Is this the solution to Catholics’ ‘desperate’ musical situation?

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Hundreds of musicians and pastors from around the world have signed a document urging parishes and publishers should take care to develop the Church’s rich musical traditions, not discard them.

They did so after outlining trends within the Church’s musical traditions in the past five decades that they deem harmful to the Church’s liturgical life and musical heritage.

The statement’s authors write that they “cannot avoid being concerned about the current situation of sacred music, which is nothing short of desperate, with abuses in the area of sacred music now almost the norm rather than the exception.”

The letter, entitled “Cantate Domino Canticum Novum”, or  “Sing a New Song Unto the Lord”, was signed by over 200 musicians, pastors, and musical scholars from around the globe, and published in six languages.

Its publication commemorates the 50th anniversary of the March 5, 1967 promulgation of Musicam sacram, a Vatican instruction on music in the liturgy. In their reflection on the “via dolorosa” of liturgical music in the past five decades, the musicians lay out the challenges facing liturgical music today – before offering some possible solutions.

They highlight advice from Vatican II’s constitution on the liturgy, Sacrosanctum Concilium, which points to the Church’s musical tradition as a “treasure of inestimable value, greater even than that of any other art.”

“The musical tradition of the universal Church is a treasure of inestimable value, greater even than that of any other art. The main reason for this pre-eminence is that, as sacred song united to the words, it forms a necessary or integral part of the solemn liturgy,” the document continues, noting the link between a music’s holiness and its connection to the liturgy.

The document outlines several areas in which the preservation of the Church’s musical traditions has been ignored, or even, the authors state, opposed.

This break with the past makes any attempt to connect the Church to the future meaningless – because the context the tradition provides has been taken away. The letter’s authors liken this break to a “sort of spiritual Alzheimer’s,” that takes away not only musical and artistic memories, but theological and cultural ones, too.

In this regard, traditional elements of the liturgy such as the Mass propers and the Liturgy of the Hours have been overlooked. Meanwhile, secular music styles have had undue influence on the liturgy, and the commercial music industry has now reinforced these secular styles as the primary kind of music sold to parishes.

The letter warns that not only does the secularization damage the Church’s connection with the past and ability to grapple with the future, but it also “destabilizes the sense of adoration that is at the heart of the Christian faith” by effectively selling out to secular trends. By molding Church music to different secular trends, recent practices also endanger the Church’s ability to truly exalt and praise good cultural traditions, they note.

“The secularism of popular musical styles has contributed to a desacralization of the liturgy, while the secularism of profit-based commercialism has reinforced the imposition of mediocre collections of music upon parishes,” the declaration states.

Instead of making culture, the “lack of commitment to tradition has put the Church and her liturgy on an uncertain and meandering path.”

The letter also pushed back against groups in the Church that have lobbied against repertoires that respect tradition and the guidelines set out by Vatican II, instead leaving “repertoires of new liturgical music of very low standards as regards both the text and the music.”

“If we desire that people look for Jesus, we need to prepare the house with the best that the Church can offer,” the letter said of this trend of deliberately sidelining chant and other traditional forms of liturgical music. “We will not invite people to our house, the Church, to give them a by-product of music and art, when they can find a much better pop music style outside the Church.”

Another contributing factor to the struggles facing liturgical music, they said, is clericalism, and some clerics’ decisions to supersede the expert opinion of musicians and scholars of liturgical music in order to impose their own opinions.

Lastly, the authors of the letter pointed out that liturgical musicians and composers are undervalued, and often undercompensated for their efforts – which require education, expert skill, and years of training.  “If we pay florists and cooks who help at parishes, why does it seem so strange that those performing musical activities for the Church would have a right to fair compensation,” they ask.

The writers of the document point towards numerous ways of addressing these challenges. Their first suggestion is the reaffirmation of Vatican II’s support for Gregorian chant, other traditional chant forms, and modern sacred compositions that are inspired by the chant tradition, along with the reaffirmation of the pipe organ as the instrument of choice in the Church.

They also advocate for strong music education that focuses on traditional music for children, as well as for adult laity. They also ask that “the Church will continue to work against obvious and subtle forms of clericalism, so that laity can make their full contribution in areas where ordination is not a requirement.”

Lastly, they strongly encourage musical training of clergy and strong liturgical formation for liturgists. “Just as musicians need to understand the essentials of liturgical history and theology, so too must liturgists be educated in Gregorian chant, polyphony, and the entire musical tradition of the Church, so that they may discern between what is good and what is bad,” they write.

In addition, the authors encourage cathedrals and basilicas to hold at least one Mass a week in Latin in order to preserve the area’s link with the Church’s tradition, and for every parish to hold at least one fully-sung Mass a week.

Finally, the musical experts point out that many “Catholics think that what mainstream publishers offer is in line with the doctrine of the Catholic Church regarding liturgy and music, when it is frequently not so.”

They ask that publishers put aside profits and commercial incentives in order to emphasize and educate the Catholics in liturgical practices and doctrine.

Among the signers of the declaration are Bishop Rene Gracida, Emeritus Bishop of Corpus Christi; Bishop Athanasius Schneider, Auxiliary Bishop of Maria Santissima in Astana; Aurelio Porfiri, PhD cand., organist of Santa Maria dell’Orto in Rome; Abbot Philip Anderson of Clear Creek Abbey; and James MacMillan, composer.


By Adelaide Mena





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1 comment

  1. Douglas Fontenot Reply

    As is common, the church is many years, even generations, late in identifying a problem.

    We witnessed guitars, drums and liberal postures come into the church in the liberal sixties, reportedly to attract and maintain youth.

    Young people left the church in droves as people stood to accept the body of Christ in their hands and lost touch with the Latin Liturgy. The catholic church’s music had been one of the reliable identifiers through the ages, but, that was sacrificed, along with her exclusiveness and identity.

    In many ways, our Church has been the source of her own decline.

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