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Letter on Sacred Music in the Liturgy

to the parishioners of
Saint Elizabeth Ann Seton Catholic Church
Lake Ridge, Virginia

Fr. David Meng, Pastor
Fr. James Searby, Parochial Vicar
Mr. Jonathan P. Laird, Organist and Choirmaster

This letter was written to promote a renewal in the area of sacred music, during which the Parish of Saint Elizabeth Ann Seton (Lake Ridge VA) hopes to recover the authentic treasury of sacred music which the Church has jealously guarded: the venerable medieval chant, particularly Gregorian; the sacred polyphony of the Renaissance and its descendants through the centuries; a stable repertoire of Latin and English hymnody "rich in theological content"; those newer compositions by composers "profoundly steeped in the sensus Ecclesia" (Pope John Paul II).

The parish had relied almost exclusively on Glory & Praise for thirty years; now, recognizing the value of quality sacred music and submitting to the authentic leadership of the Popes and the Vatican, this letter offers a solid theological foundation for this sacred music renewal.

It is reprinted with the kind permission of Mr. Jon P. Laird, Organist and Choirmaster at Saint Elizabeth Ann Seton Catholic Church.

September 3, 2010
The Memorial of Saint Gregory the Great, pope and doctor of the Church

Let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts,
to which indeed you were called in the one body. And be thankful.
Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly,
as you teach and admonish one another in all wisdom,
and as you sing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs with thankfulness in your hearts to God.
And whatever you do, in word or deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus,
giving thanks to God the Father through him.1

Dear friends in Christ,

It gives us great joy to announce and present an exciting new program of Sacred Music for our parish. Undoubtedly you have noticed and wondered about the recent changes in the music for Mass. Several of you have expressed enthusiasm toward this music; others at times have expressed frustration about the unfamiliarity of the music. Several weeks ago, in a bulletin letter, we articulated the two primary concerns of our music ministry, which we received from Pope Saint Pius X:

Sacred music, being a complementary part of the sfslemn Liturgy, participates in the general scope of the Liturgy, which is the glory of God and the sanctification and edification of the faithful.2

We ask for your joyful patience and prayers as we go through a period of renewal with regard to sacred music. Know that we take each step with the above concerns in mind, as part of a continuous effort to move toward the sacred mysteries of the Mass with greater devotion and love. Where we are now is not the same as where we are going. In this pastoral letter we hope to address all questions about why certain changes must take place and what those changes will look like.

Part of this letter is a critique of certain kinds of music as they are used in the Liturgy. We do not wish to offer a subjective opinion about such music, nor do we cast judgment upon those who are attached to such music, which has its own merits outside the Liturgy. We offer this letter as an explanation of how we can apply the Church's music guidance to our parish and as an invitation to join us in our ongoing renewal.

I. Introduction

Before proceeding with the rationale for changes, we must establish some essential principles: the necessity for renewal, the attitude we must bring to that renewal, and the nature of liturgical participation.


The nature of the Christian Church involves many levels of constant renewal, both personal and ecclesial, i.e., for each individual Christian and for the community as a whole.

And he who sat upon the throne said, "Behold, I make all things new." 3

Therefore, if any one is in Christ, he is a new creation; the old has passed away, behold, the new has come.4

Now he has promised, "yet once more I will shake not only the earth but also the heaven." This phrase, "yet once more, indicates the removal of what is shaken, as of what has been made, in order that what cannot be shaken may remain. Therefore let us be grateful for receiving a kingdom that cannot be shaken, and thus let us offer to God acceptable worship, with reverence and awe; for our God is a consuming fire.5

The history of the Liturgy is constantly growing into an ever new Now, and it must also repeatedly prune back a Present which has become the Past, so that what is essential can re-appear with new vigor. The Liturgy needs growth and development as well as purgation and refining and in both cases needs to preserve its identity and that purpose without which it would lose the very reason for its existence. And if that is really the case, then the alternative between "traditionalists" and "reformers" is woefully inadequate to the situation. He who believes that he can only choose between Old and New, has already traveled a good way along a dead-end street.6

So renewal for us involves "shaking away" or "pruning" what obscures the unshakable mysteries, revealing to us these mysteries in their shining splendor, and doing so with "new vigor." It can be difficult, however, to deal with the removal of those things that obscure if we have built up an attachment to them rather than to the mysteries that lie beneath.

Liturgical norms

Sacred music is an unnecessarily controversial subject. We say "unnecessarily" because many people tend to bring their personalities and preferences to the table in a way that obscures the goals articulated above. When we approach the Liturgy, we surrender our own wants and desires and preferences, any selfishness, and manifest that we are one body, not a collection of individuals. "You are not your own," Saint Paul reminds us.7 And Pope John Paul II admonishes us in these words:

Liturgy is never anyone's private property, be it of the celebrant or of the community in which the mysteries are celebrated. The Apostle Paul had to address fiery words to the community of Corinth because of grave shortcomings in their celebration of the Eucharist resulting in divisions and the emergence of factions.8 Our time too calls for a renewed awareness and appreciation of liturgical norms as a reflection of, and a witness to, the one universal Church made present in every celebration of the Eucharist. Priests who faithfully celebrate Mass according to the liturgical norms, and communities which conform to those norms, quietly but eloquently demonstrate their love for the Church.9

Therefore the measure of liturgical appropriateness for sacred music should be not our personal preferences but the liturgical norms of the Church. For an authentic renewal, we cannot retain personal attachments to things that should be "shaken away," or else we continue to obscure the mysteries by holding them captive to our selfishness. As we continue to study the liturgical documents as guides to our renewal, they become the "pruning shears" that we use to reveal the underlying beauty of the Liturgy.

Active participation

Earlier the bulletin column on sacred music addressed the concept of active participation. Let us revisit the highlights of that short article.

The person to coin this phrase was Pope Saint Pius X, whom many consider to be the father of the modern liturgical reform. In 1903, he referred to "active participation in the most holy mysteries and in the public and solemn prayer of the Church."10 Ever since, every church document or commentary on Liturgy has used this phrase, pointing to it as the "aim to be considered before all else, for it is the primary and indispensable source from which the faithful are to derive the true Christian spirit."11 When acclamations, gestures, and singing are integrated into the Liturgy, they can reinforce the faith within our hearts.

Many people understand active participation to mean that everyone should always be "doing something,"engaging in as much outward activity as possible. The Church, however, teaches us about the essential internal nature of active participation — in fact, even reverent silence is considered active participation!12 As the US Bishops have recently told us, "The assembly participates actively as they unite themselves interiorly to what the ministers or choir sing, so that by listening to them they may raise their minds to God."13 This is what we should strive to do, for instance, as the cantor sings the verses of the Responsorial Psalm or as the choir sings an anthem of praise after communion.

This is not meant to imply that there is anything wrong with congregational singing, which, on the contrary, is the "primary liturgical song."14 Nevertheless, Pope John Paul II challenged us to develop our interior meditation: "In a culture which neither favors nor fosters meditative quiet, the art of interior listening is learned only with difficulty. Here we see how the Liturgy, though it must always be properly inculturated, must also be counter-cultural."15

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Part 2: The Need for Renewal

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