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Musical Musings: Liturgy

Faithful Moderates

by Gary D. Penkala

In July 2008, Jeffrey Tucker wrote a post on the blog, New Liturgical Movement, titled What were the musical intentions of Vatican II?

One of the most striking external differences between the older and new forms of the Roman Rite concerns the music. Any Catholic who had been asleep from, say, 1960 to 1980 would have woken up to a completely different world, one that seemed to welcome pop styles at Mass and banish Gregorian chant. It is even more shocking to consider that Vatican II contained the most explicit and canonically binding recognition in the history of Christianity that Gregorian chant is the music of the Roman Rite.

In trying to come to terms with what happened, there are three general theories about the true musical intentions of the Second Vatican Council, one of which gains new credibility in a new book by Fr. Anthony Ruff, Sacred Music and Liturgical Reform: Treasures and Transformations (Liturgy Training Publications, 2007).

The first position we can describe as the progressive position, namely that the Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy intended to unleash a furious reform of the Roman Rite in which the vernacular took over, chant was banished because it is boring and in Latin, and the people took power back from the clerical class. In this view, it's true that this was not in the letter of the law but it was part of the "spirit" of the reform. The 1970 Missal too was part of the spirit but not its completion. What we needed, in this view, were creative liturgists to take ever more liberties to make the Mass community-minded and accessible, in touch with the modern world. Hence the guitars, dancers, puppet shows, and textual improvisations.

On the other side of the debate are those who we might call the traditionalists, who oddly suspect that the progressives are largely correct. The Constitution contained ticking time bombs which people at the Council put into the document so that they might explode the Roman Rite later. The document contains just enough loopholes to unleash a dismantling of tradition. The words in there about Gregorian chant were perfunctory and purposely qualified. Whatever language appears in the Constitution that seems friendly to tradition is really only tactical. What was secretly intended was the furious reform that actually took place.

Where these two positions agree is that the manner in which the liturgy is celebrated in the ordinary form represents, in some way, a fulfillment of the Council's intentions. Where these positions disagree is on whether this is a good thing or not. The progressives love it while the traditionalists say that it is a disgrace and the only solution is full restoration of the 1962 Missal, the last Missal to appear before the 1963 Constitution unleashed this "spirit of Vatican II" that ended up unraveling the Roman Rite as it has always been known.

A third position has occupied a tiny minority of opinion over the years, and yet it is gaining prominence today in light of the call for greater continuity between old and new. For convenience we can call it the conservative view. (Please don't get stuck on the terms here; they are only placeholders for general tendencies of thought.) This is the position that when the Constitution spoke with praise for Gregorian chant and polyphony, it was speaking truthfully and clearly with the intention of giving them an increased presence in the liturgy. Further, though the 1970 Missal has its problems and issues, if it is said according to the liturgical books, and the dictates of Vatican II are followed, what you end up with is something that is much more organic to tradition. You have Latin chant for the ordinary and the propers. You have the Mass said with the solemnity of old, whether in Latin or in English. This was the true intention of the Council, according to this view.

This third position gains reinforcement from the undeniable reality that Church musicians following Vatican II were exuberant about the prospects for the future. For the first time, a Council document stated with great clarity that the music of the Roman Rite is Gregorian chant, with polyphony occupying a high status, and other music permitted (thinking here of new compositions, organ works, and solemn hymns for recessionals and the like).

Many of these people — thinking here of German scholar Johannes Overath, American priests Richard Schuler and Robert Skeris, and Spanish musician and Pontifical Institute for Sacred Music head Higini Anglés — left the proceedings with great optimism that their decades of work in teaching and promoting chant would finally reach fulfillment. This is what they report in their memoirs and speeches following the Council.

Now, these brilliant people were there and privy to all the debates and details during the Council. If the Council had really intended a wholesale liturgical revolution, why in the world would they have been so optimistic? They must have known something about what really went on. I've always been struck by this fact and wanted to know more. It seems incongruous to the reality that we all know today, the empirics of which seem to lend more support to the progressive/traditionalist perspective then the conservative one.

Fr. Anthony Ruff, in his book Sacred Music and Liturgical Reform: Treasures and Transformations, encourages us to look closely at the theological and liturgical principles that show the role of music in worship. We need not wallow in progressive clangor or traditionalist scrupulousity. We can, and should, choose music that ennobles the liturgy, from any era... and most definitely including Gregorian chant.

A certain spiritual detachment ... might be called for. Then, the treasury of sacred music is for us not a burden, something which places demands on us because of its intrinsic worth, but a gift and a grace. Then, our inward letting go of the treasury is an act of faith that the treasury will take care of itself, and God will take care of inspiring good use of the treasury. Then, from a position of spiritual openness, we will employ inherited musical treasures not for their own sake, but precisely because they correspond to the nature of the reformed liturgy in exemplary fashion. Music of the past will be employed precisely because it glorifies God and sanctifies the faithful, fosters festivity, enhances kerygmatic proclamation, strengthens bonds of community, promotes participation, and fosters cultural and artistic goods.

The exuberant joy of a Mozart Mass movement; the soaring beauty of a Proulx choral anthem; the challenging intensity of a Messiaen organ piece; the dynamic serenity of a Gregorian chant proper; the rugged simplicity of an early American hymn tune; treasures such as these sound the depths of the reformed liturgy and sound the wide range of affects of believers standing before God. Our celebration of the reformed liturgy would be impoverished, were we not open to such treasures. Indeed the reformed liturgy invites us to employ such treasures, even when they seem to stretch the parameters of the reformed liturgy [Sacred Music and Liturgical Reform: Treasures and Transformations, page 609].

Advancement in liturgical music practice in the 21st century lies in cultivating a moderate position, well between the two extremes. We must stay faithful to the Church and her leaders and documents, and enlighten those on the fringes about the propriety of living within the embrace of Holy Mother Church. Then will our musical worship be rightly founded in the ways of Our Lord himself.

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