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Musical Musings: Miscellaneous

Two Anniversaries

by Fr. Edward McNamara

Father Edward McNamara is professor of liturgy at the Regina Apostolorum Pontifical Athenaeum. This article first appeared on

A translation of the Apostolic Letter mentioned below can be found at the ZENIT site.

In recent days the Holy Father has published two letters on liturgical affairs. Both are brief commemorative documents celebrating the anniversaries of earlier pontifical or conciliar publications.

An apostolic letter, dated December 4, 2003, and marking the 40th anniversary of the Second Vatican Council's constitution Sacrosanctum concilium, presents an overview of the principal liturgical questions past and present. The other letter, called a chirograph, and dated November 22, 2003, is tailored to the subject of liturgical music and celebrates the centenary of Pius X's Tra le sollecitudine. Pius X's document is considered a milestone in the history of liturgical reform, not only in restoring Gregorian chant to pride of place in the Church but in being the first papal document to advocate the "active participation" of the faithful in the sacred rites.

As commemorative letters, their value lies above all in being a brief and synthetic exposition of the Pope's present concerns in matters liturgical.

The letter celebrating Sacrosanctum concilium is illustrative of this. The first section, "A Look at the Conciliar Constitution," offers a summary of the principal contributions that this constitution made to the theological understanding of liturgy highlighting, above all its placing liturgy in the context of salvation history whose aim is human redemption and God's perfect glorification. This salvation is not only recalled, but renewed and made present, in every liturgical celebration in which Christ is made present in a particular way and associates the Church with himself.

The liturgy thus becomes the action of Christ the priest and his Body which is the Church. It is integral public worship, a foretaste of the heavenly liturgy and the summit toward which all the Church's activities tend and the font from which all her strength flows.

The Holy Father also recalls that the Council opened up a universal prospective for the liturgy by stressing the Church's mission of prayer and intercession on behalf of all humanity as well as the cosmic dimension of sanctifying time by a renewed attention to the liturgical year. He furthermore stresses the Council's teaching that the liturgy, while being the high point of the Church's life, does not exhaust all its activities and indeed supposes the preaching of and living witness to the Christian life.

Of the many practical recommendations and reforms brought about by the Council, the Pope limits his attention to those which are apparently closest to his heart at this moment: liturgical music and sacred art. He refers principally to the document on music published a few days earlier. This document reaffirms the principles regulating liturgical music enunciated by Pius X and later pontiffs, including John Paul II himself who has called for the removal of unsuitable music from the Church's repertoire.

Pius X summed up the qualities of good liturgical music in three principles: sanctity, goodness of form, and universality. The sanctity of this music is greater the closer it is wedded to the liturgical action. John Paul II recalls his encyclical Ecclesia de Eucharistia in which he affirms that not all forms of musical expression are suitable to the liturgy. This is correlated to the second principle of "goodness of form." Liturgical music must also be true art and correspond to the sense and meaning of the rites and texts it seeks to express. While music and song should correspond to the legitimate demands of liturgical adaptation and inculturation, this must be done with great care, fomenting the widest possible level of participation while avoiding shallowness or superficiality. This means that Pius X's third principle of "universality" still applies to music destined for the liturgy while leaving ample space for the particular genius of each region to express itself. Universality means that nobody from another nation should be left with a bad impression on hearing the particular music of his hosts. It also means that the liturgy is no place to test new musical forms and expressions which cause unease due to their unfamiliarity.

John Paul II also confirms Gregorian chant's pride of place as the model of liturgical music and the organ as the primary, but not exclusive, liturgical instrument. He also categorically states that new vernacular compositions should be inspired by Gregorian chant, above all in imitating its spirit and its capacity for merging text and music into a single and religiously expressive whole.

Referring to his Letter to Artists (1999), he asserts that the purpose and end of liturgical music is above all to assist the faithful's participation and to favor prayer and, in the final analysis, "the glorification of God and the sanctification of the faithful." As a result, only composers imbued with the sense of the Church can attempt to perceive and translate into melody the truth of the mystery celebrated in the liturgy. As a note of hope, John Paul II expresses his certainty that such composers are not lacking and he encourages their efforts to add to the Church's musical treasury.

The importance of conserving and increasing the Church's patrimony of chant, sacred polyphony and other music leads the Pope to encourage the formation of choirs, especially in larger churches. The role of the choir has not diminished and it has its own proper role besides helping to guide and sustain the song of the assembly.

The spiritual contribution of music in the liturgy depends on the coordination and the pertinent musical and liturgical formation of all those concerned in the celebration. The musical aspect of the celebration should not improvised but carefully prepared.

Above all, the Holy Father renews the call that seminarians and male and female religious receive an adequate musical formation so as to better fulfill their liturgical roles.

Finally he encourages the establishment or strengthening of episcopal commissions at both national and local levels to supervise liturgical compositions and requests the Vatican Congregation for Divine Worship and the Sacraments to become more involved in this sphere.

When discussing sacred art in his December 4 apostolic letter, the Holy Father promotes the establishment of formation programs to train artists and architects to fulfill the particular requirements of the liturgy.

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Part 2: More of the Apostolic Letter

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