Online Edition – Vol. IX, No. 10: February 2004
On Sacred Music:
Pope John Paul II’s Letter on the 100th anniversary of Pope Pius X’s document on music
"The centenary anniversary of [Pope Saint Pius X’s motu proprio on sacred music, Tra le sollecitudini] offers me occasion to recall the important function of sacred music, which Saint Pius X presents both as a means of elevation of the spirit to God and as a precious aid for the faithful in the ‘active participation in the most sacred mysteries and in the solemn and public prayer of the Church’", wrote Pope John Paul II in his "chirograph" dated on the Feast of Saint Cecelia, patroness of music, November 22, 2003 and released December 3, 2003.
The Holy Father’s "chirograph" (literally, "handwriting", a document of an administrative nature signed by the pope), intends to promote the authentic renewal of sacred music in order to assure its dignity, authenticity, and appropriateness for Catholic worship. The letter reaffirms the role of Gregorian chant, which, he wrote, "continues even today to be an element of unity in the Roman Liturgy", as well the importance of the organ in Catholic musical tradition, though other musical forms and instruments are not excluded.
The letter notes that "sacred music" as defined today often "includes repertoire which cannot enter into the celebration without violating the spirit and the norms of the Liturgy itself". The pope recalls his General Audience message on Psalm 150 (Feb. 26, 2003), which observed the need to "purify worship from ugliness of style, from distasteful forms of expression, from uninspired musical texts which are not worthy of the great act that is being celebrated".
In order to ensure dignity and integrity of forms to liturgical music, the pope stresses the need for intensified training of musicians, choirs, congregations as well as of priests and seminarians, so that "the musical aspect of liturgical celebrations be left neither to improvisation nor to the will of individuals". The pope mentions in particular the continued need for schools of sacred music, "which deserve to be supported and developed for an ever improving understanding and execution of good liturgical music".
New compositions and popular songs for use in the Liturgy, the letter notes, must "be pervaded by the same spirit that gave rise to and molded" Gregorian chat. The pope observed that music for dignified worship needs to be carefully selected, and that this will require "a renewed and further deepened consideration of the principles for the formation and dissemination of a repertoire of quality".
The Holy Father comments that Saint Pius X had asked special diocesan and interdiocesan commissions "of persons really competent in matters of sacred music". Now there are many commissions, and it is the task of bishops to assure that these commissions work effectively, the pope says, and it is the purpose of music commissions to assure the "quality of texts and music".
The official English translation of the chirograph was not available at press time. Following are excerpts from an unofficial translation by Dallas musician Daniel Muller, a member of the Church Music Society of America. (Text of footnote citations are omitted here. Documents cited are accessible on the Adoremus web site.) – Editor
Moved by the lively desire "of maintaining and of promoting decorum in the House of God", my predecessor Saint Pius X one hundred years ago issued the motu proprio Tra le sollecitudini, which had as its object the renovation of sacred music in acts of worship. With it he intended to offer to the Church concrete directions in that vital sector of the Liturgy, presenting her "a kind of juridical code of sacred music".
The centenary anniversary of this document offers me occasion to recall the important function of sacred music, which Saint Pius X presents both as a means of elevation of the spirit to God, and also as a precious aid for the faithful in the "active participation at the most sacred mysteries and at the solemn and public prayer of the Church".2
The special attention that is proper to reserve to sacred music, recalls the holy Pontiff, derives from the fact that it, "as an integral part of the solemn Liturgy, participates in its general end, which is the glory of God and the sanctification and edification of the faithful".3 Interpreting and expressing the profound sense of the sacred text to which it is intimately bound, it is capable of "adding greater efficacy to the same text, so that the faithful […] are better disposed to receive the fruits of grace which are proper to the celebration of the most holy mysteries".
2. This beginning is taken up again by the Ecumenical Council Vatican II in Chapter 6 of the constitution on the sacred Liturgy, Sacrosanctum Concilium, where the ecclesial function of sacred music is recalled with clarity: "The musical tradition of all the Church constitutes a patrimony of inestimable value, which exceeds that of other expressions of art, especially by the fact that sacred song, united to words, is a necessary and integral part of the solemn Liturgy"…
3. On several occasions I have also recalled the valuable function and the great importance of music and of song for more active and intense participation at liturgical celebrations, and I have emphasized the necessity to "purify worship from ugliness of style, from distasteful forms of expression, from uninspired musical texts which are not worthy of the great act that is being celebrated", in order to ensure dignity and integrity of forms to liturgical music.
With such a perspective, in light of the teachings of Saint Pius X and of my other Predecessors, and particularly taking into account the pronouncements of the Second Vatican Council, I desire to propose again some fundamental principles for this important sector of the life of the Church, with the intention of seeing to it that liturgical music corresponds more and more to its specific function.
4. In following the course of the teachings of Saint Pius X and of the Second Vatican Council, it is above all necessary to emphasize that music destined for the sacred rites must have as its point of reference sanctity: it in fact "will be the more holy the more closely it is united to the liturgical action". Precisely because of this, "not all that which stands outside the temple (profanum) is fit to cross the threshold", sagely affirmed my venerated Predecessor Paul VI, commenting upon a decree of the Council of Trent and clarified that "if it does not at once possess the sense of prayer, of dignity and beauty, music — instrumental and vocal — by this fact is precluded from admission into the sacred and religious realm".
On the other hand, the category of "sacred music" today has undergone such a broadening of meaning as to include repertoire that cannot enter into the celebration without violating the spirit and the norms of the Liturgy itself.
The reform effected by Saint Pius X had specifically in view the purification of Church music from the contamination of profane theatrical music, which in many countries had polluted liturgical music repertoire and praxis. This is also to be considered attentively in our times, as I have placed in evidence in the Encyclical Ecclesia de Eucharistia: that not all expressions of the figurative arts and of music are capable "of adequately expressing the Mystery worshipped in the fullness of the Church’s faith". As a consequence, not all musical forms can be considered suitable for liturgical celebrations.
5. Another principle enunciated by Saint Pius X in the motu proprio Tra le sollecitudini, a principle moreover intimately connected to the preceding, is that of goodness of form. There can be no music destined for the celebration of the sacred rites that be not first "true art", capable of having that efficacy "which the Church intends to obtain by receiving into her liturgy the art of sounds".
And still such quality by itself is not enough. Liturgical music must indeed comply with its specific requirements: full adherence to the texts that it presents, consonance with the liturgical season and moment to which it is destined, adequate correspondence to the gestures that the rite proposes…
Song and music demanded by the liturgical reform — it is well to emphasize — must also respond to the legitimate demands of adaptation and of inculturation. Yet it is clear that every innovation in this delicate area must respect special criteria, such as the search for musical expressions that answer to the necessary involvement of the entire assembly in the celebration and that avoid, at the same time, whatever concession to levity or to superficiality. On the other hand are also to be avoided, in general, those forms of "inculturation" of an elitist stripe, which introduce into the Liturgy ancient or contemporary compositions which are perhaps of artistic value, but which indulge in a most incomprehensible language. [T]he sacred sphere of the liturgical celebration must never become a laboratory for experimentation or compositional and performance practices introduced without careful control.
Among musical expressions that best respond to the quality required by the notion of sacred music, especially liturgical, a particular place is occupied by Gregorian chant. The Second Vatican Council recognizes it as "the song proper to the Roman Liturgy" to which it is necessary to reserve, all things being equal, first place in sung liturgical actions celebrated in the Latin language. Saint Pius X observes how the Church has "inherited" it "from the ancient Fathers", has "guarded" it "jealously over the centuries in her liturgical codices" and still "proposes" it "to the faithful" as her own, considering it "as the supreme model of sacred music". Gregorian chant, therefore, continues even today to be an element of unity in the Roman Liturgy…
8. The importance of preserving and increasing the age-old patrimony of the Church leads to taking up in particular a specific exhortation of the Constitution Sacrosanctum Concilium: "Scholae cantorum are to be zealously promoted, especially around cathedral churches". In its turn, the Instruction Musicam sacram specifies the ministerial task of the schola: "Worthy of particular attention, for the liturgical service that unfolds, is the choir or cappella musicale or schola cantorum. Following the conciliar norms regarding liturgical reform, its task has become of still greater remark and importance: it must, indeed, attend to the exact execution of those parts proper to itself, according to the various types of songs, and accommodate active participation of the faithful in song. Therefore […] there is and is to be promoted with special care, in cathedrals and other large churches, in seminaries and religious houses of studies, a choir or cappella musicale or schola cantorum". The task of the schola has not decreased: it indeed develops in the assembly the role of guide and support and, at certain moments of the Liturgy, has its own specific role.
From the good coordination of all — the priest celebrant and the deacon, the acolytes, the ministers, the lectors, the psalmist, the schola cantorum, the musicians, the cantor, the assembly — springs that opportune spiritual climate that renders the liturgical moment truly intense, participatory, and fruitful. The musical aspect of liturgical celebrations, then, can be left neither to improvisation nor to the will of individuals, but must rely on well-organized direction with respect to norms and competencies, which is the meaningful fruit of adequate liturgical formation.
9. Also in this field, therefore, is in evidence the urgency of promoting a solid formation not only of pastors but also of the lay faithful. Saint Pius X particularly insisted on musical formation of clerics. A call in such a sense is also found to be reinforced by the Second Vatican Council: "Care is to be taken for musical formation and practice in seminaries, in novitiates of male and female religious and in houses of studies, as also in other Catholic institutes and schools". This directive awaits being fully realized. Therefore, I hold it opportune to recall it, so that future pastors will be able to acquire a fitting sensibility in this field as well.
In such formational works, a special role develops for schools of sacred music, which Saint Pius X exhorted to be maintained and promoted, and which the Second Vatican Council recommends to be formed where possible. A concrete fruit of the reform of Saint Pius X was the erection in Rome, in 1911, eight years after the motu proprio, of the "Pontifical Academy of Sacred Music", afterward becoming the "Pontifical Institute of Sacred Music". Near this now almost-centenary academic institution, which has rendered and still renders a specialized service to the Church, there are many other schools founded in individual Churches, which deserve to be supported and developed for an ever better understanding and execution of good liturgical music.
10. As the Church has always recognized and favored progress in the arts, it should not be amazing that, besides Gregorian chant and polyphony, she also admits into her celebrations more modern music, provided it be as respectful of the liturgical spirit as of the true values of art. It is accordingly permitted to the Churches in various nations to value, among those compositions destined for worship, "those particular forms which constitute in some way the specific character of their own music". Along the line of my sainted Predecessor and further established recently by the Constitution Sacrosanctum Concilium, I also, in the Encyclical Ecclesia de Eucharistia, have intended to make room for new musical contributions by mentioning, next to the inspired Gregorian melodies, "the many and often great composers who have ventured to set to music the liturgical texts of the Holy Mass".
12. With regard to liturgical music compositions, I make my own the "general law" that Saint Pius X formulated in these terms: "A composition for Church is sacred and liturgical insofar as it approaches Gregorian melody in flow, in inspiration, and in flavor, and so much less is it worthy of the temple insomuch as it is recognized as departing from that supreme model". Evidently, this does not mean copying Gregorian chant, but rather seeing to it that new compositions be pervaded by the same spirit that gave rise to and so molded that chant. Only an artist profoundly immersed in the sensus Ecclesiae may try to perceive and translate into melody the truth of the Mystery that is celebrated in the Liturgy. From this perspective, in the Letter to Artists I wrote: "How many sacred works have been composed through the centuries by people deeply imbued with the sense of the mystery! The faith of countless believers has been nourished by melodies flowing from the hearts of other believers, either introduced into the Liturgy or used as an aid to dignified worship. In song, faith is experienced as vibrant joy, love, and confident expectation of the saving intervention of God".
Hence what is necessary is a renewed and further deepened consideration of the principles that must be the basis of the formation and dissemination of a repertoire of quality. Only in this way can it be granted to musical expression that it serve in an appropriate way its ultimate end, which "is the glory of God and the sanctification of the faithful".
13. Finally, I also wish to mention that which Saint Pius X provided…. Addressing himself to bishops, he prescribed to them that there be instituted in their dioceses "a special commission of persons really competent in matters of sacred music"… At present, there are numerous national, diocesan, and interdiocesan commissions that offer their valuable contribution to the preparation of local repertoire, seeking to utilize discernment that takes into account the quality of texts and music. I wish the bishops to continue to uphold the commitment of these commissions, favoring in them their efficacy in the pastoral realm.
In light of its experience that has matured in these years… I ask the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments to intensify its attention to the area of liturgical sacred music, availing itself of the competencies of the diverse commissions and institutions specializing in this field, as well as of the support of the Pontifical Institute of Sacred Music. It is indeed important that the musical compositions utilized in liturgical celebrations conform to the criteria opportunely pronounced by Saint Pius X and wisely developed both by the Second Vatican Council and by the successive authoritative teaching of the Church. In view of this, I am also confident that the episcopal Conferences will carefully complete the examination of the texts destined for liturgical song, and pay special attention to evaluating and promoting melodies that might be truly suitable to sacred use.
15. I desire that the centenary commemoration of the motu proprio Tra le sollecitudini, by the intercession of its sainted Author, united with that of Saint Cecilia, patroness of sacred music, be of encouragement and stimulus for as many as concern themselves with this important aspect of liturgical celebrations. May those devoted to sacred music, dedicating themselves with renewed momentum to a matter of such vital import, contribute to the maturing of the spiritual life of the People of God. May the faithful, for their part, expressing in a harmonious and solemn way the faith itself in song, experience ever more deeply its richness and conform themselves to the commitment to translating these impulses into their behavior in everyday life. So may be reached, thanks to the concord of zeal of pastors of souls, musicians, and faithful, that which the Constitution Sacrosanctum Concilium defines as the true "end of sacred music"; namely, "the glory of God and the sanctification of the faithful".
May she be also in this an example and model the Virgin Mary, who knew how to sing in a unique way, in the Magnificat, the marvels that God works in the history of man. Under this patronage, to everyone do I impart with affection my Benediction.
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