To mark the 100th anniversary of Pope St. Pius X’s motu propio on the renewal of sacred music, “Tra le sollecitudini,” Pope John Paul II has issued a personal letter calling for the Church to embark on a profound renewal of liturgical and sacred music.
In the message, dated November 22, the feast of the patron saint of sacred music, St. Cecilia, the Pontiff says the anniversary of Pope Pius X’s letter provides “the opportunity to recall the important role of sacred music, which St. Pius X presents both as a means of raising the spirit to God and as an aid for the faithful toward the ‘active participation in the sacred mysteries and in the public and solemn prayer of the Church’.”
Further on in the text the Pope reflects on the teaching of the Church during the last century on the nobility and importance of liturgical music, saying, “In this sense, guided by the teachings of St. Pius X and my other predecesors, and keeping in mind particularly the pronouncements of the Second Vatican Council, I wish to propose anew some fundamental principles” concerning the composition and use of music in liturgical celebrations.
Principles concerning liturgical music
The Pope then goes on to list a series of principles he considers fundamental for the appropriate use of music in the liturgy:
- “Above all it is necessary to emphasize,” he says, “that music that is intended for use in the sacred rites should have holiness as its point of reference.” “The genre of ‘sacred music’,” warns the Pope, “today has been so broadened that it includes material that cannot be included in liturgical celebrations without violating the spirit and norms of the liturgy.”
- “The reforms carried out by St. Pius X were specifically aimed at purifying the Church’s music of contamination by secular theatrical music, which in many countries had polluted the repertoire and praxis of liturgical music,” the Pope recalls. “As a result,” he says, “not all types of music can be considered appropriate for liturgical celebrations.”
- Another principle mentioned in the letter refers to the form and style of music. “Music that is intended for use in the celebration of the sacred rites must first be ‘true art’.”
- Nevertheless, warns the Holy Father, “that aspect alone is not sufficient.” “Liturgical music should in fact fulfill its specific requirements: complete adherence to the texts presented, consistency with that moment of the liturgy for which it is intended, appropriate correspondence to the gestures which the rites call for.”
- The Pope highlights the value of inculturation with respect to liturgical music, but he points out that “It is clear, however, that every innovation in this delicate material must respect specific criteria, like the search for musical expressions that respond to the necessary involvement of the entire assembly in the celebration and that avoid, at the same time, any concession to frivolity and superficiality.”
- “The sacred atmosphere of liturgical celebrations should never become a place for experimentation or the introduction of new compositions and styles that have not first been carefully reviewed,” the Pope adds.
- Further on the Pope says Gregorian chant “enjoys a special place” because “it continues to this day to be a unifying element” in the liturgy.
- In general, says the Pope, the musical aspect of liturgical celebrations “cannot be left to improvisation, nor to individual whims, but rather should be kept under careful guidance,” respecting the norms of the Church and reflecting a solid liturgical formation.
- Therefore, the Pope emphasizes “the urgency of promoting a sold formation both of pastors and the laity” in questions pertaining to the liturgy.
Popular Music and Gregorian Chant
The Holy Father indicates that “among the musical expressions that properly respond to the qualities required by the notion of sacred music, especially within liturgical music, Gregorian chant occupies an important place. The Vatican Council II recognizes it as ‘music of the Roman liturgy,’ which should be preserved in the first place for liturgical ceremonies with hymns that are celebrated in Latin.” “Gregorian chant, therefore, continues today to be an element of unity in Roman liturgy.”
John Paul II asks the Congregation for Divine Worship and Discipline of the Sacraments “to pay closer attention to the sector of sacred liturgical music. … It is important that musical compositions used in liturgical celebrations respond to the criteria opportunely pronounced by St. Pius X and prudently developed by the Vatican Council II and the Magisterium of the Church.”
The Pope recognizes the value of popular liturgical music, but then goes on to say, “I make my own the ‘general rule’ formulated by St. Pius X in these terms: ‘The more a composition for the Church is based in its inspiration and taste on Gregorian melodies, the more sacred and liturgical it is, and the further away it is from this supreme model, the less worthy it is of belonging in the Church.”
John Paul II emphasizes that today “there is no lack of composers capable of offering in this spirit their vital collaboration in increasing the heritage of music at the service of an ever-increasing, intensively celebrated liturgy.”
The Pope recalls that St. Pius X, “addressing the bishops, instructed them to institute in their dioceses ‘a special commission made up of persons truly competent in questions related to sacred music’.” “In those places where the Pope’s instructions were put into practice the fruits were abundant,” says the Pope.
For this reason, he encourages bishops to follow the example of those commissions in their own dioceses today. “I also trust that the Bishops conferences will carefully review the texts of songs intended for liturgical use, and that they will pay special attention to the evaluation and promotion of melodies that are truly apt for sacred use,” the Pope concludes.