Liturgical Music and the Restoration of the Sacred II
Rev. Robert A. Skeris
During the week preceding the feast of Saints Peter and Paul,
Christendom College, in collaboration with the Church Music
Association of America, sponsors annually a Liturgical Music
Colloquium which brings together conductors, composers, pastors
and organists from all over the country. This piece was the
keynote address of last year's Colloquium, as delivered on 25 June
There are men and there are things; there are persons and there
are objects. There are also principalities and powers, there are
thrones and dominations. Theologians and moralists are familiar
with virtues and vices; philosophers know qualities and modes of
being. But what is What does "sacred" mean?
A recent response claims that "liturgical theology" knows
liturgical art to be "appropriate only to the degree that it
functions in support of sacred liturgical signs" (meaning, in the
case of liturgical music, the "communitarian sign" of the liturgy,
i.e. "our oneness in the Lord"). A practical conclusion is drawn
from this postulate: "Sacred music should only sustain the
continuity of the voices during worship." If it does not do so,
it is "inappropriate to the liturgy and is then not sacred." In a
manner which evokes faded memories of the old Society of St.
Gregory and its "lists" white and black, proponents of this view
pinpoint a lack of analysis as the reason why the standards for
judging music to be sacred "are only restrictive," and hence not
useful as guides: "they help you selectively eliminate songs but
do not show which to include."1
It is always helpful to begin formulating a reply on the basis of
concrete facts, of phaenomena, of what presents itself to our
senses. Let us therefore try to "approach the things themselves"
as they are given, and examine the way they constitute themselves
in the consciousness and intentions of the perceiver.
_ Rome, Piazza della Rotonda, 1973. The church of Sta. Maria
Rotonda, popularly known as the Pantheon. Seeking temporary
respite from the glare of the midday sun, people wander in and
out, deep in conversation but filled with curiosity. Not a few
continue to smoke their cigarettes to the end, or to light up a
new one. And when one of them is told: Please, no smoking here.
We are in a church! He replies in amazement, Why is this a
church? (The architectural form alone is, of course, not enough
to answer the question convincingly.) And then, after a moment's
pause, the final question: Even if it were a real church _ why
_ Treptow, a suburb of East Berlin, 1981. We are all admonished
to extinguish our smoking materials at the entrance to the huge
memorial park dedicated to the fallen soldiers of the Red Army.
_ Israel, very recently, and very discreetly but quite firmly:
the same thing happens again. In the hotel restaurant, as
American tourists at the next table take out their after-dinner
cigarettes: No smoking, please! But why not? Here and now, of
course, not for the sake of the but because of the :
it is Friday evening, the Sabbath has begun. . . .
In none of these cases does purposefulness or prevention play a
part, as it would in a college lecture room or a hospital
operating theatre. The danger of fire is not a factor in these
examples, as it is during an airliner landing or take-off. These
instances, finally, do not contain a general rejection of smoking,
as though it were something to be forbidden in principle.
But in Rome, in Berlin and in Tel Aviv there a common
factor, namely the circumstance that in each case a limit or
frontier was to be made evident and recalled to mind _ a boundary
line which distinguishes and separates a special place and a non-
ordinary period of time from the arbitrary, run-of-the-mill
"Somewhere" or "Anytime."
From everyone who crosses the threshold into this "other" area
there is expected a type of behaviour which differs from his
otherwise normal conduct.2 Whoever enters a mosque or the walled
enclosure of an Indian temple, must remove his shoes. And in the
case of the Indian temple the limitations can be so strict that
the non-Hindu will be forbidden to enter the innermost sanctuary.
In Christian churches, gentlemen remove their hats, as they do
before an open grave, or when the national anthem is sung. By
contrast, the believing Jew his head, not only in the
synagogue but wherever he prays. (If you go to visit the grave of
Moses Maimonides at Tiberias and do not wear a cap or a hat, the
custodian will deny you entrance.)
In cultic areas, in spaces reserved for worship, it is above all
silence which prevails; loud calls and laughter at any rate are
considered reprehensible. Tourists are denied entrance to the
great basilicas of Rome if they are clothed in an all too
unconcerned fashion. And at such temples one is accustomed to
regard with mistrust the instruments of public curiosity:
photography is forbidden, at least during divine services in many
Christian churches. And the same is true in the temples of
orthodox Hinduism. The Pueblo Indians of New Mexico are offended
when camera-carrying tourists even approach the entrance to their
underground cultic chambers.
Now, if a stranger, an outsider, a non-initiate were to ask what
all these curious and often difficult rules of conduct were
supposed to mean, he would probably hear, in spite of all the
concrete differences in detail, the same basic answer in each
case: the meaning of all this is simply to attest and express
reverence and respect. Reverence for what? For something _ in
any event _ which demands and deserves respect and veneration.
And when we try to specify more precisely the exact nature of that
which is worthy of veneration, then we encounter the difficulty of
reducing the various replies to a common denominator. But the
answers would nonetheless converge on a common indication of
something which is (or should be) in some sense "sacred" to men,
whether that be the "grim majesty of death," or the dignity of the
fatherland, or the honour of fallen war heroes _ or indeed the
especially concentrated presence of the Divine _ in fact of God
The conviction common to all of these replies is the existence,
within the world as man experiences it within the boundaries of
time and space, of certain pre-eminent places and periods of time
which plainly stand forth above and beyond the level of everyday
normality because they are of a special and exceptional dignity.
The selective de-limitatio of something exceptionally worthy of
veneration is the clear and original meaning of the apposite
vocabulary still in use today. , for instance, the Greek
word for "sacred," implies opposition to (the "average,"
common, usual). And the piece of ground belonging to the gods,
upon which the altar or the temple is built, is termed , that which has been cut off or "carved out" of the total
property which otherwise belongs to the community. In Latin the
verb (the root of "sanctus" = sacred, holy) means to
limit, circumscribe, draw a boundary around: for the ancient
Romans, the term /sanction originally denoted the de-
limitation of sacred places and their protection against
transgression and profane contact.
Contemporary vernacular usage is of a piece with the classical
roots. Sacre is that which belongs to an ; the OED says that one of the meanings of "sacred" is _
"set apart." The term "sacred," then, refers to a special
or which rises above the continuum of
everyday normality, which is precisely "ab-normal" and clearly
marked off as distinct from the usual, the customary, the normal.
And such dignity quite rightly demands from men special forms of
respect . . . simply because certain empirically ascertainable
objects, spaces, times and actions possess the special
characteristic of being ordered to the divine level or sphere in a
manner which exceeds the normal and the average. And it is on the
basis of this exceptional ordination to the supra-human level, of
this precisely uncommon and exceptional "fulness" or concentration
of the divine Presence that we can comprehend the boundary or
limit which divides and separates that which is "sacred" in this
sense, from the "pro-fane." "Profane" simply means that which is
precisely "un-exceptional," which belongs to the realm of the
normal, the average, the everyday; "profane" does not necessarily
mean "unholy" (even though the specifically "Un-Holy" does in fact
exist, representing the acme of "profanity"). Thus we can say
with a certain justification that bread is "holy" (because
created by God, nourishment of human life) or that piece
of earth is "consecrated ground," and so forth. Expressions such
as these do not call into question the existence of a completely
unique kind of "holy bread" or of "consecrated ground" in a
literally incomparable sense of that word. And so we can agree
with the sentence of Aquinas, confirmed by ethnology and the
philosophy of religion as well as the theological interpretation
of testaments Old and New: something is sacred () on the
strength of its ordination toward cultic worship, 3
The available evidence, when analysed, allows us to conclude that
if a special presence of the Divine is to be found anywhere in
man's historical world, it is to be found in its most concentrated
form in a sacred ritual , and because of their
relationship to this sacred , persons, places, times and
objects are also called "sacred."4
But what is an It is simply the
accomplishment of an action, a rite, performed by a community in a
non-ordinary way.5 Let us be very precise: we are speaking here
of the celebration of the Eucharistic mysteries during which there
occurs the Exceptional , the uncommon and
extraordinary in the absolute sense of those words _ God's
physical presence among men under the forms of bread and wine.
The meaning of this divine Presence for man is precisely _
to be enraptured, carried up and away beyond the Here and Now.6
And nothing could be more obvious to a man of faith than to act
"differently" within such a circumscribed context, "differently"
than he acts otherwise, on the tennis courts, for instance, or at
the supermarket. One speaks a language which is obviously human
but yet "different;" "special," somehow, in delivery, in style, in
diction and grammar, in vocabulary.
What then of the which forms an integral part of
this ? What must its distinctive
characteristics be? Will it sound, for example, like ordinary,
everyday pop music to which more or less "pious" texts have been
joined? Will it sound like common, everyday entertainment music?
like a more or less inconspicuous background accompaniment for
toothpaste commercials? Romano Guardini has reminded us that the
foundation of any liturgical formation or education is the ancient
truth that the soul in-forms the body: 7
Comprehension of this truth is the key which unlocks the world of
the Sacred, for it enables us to grasp what is meant by a symbol.
It is not necessary to be a Christian in order to understand what
is meant by a "sign"; but he who does not know what a "sign" is,
cannot comprehend a sacrament.
Is it rash to ask whether one of the reasons for the decline of
the Sacred is the fact that the Christian "sacred myth" (i.e. the
Gospels) is being weakened, doubted and attacked? For a long
time, we have been told that the evidence of the New Testament
must be reconsidered in light of the new "historical sense."
Indeed, the evidential value of the Bible as a whole is to be
examined anew, it is claimed, "in light of that analytical
criticism which has no parallel for acuteness of investigation,
carefulness of method, and completeness of apparatus, since the
days of our blessed Lord's life on earth" (Ch. Gore). Now, if
this fresh study results in disbelief in the "sacred tale," it
follows that the Christian "sacred object" will no longer seem so,
and that the God-Man Jesus Christ is neither mediator nor object
of the . And when the believer is no longer conscious of
a connexion between the human world and a higher realm, where
everything refers to everything else and many levels are
interrelated in a meaningful way which links man's microcosm to
the macrocosm of the Transcendent, then it should come as no
surprise if in a desacralised world, the abandoned altars
eventually become the dwelling of demons (E. Jünger).
The analysis can be taken a step further. When the divinity of
Jesus Christ was denied by rationalist critics, it did not take
long for the Eucharist to come under fire. In 1891 Ad. Harnack
announced that at the Last Supper the Saviour was primarily
interested in the meal itself: it was the meal that Jesus
blessed, and in so doing He taught His followers to sanctify the
most important act of physical life. He also promised to be with
them in future, at every meal which they would henceforth share in
remembrance of Him.8 Thus Harnack a century ago.
And so it seems like old whine in New Age wine skins when tired
voices, re-echoing the past, continue to entice the unsuspecting
down the same sorry path which leads from the main line to the old
line to the sideline. Thus the authors of a recent and widely
hailed catechism explicitly call upon the Church to abandon the
term "sacrifice" as a specification of the content of the
Eucharistic celebration. In its place, the aspect of "meal" or
"banquet" is to be emphasised. "The determining structure is that
of the meal." The Eucharistic Sacrifice is thus to be understood
as a meal: "In the Eucharist the memory of Christ's suffering is
celebrated in the form of a meal. . . . It is the basic form of
the Eucharistic sacrifice" (Schmaus).
Divergence of views regarding the relation between the dogmatic
and liturgical levels of the question has quite rightly been
called the "central problem" of the (J. Ratzinger). Why has Christian art always pictured
the Last Supper as a tragic event and not a joyous repast? Is it
not true that "sacrifice" and "meal" are two concepts which cannot
be equated with each other? Are they not in fact essentially (and
not just externally) contrary human psychological processes?
The essence of a is the freedom of total giving made
possible through self-denial: (Is
53:7). Every sacrifice, including Holy Mass insofar as it is
identical with the sacrifice of Calvary, necessarily implies
and consequently as a necessary pre-
condition of any merit, hence also logically presupposing
or self-denial as the necessary condition of freedom.
In other words, meritoriousness is the necessary consequence,
freedom an essential element, and suffering or self-denial the
necessary pre-supposition of sacrifice. No sacrifice is possible
without suffering or self-denial, hence no Sacrifice of the Mass
without the sacramental re-presentation of suffering. And
precisely here lies the fundamental contradiction between
sacrifice and meal: in the participants, they imply _ nay,
require! _ psychological states of mind which are mutually
It would mean delivering dogs to Bautzen if one were to attempt to
explain the role of a meal as source of joy in Holy Writ. Suffice
it to recall the fact that in the preaching of Jesus, the banquet
or meal is a preferred symbol for the joys and glories of Heaven.
There is in fact an inseparable link between meal and joy, between
eating and enjoyment, between and
9 There is no meal or banquet without enjoyment,
without a of the senses.
Some therefore claim that since the Eucharist is a memorial not
only of the Saviour's death but also of His Resurrection, it makes
us share in the triumphant life of the Risen Lord and hence
implies an atmosphere of joy. But it is quite clear that the
"memorial" concentrates primarily and directly on the Last Supper
and on the Passion, of which the Eucharist is one moment.10
The Sacrament of the Eucharist is received and eaten because food
and drink better symbolise the specific effects of the grace of
this Sacrament. The Eucharist is both sacrifice (insofar as it is
offered) and sacrament (insofar as it is received).11 The Church
offers up the Mass, for it is a sacrifice; but Holy Communion is a
food, a gift, a privilege, something not offered but enjoyed. The
real distinction between Sacrifice and Sacrament is to be sought
in the contrary aspects of suffering and joy, though in a
sacrifice, suffering plays a different role than does joy in the
case of a meal. Suffering is a necessary of the
sacrifice, whereas joy is a necessary of a meal. To
summarise: a meal cannot be a sacrifice, and a
sacrifice cannot be a meal. To represent one "in
the form of" the other is to present a tragedy "in the form of" a
comedy, or to depict a circle "in the form of" a square. In
liturgico-musical terms: if Holy Mass is indeed a sacrifice, an
then one of its integral and
necessary parts will be a music which is also sacra. But if a
fraternal meal is actually being celebrated, then very different
music will be appropriate . . . a "polka Mass," for instance.
During the visit of the Brazilian bishops of Pastoral
region Sul-I, on 20 March 1990, Pope John Paul II made these
Legitimate and necessary concern for current realities in the
concrete lives of people cannot make us forget It is clear that the Mass is not the
time to "celebrate" human dignity or purely terrestrial claims or
hopes. It is rather the which renders Christ really
present in the
This concise statement of Catholic belief really requires no
further comment. The competent Kapellmeister, who in recent
decades has often enough felt the lashes of Rehoboam, need only
draw the logical conclusions in his daily liturgico-musical
practise. . . .
But this, you say, is one step removed from reality. If that be
so in truth, then it may be that all of us must steel ourselves to
persevere among the "sole retrievers of an ancient prudence."
Those whose names are writ large, in golden letters, in the
Calendar of Saints of the new age, in fact resemble nothing more
closely than the tired knight who sees a recognition of his steed
and a guarantee of his own knightly existence in the fact that
modern technologies of energy are still often measured in . . .
It is understandable that today, both the competent Kapellmeister
and the legitimate liturgist often feel like Benito Cereno, like
one who finds himself, according to Herman Melville's late
novella, in the situation of that unlucky captain whom the
guileless and the good-natured assume to be the master of a pirate
vessel. In reality, however, Benito Cereno was a hostage in
danger of death; his veiled hints and discreet indications were
not understood by his well-meaning visitor, who was instead
strengthened in his mistrust. Has Benito Cereno perhaps become in
fact a symbol for the situation of many a man in the midst of an
ruled by increasingly neoteric
tendencies and antilatreutic orientations?
It behooves us to work while the light lasts, so that the
will not have to cross the threshold of the Third
Millennium with empty hands and ears ringing to the faint echoes
of the ancient laughter of Gelimer, King of the Vandals. Let us
therefore continue to do the best things in the worst times, and
to hope them in the most calamitous. In the world ye shall
have tribulation, but be of good cheer: I have overcome the world
1 R. Dobbs, letter to the Editor of Homiletic & Pastoral Review
92/9 (June 1992) 3.
2 J. Pieper, "Entsakralisierung?" (Zürich 1970) 7/32. The
succeeding paragraphs are indebted to Pieper's analysis.
3 Sum. Theol. II-IIae q. 99 a. 1.
4 Ordo Missae, editio typica: Institutio Generalis Missalis
Romani (Cittá del Vaticano 1969) 60, #256 = sacras aedes; 62 #260
= locum sacrum; 65 #280 = sacras actiones; 67 #289 = vasa sacra;
68 #297 = cultu sacro, sacrae vestes, etc. See also Sacrosanctum
Concilium art. 7 (actio praecellenter sacra).
5 See B. Droste, "Celebrare" in the Language of the Roman Liturgy
(München 1963) 196.
6 See e.g. the Christmas Preface ("in invisibilium amorem
rapiamur") which anciently served as the Preface
of the Blessed Sacrament.
7 See R. Guardini, Der Kultakt und die gegenwartige Aufgabe der
Liturgie: Liturgie und liturgische Bildung (Würzburg 1966) 38 f.
8 A. Harnack, Brod und Wasser: die eucharistische Elemente bei
Justin (Leipzig 1891). See the discussion of this and other
theories by A. Piolanti (tr. L. Penzo), The Holy Eucharist (New
York 1961) 17/22, 97/8 on the erroneous view that sacrifice is
only a meal taken in common by a group of men for the purpose of
strengthening their social and religious bonds. In fact, "the
Eucharistic table sunders man from sin and draws him close to God
by sanctifying _ which is to say by _ him."
9 Sum. Theol. II-IIae q. 141 a. 5.
10 Thus R. Amerio, Iota unum. Studio delle variazioni della Chiesa
cattolica nel secolo XX (Milano 1986) 502 and note 11.
11 Sum. Theol. III q. 79 a. 5.
Rev. Robert A. Skeris is a priest of the Archdiocese of Milwaukee
who took his Dr.theol. degree from the University of Bonn,
Germany. Author of three books on the theology of worship and of
its music, he presently serves as Chairman of the Theology
Department at Christendom College.
This article was taken from the Fall 1992 issue of "Faith &
Reason". Subscriptions available from Christendom Press, 2101
Shenandoah Shores Road, Ft. Royal, VA 22630, 703-636-2900, Fax
703-636-1655. Published quarterly at $20.00 per year.
Copyright (c) 1996 EWTN