In the midst of one of the greatest Christian persecutions, Pliny the Younger wrote a letter to the Emperor Trajan seeking his counsel for dealing with Christians. What makes this letter especially noteworthy is that it is the earliest non-Christian account of Christianity itself, with specific details about the religious practices of the early believers. In particular, he mentions how those former Christians whom he had met all said that their supposed error was that they “were accustomed to gather before dawn on a certain day and sing a hymn to Christ as if He were God.” Although understated, it appears remarkable that of all the Christian practices, they remember the liturgical singing best. It is as if it was so intoxicating that it was a primary cause of their “error.” They were not alone, even the great St. Augustine expressed a similar conviction, finding the Church mostly vulgar until he heard her singing: “I wept in Thy hymns and canticles, touched to the quick by the voices of Thy sweet-attuned Church” (Confess. ix, 6).
Would either of these two pagans would say anything remotely similar if they were to find harbor in a church during Mass in our own time? More than likely, not. Like many aspects of the Sacred Liturgy, liturgical music is approaching a crisis point. Banal at best, many places throw in a dash of irreverence confusing Mass music with the music of the masses. Liturgical music ought to be different. No mere sing-along, it is meant to vest and adorn the liturgy by bringing clarity to what is truly going on around the Faithful. Or, as Pope St. Pius X put it,
“Sacred music, being a complementary part of the solemn liturgy, participates in the general scope of the liturgy, which is the glory of God and the sanctification and edification of the faithful. It contributes to the decorum and the splendor of the ecclesiastical ceremonies, and since its principal office is to clothe with suitable melody the liturgical text proposed for the understanding of the faithful, its proper aim is to add greater efficacy to the text, in order that through it the faithful may be the more easily moved to devotion and better disposed for the reception of the fruits of grace belonging to the celebration of the most holy mysteries.” (Tra Le Sollecitudini Instruction on Sacred Music)
Bad Theology Leads to Bad Music
This is not really a critique of the skills of choir directors or choir members, but a critique of their underlying philosophy. Many have been trapped within a mindset Pope Benedict XVI calls a “puritanical functionalism of the liturgy conceived in purely pragmatic terms.” This pithy explanation is rich in substance, saying a number of things all at once. Foundationally, it lies in a (mis-)application of the call of the Second Vatican Council for the Liturgy to be marked by active participation of all present. Many have interpreted this to mean that everyone has a function to perform during the liturgy. But, as the Pope Emeritus points out, the “earthly liturgy is liturgy because and only because it joins what is already in process.” That is, we are merely participating in God’s work, a work that is cosmic in its dimension. Our part(-icipipation) is not merely to do a bunch of external activities, but to actively and internally unite ourselves with this Opus Dei, praying that we will personally take ownership of the sacrifice and make it our own. It is a sacrifice given in “spirit and truth” and thus, first and foremost, requires hearts that are into it.
Anyone who has gone to a concert knows that attentive listening, even if you are not singing or humming along, is a form of participation. In fact someone doing that, especially when they are out of tune or otherwise don’t have particularly good voices, can ruin the experience for those around them. Likewise, with musica sacra—listening intently and devoutly to a choir fits the Council’s call for active participation. But there are those in the congregation who, to quote Pope Benedict XVI again, “who can sing better ‘with the heart’ than ‘with the mouth’; but their hearts are stimulated to sing through the singing of those who have the gift of singing ‘with their mouths.’” The flip side is that by compelling those to sing who cannot we are not only silencing their hearts, but those around them as well.
The problem, as I mentioned, is not particularly related to skill but to ideology. With the goal being external uniformity in activity, sacred music suffers. Musical selection is based upon the ease in which those present may sing along and its capacity to build community through singing. These two criteria however conflict with what Pope St. Pius X said was the authentic goal: namely that the music be holy and have “goodness of form.”
What Makes Good Liturgical Music
That the music should be holy simply means that it should be set aside as specifically liturgical, that is “closely connected with the liturgical action and… conferring greater solemnity upon the sacred rites” (SC 112). “Praise and worship” music, Christian rock, and secular “feel-good” music each have their own place, but the liturgy is not that place. It should be a musical setting of a liturgical text. This is why the Church has always given the works of Palestrina and Gregorian Chant pride of place because of it solemnity and close connection to the spirit of the liturgy.
Liturgical music should also have “goodness of form” by which Pius X means it should be of high artistic quality. He said, “it must be true art, for otherwise it will be impossible for it to exercise on the minds of those who listen to it that efficacy which the Church aims at obtaining in admitting into her liturgy the art of musical sounds.” This is where choirs and choir directors should not fear to shine for the glory of God. They should strive to play and sing beautifully even if the rest of the congregation cannot join them. They should see themselves properly as sacraments, making the singing of the angels and saints present. Their music should raise our minds and hearts to the heights of heaven.
When these two criteria, holiness and beauty, are met, then a third one, universality emerges. This is what St. Augustine experienced early during his conversion. By universal St. Pius X means it “in the sense that while every nation is permitted to admit into its ecclesiastical compositions those special forms which may be said to constitute its native music, still these forms must be subordinated in such a manner to the general characteristics of sacred music that nobody of any nation may receive an impression other than good on hearing them.” One does not need to understand all the words of the music, let alone the Liturgy itself, in order to participate. As St. Thomas says, “Even if those who listen sometimes do not understand the words being sung, they do understand the reason for singing, namely the praise of God. And that is sufficient to arouse men to worship” (ST II-II, q.91 art 2). If the music has beauty, then the clarity of its purpose will emerge and move all those present to worship God more fully during the Mass.
Music has the power to move us in ways that even the best homily could never do. This power, once harnessed and properly applied, can be the “heart of the Liturgy.” The crisis point has been reached—it is time to reclaim liturgical music and restore it to its pride of place.