Sacred Music at the Service of Truth

Author: Father Paul Gunter, OSB


Sacred Music at the Service of Truth

Faithful Should Experience Church's Universality at Local Level

By Father Paul Gunter, OSB

ROME, 24 DEC. 2010 (ZENIT)
At the time that St. Augustine wrote "Qui cantat, bis orat" — he who sings prays twice, one could easily recognize how much the character itself of sacred music made it essentially different from a simple group singing or an elegant performance by an expert musician of the secular realm. 

The conviction of the fact that prayer is doubled if sung instead of being recited was not based so much on the merits of human effort, but rather on the need to describe the numinous dimension within sacred music, its emotive and artistic aspects, inasmuch as it is an exchange between God, the Giver of every gift, and the response of love of the human being to the Lord's omnipotent love.

A greater love will seek a higher quality and not just more abundant quantity, and this happens when the perseverance of an individual or a group has made progress in the musical realm and has experienced the beauty of its spiritual consolations. "Sacrosanctum Concilium" affirms that "the sacred liturgy does not exhaust the entire activity of the Church" (No. 9) and adds very pointedly that "before men can come to the liturgy they must be called to faith and to conversion."

Moreover, No. 10 clarifies that "the liturgy is the summit toward which the activity of the Church is directed." Hence the liturgy is precisely the source of the necessary strength for every apostolic work. Wherever the liturgy of the Church is left to chance, the lack of coherence in its fruits becomes evident. Liturgical musicians must be appreciated and supported in all possible ways, if they are to attain a technical level that will enable them to communicate, through sacred music, the relationship with the tremendous mystery that God is. It is this perception of God's holiness, specifically treated by sacred music, which forms a bridge that enables persons to discover their desire for God and the desire to conform their lives to his.

Sacred music is prayer ordered to raise hearts and minds to God. Beyond the challenges represented by personal or cultural preferences, the purpose of sacred music is always praise of God. The active participation of the assembly must be ordered to this end, so that the dignity of the liturgy is not compromised and the possibilities for an effective participation in divine worship are not darkened. Active participation does not exclude different levels of participation that, of themselves, indicate that "participation in the act" is not diminished by the fact that one might not be singing everything at every moment. Sacred music must be conformed to the liturgical texts and devotional music must be inspired in biblical or liturgical texts, taking care in every case not to hide the ecclesiological reality of the Church. 

Pope John Paul II explained it to some bishops of the U.S. on the occasion of their "ad limina" visit in 1998: "But full participation does not mean that everyone does everything, since this would lead to a clericalizing of the laity and a laicizing of the priesthood; and this was not what the Council had in mind. The liturgy, like the Church, is intended to be hierarchical and polyphonic, respecting the different roles assigned by Christ and allowing all the different voices to blend in one great hymn of praise." Hence, in its expressions of religious faith, textual fidelity and measured dignity, sacred music must become a symbol of ecclesial communion.

The character of sacred music is not diminished when it is simple, to the degree that its simplicity is noble rather than banal. The widespread use, though prohibited, of secular recorded music and "pop" songs in funerals justifies the distancing of many faithful, who feel themselves foreign to the musical life of the Church. "Cult" songs, doctrinally insipid, often take the place of liturgical treasures with catechetical value, with the effect that the culture of ecclesial music in many parishes has been "led down a blind alley in which one can say always less about its quo vadis" — this is the way in which J. Ratzinger describes the separation of modern culture from its religious matrix (A New Song for the Lord. Faith in Christ and Liturgy Today, Crossroads, New York, 1996, p. 120).

"Sacrosanctum Concilium" has said that Gregorian chant should be given "pride of place" (No. 116) and that the pipe organ "adds a wonderful splendor to the Church's ceremonies and powerfully lifts up man's mind to God and to higher things" (No. 120). While the effects of post-modern anthropological interpretations are intolerant on encountering every tendency to remake the past, the timeless and universal truths are of benefit to persons of all times and all places.
Necessary is an effective liturgical catechesis at the center of the New Evangelization to foster the immersion of the faithful in the mysteries celebrated per ritus et preces — through the rites and prayers (cf. SC 48). The Motu Propri  of 2007, "Summorum Pontificum," offered a determinant opportunity for the revival of Gregorian chant, in those places in which it was previously practiced, as well as its insertion in contexts in which it is not yet known. It would be sad, however, if, because of the desire to understand everything, the use of Gregorian chant in the parishes were to be limited to the celebration in the "extraordinary form," thus relegating the ancient language of this chant to the history of the Church and to a symbol of polarization. Among the pastoral opportunities, it's not too much to ask that persons might have the experience of the universality of the Church at the local level, being able to sing the parts that correspond to them in Latin (cf. SC 54). This was the intention of the Fathers of the Council. With due moderation and pastoral sensitivity, this practice would be united harmonically to the rich expressions of the Catholic faith in the vernacular.

Finally, the harmony and orthodoxy of sacred music for an effective preaching of the revealed deposit depends on the fidelity of Christian to the life of grace, in a much greater decision to live coherently, as the Rule of St. Benedict affirms so clearly: "Hence we consider how we should behave in the presence of God and of his angels and let us hold ourselves [...] in such a way that our minds are in agreement with our voices" (19,6-7).

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Benedictine Father Paul Gunter is a professor at the Pontifical Liturgical Institute of Rome and a consultor of the Office of Liturgical Celebrations of the Supreme Pontiff.

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