Aug 15, 2011

The Patrimony of Sacred Music: Continuity and Natural Development

Online Edition: August 2011
Vol. XVII, No. 5

The Patrimony of Sacred Music: Continuity and Natural Development

Pope Benedict XVI’s Address for the 100th Anniversary of the Pontifical Institute of Sacred Music

The Pontifical Institute of Sacred Music observed the centenary of its foundation with a conference held in Rome May 26-31, 2011. Pope Benedict XVI sent a letter (below) to be read to the gathering on May 26. The letter was published May 31.

The music school, founded by Pope Pius X, was opened on January 3, 1911. In 1914, the school was declared a Pontifical Institution by Pope Benedict XV, and was granted the power to confer academic degrees. In 1983 Pope John Paul II moved the institute to the abbey of San Girolamo in Urbe, where its academic programs have been located since the academic year 1984-1985. Monsignor Valentino Miserachs Grau has been president of the institute since 1995.

The Pontifical Institute of Sacred Music explains its aims on the Vatican web site: “to teach the disciplines of liturgical music in terms of practical, theoretical and historical knowledge and to promote the dissemination of the traditional sacred music and encourage artistic expressions appropriate to today’s culture; to render, on behalf of the mother Church of Rome, a service to the local churches throughout the world, as regards the training of church musicians and teachers of sacred music of tomorrow”.

Information:, or visit the institute’s web site,


To my Venerable Brother
Cardinal Zenon Grocholewski,
Grand Chancellor
of the Pontifical Institute of Sacred Music

One hundred years have passed since my holy predecessor Pius X founded the School of Sacred Music, which Pope Pius XI raised to the rank of “Pontifical Institute” 20 years later. This important anniversary is a cause for joy to all enthusiasts of sacred music, but more generally for those, starting of course with Pastors of the Church, who have at heart the dignity of the liturgy, of which sacred song is an integral part (cf. Second Vatican Council, Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy Sacrosanctum Concilium, n. 112). I am therefore particularly pleased to express my warm congratulations for this activity and to convey my cordial good wishes to you, Venerable Brother, to the president and to the entire community of the Pontifical Institute of Sacred Music.

This institute, which is dependent on the Holy See, is part of the unique academic situation established by the Pontifical Universities in Rome. It is also linked in a special way to the Athenaeum of Sant’Anselmo and to the Benedictine Order, as is also demonstrated by the fact that since 1983 the school has been based at the Abbey of San Girolamo in Urbe, while the legal and historical headquarters are still at Sant’Apollinare.

On the occasion of this centenary my thoughts go to all those — and the Lord alone knows perfectly who they are — who have in any way cooperated with the activity of what was first the “School of Sacred Music” and later the “Pontifical Institute of Sacred Music”: from the successive superiors who guided it, to the distinguished faculty members and the generations of students. Thanksgiving to God, for the many gifts granted, goes hand in hand with gratitude for all that each one of them has given to the Church by cultivating the art of music at the service of divine worship.

To have a clear grasp of the identity and role of the Pontifical Institute of Sacred Music, it is necessary to remember that Pope Saint Pius X founded this institute eight years after issuing the Motu Proprio Tra le Sollecitudini, 22 November 1903, with which he brought about a profound reform in the field of sacred music, restoring the great tradition of the Church to counter the influence of profane music, especially light opera. In order to put this magisterial intervention into practice in the universal Church, a study and teaching center was required that would pass on faithfully and competently the guidelines pointed out by the Supreme Pontiff, in accordance with the authentic and glorious tradition that dates back to Saint Gregory the Great.

In the span of the past century this institution therefore assimilated, elaborated and passed down the doctrinal and pastoral content of papal documents, and those of the Second Vatican Council, concerning sacred music in order to illuminate and guide the work of composers, choir masters, liturgists, musicians and all teachers in this field.

I would also like to highlight one fundamental aspect of this which is particularly dear to me: that is, from the time of Saint Pius X to this day, an essential continuity, along with natural development, can be seen in the magisterial teaching on sacred music in the liturgy.

Popes Paul VI and John Paul II particularly wished to reaffirm the aim of sacred music in the light of the conciliar constitution, Sacrosanctum Concilium, namely, “the glory of God and the sanctification of the faithful” (§112) , as well as the fundamental criteria of tradition. I limit myself to recalling these: the sense of prayer, of dignity and beauty, full adherence to the texts and the liturgical gestures, the involvement of the assembly, and thus a legitimate adaptation to the local culture while also preserving the universality of the language; the primacy of Gregorian chant as a supreme model of sacred music; and the wise use of other expressive forms that are part of the Church’s historical and liturgical patrimony of the Church — especially, though not exclusively, polyphony — and the importance of the schola cantorum, particularly in cathedral churches. These are important criteria which must also be carefully considered today.

Sometimes, in fact, these elements that are found in Sacrosanctum Concilium, such as, precisely, the value of the great ecclesial patrimony of sacred music or the universality that is characteristic of Gregorian chant, have been held to express a concept which corresponds with a past that needs to be superseded and set aside because it supposedly limits the freedom and creativity of the individual and of communities. Yet we must always ask ourselves anew: who or what is the authentic subject of the liturgy? The answer is simple: the Church. It is not the individual person or group which is celebrating the liturgy, but is first and foremost God’s action through the Church which has her own history, her rich tradition and her creativity.

The liturgy, and consequently sacred music, “lives on a correct and constant relationship between healthy traditio and legitima progressio”, keeping constantly in mind the fact that these two concepts — which the Council Fathers clearly underlined — merge since “tradition is a living reality, which therefore includes in itself the principle of development, of progress” (Address to the Pontifical Liturgical Institute of the Athenaeum of Sant’Anselmo, 6 May 2011).

All this, Venerable Brother, forms, so to speak, the “daily bread” of life and work at the Pontifical Institute of Sacred Music. On the basis of these sound and reliable elements, to which may now be added a century of experience, I encourage you to continue with a fresh impetus and commitment your service in the professional training of students to ensure that they acquire serious and profound competence in the various disciplines of sacred music.

This Pontifical Institute will thus continue to make a valid contribution to the formation in this field of pastors and of lay faithful in the various particular churches. It will also encourage a satisfactory discernment of the quality of the musical compositions used in liturgical celebrations. For this important objective you may count on my constant concern, accompanied by my special remembrance in prayer, which I entrust to the heavenly intercession of the Blessed Virgin Mary and Saint Cecilia, while, as I wish your centenary celebrations every success, I cordially impart to you, to the president, to the teachers, to the staff and to all the students of the institute a special Apostolic Blessing.

From the Vatican, 13 May 2011

Copyright 2011 – Libreria Editrice Vaticana



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