I found this in last week’s bulletin from St. Peter’s in Merchantville, NJ. The pastor, Fr. Anthony Manuppella, has given me permission to post this discussion of his on sacred music.
Sometimes it takes a stranger to help us recognize something about ourselves that loved ones could never let us see. In this case, the stranger is an atheist music critic from The New York Times. What is he telling us about? The importance of sacred music at Holy Mass. Perhaps an atheist intellectual might convince some Catholics, where Mother Church’s exhortations have fallen on deaf ears.
Here is an excerpt of Mr. Bernard Holland, “Beauty of musical color, elegance of harmony, soundness of construction and exquisiteness of originality once worked as the lure that would draw the faltering worshiper nearer. Music, as well as architecture and visual art, represented heaven to the earthbound, something dazzling and unapproachable, an advertisement for a paradise still held at arm’s length.” (NY Times, 23 September 2007) Show me a Liturgy Office that has written something like that recently. I’m waiting.
Of course, the Traditional Mass long understood this symbiotic relationship between music and the world of the sacred. It appreciated the furious power of music to shape man’s soul–for good or bad. So it is that Holy Church required only Latin chant or polyphony at Mass. Latin, because of its sacral associations; and the enchanting melodies of a music impossible to be mistaken or utilized for any purpose save God’s adoration. Musical forms in currency today at many Churches are interchangeable with lounge music. Such a switch could never be present at the Traditional Mass.
Truth to be told, the nature of sacred music ought to be no different for the Novus Ordo Missae (the Ordinary Form of the Roman Rite). Listen to Bishop Edward Slattery of the Diocese of Tulsa.
“I ask…to pay special attention to the Council’s liturgical norms….and what the Council Fathers actually wrote concerning the requirements of proper liturgical music, and in particular the principle which places the text in importance over the melody, thus acknowledging the primacy of Gregorian chant among the Church’s musical traditions, not merely from the position of its great venerability and beauty, but also because chant, having no rhythm, never forces the text to be rewritten to fit a specific meter. Chant allows us a certain sacred space within which that Word which God spoke in ancient times can be heard today with greater clarity and fidelity.”
(Eastern Oklahoma Catholic, 6 March 2006)
For those who think narrowly, music in Church is a kind of mood setter, cute but irrelevant. The more ample Catholic mind recognizes that music in Church ought to act like an earthquake upon the soul, unleashing the powerful forces that make it crave intimacy with the Blessed Trinity. Our Catholic faith does not rest on gauzy sweet nothings, or the musical equivalents. Faith stands upon towering truths. If a soul is fed on musical sap, its soul will turn to sap. Music at Mass is not meant for us to sway to and fro, or to sweetly smile at each other as though a dreamy Barry Manilow tune were playing. Music at Mass should make us tremble. At least a bit. It should drive itself directly into our soul, leaving us thunderstruck.
Even Pagan Plato realized this. In The Republic he teaches, “No change can be made in styles of music without affecting the most important conventions of society.” And we might add, the perfect society of the Church. Music’s power is so potent that it can arouse passions prompting heroic actions or debased ones. Almost twenty years ago the Port Authority of New York decided to play only soft classical music throughout its Manhattan Bus Depot because psychologists had proven it would lower crime. On the other hand, nightclub owners know to play loud, percussive music, piquing the passions and producing the emotional abandon that sells liquor and facilitates sexual license. No human heart is exempt from the racing at the stanzas of the Battle Hymn of the Republic or John Philip Sousa. Music has its own grammar and vocabulary. All this applies to sacred music as well.
Man is never so intoxicated than when he is surrounded by sacred music. This music transforms him. It pierces his soul to its very depths. Often it produces a contrition so profound that a man’s life can take a wholly different course. St. Augustine attests to this in Book IX of the Confessions, “how I wept to hear your hymns and songs, deeply moved by the voices of your sweetly singing Church! Their voices penetrated my ears, and with them, truth found its way into my heart; my frozen feeling for God began to thaw, tears flowed and I experienced joy and relief.” Do you really think that Kumbaya could inspire such words?
For all of this, Mother Church has insisted upon and encouraged the most exquisite sacred music known to man. Not only that she has felt it her grave obligation to protect it. After all, she recognizes that man’s soul hangs in the balance. If the music is wrong, the teaching of the Church will be wrong, and men will go wrong. Thus in this century, the Popes have devoted such energy in defining and carefully regulating the conduct of sacred music. She stood as a mighty wall against subjectivism and sentimentality.
It was this awareness that clearly inspired Saint Pope Pius X to promulgate his tour de force on sacred music, Tra le Sollecitudine, whose one hundredth anniversary Pope John Paul II celebrated in (November) 2003. There he taught that the three properties of sacred music are universality, goodness of form and holiness. He taught that these properties are alone perfectly fulfilled in the Gregorian chant of the Church. They also become the paradigm of all sacred music. They raise it above idiosyncratic cultural forms (universality); possesses the marks of the grand music of the ages (goodness of form); and excite in souls a hunger for God (holiness). St. Pius X teaches, “The Church has constantly condemned everything frivolous, vulgar, trivial and ridiculous in sacred music–everything profane and theatrical both in the form of the compositions and in the manner in which they are executed by the musicians: Sancta sancte, holy things in a holy manner.” (Tra le Sollecitudine, #13)
Sacred music transports us beyond the stars to the throne of the Blessed Trinity. Beware of music at Mass that leaves us only Dancing with the Stars.