentioned in Revelation. There is a vast amount of music that effectively communicates the truths of the faith – and a vast amount that does not. Most of the music I hear these days is either narcissistic or a theological disaster.

Part of the reasoning behind Gregorian Chant and Plainsong is that it is a “joyful whisper”. It ensures  the need for us to give the Father the praise and worship due while respecting the fact that we stand in the presence of the Living, Omnipotent, Omniscient God.

Again, I like what Louie Verrecchio says,

For example, without singling out specific songs, there are numerous hymns that are composed of lyrics that encourage us to serve one another; speak of the goodness of all creation; call us to be welcoming of others, etc…, yet are still grossly deficient for use in a liturgical setting. Why? Because such songs, in spite of any good messages they may contain, fail to foster within the faithful the sense of awe that naturally inundates those who are rightly disposed for true participation in the incomprehensible Sacred Mysteries of Holy Mass. This interior disposition is that which allows us to cooperate with the divine grace that unites those of us on earth with the Body of Christ in heaven through Jesus Christ, our High Priest and Head.

Religious music, in that it is largely earthbound, is therefore not simply a neutral when introduced into a liturgical setting; rather it becomes in this instance a destructive force in that it acts as an anchor upon the faithful, the weight of which serves as a burden capable of distracting us from the liturgy’s true glory.

Not only does religious music in a liturgical setting obscure the reality of the Mass as heaven on earth, it actually subtly cultivates a “me centered” view of the sacred liturgy that cannot be reconciled with an authentic interpretation of the Council’s teaching. The fruit of this skewed view of the sacred liturgy is all too evident in many places, and the music that is chosen for Holy Mass alternately serves as both cause and effect; fueling a regrettable cycle of liturgical distortion.

Do I think that we need to switch tomorrow? No. There is a language barrier that exists but that could be overcome in time. I would say that we need to start to introduce it. I am convinced that once our congregations hear it, they will fall in love with sacred music.

Just yesterday, my mother in-law mentioned that when she first experienced a Catholic liturgy (she is a convert from Church of Christ), what impressed her was the solemnity and, most of all, the sacred music. She then continued to say that she wishes she could hear that music again.

There is nothing like the voice of your Bride singing to you. Let’s reconsider what we put into the ears of our Lord and His People.

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