Growth or Revolution?

Author: Fr. Robert Skeris

SACRED MUSIC Volume 118, Number 4, Winter 1991

GROWTH OR REVOLUTION? Monsignor Richard J. Schuler

Contrary to what many may think and many may have hoped, the liturgical reforms of the Second Vatican Council were not a revolution. Indeed, far from being a sudden explosion of new ideas, the decrees of the council were rather the keystone that crowned the developments of the previous sixty years, beginning with the "motu proprio" of Pope St. Pius X, "Tra le sollecitudini" of 1903. The events that preceded the "motu proprio" stretched back into the nineteenth century being rooted in the romantic movement, the revival of monasticism, the rediscovery of Gregorian chant and the Caecilian reform of church music.

It is true that the council emphasized two actions which were to be fostered and promoted: the use of the vernacular languages and the active participation of the people in the liturgy. But neither of these practices was suddenly introduced by the council. The vernacular was permitted to a larger degree, and the active role of the laity was expanded, but both had been frequently promoted and even urged by official papal documents long before the meeting of the Second Vatican Council.

The Church does not move in revolutionary leaps. Since it is a living organism it grows, and the wisdom of the Church directs its development with a sound plan and great foresight. The goal is clear and the means are prudently supplied. So too in the regulation of its liturgical life, which is the life of Christ Himself, who is the Head of His Body, as He continues to live in this world until the end of time. The regulation of the liturgy is under the close and direct control of the Church.

The twentieth century has seen a great interest on the part of the sovereign pontiffs in the liturgy, and the Second Vatican Council gave greater attention to the liturgy and sacred music than any other ecumenical council in the entire history of the Church. It was Pius X who set in motion the entire liturgical development of this century when he turned his attention to the reform of sacred music in 1903 with the restoration of chant and sacred polyphony, calling for music to do its part in promoting the sacredness of divine worship. His successors, Pope Pius XI and Pope Pius XII, vigorously fostered the activity begun by Pius X.

Not least among the works left us by Pius XII is his great Christmas encyclical of 1955, a kind of present to the musicians of the world on a feast that has always been so greatly associated with and adorned by sacred music. "Musicae sacrae disciplina" was a surprise when it was published, but what it taught was not. Like all encyclical letters, the method of writing is based on establishing the foundation in history upon which the points of the contemporary letter are built. The writer is at pains to show that what he is teaching rests securely on the writings of his predecessors. Pius XII mentions the sacred scriptures, the fathers and doctors of the Church, the writings of his predecessors, and then builds on what has been consistently written and preached from the beginning of the Church. The ideas of the constitution on the sacred liturgy of the II Vatican Council, especially those in the sixth chapter on sacred music, rest soundly on the encyclical of Pius XII.

The men who prepared "Musicae sacrae disciplina," not least among them Monsignor Iginio Angles, rector of the Pontifical Institute of Sacred Music in Rome, were the same men who prepared the documents on music for the council. They knew well the direction that the Church was moving in its liturgical revival, and in writing the sections on music in the constitution on the sacred liturgy, they put forth the ordered and logical developments that would crown the work of Pius X, Pius XI and Pius XII.

For a clear understanding of the decrees of the council it is necessary to read the minutes of the various meetings of the music committee as well as the discussions of the fathers of the council, both in the smaller assemblies and in the plenary sessions in Saint Peter's. Beyond the few paragraphs we have that make up the sixth chapter of the constitution lies a wealth of discussion and debate, explanation and clarification, that the fathers and the members of the committees have left as part of the documents of the council. All of it is preserved, and the scholars of the future, who may be perplexed at the reasons for the failure of the liturgical renewal, especially in the United States, must consult those documents and discover that what was called for by the fathers of the council was never implemented in this country, because those who seized control of the various offices and committees organized to put the council into effect in this country went their own way and disregarded the directives of the fathers.

Even without consulting this supporting documentation, one can conclude from simple common sense that what has happened in this country is not what the Church has wished or ordered. We need only look at the typical American parish church with its secular music (folk, western, ballads, country), its instrumental combos imitating dance and entertainment groups, its lack of reverence, its priests who know not a note of chant or a word of Latin (when the council ordered both to be fostered and used). What has happened to the faith of our people? The liturgy is to be the primary source of holiness, according to Pius X. But it has become the chief reason why so many have turned away from an active practice of their faith, even perhaps losing their faith entirely.

But most of this rejection of the council's decrees, which were built on the gradual development fostered under many popes, is fast being discovered for what it is: disobedience to the Church's highest authority, the pope and the bishops in ecumenical council. We are awaking to the fact that we have lost ground, not moved along in the renewal of the liturgical life of the Church. We are in worse condition now than when the council opened in 1963. But a new generation is arising, anxious to live the Christian life that the liturgy is to foster. They are rejecting the ideas and the unfortunate practices of the sixties. Frankly, most of them are bored by the ceremonies and music that are supposed to attract them. Today's liturgists and composers have not had a new idea since the sixties. But now, a great desire to implement the council's wishes has arisen, especially among young priests, who in spite of their lack of true preparation in our seminaries, have developed an interest in the true liturgical demands of the council. They are asking why they have been cheated by those whose duty it is to instruct them in the wishes of the Church, particularly in conciliar decrees. They have been deprived of the the opportunity to learn about the highest directives that will be the beacon light for the progress of the Church through the next century. They want the truth, not the whims and opinions of liturgists.

So there is hope that the liturgical renewal seen by the popes and expressed by the council will eventually blossom. When the present generation of composers, guitar players, combos, seminary music teachers and diocesan music commissions passes away, the truth will finally be discovered and implemented. We will have passed by the revolution and left it behind and returned to a logical and gradual growth as begun in the nineteenth century, ordered by the various popes, and crowned by the Vatican Council.