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Musical Musings: Liturgy

All the Arts Contribute to Excellence in Liturgical Prayer

by Fr. Paul Schmidt

Part I: Introduction

Father Paul Schmidt has served as the priest personnel director for the Diocese of Oakland, California, and also as diocesan director of religious education and as pastor of St. Agnes Parish in Concord. He holds a master's of divinity degree from St. Patrick's Seminary in Menlo Park and a master's degree in English from California State University, Hayward. He was a columnist for The Catholic Voice, the Oakland diocesan newspaper, for many years. Father Schmidt is author of the book Buried Treasures: A Guide to the Catechism of the Catholic Church

This article, which has appeared in The Voice (Oakland), is reprinted from The Catholic Herald, the newspaper for the Diocese of Sacramento, with the kind permission of Julie Sly, Editor.

Is mediocrity an obstacle to liturgical prayer? Some would say that it is not. One need not be a great public speaker to say a prayer or an accomplished musician to sing a hymn. Mediocrity might even be considered an aid to liturgical prayer. The common denominator in art or music appeals to the most people. People look for everyday speech not exalted oratory, when the preacher gets up to speak. Striving for excellence can easily be taken for snobbery or uncompromising liturgical ruthlessness.

Reading the Decree on the Liturgy from the Second Vatican Council, or the Catechism of the Catholic Church, or the numerous papal documents on liturgy, however, gives a different view. These documents presume that our liturgical prayer will have an artistic excellence. "The Church approves of all forms of true art having the needed qualities and admits them to divine worship," says the Council (par. 112). "Genuine sacred art," says the Catechism, "draws us to adoration, to prayer, and to the love of God, Creator and Savior, the Holy One and Sanctifier" (par. 2502).

The Council speaks of preserving the treasury of sacred music and art from the past, as well as employing the art and cultural expressions of the present. It further states: "All things set apart for use in divine worship should be truly worthy, becoming, and beautiful, signs and symbols of the supernatural world" (par. 122).

What is "true art," "genuine sacred art"? The Catechism discusses this from an Aristotelian perspective. Art, it says, gives "form to the truth or reality in a language accessible to sight or hearing" (par. 2501). Sacred art has a particular vocation, "evoking and glorifying, in faith and adoration, the transcendent mystery of God" (par. 2502).

We might compare excellence in liturgical prayer to the gift of integrity which the first human beings were said to have had before their fall from grace. This does not mean that they always told the truth. It means that they were whole. All their faculties worked and all worked in the right order.

Scholastic philosophy described the human person as having body and soul, intellect and will, emotions and senses. With the gift of integrity, all these human faculties were in harmony. The body obeyed the soul. The will ruled the emotions. The intellect guided the senses. There was no conflict or strife. Excellent liturgical prayer engages all of our faculties. One does not overwhelm the other but all work together. The Catechism quotes a famous passage from St. Augustine, which tells how chanted liturgical prayer moved him. "How I wept, deeply moved by your hymns, songs, and the voices that echoed through your Church! What emotion I experienced in them! Those sounds flowed into my ears, distilling the truth in my heart. A feeling of devotion surged within me, and tears steamed down my face--tears that did me good" (par. 1157). Church documents also tell us what liturgical prayer should not be: "sumptuous display," "mediocrity," "pretense." Music or art which is only sentimental or overly theatrical, which calls attention to itself and does not point beyond itself to the realm of faith does not measure up to the standard. Obviously there are wide differences in taste which need to be considered.

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Part II: Either? Or? Both!! 

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