"A question of what our gods are"

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Adoremus, Society for the Renewal of the Sacred Liturgy
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April 2008

Vol. XIV, No. 2

Liturgy and Sacred Music

by Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger

Pope Benedict XVI

Editor’s Note: This insightful and still timely lecture was presented more than two decades ago by then-Cardinal Ratzinger at the Eighth International Church Music Congress in Rome, November 17, 1985. It was subsequently published in Communio: International Catholic Review (Winter 1986, pp 377-390, translated from Italian by Stephen Wentworth Arndt), and is reprinted here with permission of Communio. (Another version of the essay appeared in A New Song for the Lord. NY: Crossroad, 1995.)


Liturgy and music have been closely related to one another from their earliest beginnings. Wherever man praises God, the word alone does not suffice. Conversation with God transcends the boundaries of human speech, and in all places, it has by its very nature called music to its aid, singing and the voices of creation in the harmony of instruments. More belongs to the praise of God than man alone, and liturgy means joining in that which all things bespeak.

But if liturgy and music are closely connected with one another by their very natures, their relation to one another has also been strained, especially at the turning points of history and culture. Therefore, it is no surprise that the question concerning the proper form of music in the liturgy has become controversial again. In the disputes of the Council and immediately thereafter, it seemed to be merely a question of difference between pastoral practitioners, on the one hand, and Church musicians, on the other. Church musicians did not wish to be subject to mere pastoral expediency but attempted to emphasize the inner dignity of music as a pastoral and liturgical norm in its own right.1 Thus, the controversy seemed to move essentially on the level of application only. In the meantime, however, the rift has grown deeper. The second wave of liturgical reform advances these questions to their very foundations. It has become a question of the essence of liturgical action as such, of its anthropological and theological foundations. The controversy about Church music is becoming symptomatic for the deeper question about what the liturgy is.

1. Surpassing the Council? A new conception of liturgy

The new phase of the will to liturgical reform no longer sees its foundation explicitly in the words of the Second Vatican Council but in its “spirit”. As a symptomatic text, I shall use here the learned and clearly drafted article on song and music in the Church in the Nouvo Dizionario di Liturgia. The high artistic rank of Gregorian Chant or of classical polyphony is in no way contested here. It is not even a question of playing off congregational activity against elitist art. Nor is the rejection of a historicist rigidification, which only copies the past and remains without a present and a future, the real point at issue. It is rather a question of a basically new understanding of liturgy which one wishes to use in order to surpass the Council whose Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy bears two souls within itself.2

Let us briefly attempt to familiarize ourselves with this conception in its fundamental characteristics. The liturgy takes its point of departure — we are told — from the gathering of two or three who have come together in the name of Christ.3 This reference to the Lord’s words of promise in Matthew 18:20 sounds harmless and traditional at first hearing. But it receives a revolutionary turn when one isolates this one biblical text and contrasts it with the whole liturgical tradition. For the two or three are now placed in opposition to an institution with its institutional roles, and to every “codified program”.

Thus this definition comes to mean: it is not the Church that precedes the group but the group that precedes the Church. It is not the Church as an integral entity that carries the liturgy of the individual group or community; rather the group is itself the specific place of the origin for the liturgy. Thus the liturgy does not grow out of a common given, a “rite” (which as a “codified program” now becomes a negative image of bondage); it arises on the spot from the creativity of those who are gathered.

In such a sociological language, the sacrament of orders presents itself as an institutional role which has created a monopoly for itself and dissolved the [Church’s] original unity and solidarity by means of the institution.4 Under these circumstances, we are told, music then became a language of the initiates just like Latin, “the language of the other Church, namely, of the institution and its clergy”.5

The isolation of Matthew 18:20 from the entire biblical and ecclesiastical tradition of the common prayer of the Church has far-reaching consequences here. The Lord’s promise to prayers of all places becomes the dogmatization of the autonomous group. The solidarity of prayer has escalated into an egalitarianism for which the unfolding of the ecclesiastical office means the emergence of another Church. In such a view, every given coming from the whole is a fetter one must resist for the sake of the freshness and freedom of the liturgical celebration. It is not obedience to the whole but the creativity of the moment that becomes the determining form.

It is obvious that with the adoption of a sociological language there comes an adoption of evaluations. The value structure that the sociological language has formed constructs a new view of history and the present, the one negative, the other positive. Thus, traditional (and also conciliar!) concepts such as the “the treasury of musica sacra”, the “organ as queen of the instruments”, and the “universality of Gregorian chant” now appear as “mystifications” for the purpose of “preserving a certain form of power”.6 A certain administration of power, we are told, feels threatened by processes of cultural transformation and reacts by masking its striving for self-preservation as love for the tradition. Gregorian chant and Palestrina are tutelary gods of a mythicized, ancient repertoire,7 elements of a Catholic counterculture that is based on remythicized and supersacralized archetypes,8 just as in the historical liturgy of the Church it has been more a question of a cultic bureaucracy than of the singing activity of the people.9

The content of Pius X’s motu proprio on sacred music [Tra le sollecitudini] is finally designated as a “culturally shortsighted and theologically empty ideology of sacred music”.10 Here, of course, it is not only sociologism that is at work but a total separation of the New Testament from the history of the Church, and this in turn is linked with a theory of decline, such as is characteristic for many Enlightenment situations: purity lies only in the original beginnings with Jesus. The entire further history appears as a “musical adventure with disoriented and abortive experiences” which one “must now bring to an end” in order finally to begin again with what is right.11

But what does the new and better look like? The leading concepts have already been indicated in previous allusions. We must now pay attention to their closer concretization. Two basic values are clearly formulated. The “primary value” of a renewed liturgy, we are told, is “the full and authentic action of all persons”.12 Accordingly, Church music means first and foremost that the “people of God” represents its identity in song. The second value decision operative here is likewise already addressed: music shows itself as the power that effects the coherence of the group. The familiar songs are, as it were, the identifying marks of a community.13 From this perspective, the main categories of the musical formation of the liturgy arise: the project, the program, the animation, the direction. The how, we are told, is more important than the what.14 The ability to celebrate is above all the “ability to do”. Music must above all be “done”.15

In order to be fair, I must add that understanding for different cultural situations is shown throughout and an open space for the adoption of historical material also remains. And above all, the paschal character of the Christian liturgy is underscored. Singing is not only meant to represent the identity of the people of God, but also to give an account of our hope and to proclaim the Father of Jesus Christ to all.16

Thus, elements of continuity do exist in this wide breach. These elements enable dialogue and give hope that unity in the fundamental understanding of the liturgy can be found again, which unity, however, threatens to disappear through the derivation of the liturgy from the group instead of from the Church — and not only theoretically, but also in concrete liturgical practice.

I should not speak in such detail of all this, if I thought that such ideas were to be ascribed only to isolated theoreticians. Although it is incontestable that they cannot be based on the text of the Second Vatican Council, the opinion that the spirit of the Council points in this direction won acceptance in so many liturgical offices and their agents. In what has just been described, an all too widespread opinion today holds that so-called creativity, the action of all present, and the relationship of group members who know and address one another are the genuine categories of the conciliar understanding of the liturgy. Not only chaplains, but sometimes even bishops, have the feeling that they have not remained true to the Council when they pray everything as it is written in the Missal; at least one “creative” formula must be inserted, however banal it may be. And the civil greeting of those present, with friendly wishes at the dismissal, has already become an obligatory ingredient of the sacred action which anyone would hardly dare to omit.

2. The philosophical ground of the program and its questionable points

With all this, however, the core of the change in values has not yet been touched. All that has been said until now follows from placing the group before the Church. But why do this? The reason lies in the fact that the Church is classified under the general concept of “institution” and that institution bears a negative quality in the type of sociology adopted here. It embodies power, and power is considered an antithesis to freedom. Since faith (the “imitation of Christ”) is apprehended as a positive value, it must stand on the side of freedom and thus also be anti-institutional in its essence. Accordingly, the liturgy may not be a support or ingredient of an institution either; but must form a counterforce that helps to cast down the mighty from their thrones. The Easter hope to which the liturgy is to bear witness can become quite earthly with such a point of departure. It becomes a hope for the overcoming of institutions, and it becomes itself a means in the struggle against power. Whoever reads only the texts of the “Missa Nicaraguensis” might gain the impression of this displacement of hope and of the new realism that liturgy becomes the instrument of a militant promise. One might also see the importance that does, in fact, accrue to music in the new conception. The stirring force of revolutionary songs communicates an enthusiasm and a conviction that cannot come from a merely spoken liturgy. Here there is no longer any opposition to liturgical music. It has received an irreplaceable role in awakening irrational forces and common energies at which the whole is aimed. It is, however, at the same time a formation of consciousness, since what is sung is little by little communicated to the spirit much more effectively than what is only spoken and thought. Moreover, the boundary of the locally gathered community is then passed with full intention by means of the group liturgy. Through the liturgical form and its music, a new solidarity is formed through which a new people is to arise which calls itself the “people of God”. But by “God” is meant only itself and the historical energies realized in it.

Let us return once again to the analysis of the values that have become decisive in the new liturgical consciousness. In the first place, there is the negative quality of the concept “institution” and the consideration of the Church exclusively under this sociological aspect, and furthermore, not only under the aspect of an empirical sociology but from a point of view that we owe to the so-called masters of suspicion. One sees that they have done their work thoroughly and attained a form of consciousness that is still effective as far as one is ignorant of its origin. But suspicion could not have such an incendiary power if it were not accompanied by a promise the fascination of which is inescapable: the idea of freedom as the authentic claim of human dignity. In this respect, the question about the correct concept of freedom must represent the core of the discussion. The controversy about the liturgy is thereby brought back from all superficial questions of artistic direction to its core, for in the liturgy it is in fact a question of the presence of redemption, of the access to true freedom. The positive element in this new dispute lies without a doubt in this disclosure of the core.

At the same time, that from which Catholic Christianity suffers today becomes visible. If the Church appears only as an institution, as a bearer of power and thus an opponent of freedom, or as a hindrance to redemption, faith is living in self-contradiction. For, on the one hand, faith cannot do without the Church; on the other hand, it is thoroughly against it. Therein lies also the truly tragic paradox of this trend of liturgical reform. For liturgy without the Church is a self-contradiction. Where all act so that they themselves may become the subject, the One who truly acts in the liturgy also disappears with the collective subject “Church”. For it is forgotten that the liturgy is to be the opus Dei in which God Himself acts first and we are redeemed precisely through the fact that He acts. The group celebrates itself and in doing so celebrates nothing at all. For it is no cause for celebration. That is why the general activity becomes boredom. Nothing happens when He whom the whole world awaits is absent. The transition to more concrete objectives, as reflected in the Missa Nicaraguensis, is thus only logical.

The proponents of this way of thinking must be asked directly: Is the Church really only an institution, a cultic bureaucracy, a power apparatus? Is the priestly office only the monopolization of sacral privileges? If we do not succeed in overcoming these notions effectively and do not succeed in seeing the Church differently again in our hearts, the liturgy will not be renewed, but the dead will bury the dead and call it reform. There is then, of course, no longer any Church music because the subject, the Church, has been lost. Indeed, one cannot even speak properly of the liturgy any more, for it presupposes the Church. What remains are group rituals that avail themselves of more or less skillful means of musical expression. If liturgy is to be renewed or even to survive, it is fundamental that the Church be rediscovered. I should add: if the alienation of man is to be overcome, if he is to find his identity again, it is indispensable that he find the Church again: a Church which is not an institution inimical to man, but one in which there is the new We in which the I can first win its foundation and its dwelling.

It would be beneficial in this connection to read once again and thoroughly that little book with which Romano Guardini completed his literary work in the last year of the Council.17 As he himself emphasizes, he wrote the book out of care and love for the Church whose humanity and endangeredness he knew very well. But he had learned to discover the scandal of the Incarnation of God in its humanity. He had learned to see in it the presence of the Lord who has made the Church His body. Only if that is so is there a simultaneity of Jesus Christ with us. And only if this exists is there real liturgy which is not a mere remembrance of the paschal mystery but its true presence. Once again, only if this is the case is liturgy a participation in the trinitarian dialogue between Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Only in this way is it not our “doing” but the opus Dei — God’s action in and with us. For that reason, Romano Guardini stressed emphatically that in the liturgy it is not a question of doing something but of being something. The idea that general activity is the most central value of the liturgy is the most radical antithesis imaginable to Guardini’s conception of the liturgy. In fact, the general activity of all is not only not the basic value of the liturgy, it is as such not a value at all.18

I shall forego dealing with these questions in further detail. We must concentrate on finding a point of departure and a criterion for the correct relation of liturgy and music. The realization that the genuine subject of the liturgy is the Church, that is the communio sanctorum of all places and all times, is from this point of view really of great importance. For as Guardini showed in detail in his early writing “Liturgische Bildung”, there follows from this realization a removal of the liturgy from the caprice of the group and individual (including clerics and specialists), a removal which he termed the objectivity and positivity of the liturgy.19 There also follows, and indeed above all, an awareness of the three ontological dimensions in which liturgy lives: cosmos, history, and mystery. The reference to history includes development, i.e., belonging to something living that has a beginning, continues in effect, remains present but is not yet finished, and lives only insofar as it is further developed. Many things die out, many things are forgotten and return later in a new way, but development always means participation in a beginning opened to what lies ahead. With that we have already touched on a second category that gains particular importance through its relation to the cosmos: liturgy, thus conceived, lives in the fundamental form of participation. No one is its one and only creator, for each one it is a participation in something greater, but each one is also an agent precisely because he is a recipient. Finally, the relation to mystery means that the beginning of the liturgical happening never lies in us. It is the response to an initiative from above, to a call and an act of love, which is mystery. Problems are there to be explained; mystery, however, discloses itself not in explanation but only in acceptance, in the “Yes” which today we may still call “obedience” after the Bible.

With that we have arrived at a point of great importance for the beginning of the artistic. For the group liturgy is not cosmic, it lives from the autonomy of the group. It has no history: it is precisely the emancipation from history and doing things oneself that are characteristic for it, even if one works with historical props. Moreover, it is ignorant of mystery because in it everything is and must be explained. For that reason, development and participation are just as foreign to it as obedience (to which a meaning is disclosed that is greater than the explicable).

Instead of all this, we have a creativity in which the autonomy of the emancipated seeks to confirm itself. Such creativity, which would like to be the functioning of autonomy and emancipation, is precisely for that reason strictly opposed to all participation. Its characteristics are caprice, as a necessary form of refusal of every pregiven form or norm; unrepeatability, since a dependency would already lie in the performance of the repetition; and artificiality, since it is necessarily a question of a pure creation of man.

It becomes clear, however, that a human creativity that does not will to be reception and participation is of its essence absurd and untrue, because man can only be himself through reception and participation. It is a flight from the conditio humana and thus untruth. This is the reason cultural decline sets in where, along with loss of faith in God, there is a protest against the pregiven ratio of being.

Let us summarize what we have found thus far in order to draw the consequences for the point of departure and the fundamental form of Church music. It has become clear that the primacy of the group comes from the understanding of the Church as institution which, in turn, is based on an idea of freedom that cannot be united with the idea and reality of the institutional and is unable to perceive the dimension of mystery in the reality of the Church. Freedom is understood in terms of the leading ideas “autonomy” and “emancipation”. It is concretized in the idea of creativity which against this background becomes a direct antithesis to the objectivity and positivity that belong to the essence of the Church’s liturgy. The group always has to fabricate itself anew, only then is it free. At the same time, we saw that any liturgy deserving of the name is radically opposed to this. It is against historical caprice which knows no development and thus gropes in the dark and against an unrepeatability which is also exclusivity and loss of communication over and above individual groupings. It is not against the technical, but it is against the artificial in which man creates a counterworld and loses sight of God’s creation in his heart. The oppositions are clear. It is also clear from the beginning that the inner foundation of the group mentality comes from an autonomously conceived idea of freedom. But we must now ask about the anthropological program on which the liturgy as understood by the Church’s faith rests.

3. The anthropological model of the Church’s liturgy
Two fundamental biblical words offer themselves as a key to answering our question. Paul coined the words logike latreia (Rom 12:1), which are difficult to translate into our modern languages because we lack a genuine equivalent to the concept of the Logos.

One could translate it by “Spirit-guided liturgy” and thereby refer to Jesus’ words on worship in spirit and truth (John 4:23) at the same time. But one could also translate it by “divine worship molded by the Word” and one would then have to add that “Word” in the biblical (and also in the Greek) sense is more than language or speech, namely, creative reality. It is, however, also more than mere thought and mere spirit. It is self-interpreting, self-communicating spirit. At all times, the word-relatedness, the rationality, the intelligibility, and the sobriety of the Christian liturgy have been derived from this and pregiven to liturgical music as its fundamental law.

It would be a narrow and false interpretation if by this one wished to understand that all liturgical music must be strictly related to a text and to declare that its general condition lies in serving the understanding of a text. For “Word” in the biblical sense is more than “text”. “Understanding” extends further than the banal intelligibility of that which is immediately evident to everyone and can be pressed into the most superficial rationality. It is correct, however, that music, which serves worship in spirit and truth, cannot be rhythmic ecstasy, sensuous suggestion or anesthetization, bliss of feeling, or superficial entertainment, but is subordinated to a message, a comprehensive spiritual and, in this sense, rational declaration. It is also correct, to express it otherwise, that it must correspond to this “word”, indeed serve it, in a comprehensive sense.20

With that we are automatically led to another truly fundamental text on the question of cult in which we are told more exactly what “Word” means and how it is related to us. I mean the sentence of the Johannine Prologue: “The Word became flesh and made His dwelling among us, and we have seen His glory” (John 1:14). The “Word” to which the Christian liturgy is related is not first of all a question of a text but of a living reality, of a God who is self-communicating meaning and who communicates Himself by becoming man. This Incarnation is now the sacred tent, the focal point of all cult, which gazes on God’s glory and gives Him honor. These declarations of the Johannine Prologue are, however, not yet the whole of the matter. One would misunderstand them if one did not read them together with the farewell discourse in which Jesus says to those who are His: “I am going now, but I shall return to you. It is by going that I return. It is good that I go, for only in this way can you receive the Holy Spirit” (John 14:2, 14:18, 16:5, and so on). The Incarnation is only the first part of the movement. It first becomes meaningful and definitive in the cross and resurrection: from the cross the Lord sees everything in itself and carries the flesh, i.e., man and the whole created world, into the eternity of God.

The liturgy is ordered to this line of movement, and this line of movement is, so to speak, the fundamental text to which all liturgical music is related. It must be measured by it from within. Liturgical music results from the claim and the dynamics of the Incarnation of the Word. For it means that also among us the Word cannot be mere talk. The sacramental signs are certainly the central way in which the Incarnation continues to work. But they become homeless if they are not immersed in a liturgy that as a whole follows this expansion of the Word into the realm of the bodily and all our senses. From this there comes, in opposition to the Jewish and Islamic types of cult, the right and even the necessity of images.21 From this there also comes the necessity of summoning up those deeper realms of understanding and response that disclose themselves in music.

The “musification” of faith is a part of the process of the Incarnation of the Word. But this musification is at the same time also ordered to that inner turn of the incarnational event which I tried to indicate before: in the cross and resurrection, the Incarnation of the Word becomes the “verbification” of the flesh. Each penetrates the other. The Incarnation is not taken back; it first becomes definitive at the moment in which the movement, so to speak, is reversed. The flesh itself is “logicized”, but precisely this verbification of the flesh effects a new unity of all reality, which was obviously so important to God that He let it cost Him His Son on the cross.

On the one hand, the musification of the Word is sensualization, Incarnation, attraction of pre-rational and transrational forces, attraction of the hidden sounds of creation, discovery of the song that lies at the bottom of things. But in this way, this musification is now itself also the turning point in the movement: it is not only Incarnation of the Word, but at the same time “spiritualization” of the flesh. Wood and metal become tone, the unconscious and the unreleased become ordered and meaningful sound. A corporealization takes place which is a spiritualization, and a spiritualization which is a corporealization. The Christian corporealization is always a spiritualization at the same time, and the Christian spiritualization is a corporealization into the body of the incarnate Logos.

4. The consequences for liturgical music

a. Fundamentals

Insofar as this interpenetration of both movements takes place in music, the latter serves that inner exodus which the liturgy always wishes to be and to become in the highest measure and in an indispensable way. But that means that the appropriateness of liturgical music is measured according to its inner correspondence to this fundamental anthropological and theological form. Such a declaration seems at first to be very far removed from concrete musical reality. It becomes immediately concrete, however, when we pay attention to the opposing models of cultic music to which I briefly referred previously.

Let us think first of all, for example, of the Dionysian type of religion and music with which Plato grappled from the standpoint of his religious and philosophical view.22 In not a few forms of religion, music is ordered to intoxication and ecstasy. The freedom from the limitations of being human towards which the hunger for the infinite proper to man is directed is to be attained through holy madness, through the frenzy of the rhythm and of the instruments. Such music lowers the barriers of individuality and of personality. Man frees himself in it from the burden of consciousness. Music becomes ecstasy, liberation from the ego, and unification with the universe.

We experience the profane return of this type today in rock and pop music, the festivals of which are an anti-culture of the same orientation — the pleasure of destruction, the abolition of everyday barriers, and the illusion of liberation from the ego in the wild ecstasy of noise and masses. It is a question of redemptive practices whose form of redemption is related to drugs and thoroughly opposed to the Christian faith in redemption. The conflict that Plato argued out between Dionysian and Apollonian music is not ours, for Apollo is not Christ. But the question he posed concerns us in a most important way.

Music has become today the decisive vehicle of a counter-religion and thus the scene of the discernment of spirits in a form that we could not have suspected a generation ago. Because rock music seeks redemption by way of liberation from the personality and its responsibility, it takes, in one respect, a very precise position in the anarchical ideas of freedom which predominate today in a more unconcealed way in the West than in the East. But precisely for that reason, it is thoroughly opposed to the Christian notion of redemption and of freedom as its exact contradiction. Not for aesthetic reasons, not from reactionary obstinacy, not from historical immobility, but because of its very nature music of this type must be excluded from the Church.

We could concretize our question further, if we were to continue analyzing the anthropological ground of different types of music.

There is agitation music which animates man for different collective purposes. There is sensual music which leads man into the erotic or essentially aims in other ways at sensual feelings of pleasure. There is light music which does not wish to say anything but only to break up the burden of silence. There is rationalistic music in which the tones serve only rational constructions but in which no real penetration of spirit and sensibility results. One would have to include many sterile catechism songs and modern hymns constructed under commission here.

The music that corresponds to the liturgy of the incarnate Christ raised up on the cross lives from another, greater and broader synthesis of spirit, intuition, and sensuous sound. One can say that Western music, from Gregorian chant through the cathedral music and the great polyphony, through the renaissance and baroque music up until Bruckner and beyond, has come from the inner wealth of this synthesis and developed it in the fullness of its possibilities.

This greatness exists only here because it alone was able to grow out of this anthropological ground that joined the spiritual and the profane in an ultimate human unity. This unity is dissolved in the measure that this anthropology disappears. The greatness of this music is, for me, the most immediate and the most evident verification of the Christian image of man and of the Christian faith in redemption that history offers us. He who is touched by it knows somehow in his heart that the faith is true, even if he still has a long way to go to re-enact this insight with reason and will.

That means that the liturgical music of the Church must be ordered to that integration of human being that appears before us in faith in the Incarnation. Such a redemption is more laborious than that of intoxication. But this labor is the exertion of truth itself. In one respect, it must integrate the senses into the spirit; it must correspond to the impulse of the sursum corda [lift up your hearts]. However, it does not will a pure spiritualization but an integration of sensibility and spirit so that both become person in one another. It does not debase the spirit when it takes the senses up into itself, but first brings it the whole wealth of creation. And it does not make the senses less real when they are penetrated by the spirit, rather, in this way they first receive a share in its infinity. Every sensual pleasure is strictly circumscribed and is ultimately incapable of intensification because the sense act cannot exceed a certain measure. He who expects redemption from it will be disappointed, “frustrated” — as one would say today. But through integration into the spirit, the senses receive a new depth and reach into the infinity of the spiritual adventure. Only there do they come completely to themselves. But that presupposes that the spirit does not remain closed either.

The music of faith seeks the integration of man in the sursum corda; man, however, does not find this integration in himself, but only in self-transcendence towards the incarnate word. Sacred music, which stands in the structure of this movement, thus becomes the purification and the ascent of man. But let us not forget: this music is not the work of a moment but participation in a history. It is not realized by an individual but only in community. Thus, it is precisely in it that the entrance of faith into history and the community of all members of the body of Christ expresses itself.

It permits joy again, a higher kind of ecstasy which does not extinguish the person but unites and thus liberates him. It lets us glimpse what a freedom is that does not destroy but gathers and purifies.

b) Remarks on the present situation

The question for the musician is, of course: How does one do that? At bottom, great works of Church music can only be bestowed because the transcendence of self, which is not achievable by man alone, is involved, whereas the frenzy of the senses is producible in accordance with the known mechanisms of intoxication. Production ends where the truly great begins. We must first of all see and recognize this limit. To this extent, reverence, receptivity, and the humility that is ready to serve by participating in the great works that have already issued forth necessarily stand at the beginning of great sacred music. Only he who lives from the inner structure of this image of man at least in its essentials can create the music pertaining to it.

The Church has set up two further road markers. In its inner character, liturgical music must correspond to the demands of the great liturgical texts — the Kyrie, Gloria, Credo, Sanctus, Agnus Dei. That does not mean, as I have already said, that it may be only text music. But it finds in the inner direction of these texts a pointer for its own message.

The second road marker is the reference to Gregorian chant and to Palestrina. Again, this reference does not mean that all Church music must be an imitation of this music. On this point, there were in fact many constrictions in the renewal of Church music in the last century and also in the papal documents based on it. Correctly understood, this simply says that norms are given here that provide an orientation. But what may arise through the creative appropriation of such an orientation is not to be established in advance.

The question remains: Humanly speaking, can one hope that new creative possibilities are still open? And how is that to happen? The first question is really quite easy to answer. For if this image of man is inexhaustible in opposition to the other one, then it also opens up ever new possibilities for the artistic message, and does so all the more, the more vividly it determines the spirit of an age. But here lies the difficulty for the second question.

In our times, faith has to a large extent stepped down as a publicly formative force. How is it to become creative? Has it not everywhere been repressed into a subculture? To this one could reply that we are apparently standing before a new blossoming of faith in Africa, Asia, and Latin America from which new cultural forms may sprout forth.

But even in the Western world the word “subculture” should not frighten us. In the cultural crisis we are experiencing, it is only from islands of spiritual composure that new cultural purification and unification can break forth. Where new outbursts of faith take place in living communities, one also sees how a new Christian culture is formed, how the community experience inspires and opens ways we could not see before. Furthermore, F. Doppelbauer has correctly pointed to the fact that liturgical music frequently and not coincidentally bears the character of a late work and presupposes a previously acquired maturity.23

Here it is important that there be the antechambers of popular piety and its music as well as spiritual music in the wider sense which should always stand in a fruitful exchange with liturgical music: they are fructified and purified by it on the one hand, but they also prepare new forms of liturgical music. From their freer forms there can then mature what can enter into the common possession of the universal liturgy of the Church. Here then is also the realm in which the group can try its creativity in the hope that something will grow out of it that one day may belong to the whole.24

Liturgy, music, and cosmos

I would like very much to place at the close of my reflections a beautiful saying of Mahatma Gandhi, which I recently found on a calendar. Gandhi refers to the three living spaces of the cosmos and to the way in which each of these living spaces has its own mode of being. Fish live in the sea, and they are silent. Animals on the earth cry. But the birds, whose living space is the heavens, sing. Silence is proper to the sea, crying to the earth, and singing to the heavens. Man, however, has a share in all three. He bears within himself the depths of the sea, the burden of the earth, and the heights of heaven, and for that reason all three properties belong to him: silence, crying, and singing. Today — I should like to add — we see how the cry is all that remains for the man without transcendence because he wills to be only earth and also attempts to make heaven and the depths of the sea into his earth. The right liturgy, the liturgy of the communion of saints, restores his totality to him. It teaches him silence and singing again by opening up the depths of the sea to him and by teaching him to fly like the angels. By lifting up his heart, it brings the song buried in him to sound again. Indeed, we can even say the reverse: one recognizes right liturgy in that it frees us from general activity and restores to us again the depths and the heights, quiet and song. One recognizes right liturgy in that it has a cosmic not a group character. It sings with the angels. It is silent with the waiting depths of the universe. And thus it redeems the earth.

— Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger
(Translated by Stephen Wentworth Arndt)


1 Compare Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, Das Fest des Glauben (Einsiedeln: Johannes VerIage, 1981), pp. 86-111.

2 See p. 211a: “The documents of Vatican II reveal the existence of two souls...”: and p. 212a: “This series of hints, derived more from the spirit than from the letter of Vatican II.” Rainoldi and E. Costa Jr., “Canto e musica”, in Nuovo diziollario di Liturgia, ed. Domenico Sartore and Achille M. Triacca (Rome: Ed. Paoline, 1984)

3 Ibid., p. 199a.

4 Ibid., p. 206b.

5 Ibid., p. 204a: “The celebration assumes the form of a splendid ‘opus’ for whose attendance and protagonists mysterious powers are recognized: the cultural difference thus begins to become a ‘sacral’ difference.... Music is on the way to becoming, like Latin, a learned language: the language of another Church, which is the institution and its clergy.”

6 “Think ... of the repetition of thought forms and prefabricted judgments; of the fabling and concealment of facts in order to sustain a certain form of power and ideological vision. Think of common mystifying expressions such as ‘the great patrimony of sacred music,’ ‘the Church’s thought on chant,’ ‘the organ, queen of the instruments: ‘the universality of Gregorian chant’ ...” (p. 200a). Cf. pp. 210b and 206b.

7 Ibid., p. 210b.

8 Ibid., p. 208a.

9 Ibid., p. 206a.

10 Ibid., p. 211a.

11 Ibid., p. 212a.

12 Ibid., p. 211b.

13 Ibid., p. 217b.

14 Ibid., p. 217b.

15 “The members of the believing assembly, and above all the animators of the rite ... will know how to acquire that fundamental capacity that is a ‘knowing how to celebrate,’ in other words a knowing how to do...” (p. 218b).

16 Ibid., p. 212a.

17 R. Guardini, Die Kirche des Herrn: Meditationen (Wurzburg: Werkbund-Verlag [1965]), trans. Stella Lange, The Church of the Lord... (Chicago: H. Regnery, 1967). Guardini takes a stand there on the “opening” that was underway, which he welcomes but to which he also sets an inner limit at the same time: “... may the happenings of the present not lead to a trivialization or a softening of the Church, but may it ever stand clearly in our consciousness that the Church is a ‘mystery’ and a ‘rock’” (p. 18). He comments briefly on both concepts and traces the concept “rock” to that of “truth” from whose claim it follows that the Church must stand “unshakably in the distinction of true and false in spite of all ties to the times”: “because only the truth and the demand for truth mean genuine respect, whereas compliancy and letting things go is a weakness that does not dare to demand of man the majesty of the self-revealing God; at bottom, it is a contempt of man...” One should also re-read in this connection the Meditation sur l’eglise by Henri de Lubac, 3d cd. (Paris: Aubier, [1954]), trans. Michael Maron, The Splendor of the Church (Glen Park, N.J.: Paulist Press, 1963 [from 2d cd.]), which has just been republished in French.

18 I have attempted to say something more in detail on Guardini’s understanding of the liturgy in my contribution “Von der Liturgie zur Christologie”, in J. Ratzinger, ed., Wege zur Wahrheit: Die bleibende Bedeutung von R. Guardini (Dusseldorf, 1985), pp. 121-144.

19 R. Guardini, Liturgische Bildung, vol.1: Versuche, (Rotenfels: Deutsche Quickbornhaus, 1923); with a revised edition under the title Liturgie und liturgische Bildung (Wurzburg: Werkbund-Verlag, 1966).

20 For the correct understanding of the Pauline logike lateria, see especially Heinrich Schlier, Der Romerbrief (Freiburg: Herder, 1977), pp. 350-358, esp. 356ff.

21 Cf. See on this point the thorough work of Christian Schorn, Die Christus-Ikone (Schaffhausen, 1984).

22 Cf. Joseph Ratzinger, Das Fest des Glaubens, 2d ed. (Einsiedeln: Johannes Verlag, 1981), pp. 86-111; A. Rivaud, “Platon et la musique”, Revue d’histoire de la philosophie (1929):1-30.

23 J. F. Doppelbauer, “Die geistliche Musik und die Kirche”, Communio (German edition) 5 (1984): 457-466.

24 Important for the theological and musical foundations of Church music, which are only indicated here, is J. Overath, “Kirchenmusik im Dienst des Kultes”, Communio (German edition) 4 (1984): 355-368. One finds a broad panorama of ideas in P. W. Scheele, “Die liturgische und apostolische Sendung der Musica sacra”, Musica sacra: Zeitschrift des allgemeinen Cacilienverbandes fur die Lander deutscher Sprache 105 (1985): 187-207.


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