Author: John T. Zuhlsdorf

SACRED MUSIC Volume 117, Number 2, Summer 1990


"Se vogliamo che tutto rimanga come e, bisogna che tutto cambi. Mi sono spiegato?" (If we want things to stay as they are, things will have to change. Get it?) Quoted from "The Leopard" by Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa.

Ascending the few deep stairs from the Corso Vittorio Emanuele one passes through wooden doors that shut out the noise of the Roman traffic and enters the grand Church of S. Andrea della Valle. Its vast nave and ceiling far overhead, many side altars used by generations of Teatini who hold the church, tease forth numberless associations: Act One of "Tosca" with its promise of blood and passion; the brutal baron singing in counterpoint with the "Te Deum;" the sheer magnificence of a true renaissance humanist such as is embodied in the figure of Pope Pius II, Aeneas Silvius Piccolomini di Corsignano, entombed across the nave from his relative, Pius III; the cupola, second only in height and size at Rome to Saint Peter's, lifting one's eyes as if to the hope of paradise which it depicts. Passing through the right transept and into a little chapel near the sanctuary, one's eyes are struck by the sight of a real saint, dressed in the blazing "porpora sacra" of a prince of the Church, a cardinal. S. Giuseppe Maria Tomasi, C.R., scion of the princes of Lampedusa, a noble family of Sicily, entered the Teatini in Palermo. He was brilliant in modern and classical languages, learning even Hebrew and Siriac. He published books on scripture and theology. But he is particularly well known for his contribution to liturgy, and for that he has been called "prince of Roman liturgists" and a true forerunner of the Second Vatican Council. His Holiness, John Paul II, solemnly proclaimed him a saint on October 12, 1986, and his feast is celebrated on January 3. He died in Rome in 1713.

The connection? The author of the quote at the beginning of this reflection was also a Giuseppe Tomasi, Duke of Palma and Prince of Lampedusa. This one was born in 1896 in Palermo and died in Rome in 1957, 243 years after his sainted ancestor. "Il Gattopardo" or "The Leopard" was published after the death of its author and treats of the decline of the old ways and the adjustment to the new ways of the world during the turbulent years of Garibaldi and the fall of the House of Bourbon from the experience of his own imperiled and declining family.

In the book, the prince, the Leopard, "watched the ruin of his own class without ever making, still less wanting to make, any move towards saving it." He knew the effort would be futile and that the end was near. However, almost as if by accident the choices he makes somehow assure a continuation of his family, if only for awhile. The quote at the beginning of this essay is an ironic statement made by the Leopard's nephew Tancredi early in the book. It aptly summarizes the younger and newer approach to the onslaught of uncontrollable circumstances. Tancredi, a man of action in contrast to the prince's older style of patient aristocratic endurance, says: "If we want things to stay as they are, things will have to change."

Years ago I wrote in "Sacred Music" a two-part personal reflection from the perspective of a convert from the Lutheran confession about the impact of the Latin liturgy and its music on my life. They drew me with gentle and almost intoxicating tenderness into the arms of the Church, which I entered with great zeal and not a little naivete. Some years later, and a great many bumps, bruises and lessons along the way, an update is due. I write now from a new perspective as well. My place of residence is now Rome and I am a deacon, soon to be ordained a priest.

But arriving at this point has not been easy, and the struggles have slowly shaped and formed me. I now have come to hold ideals and goals regarding music and the liturgy not previously expected, though it can be said that they are genuine outgrowths of those intitial roots set down at the Church of Saint Agnes in Saint Paul, Minnesota. To understand this point, however, and what is meant by the odd quote at the top, starting near the beginning and then looking forward is almost unavoidable.

It was during my instruction and conversion that I had been encouraged to involve myself in all kinds of parish activities, the most important of which was singing in the polyphonic and Gregorian chant choirs. From Mozart and Haydn, the baroque architecture of the church, the vestments and changing seasons, it became clear how so many different elements participate in the creation of a whole, carrying astonishing impact on the receptive person who merely permits them to enter. But nothing approached the impact of Gregorian chant, learned from Paul LeVoir and the men of the schola cantorum. In short, with an entrance into the Church, not only a new faith was gained, but a new culture built through the centuries. Knit so closely together with the faith itself, by its very reception the heritage became my own as well. To paraphrase Newton, my discoveries were made while standing on the shoulders of giants.

Simultaneously with this experience of the Church through the liturgy, my pastor encouraged me to read and study everything that could be absorbed. Monsignor offered catechisms from different periods and styles, works by spiritual writers, historical fiction, the writings of Carol Woytyla as well as his teachings as pope, and the documents of the Second Vatican Council (not to mention an invitation to subscribe to "Sacred Music"). It was electrifying. At my reception into the Church I was armed with not only the aforementioned zeal and naivete, but also a certain grasp of what the council had taught. I had at least read the documents.

But no sooner had I entered the door of God's house, taken off my coat and hat and started to settle into this new home, when to my horror it became apparent that the landlords and other tenants were not only demolishing the furnishings, they were calling in the wrecking ball.

This is hardly figurative. Before my very eyes, churches and seminary chapels were being mutilated and disfigured, vestments sent to the dumpster and books cast away. The sad face of a discouraged construction worker "reforming" an exquisite inlaid marble floor with a jack-hammer in what was to become a "worship space" will stay with me to my dying day.

But by the time I had come to see that vandalism, it had become obvious that the prevalent attitude toward music in the Church is today--along with Catholic art, education, practice, everything--founded on similar ideals. While trying to get the point of what they were striving to accomplish, this thought came to mind: Now they have to destroy the churches themselves...they are all that remain. It was then that a new ideal developed: Keep what we have and restore it to perfection, thus preserving our treasures, our heritage. If we want something altogether new, let us build new, with a new style. But let it be sacred and let it be art! Let it be worthy of the worship we offer to God. Too often the tunes we hear in churches now are capable of reminding us of nothing but the "mundana," even cheap. How many times had I been forced during liturgy in a shattered chapel to sing the inspiring announcement that the gospel was about to be proclaimed using a melody that could have been transcribed from the Campbell soup jingle: "O the blessed gospel...mmm...mmm...good!" Given the melody, nothing else could possibly come to mind.

Many times I was tempted to give up in frustration. It has been an ongoing temptation to escape from the hurts by abandoning my convictions in one of two avenues: throw off the "restraints" of the ideal that beauty and obedience to the teachings of the Church will bring a new birth to Catholic life, and just do what everyone else seems to say has to be done "in the spirit of the council," or, leave the debate behind and enter some conservative group such as the Priestly Fraternity of Saint Pius X, now sadly in schism, but still preserving some of the things that can be so attractive. These escape routes were seductive...for about three minutes at a time. As my pastor says, "You can go into the ditch on either side of the road!" We have one road, that given by the Church. I am convinced that, contrary to the opinion of many, what one experiences at Saint Agnes is firmly in the center of that road, and, because of its smoothness and ease of travel, it is twenty years in advance of its critics who label it retrograde. From 1981 to 1991, at Saint Agnes, there will have been thirteen First Solemn Masses celebrated by newly ordained priests from the parish. A tree is known by its fruits. The music and liturgy there have been integral in fostering these vocations.

During those initial years at Saint Agnes, I acquired an education in the general state of affairs through travel and exploration of other parishes. Then came the seminary. Suffice to say that it was difficult to harmonize much of what was found there with what I had come to value previously. I had come to understand that the liturgy is the very action of Jesus Christ, continuing in our time in the Church and thus our efforts should reflect His presence and strive to create an experience of the divine and give glory to God. In the liturgical principles employed at the seminary, I found confusion and, for all the openness and pluriformity being acclaimed, a rather narrow approach to how liturgy ought to be. Their ideal seems to have been to create a "truly human experience." My own reactions were shock and, at times, disillusionment and frustration at such a perspective. Conflict resulted which at times reflected real growth and change for the better. At times it revealed little more than symptoms of deeply rooted problems that could not be resolved. For example, there was a painful day when, after suggesting the use of some Latin in the liturgy once a month, I was accused of "just wanting the 50's back."

This is not mentioned out of anger but rather to put in sharper contrast the real foundations on which my Catholic faith had been built. The Catholic Church of the 50's was unknown to me, having started life only in 1959, and as a Lutheran at that. The offerings of a classical education had been absorbed along with the formation given by the liturgy itself, without the intrusions of illicit creativity. But in the seminary the suspicion of Latin, chant, and a certain attention to rubrics still drives some people more powerfully than their goals of pluralism. I fear not a few seminarians have found to their dismay that desire for the aforesaid can easily result in questions about their emotional and pyscho-sexual stability thereby indicating reasons for professional help or "deselection."

It became obvious that a different approach was necessary. Latin and chant just were not grasped. Their driving principles could never allow them. Still, the document from the Congregation for Catholic Education, following on the well-known visitation of seminaries, signed by Cardinal Baum, states that all newly ordained should be able to sing the Mass in Latin and in English. It is not necessary to cite again the pertinent paragraphs in "Sacrosanctum concilium" or the "General Instruction to the Roman Missal" or even the Holy Father's motu proprio, "Ecclesia Dei adflicta."

After Saint Pius V closed the Council of Trent in 1563, there was upheaval and conflict in almost every sphere of Catholic life. This seems to be a recurring pattern after each council: confusion followed by growth and advancement in sacred music, art, architecture, theology. But now the council has been over for some years and we are still in the throes of change. Let me affirm that I believe that a new time of real advancement in church music and architecture will come. Astonishing new possibilities have been given to the people of God by the council fathers in the fields of theology and the law of the Church, which grew out of the same reforms of the council. They reflect a new focus on the person. This is an exciting time to be a member of the Roman Catholic Church. We have so much to look forward to.

The winter issue of "Sacred Music" (Vol. 116, No. 4, p. 9) has a fine illustration of the Church of S. Andrea della Valle with which this reflection began. To the left of the church is the Piazza Vidoni and the facade of the palazzo where the Teatini priests still live. The walls of their home still bear the scratched and carved-in names of the French soldiers of Charles V. One of the "statua parlanti" (talking statues), Abbot Luigi, next to whom people still tack up their quips on Roman life, watches their comings and goings without comment. Some changes in streets have been made since the picture found in "Sacred Music." Now there is a long street that empties into the piazza and opens on the other end next to S. Carlo ai Catenari, the other dome you see in the background of the picture. Between the two stands the palazzo where one finds the "Scuola Puerorum--Cappella Sistina," that historic institution now under the direction of Monsignor Domenico Bartolucci. By sheer coincidence or divine ordinance, I live in the very same building. My life seems inextricably entwined with music.

Every day in Rome I walk past the rehearsal hall of the "Cappella Sistina" and catch their strains (these boys when they are let out of school create a spectacle and chaos that really should be seen to be believed). Saluting Abbot Luigi and continuing in front of S. Andrea, not infrequently I wander inside, listen to the organist practicing, visit the Blessed Sacrament and pay my respects to the two pontiffs and the prince of Roman liturgists. These visits, along with those of scores of other churches in Rome, each more intriguing than the last, have given many opportunities for reflecting on the Church.

Another facet must be mentioned. In this time here in Rome, having also the chance to work with those entrusted with these matters, it has been possible to see at close range the results of the conflict over the changes initiated by the council and how they have been handled by some who wish to return to an earlier period. A growing number of people wish to freeze "the time immemorial Mass...the most beautiful thing this side of heaven" in its 1962 form. Sometimes they do not admit the validity of the reforms, of the "novus ordo missae" of 1970. Naturally, many of these frustrated people were never given the right to participate in the real reforms of the council and were forced to endure illegitimate endeavors. Their travails are well known. However, conflicts have been drawn out and made more complicated, strained by polemics on both sides. An embittered laity accuse their bishops of "disobedience...indifference." Bishops and priests have revealed at times a less than open approach to what the documents from Rome invite and sometimes require. Thus, a vicious cycle has been created and needs to be stopped. We have an incredible freedom available, if we only do what the council and the subsequent documents ask. There will always be some honest differences of interpretation, of course, but it is hoped that the resulting dialogues will be guided by a new vision based on our heritage and directed by the Church through its legitimate and competent authorities.

Why do I write this? There are many times when it has been difficult to see the point of continuing to struggle for the sacred and the artistic in the liturgy, for which so many hunger. I have felt times of alternating exhilaration and despair and that despair has only been relieved by glimpses of hope. The Church is the very person of Jesus Christ, and He will be with us until the end of time. Since the council taught under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, He will guide us in our efforts to bring the conciliar reforms about. As Tancredi says in "The Leopard," if we want things to stay the same, that is, preserve the treasures of our past and the heritage of our Catholic culture and bring in a new and vital expression of the liturgy, things will have to change.

We will need to add our prayers as well, both to heal many wounds as well as to thank God for what we have accomplished already. A new approach is needed, and new hearts too. All we must do is "to do what the council has asked!"