Sacred Music that Serves the Word of God (Part 1)

July 6, 2008

Father Samuel Weber on Sacred Music Institute

By Annamarie Adkins

ST. LOUIS, Missouri, JULY 4, 2008 ( Parish music directors — and congregations — in the Archdiocese of St. Louis soon will benefit from Archbishop Raymond Burke’s recent initiative: The Institute for Sacred Music.

Archbishop Burke, who has since been named to head the Apostolic Signature, the Church’s supreme court, appointed Benedictine Father Samuel Weber as the first director of the new institute earlier this year.Father Weber is a professor in the divinity school of Wake Forest University in North Carolina and also a monk of the St. Meinrad Archabbey in Indiana.

In Part 1 of this interview with ZENIT, Father Weber discusses how the Institute for Sacred Music will try to restore Gregorian chant’s “pride of place” in the liturgy.

Part 2 of this interview will appear Sunday.

Q: Why did Archbishop Burke found the Institute for Sacred Music? What is its mission?

Father Weber: As Archbishop Burke explained, he established the institute to help him to cultivate more fully sacred music in the celebration of the complete Roman Rite.

The Institute will have many activities. First, it will form programs of sacred music, especially Gregorian chant, for parish musicians, musicians of other archdiocesan institutions and interested individuals.

Second, it will assist parishes with the singing of the Mass in English, for example, the entrance antiphon, the responsorial psalm and the Communion antiphon. Third, it hopes to foster the singing the Liturgy of the Hours.

A fourth activity of the institute is assisting parishes that wish to develop a “schola cantorum” for singing Gregorian chant; a fifth goal is aiding the full implementation of the English translation of the Roman Missal in the archdiocese.

Lastly, the institute aims to give particular assistance to the programs of sacred music at the Cathedral Basilica of St. Louis and at Kenrick-Glennon Seminary.

Q: Is there a difference between sacred music and religious music?

Father Weber: Although the two terms are often used interchangeably, we can make a distinction.

Sacred music, properly speaking, is music that is united to a sacred text — especially psalms and other scriptural texts and texts of the Mass, such as the Introit, Gloria, Sanctus, Agnus Dei, etc., and it includes certain traditional hymns that are — or have been — part of the official liturgical books.

The authority of the Church must confirm all the liturgical texts; these sacred words are not to be altered in setting them to music.

All sacred music is “religious music,” obviously. But religious music would encompass everything from classic hymns to contemporary songs with a religious theme in a wide variety of styles and varying quality. Not all religious music is suitable for sacred worship, certainly.

Ultimately, it is the responsibility of competent authority — i.e., the bishop or the Holy See — to determine the suitability of all religious music for sacred worship, even though parish musicians will usually choose the music for a parish Mass and other liturgical celebrations.

All Church musicians need to be able to make truly informed choices about appropriate music for use in the liturgy, based on authentic Church teaching. This is not always easy, nor is the choice simply a matter of taste.

Q: Many complain about popular or secular forms of music creeping into the liturgy, but this has been a perennial problem for the Church. What causes this recurring problem, and how have the great renaissances in sacred music such as those fostered by Palestrina and Pope St. Pius X turned the tide?

Father Weber: Yes, you could say that the concern about secular — or frankly anti-Christian — musical styles supplanting sacred music in worship is perennial — though it may manifest itself differently in different cultures and historical periods.

For example, in early centuries, all music other than chanting was strictly forbidden by Church authorities, because use of musical instruments had strongly pagan associations.

In the 19th century, the style of opera had so greatly influenced Church music that Pope St. Pius X warned strongly against this “profane” music, and forbade composing music imitating operatic styles. He initiated the 20th Century Liturgical Movement by his 1903 document, “Tra le Sollecitudini.”

In particular he encouraged Gregorian chant, which he said in the third paragraph of the document, “has always been regarded as the supreme model for sacred music,” thus “it is fully legitimate to lay down the following rule: The more closely a composition for Church approaches in its movement, inspiration and savor the Gregorian form, the more sacred and liturgical it becomes; and the more out of harmony it is with that supreme model, the less worthy it is of the temple.”

It was Pope Pius X, also, who coined the phrase “active participation” of the people. And he also said in paragraph five of the document that “modern music is also admitted to the Church, since it, too, furnishes compositions of such excellence, sobriety and gravity, that they are in no way unworthy of the liturgical functions.”

After the Second Vatican Council it was the pop and folk style music of the late 1960s and 1970s that dominated newly composed music for worship — Catholic and Protestant. Despite the Constitution on the Liturgy’s emphasis on the “pride of place” for Gregorian chant in the liturgy, the council’s teaching was ignored, and chant virtually disappeared.

The reasons for this are many and complex. But one major element was plain confusion and misunderstanding. The liturgical reform following the Council was astoundingly rapid, and serious upheavals in the secular world of those times also affected the anti-authoritarian mood within the Church.

This was played out dramatically in the liturgy. Changes were made precipitously with too little consultation with the bishops.

During the papacy of Pope John Paul II, we began to see a sober reassessment of the post-conciliar liturgical changes, culminating in his last encyclical, “Ecclesia de Eucharistia.”

The present “renaissance” in liturgical music we are now seeing is in large part due to Pope Benedict XVI and his many scholarly works on the subject even before he became pope.

The historic heritage of sacred music, then, always serves as an indispensable teacher and model of what best serves the celebration of sacred worship, and leads worshipers to greater holiness.