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Online Edition - Vol. V, No. 2: April 1999

From "Tantum Ergo" to "They Will Know We Are Christians by Our Love"

What Happened?

by the Reverend Robert C. Pasley

Father Pasley, a priest of the Diocese of Camden, New Jersey, is vice principal and chairman of the religion department of Camden Catholic High School in Cherry Hill, and vice president of the Church Music Association of America. This essay was originally a lecture at a music conference at Franciscan University of Steubenville on February 28, 1998.

We have gone from solemnity, sacred awe, songs that every generation could recognize, or even sing from memory, to trendy clap trap, liturgo-pop, and Whoopi Goldberg songs that change every six months as they fall off the liturgical top 10 list.

As a child, I remember going from the solemn and sacred, haunting tune of "Tantum Ergo Sacramentum" to the tom-tom beat of "They Will Know We are Christians by Our Love".

What was going on? What is still going on? We live in the midst of a very serious battle that strikes at the very heart of our faith. The Sacred Liturgy is the source and summit of our faith! Is it God-centered or "us"-centered? Is the Mass a Christian pep rally to make the troops feel good about themselves? Or is it the most holy, sacrosanct act of worship that any human being could ever give to Almighty God? Do we sing a new and beautiful song to the Lord? Or do we sing the Gathering Hymn to ourselves? Do we create the liturgy or is it given to us and to which we must join ourselves and be uplifted to the Eternal One?

These are very basic and important questions. The manner in which they are answered will greatly affect one's view of the Mass. The problem is, the questions have already been answered. There are many who ignore the correct answers because they want to forge a whole new world of worship that is radically different from the worship that has come down to us in the Catholic Church.

The Experience of Liturgical Change

I would like to give a personal history and reflection. I was born in Woodbury, New Jersey, in 1955, during the reign of Pope Pius XII. At the end of first grade, in May 1963, I received my First Communion. I received Confirmation in October 1963, at the beginning of second grade, and I still remember the anticipation of seeing the Bishop and memorizing the hymn, Confirma hoc Deus. I attended Most Holy Redeemer grammar school, Westville Grove, New Jersey. There were two classes of each grade and my first grade teacher, Sister Albertine, SSJ, had to deal with 85 of us. Most Holy Redeemer had 14 Sisters of St Joseph, from Chestnut Hill, Pennsylvania, two lay teachers, our pastor, Father Schad, who would later become our auxiliary bishop, and two assistant priests.

I recall my grammar school days very fondly. Many things happened then that planted the seed of my vocation. I remember the Baltimore Catechism and catechism bees. The May Procession was a huge event and every child was to bring flowers from home. Each morning during May, the whole school would stand at attention in the school yard and loudly sing a hymn to Our Lady. I remember the Corpus Christi procession and the three altars, the All Souls day Mass with the catafalque present, and the Holy Thursday procession with all the fifth graders dressed to perfection. I even dragged my mother along who was sick and pregnant with my brother because there was no way I could miss Holy Thursday. Stations of the Cross and Benediction during Lent were times of deep encounter with the mystery and awe of the faith. Latin was the language of the day. According to today's wisdom, I should have no faith at all, because I couldn't understand a word but, oh, how wrong! Actions speak louder than words and the actions that took place in my parish taught their meaning and that meaning seeped into my soul.

In 1967, we moved to a new parish, Saint Margaret. I was just about to enter junior high and things in the Church were beginning to change dramatically. The parish did not have a church. We had to attend Mass in the school gym. Folding chairs, broken kneelers, an altar on the stage, and the distinct, lingering aroma of stale cigarette smoke would greet you on Sunday morning. But that was not bad enough. We received our first "Vatican II priest" who was going to show us the real "Spirit of Vatican II".

I was 13 at the time, and I will never forget Holy Thursday. I walked into the gym, and the altar on the stage was gone. It was considered too distant and we had to become a community. In the center of the hall, four bingo tables were put together to create a large rectangular table. They were covered with white cloths and decorated with large loaves of bread and huge bunches of grapes. The metal folding chairs now surrounded the table in a circle. I used to look forward to the ringing of the bells during the sung Gloria, and then the somber sound of the wooden clapper at the Consecration. Not this time. The Gloria was spoken and the bells and the clapper were gone. The Hammond organ was unplugged and a solitary guitarist blared into the microphone near the bingo table altar. No incense, no Pange lingua, and a repository in a small room that looked like a large clothes closet. We were told that we were finally experiencing real community. And I, at 13 thought, Oh! is that what this is called!

I went home furious. My mother thought I had been mugged. And you know what? I had been spiritually. Somehow, by the grace of God, I sensed that something was dramatically wrong.

I thank God for three things during those years:

1. My father and mother who taught us right from wrong and who taught us never to back down when we knew we were right.

2. The nuns at Saint Margaret's -- Franciscan sisters from Italy who had a beautiful community life, wore a traditional habit, and sang magnificent Latin and Italian hymns in harmony. Their community hymn -- Santa Maria degli Angeli -- was truly heavenly.

3. The choir director at the public high school I attended. She was a class act and loved sacred music. We sang Vivaldi's Gloria, Mozart's Dixit Dominus, and other wonderful pieces. She opened my life to a world of sacred music that is a very central part of my life today.

At the end of high school I decided to enter the seminary. To my joy and great relief I was sent to Saint Charles Seminary in Philadelphia. This was at the height of John Cardinal Krol's reign in the archdiocese. Things were not perfect in the seminary, but it was one of the best. I experienced magnificent and solemn celebrations of the Sacred Liturgy; i.e. Forty Hours Devotions, Benediction and the chanted Office. We would sing a wonderful Ecce Sacerdos Magnus for Cardinal Krol when he would visit. I learned my first Gregorian chant. The Masses were said, for the most part, reverently, and the music, both Latin and English, was generally very beautiful and filled with a sense of the sacred.

Also, for the first time, I discovered the Documents of Vatican II, especially the Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy. This discovery made it clear that my sense, even as an adolescent, that something was amiss had been correct. It was not based on nostalgic feelings or an inability to change; I completely agreed with Vatican II.

Pre- and Post-Conciliar

The general perception was that everything before Vatican II was bad, and everything after Vatican II was good. As Cardinal Ratzinger says, in A New Song for the Lord:

For some, a chasm separates the history of the Church into two irreconcilable worlds; the preconciliar and the postconciliar. Indeed, in many circles there is no worse verdict than being able to say that a Church decision, a text, a particular structuring of the liturgy, or a person is 'preconciliar'. Accordingly, Catholicism must have been imprisoned in a truly dreadful situation until 1965. (p.130)

Everything before Vatican II was not bad, obviously. There is supposed to be a discernible continuity with the past, not an obliteration of it. This idea is found in some very important texts from the Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy:

1. "In the earthly liturgy we take part in a foretaste of that heavenly liturgy which is celebrated in the holy city of Jerusalem toward which we journey as pilgrims, where Christ is sitting at the right hand of God, a minister of the holies and of the true tabernacle (22); we sing a hymn to the Lord's glory with all the warriors of the heavenly army; venerating the memory of the saints, we hope for some part and fellowship with them; we eagerly await the Savior, Our Lord Jesus Christ, until He, our life, shall appear and we too will appear with Him in glory (23)." [§ 8]

2. "Particular law remaining in force, the use of the Latin language is to be preserved in the Latin rites." [§ 36]

3. "The musical tradition of the universal Church is a treasure of inestimable value, greater even than that of any other art. The main reason for this pre-eminence is that, as sacred song united to the words, it forms a necessary or integral part of the solemn liturgy. Therefore sacred music is to be considered the more holy in proportion as it is more closely connected with the liturgical action, whether it adds delight to prayer, fosters unity of minds, or confers greater solemnity upon the sacred rites." [§ 112]

4. "The treasure of sacred music is to be preserved and fostered with great care. Choirs must be diligently promoted, especially in cathedral churches; but bishops and other pastors of souls must be at pains to ensure that, whenever the sacred action is to be celebrated with song, the whole body of the faithful may be able to contribute that active participation which is rightly theirs..." [§ 114] (I will return to "active participation" later.)

5. "The Church acknowledges Gregorian chant as specially suited to the Roman liturgy: therefore, other things being equal, it should be given pride of place in liturgical services. But other kinds of sacred music, especially polyphony, are by no means excluded from liturgical celebrations, so long as they accord with the spirit of the liturgical action." [116]

These statements were imprinted indelibly on my mind. I was determined to work for these goals despite the fact that I knew I was in for a battle. The battle has continued and is actually heating up. We must rediscover the true meaning of Vatican II's Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy, become one with the Church's true meaning about the Mass, and work to restore the sacred, especially old and new sacred music.

Whose Action is the Liturgy?

At the beginning of this reflection I asked some questions. Is the Sacred Liturgy God-centered or us-centered? Do we create liturgy or do we enter into liturgy given to us by God, so that He can draw us into Himself and make us one with each other?

Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, in his book, A New Song for the Lord, answers this question clearly. He says that there is a new conception of liturgy which is a break with the Church's basic understanding. According to this new way of thinking, he says, the primary value of the renewed liturgy is the full and authentic action of persons. Church music thus becomes a way for the "People of God" to represent their identity in song. The second value of this view of liturgy is to effect the cohesion of the group. Music, therefore, should be easy and familiar and act as a cohesive force in bringing the group together.

In other words, the "group" is placed before the Church and ultimately is prior to the worship of God. The role of liturgical music is to "arouse irrational forces and awaken a community togetherness". It is ordered to feeling good. It should free people from limitations. Such music should pull down the barriers of individuality and personality. It should be an emotionally liberating experience. It has to be full of creativity and newness. Since it is centered on "me" and "us" it has to be new and creative or else it becomes boring.

The Liturgy of the Church is, however, the opus Dei, the work of God, in which God Himself first acts and we become redeemed precisely through His action. Liturgy is not to do something, but to be before God, and experience God through His Incarnate Son, Jesus Christ. It is to be uplifted into the divine and heavenly action of redemption.

In regard to sacred music and its place in this Divine Liturgy, Cardinal Ratzinger says, "At the beginning of great sacred music there is of necessity awe, receptivity, and a humility that is prepared to serve by participating in the greatness which has already gone forth." (p.125)

Qualities of Sacred Liturgy

Father Robert Skeris, president of the Church Music Association of America, spoke at the Latin Liturgy Association on June 1, 1997, held at Saint Agnes Church, Saint Paul, Minnesota. In his essay, "Musica Sacra and the Root Phenomenon of Christian Liturgy", he summarizes the qualities that sacred liturgy should possess. They are:

1. Sacred Language: Liturgy demands a language consecrated to God exclusively, or at least almost exclusively. This is why the use of Latin is so important.

Latin is also a vehicle through which we experience the mysterium tremendum -- the tremendous mystery of God's presence and action in our midst. It helps to foster a sense of awe and holy fear of the Lord.

People often protest, "But I don't understand Latin. I can understand only when the vernacular is used". Cardinal Ratzinger reflects on this when he says in A New Song for the Lord, "After the Council a fanaticism about the vernacular appeared in a number of places. This is actually abstruse in a multicultural society. A text is not yet understandable to everyone just because it has been translated into the mother tongue".

2. The second quality is sacred rites. Father Skeris says that the sacred ceremonies are "windows and doors through which the Eternal, heaven, true life and the real meaning of all things streams into our poor and narrow existence, by means of grandiose yet powerfully concentrated experiences. "The ceremonies should be done slowly and deliberately, with solemnity and dignity. The Sacred Liturgy is not the Jay Leno show or a local pep rally.

3. The third quality of sacred worship is a need for sacred texts. There is a need for sacred formulations of words and a sacred style of delivery. Each word must be spoken with reverence.

4. The fourth quality is sacred silence. Father Skeris says that sacred silence is a requisite for an atmosphere saturated with the divine. "A genuinely sacred worship must proceed from, and sink back into, a profound and adoring silence."

5. The last quality is sacred space. "An atmosphere saturated with the divine is brought about in large measure by the concentrated, truly consecrated, sacral luster or 'radiation' emitted by the sacred spaces of the Church itself." (Father Skeris's essay is in Sacred Music, Fall 1997, Volume 124, No. 3, pp. 19-23.)

I would like to apply this, also, to sacred music. Sacred music must immerse us in the holy and the divine. It should lift our hearts, souls and especially our minds to God. It should use sacred texts and sacred language. Its role is not to exhilarate us emotionally, but to draw us into the divine action that is the true worship of God.

Monsignor Richard Schuler, pastor of Saint Agnes in Saint Paul, Minnesota and former editor of Sacred Music says, "Church Music is sacramental. It is sound that has become holy through dedication to a sacred purpose, the worship of God; sound that is most closely connected to the Word of God; sound that is created and performed by persons dedicated to God's praise and adoration. It is sound and words that bring the listener to a relationship with God. Church is (should be) essentially prayer, the raising of the heart and mind to God". (Sacred Music, summer 1993, Vol. 120, No. 2, p.4).

Active Participation

Concerning the active participation of the people, Vatican II states,

In the restoration and promotion of the sacred liturgy, this full and active participation by all the people is the aim to be considered before all else; for it is the primary and indispensable source from which the faithful are to derive the true Christian spirit; and therefore pastors of souls must zealously strive to achieve it, by means of the necessary instruction, in all their pastoral work. [¶ 14]

To promote active participation, the people should be encouraged to take part by means of acclamations, responses, psalmody, antiphons, and songs, as well as by actions, gestures, and bodily attitudes. And at the proper times all should observe a reverent silence. [¶ 30]

Does active participation of the people rule out the use of a choir and also rule out the use of great choral music? Once again Cardinal Ratzinger offers some important insights in A New Song for the Lord:

Where an exaggerated and completely unrealistic concept of congregation prevails, only the priest and congregation can be acknowledged as the legitimate singers of liturgical hymns. That a schola and choir can contribute to the whole is seldom challenged [today], not even where one falsely interprets the conciliar phrase 'active participation' in the sense of an external actionism. Admittedly, vetoes against the use of a choir remain. They are based on an inadequate interpretation of liturgical togetherness. In this togetherness the present congregation can never simply be the subject; rather, it must be understood as an assembly that is open upwards and open synchronically and diachronically into the wide expanse of God's history. Once again Harnoncourt has brought an important part into play when he speaks of elevated forms that cannot be missing in the Liturgy as God's celebration, but whose high demands cannot be satisfied by the congregation as a whole. He goes on to say, 'The choir, therefore, is not standing before a community which is listening like an audience that lets itself be sung to, but is itself part of the community and sings for it in the sense of legitimately representing it or standing in for it.'

The concept of representation, or standing in for another, which affects all levels of religious reality and is thus also important in the liturgical assembly in particular, is one of the fundamental categories of Christian faith as a whole.

The choir acts for the others and includes them in its own action in this `for'. Through its singing everyone can be led into the great liturgy of the communion of saints and thus into that kind of praying which pulls our hearts upwards and lets us join, above and beyond all earthly realizations, the heavenly Jerusalem (pp. 139-140).

Gregorian chant, the Mozart "Coronation Mass", Palestrina's "Missa Assumpta est Maria", or modern religious music like "If I Were a Butterfly", "Kumbaya" and "They Will Know We are Christians by Our Love" -- which expresses the Sacred, the Eternal? The answer is clear.

***

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