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Benedict XVI on Music

by Gary D. Penkala

Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI at Castel Gandolfo On 04 July 2015, Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI received two Doctorates honoris causa from the John Paul II Pontifical University of Krakow and from the Academy of Music of Krakow, Poland. They were conferred by His Eminence, Stanislaw Cardinal Dziwisz, Archbishop of Krakow, at a ceremony at Castel Gandolfo, where the pope emeritus was spending a few weeks at the traditional papal summer residence.

In his remarks, Benedict XVI presented some personal thoughts on music and sacred music.

He commended his predecessor, Saint John Paul II, "because without him, my spiritual and theological journey would not have even been imaginable. With his brilliant example he also showed us how the joy of great sacred music and the task of common participation in the sacred liturgy, the solemn joy and the simplicity of the humble celebration of the faith can go hand in hand."

Having grown up in a tradition that fully supported Sunday Masses accompanied by choir and orchestra, he remarked about one Mass in particular. "Indelibly impressed in my memory, for instance, is how, when the first notes of Mozart's Coronation Mass sounded, Heaven virtually opened and the presence of the Lord was experienced very profoundly." He embraced the Liturgical Movement in Bavaria, but noticed that "little by little the tension became perceptible between the participatio actuosa in keeping with the liturgy and the solemn music that enveloped the sacred action, even if it was not yet perceived so strong."

Written very clearly in the Constitution on the Liturgy of Vatican Council II is that "The patrimony of sacred music be preserved and incremented with great care" (1124). On the other hand, the text evidences, as a fundamental liturgical category, the participatio actuosa of all the faithful in the sacred action. What in the Constitution was still peacefully together, subsequently, in the reception of the Council was often in a relation of dramatic tension. Significant environments of the Liturgical Movement held that, for the great choral works and even for the Masses for orchestra there would be room in the future only in concert halls, not in the liturgy. Here there could be a place only for the common singing and prayer of the faithful. On the other hand, there was consternation over the cultural impoverishment of the Church, which would necessarily flow from this. In what way could both things be reconciled? How could the Council be implemented in its entirety? These were the questions posed to me and to many other faithful, to simple people as well as to persons in possession of theological formation.

The pope emeritus mentioned three places from which music emanates:

  1. One of the first sources is the experience of love. When men are seized by love, a new dimension of being opens in them, a new grandeur and breadth of reality, and it also drives one to express oneself in a new way. Poetry, singing and music in general stem from this being struck, by this opening of oneself to a new dimension of life.
  2. A second origin of music is the experience of sadness, being touched by death, by sorrow and by the abysses of existence. Opened also in this case, in an opposite direction, are new dimensions of reality that can no longer find answers in discourses alone.
  3. Finally, the third place of origin of music is the encounter with the divine, which from the beginning is part of what defines the human. All the more so here in which the totally other and the totally great is present, which arouses in man new ways of expressing himself. Perhaps, it is possible to affirm that in reality also in the other two domains — love and death — the divine mystery touches us and, in this sense, it is the being touched by God that, overall, constitutes the origin of music. I find it moving to observe how, for instance, in the Psalms, singing is no longer enough for men — an appeal is made to all the instruments: reawakened is the hidden music of creation, its mysterious language. With the Psalter, in which the two motives of love and death also operate, we find directly the origin of sacred music of the Church of God. It can be said that the quality of the music depends on the purity and the grandeur of the encounter with the divine, with the experience of love and of pain. The more pure and true this experience is, the more pure and great also is the music that is born and develops from it.

Benedict spoke of the realm of music in cultures and religions.

Present in the scope of the different cultures and religions is great literature, great architecture, great painting and great sculptures. And everywhere there is also music. And yet in no other cultural domain is there music of equal grandeur to that born in the sphere of the Christian faith: from Palestrina to Bach, to Handel, up to Mozart, Beethoven and Bruckner. Western music is something unique, which has no equal in other cultures. And this — it seems to me — should make us think.

Certainly, Western music goes beyond by far the religious and ecclesial sphere. And yet it finds its most profound origin, in any case, in the liturgy of the encounter with God. In Bach, for whom the glory of God represents ultimately the end of all music, this is altogether evident. The great and pure answer of Western music was developed in the encounter with that God who, in the liturgy, makes himself present to us in Christ Jesus. For me, that music is a demonstration of the truth of Christianity. Wherever such an answer is developed, there has been an encounter with truth, with the true Creator of the world. Therefore, great sacred music is a reality of theological rank and of permanent meaning for the faith of the whole of Christianity, even if it is not necessary that it be performed always and everywhere. On the other hand, however, it is also clear that it cannot disappear from the liturgy and that its presence can be an altogether special way of participation in the sacred celebration, in the mystery of the faith.

Article written 14 July 2015

The speech was delivered in Italian. The English quotes herein are from an article on ZENIT

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