Sacred Music That Serves the Word of God (Part 2)

July 7, 2008

Father Samuel Weber on Sacred Music Institute

By Annamarie Adkins

ST. LOUIS, Missouri, JULY 6, 2008 ( Although learning Gregorian Chant might imply a little effort from parishioners, the end result is worth it, says the director of the Institute for Sacred Music in St. Louis.

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 2 of this interview with ZENIT, Father Weber discusses why he thinks chant is “the song that [God] wants to hear from our lips and our hearts.”

Part 1 of this interview appeared Friday.

Q: Why did the Second Vatican Council state that Gregorian chant should be given “pride of place” in the Church’s liturgy?

Father Weber: The Second Vatican Council’s constitution on the liturgy, “Sacrosanctum Concilium,” as well as numerous statements of the Popes and the General Instruction of the Roman Missal [GIRM], teach us that Gregorian chant and sacred polyphony — that is, sacred music sung in harmony — such as compositions of Palestrina, are to enjoy “pride of place” in sacred worship.

This means that chant is not only to be in common use in the liturgy, but it is also to provide examples and inspirations for new compositions.

The reason for this is to assure a genuine organic development in the sacred music Catholics experience in worship — in continuity with the Church’s history, and transcending limitations of time and cultures.

Understanding and appreciating this universality in Catholic music for worship might be seen as one facet of the obedience of faith.

We need to remember, of course, that the Council teaches under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit. God is telling us both how he wants to be worshiped, and what best serves the religious needs of those gathered for sacred rites.

Before all else, worship is about God. It is the duty of the creature to know, love and serve the Creator, and to render to God the service of prayer, praise and thanksgiving that is his due.

Worship is about us, the creatures, only insofar as we desire with all our hearts to serve God as he tells us he wants to be served.

Historically, Gregorian chant is in direct, organic development with ancient cantilation — chanting — patterns of the psalms in temple and synagogue. This was the background and experience of the first Christians. So our chanting today is in direct relationship with theirs.

One can see, then, that when we sing the chant, we are truly “in connection” with our fathers and mothers in the faith.

Jesus, Mary and Joseph heard and sang many of these patterns of sacred chant in synagogue and temple worship. The apostles, the martyrs, the great saints whose witness continues to inspire us today, were all nourished on these traditions of sacred chanting.

Even the saints and blesseds of our own day — Blessed Teresa of Calcutta, St. Pio of Pietrelcina, St. Gianna Beretta Molla, for example — all sang, heard and knew the chant and the traditions of sacred music inspired by the chant.

They were formed in this “school of sacred music” that is the chant, and, to borrow a phrase from St. Athanasius, the “gymnasium of spiritual exercises” that is the Psalter — the Psalms of David.

I think, too, of my grandparents and parents, so many beloved family members, teachers and friends, who have gone before us “marked with the sign of faith.”

How they loved the sacred chants, and passed them on to me with piety, devotion and reverence. What an opportunity to participate in the Communion of Saints. What could be richer or more spiritually satisfying?

Gregorian chant serves the word of God. It has no other purpose than to draw us to the sacred text, especially the Psalms, and to enable us to treasure God’s word ever more deeply in our hearts.

It is entirely free of anything that is contrary to the faith, free of purely human agendas or experiences that lead us away from God’s will and plan for us. To use the language of our computer age: The chant is “safe and secure.” No viruses can enter.

Q: Benedict XVI has given a number of speeches discussing the importance of preserving the Church’s heritage of sacred music, and a number of documents have been issued by the Holy See calling the universal Church back to that grand tradition, yet little seems to have changed on the ground. Why is there resistance to what should be seen as a form of Vatican II’s concept of “ressourcement,” that is, return to the sources?

Father Weber: Perhaps it is not so much resistance as a lack of communication and ineffective teaching that stalled things.

Pope Benedict is tireless in his teaching — even before he became Pope — for example, “A New Song for the Lord.” An accomplished musician himself, he fully understands the power of music on the human heart, thus the central role of music in the liturgy.

Clearly, part of our task is to help “get the word out.” I think we can already see many positive results of the recent actions of the Holy See concerning the liturgy.

For one thing, there is a growing interest among Catholic people in reviving their immensely rich heritage of music and art, and a real desire for greater beauty, reverence and solemnity in worship.

But when there is actual resistance? In the end, I believe that this comes down to the perpetual struggle between good and evil. God is constantly giving us all the grace we need to know, love and serve him.

But we are tempted by the devil, and suffer under the effects of original sin, so we sometimes make choices that, sadly, draw us away from God our Creator, and even extinguish the fire of love in our hearts.

It is the duty of all the pastors — that God in his love has given us — to call people back to that which will bring us true peace and blessedness. With great wisdom, over the centuries the popes, the Councils, have understood the importance of sacred music, art, architecture and ritual in the spiritual formation of the human person.

As a result, they have never ceased to teach us about the care that must be exercised in cultivating all sacred arts that serve divine worship.

Now it is our job to receive this teaching and implement it in our lives for our spiritual good.

Q: The book “Why Catholics Can’t Sing” highlighted the abysmal state of congregational singing present in most American parishes. Why do you think parishes will be able to handle Gregorian chant? Isn’t that harder to sing?

Father Weber: The author, Thomas Day, suggested — among other things — that people don’t sing because the music they often encounter at Mass is not really worth the effort. Silence is one response to music that is inappropriate — whether from the standpoint of aesthetics or theology.

Another factor is the disappearance of choirs from parishes, since choirs can effectively lead and encourage congregational singing.

It’s encouraging to know that many people who are discovering chant for the first time are so strongly attracted by its beauty and solemnity that they want to become a part of its revival.

Speaking from experience, I would agree that Gregorian chant may require a greater discipline, more attention and sacrifice of time and energy in order to “make it happen” in our parishes.

But difficulty is not a real impediment.

In our American society we greatly value sports. I’m a Green Bay Packers fan myself, rabid, actually. I’m really grateful to the Packers for all the hours they spend in practice and preparation for their games. All the sacrifices they make. It’s worth it.

The payoff is really something awesome. We, the fans, would settle for no less. Doesn’t this same expectation apply to the things of God? It really isn’t that hard to understand, is it?

St. Augustine taught the people of Hippo: “Cantare amantis est.” Singing is characteristic of a lover. If the supreme love is, as we believe, between Christ, the Bridegroom, and the Church, his Bride — can any effort be spared to express this love in true beauty? Is any sacrifice too much?

We don’t have to guess at the song. This tremendous Lover of ours tells us the song that he wants to hear from our lips and our hearts.

This is our Catholic faith. What more need be said? Let us begin!


Long Live Pope Benedict: The Motu Proprio, One Year Later

July 7, 2008

InsideCatholic, July 7, 2008

For nearly 20 years, those who supported the return of the old liturgy (now the “Extraordinary Form” of the Roman rite) scoured the news for the rare bishop who used the 1962 Missal on such-and-such occasion, favorable comments by someone — anyone — about the traditional liturgy, or indeed any reference to the old Mass at all. The single year since the release of the motu proprio Summorum Pontificum last July 7, on the other hand, has been so full of firsts and about-faces that one can hardly keep track of them all.

This is all to the good. For as Pope Benedict XVI says, the Extraordinary Form is a great treasure of the Church, and “must be given due honor for its ancient and venerable usage.” Even non-Catholics once understood this: Nearly four decades ago, when it looked as if the traditional Mass would be permanently supplanted by the new, a petition drawn up by Catholic and non-Catholic cultural luminaries in England and Wales declared,
The signatories of this appeal, which is entirely ecumenical and nonpolitical, have been drawn from every branch of modern culture in Europe and elsewhere. They wish to call to the attention of the Holy See, the appalling responsibility it would incur in the history of the human spirit were it to refuse to allow the traditional Mass to survive.

The pope’s initiative has already borne much fruit, and interest in the Extraordinary Form continues to grow despite the cold if predictable indifference of so much of the episcopate. The Fraternity of St. Peter, the first of the orders of priests established by Pope John Paul II to offer the traditional liturgy, has been offering well-attended training seminars for priests interested in learning the Extraordinary Form. Word is that one thousand priests have requested the training DVD that the Fraternity prepared with EWTN.

Archbishop Malcolm Ranjith, secretary of the Congregation for Worship, has said that those bishops who obstruct the implementation of the motu proprio are allowing themselves to be used as instruments of the devil. And reaction among the bishops has indeed been mixed: Some have been cooperative, aware of how intent Benedict is on seeing this through. Others have attempted to block Benedict’s move by tendentious interpretations of certain phrases in the relevant documents. The pope’s observation that the celebrating priest should have some competence in Latin has been used as the basis for making priests take Latin exams prior to receiving authorization (the very concept of episcopal authorization being at odds with the document’s intent) to offer the Extraordinary Form. The Latin original suggests only that priests, at a minimum, be able to pronounce the words — though, naturally, the more Latin they can learn, the better.
Summorum Pontificum‘s reference to a “stable group” of faithful making a request for the Extraordinary Form has been transformed in some dioceses into a requirement (in terms of numbers of faithful, etc.) that is extremely difficult to satisfy and that has disqualified countless lay inquiries. On the other hand, we learn from Castrillón Cardinal Hoyos, president of the Pontifical Commission Ecclesia Dei and former prefect of the Congregation for Clergy, that a “stable group” may consist of as few as three or four people, who need not even be from the same parish. With a clarifying note on Summorum Pontificum expected from the Holy See at any time, some observers are convinced that Cardinal Hoyos’s comments reflect the contents of that forthcoming document.
Although the pope was gentle where possible in his fraternal letter to the bishops, he was extremely bold where it counted, both in the letter and in the motu proprio itself. For example, Benedict officially declared — as some had argued in vain for decades — that the old liturgy was “never juridically abrogated and, consequently, in principle, was always permitted.”
That’s not what those who specialize in divining the innermost thoughts of the popes told us all these years: A well-known 1982 book by two authors at pains to refute traditionalists declared, “We cannot conclude other than that the celebration of the Tridentine Mass is forbidden except where ecclesiastical law specifically allows it (aged or infirm priests celebrating sine populo) or under special circumstances where a papal indult applies (as in England and Wales under special circumstances).” According to Benedict, that conclusion is dead wrong, but such baseless theorizing was routinely used to marginalize and demonize Catholics in good standing.
The Catholic world has changed so much since July 7, 2007, that it is almost hard to believe that people devoted to the Faith were once relegated to the margins of the Church (when their opponents were feeling generous) for saying precisely what Benedict has made a career out of saying. Benedict has not merely declared his sympathies for the old Missal — that would be one thing. He has said that it is not normal for a brand new liturgical book to be introduced into the life of the Church, and that such a rupture (1) had never been seen before in Church history, and (2) is “absolutely contrary to the laws of liturgical growth.” He has criticized not merely the abuses we associate with the new liturgy but even the new liturgical books themselves, which “occasionally show far too many signs of being drawn up by academics and reinforce the notion that a liturgical book can be ‘made’ like any other book.” The new Missal, he says, “was published as if it were a book put together by professors, not a phase in a continual growth process.”
He goes on to say that the
formulae of the [new] Missal in fact give official sanction to creativity; the priest feels almost obliged to change the wording, to show that he is creative, that he is giving this Liturgy immediacy, making it present for his congregation; and with this false creativity, which transforms the Liturgy into a catechetical exercise for this congregation, the liturgical unity and the ecclesiality of the Liturgy [are] being destroyed.
I’ve written in much greater detail on this very site about Benedict’s liturgical thought. No longer must the faithful walk on eggshells: With such a man as pope we can at last speak frankly about the liturgical crisis in the Church. And, as I’ve discovered many times over the past year or more, it has now become possible on Catholic radio to make commonsensical observations about liturgical issues that in the old days they would have hung up on you for.
In recent weeks, Cardinal Hoyos has made clear just how ambitious Benedict’s expectations are. The cardinal made headlines when, in response to a journalist’s inquiry as to whether the pope wanted to see the Extraordinary Form in “many ordinary parishes,” he replied, “All the parishes. Not many — all the parishes, because this is a gift of God.” “This kind of worship is so noble, so beautiful,” he said.
According to Cardinal Hoyos, the Ecclesia Dei Commission is instructing seminaries to teach seminarians not only the Extraordinary Form itself but also the theology and language of the old Missal. He suggests that parishes hold classes to prepare their people for the traditional liturgy, so they might “appreciate the power of the silence, the power of the sacred way in front of God, the deep theology, to discover how and why the priest represents the person of Christ and to pray with the priest.”
I never expected to live to see this.
The traditional liturgy is of great pedagogical value to a world that knows nothing of reverence or of respect for tradition, and that takes for granted that all institutions of whatever provenance or antiquity are to be adapted and updated to suit modern man. That modern man might not in fact be the apogee of human civilization, and could perhaps stand to conform his own behavior to something outside himself instead of thoughtlessly vandalizing everything around him, is a message the modern West just might need to hear. Long live Pope Benedict.
Thomas E. Woods Jr. (view Web site; send email This e-mail address is being protected from spam bots, you need JavaScript enabled to view it ) is the New York Times bestselling author of eight books, including Sacred Then and Sacred Now: The Return of the Old Latin Mass and Who Killed the Constitution? The Fate of American Liberty from World War I to George W. Bush (with Kevin R. C. Gutzman), to be released tomorrow. His television series for EWTN, “The Catholic Church: Builder of Civilization,” airs Wednesdays at 6:00 pm EST (repeated Thursdays at 2:00 am EST).