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Address to Saint Cecilia Society [excerpt]

Pope Benedict XVI
Commentary by Fr. John Zuhlsdorf

This article appeared as a 10 November 2012 posting on Fr. Z's Blog: What Does the Prayer Really Say?. Pope Benedict, speaking on liturgical music and the new evangelization, emphasizes Gregorian chant, polyphony, listening.

Pope Benedict received in audience the "Saint Cecilia Association," on the occasion of a congress of liturgical choirs taking place in Rome.

The reports on the Holy Father’s address were rather thin and I haven’t seen anything about this in English. However, in the Italian original I noticed some thoughts of the Holy Father that confirm and strengthen positions I have been trying to emphasize for many years.

Here is the last part of the Pope Benedict’s address in my fast translation:

The second aspect that I propose for your reflection is the relationship between sacred song and the new evangelization. The Conciliar Constitution on the liturgy calls to mind the importance of sacred music in the mission ad gentes and urges an appreciation of the musical traditions of peoples (cf 119). But also in countries of ancient evangelization, as is Italy, sacred music can have, and in fact does have, a relevant task, to foster the rediscovery of God, a renewed approach to the Christian message and to the mysteries of the Faith. Let us think about the famous experience of Paul Claudel, who converted while listening to the singing of the Magnificat during Vespers of Christmas in the Cathedral of Notre Dame in Paris: "In that moment," he wrote, "an event happened that dominates my whole life. In an instant my heart was touched and I believed. I believed with a force of adhesion so great, with such a lifting of all my being, with a conviction so powerful, in a certainty that would not leave room for any kind of doubt that, from that point onward, no reasoning, no circumstance of my agitated life could either shake my faith or touch it." But, without bothering with illustrious people, let’s think about how many people have been touched in the depth of their soul listening to sacred music; and even more how many felt themselves attracted anew towards God by the beauty of liturgical music as was Claudel. And here, dear friends, you have an important role: commit yourselves to improve the quality of liturgical singing, without fearing to recover and to make use of the great musical tradition of the Church, which in Gregorian (chant) and in polyphony have two of the highest expressions, as the same Vatican II affirms (cf Sacrosanctum Concilium 116). And I would like to underscore that active participation of the whole People of God in the liturgy does not consist only in speaking, but also in listening, in receiving the Word with the senses and with the spirit, and this goes also for liturgical music. You, who have the gift of singing, can make the hearts of so many people sing in liturgical celebrations.

Note that the Holy Father isn’t just talking about Holy Mass. He is talking about liturgical celebrations. He uses the example of Vespers. Vespers is a liturgical celebration. Vatican II mandated that vespers be fostered in churches.

But be sure not to miss that point about participation by listening. Listening is not passive when the mind and heart are engaged by the will. Close listening is active reception.

Moreover, the Holy Father spoke of the sort of music that we are to use in liturgical services: sacred music. The texts and the musical idiom must be sacred.

Also, the Holy Father urged them not to be afraid of the treasury of the Church’s sacred music, especially Gregorian chant and polyphonic music. We must reopen the treasury and make use of our patrimony. It will take courage to open the treasury, but also courage to use what is inside. Some people of a certain age have a visceral reaction to the use of anything "old," as if by using it, even thinking that it is good, is an attack on their persons. The sight of a traditional vestment or the sound of Latin or chant provokes many of them to a blind suspicion that their lives are being questioned, so bound up is their identity with the iconoclastic upheaval of the halcyon 60's and 70's.

Let this Year of Faith see a revival of sacred music.

Here are a few comments on Father's post:

I believe Dr. Peter Kreeft listed Palestrina as one of the reasons he is Catholic. The Catholic faith has inspired the most beautiful music, sculpture, paintings, and architecture (excluding the last 50 years or so). Even many who are not Catholic or even theists enjoy Gregorian chant and Catholic polyphony. There are several members of my choir who are not Catholic but sing with us because the music is so beautiful and there are few opportunities to sing Byrd, Victoria, Tallis, Lassus, Palestrina etc. outside of a college setting, and most colleges don’t get chant right. I have a sibling who has left the faith and is now an agnostic, but loves to go sit and listen to vespers at the nearby church. Good music can sometimes draw people who would otherwise never go to church. Before every Mass, I beg the aid of the saints and angels for the choir, that we might give fitting worship to God and through the Holy Spirit reach the hearts of those who have come to pray, lifting their hearts and minds and souls to the contemplation of truth, beauty, and goodness Himself. To sing well is to evangelize!

It's been said, "Music is a matter of what people like. It’s all a matter of taste."

"What people like" is how we got into this mess. It is a cop out.

Holy Mother Church is not there to entertain but to inspire. It often fails to do so. Last night I had to go (exceptionally) to the local parish church. A four hymn sandwich of ghastly modern doctrine-less hymns, a total disregard for the rubrics, the celebrant not properly vested (no chasuble) and prayers for "sustainability." That is not what the Church mandates.

People don’t like many aspects of Christ’s teaching, let alone music. Inspire them: don’t pander to them. If Church is not inspiring: Word, Liturgy, Music, Beauty, they will lapse. You don’t have to be an aesthete to need these things. It is our heritage.

The Pope is quite right.

"Music is a matter of what people like. It’s all a matter of taste." Presumably, this was intended as an explanation of why so much church music nowadays is so banal and mediocre.

But I’m reminded of a parish bulletin note from a former pastor who is now a bishop, entitled "Latin and Lima Beans." Explaining why some Latin was being introduced in the parish Sunday Masses, he said, "Latin is like lima beans: You may not like it, but it’s good for you."

And perhaps proper liturgy (including sacred music) is not about what we like, but about what is good for us.

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