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September 12, 2006


So far I have hardly addressed the specific details of what pieces or types of pieces of music may be used as sacred music; I have only pointed out the two most exemplary types that are cited over and over again by unanimous voices of the popes through the ages and alluded to the fact that other types may be used if they are fitting.  But the point of those seven posts was mainly to establish the fact that there is such a thing as sacred music and that there is a real and not just a nominal difference between it and the ordinary music of the world.  This is something that people often aren't aware of and don't think about in our culture that has largely lost its sense of the sacred.

So how do you tell the difference?  Pope John Paul II says,

With regard to compositions of liturgical music, I make my own the "general rule" that St Pius X formulated in these words:  "The more closely a composition for church approaches in its movement, inspiration and savour the Gregorian melodic form, the more sacred and liturgical it becomes; and the more out of harmony it is with that supreme model, the less worthy it is of the temple". It is not, of course, a question of imitating Gregorian chant but rather of ensuring that new compositions are imbued with the same spirit that inspired and little by little came to shape it. Only an artist who is profoundly steeped in the sensus Ecclesiae can attempt to perceive and express in melody the truth of the Mystery that is celebrated in the Liturgy. (Chirograph on sacred music, 2003)

To my way of thinking, the Church would be entirely within her rights were she to require that only Gregorian chant be used in the liturgy, to ensure that no wrong music is used.  But in fact the Church is willing to accept into her treasury of sacred music even the most modern music, provided that the music is imbued with the spirit of the sacred liturgy.  But the difficulty with being this generous is that people say "Oh, we can use other types of music.  Well, in that case, let's just do whatever we like!" so that the end result is as though there were no principle or rule whatsoever.

It's one of those things, I think, where within certain bounds which exist for a good reason, there's room for a certain variety of opinions, and for prudential judgment.  But that means discernment, not just justifying whatever one already wants.  Thinking in kind of science-y terms, in one post I spoke of a "permeable barrier" that kept the sacred distinct, but allowed its influence to flow out into the world and allowed some suitable things from the world to pass into sacred use.  In my reading I found Pope Benedict (then Cardinal Ratzinger) using the image of a church, with sacred music inside and profane music outside, but with popular religious music as a sort of vestibule to the church, which was outside and serves as a sort of preparation for the church, and which could on occasion produce mature fruits which it could pass on to the inside.

If you look at the long-term history of church music and at the Church's efforts to restore sacred music over the last hundred years and more (not at the efforts of self-proclaimed reformers with their own agendas), you must conclude that Gregorian chant is the center of gravity of Catholic sacred music.  Therefore, if you ignore or neglect it, pushing it to the side or out of the picture, even if you technically follow the letter of the law, you will make things be out of balance.  If you have a love and appreciation for chant, you will probably have a good sense of how to judge other candidates for sacred music.  But if you don't think it's worth bothering with, you probably won't.

Posted by Thomas A. on September 12, 2006 at 05:07 PM | Permalink


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