Breaking News: Pope Francis on Liturgical Music

Today, March 4, 2017, Pope Francis addressed the participants of a congress on liturgical music on the occasion of the 50th anniversary of Paul VI’s instruction Musicam sacram (1967).

His (Italian) speech was immediately published on the Vatican website. Official translations into other languages do not yet exist, but Vatican Radio published a short report in English.

As a quick reaction I want to mention some observations I made when reading the address.

First of all: It is a typical short, solemn, and diplomatic speech, so maybe one should neither expect too much from it nor read too much into it.

Nevertheless there were three aspects that caught my eye:

Francis refers to Sacrosanctum Concilium 8 (not 5, as the Vatican website says) and 113 when he states that music makes the liturgy more “noble” (più nobile) and a more adequate expression and experience of the heavenly liturgy. While Francis praises the introduction of the vernacular languages into the liturgy, he also says that this development sometimes led into “banality” (banalità). Although not cited in the text, this reminds me of Sacrosanctum Concilium 34 where the Council declares “noble simplicity” as a principle for the renewal of the Roman liturgy. I cannot exactly define what noble simplicity is. But I think it is a very good verbal approach to a central aesthetic principle of Roman liturgy in contrast to Eastern liturgies. The latter can be described by principles like abundance, repetition, or redundancy (which I do not mean in a negative sense here). My conviction is that whenever you take the nobility out of the noble simplicity, you do not get simplicity, but banality. Maybe that is what Francis means as well, although I admit that nobility, simplicity, and banality are hard to define and to identify in an individual case.

Secondly, Francis demands good musical formation not only for composers, musicians, and singers, but also for priests. As far as I can see, musical formation for priests (and deacons and laypersons who are authorized to preside over public services) is not at all beyond questioning, not even when they work full-time in their ministries. How are bishops or heads of theological departments going to react when I base myself on papal authority in my request for more musical and aesthetic formation for students?

Finally, Francis expects an ecumenical attitude in all musical efforts. Does that mean that Catholics are supposed to introduce music from other denominations into their liturgy? Should musical formation happen ecumenically, with students from different churches brought together? Should new liturgical music be generated by groups of composers and writers from different churches? We all know that since Vatican II everything in the Catholic Church has to be done in an ecumenical attitude, but I am not sure what Francis has in mind in this very case – or is it just a diplomatic phrase with respect to Vatican II and probably non-Catholic participants at the congress?

Of course there are other interesting aspects in Francis’ address, but these three caught my eye the most.

23 comments

  1. Ad fontes! Each culture, I think, has something to bring to the table, not least Latin hymnody. At Stations last night, our local parish sang Stabat Mater, translated into English.

    I don’t mind new compositions; I pray it is “both / and,” not “either / or.”

  2. Perhaps I am reading into the article from Liborius Lumma, but he reports that

    Secondly, Francis demands good musical formation not only for composers, musicians, and singers, but also for priests. As far as I can see, musical formation for priests (and deacons and laypersons who are authorized to preside over public services) is not at all beyond questioning, not even when they work full-time in their ministries.

    Are priests and deacons who cannot sing well unsuitable for ordination and ministry? Perhaps a priest can be trained to sing just the incipits (the absolute minimum of sacerdotal singing at Mass). All of the clergy have unique gifts, but for some singing is not one of them. A priest who demonstrates pastoral potential is a gift to the Church, despite tone-deafness.

    Let’s not stigmatize the said Mass, even the Sunday said Mass, as often intellectually stimulating homilies are preached by priests of weak voice but profound intellect.

    1. @Jordan Zarembo:

      Are priests and deacons who cannot sing well unsuitable for ordination and ministry?

      Surely, Pope Francis, a “seriously non-committed singer” himself, as someone once put it, would say NO.

      “Good musical formation” must mean more than training one to sing well.

      1. Liborius Lumma at #3 and Elisabeth Ahn at #4:

        I am notorious here at PTB for creating prodigious amounts of straw. I read Liborius and Elizabeth wrongly. Indeed the question is not ministerial singing alone, though that could be a result of poor diocesan formation. Perhaps I am being defensive, as many of the confessors and mentor-priests I have known over the years focused more on homiletics. My singing is a form of aural warfare, so this is just one more reason I should never be ordained. 🙂

      2. @Elisabeth Ahn:
        Who said he was a “seriously non-committed singer”? I understand that he was told as a boy that he couldn’t, or shouldn’t, sing, so he gave it up. I wouldn’t say that’s “seriously non-committed,” so much as ignorance and lack of compassion on the part of whoever told him that.

        Also, training one to sing (and read music) well is a huge part of good musical formation. And everybody can do it, which is why we need better music education in Catholic schools.

      3. @Doug O’Neill:

        1. Who said he was a “seriously non-committed singer”?

        Archbishop Mark Coleridge of Brisbane, obviously tongue-in-cheek, in one of his delightful Synod on the Family blog posts. Come to think of it, “a seriously committed non-singer” might have been his actual wording.

        2. training one to sing (and read music) well is a huge part of good musical formation.

        Well, of course. But that isn’t and shouldn’t be the sole focus of said formation. Which was the point I was getting to, in case you missed it.

        3. I understand that he was told as a boy that he couldn’t, or shouldn’t, sing, so he gave it up.

        I dunno. Pope Francis just doesn’t come off as someone who would give up something because someone told him to, does he? If anything, he seems more like a “Nevertheless, He Persisted” kinda guy.

    2. @Jordan Zarembo:
      A priest who’s tone deaf shouldn’t be thought unsuitable for ordination, but perhaps shouldn’t attempt what he can’t do well. The one who can’t sing at least passably well probably should just speak everything, even at the most solemn liturgies. Better by far to do well what is within one’s capability than do a ‘higher’ form poorly, lest the poor execution be a distraction from the main purpose.

  3. @ Jordan Zarembo:
    Maybe that sentence needs clarification: I did not mean that people without certain musical abilities should not be ordained. I wanted to say that there are dioceses that do not care at all about musical formation for their ministers. And in my eyes that is a sign of a lack of value of aesthetics in general. But of course a person with little musical skills can be a great pastor and liturgical minister.

  4. I for one think the American culture has a great deal to add by way of hymnody that is Theocentric, Christocentric, and Soteriological. Way better than the humanistic stuff we’ve had as of late. With the ecumenical approach, I’m not so sure we can exclude the repetition and opulence of the Eastern Orthodox. Can we?

  5. As far as “banal” why don’t we try to define it. The Holy Father couldn’t mean music that is overused; considering the nature of liturgical ritual. So he must mean that sacred music must not be boring, dull, humdrum. In other words, it must be captivatingly beautiful. And “nobel” of “high quality.” And “simple” what comes to mind is that it should not be complex (like the polyphony in which you can’t tell what they’re saying); But, music that serves the word (like the simple polyphony of Schubert) which ebbs and flows like Gregorian Chant.

  6. A contemporary composer that often creates pieces that meet all the above characteristics is Paul Jernberg. I love his work! Ecumenical, Nobel, Simple and Beautiful!

    1. @Alan Johnson:
      Not necessarily *completely* subjective, as there are studies that show commonalities among aesthetic preferences across cultures. So the partial truth won’t do either.

      1. @Karl Liam Saur:

        “…there are studies that show commonalities among aesthetic preferences across cultures.”

        I believe it, especially in light of the Pope’s concluding words:

        The sacred music and liturgical chant have the task of giving us a sense of the glory of God, its beauty, its holiness that surrounds us like a “luminous cloud.”

      2. @Karl Liam Saur:
        But when those terms are used as ammunition in liturgical battles, I wonder how much regard is being paid to that research.
        I am much more comfortable with notions such as “suitable for that community and its resources” or “helps that community to worship and grow.”

      3. @Alan Johnson:
        I understand that’s what you’d and many may prefer, but those are not equivalent concepts, even if some would read them as if they were. People looking for a silver bullet to bless how they already do things or would prefer others to do them will not find one. The same goes for them, for example, who want to read the documents to require the use of proper antiphons to the exclusion of anything else other than rare cases. Each side would love the comfort of being armed with a silver bullet to effectively silence the other side.

      4. @Karl Liam Saur:
        But things like beauty and nobility etc depend as much on the skills and resources available as on the raw material. I can’t be the only one who has gone from Mass totally unedified because the musicians completely over-reached themselves when attempting some chant or something by Palestrina in the name of some sort of fidelity to a tradition (or rubric.) Thats why I set such store by suitability to the resources and talents at hand.

      5. @Alan Johnson:
        Here you are in complete agreement with art. 9 from the General Norms section of Musicam Sacram: “In selecting the kind of sacred music to be used, whether it be for the choir or for the people, the capacities of those who are to sing the music must be taken into account.”
        Ten years ago I gave one of the Honda lectures at an NPM convention for the 40th anniversary of Musicam Sacram – this was one of the points of the document on which I focused.

      6. @Alan Hommerding:
        They indeed must be taken into account. That’s different than saying such consideration displaces the other norms. Again, no silver bullets here. And Alan Johnson’s experiences can of course be bookended by ones to contrary effect. The joys of subjectivity. Again, I am simply focused on the implied but ultimately illusory trump card aka silver bullet and the unfruitful and unhelpful urges to acts is if it were real.

  7. I think many of us read what Pope Francis says and thinks “That is exactly what I think”. So when all these adjectives – noble, banal, etc. – come out we get to mold them to our thoughts because they are subjective.

    My own preference is for music that the congregation can participate in fully, and that is especially true for parts of the Mass. An SATB Gloria with descant accents interspersed is a lost opportunity for the average congregant and that is too bad. I am a staunch fan of ordinary form Mass, but Gregorian Chant plays well with it – especially the simpler modes – and is also usually well within the vocal range of the average congregant. I wish it were used more often. Just my $0.02.

  8. As someone who was present when Pope Francis gave his address, I can tell you that there was much speculation afterwards about who had drafted it for him…. (Currently still in Rome and without a computer, but may comment again later when I have returned home later this week.)

  9. Regarding the ecumenical content, as director of music of a large parish in Oklahoma City, with a large cohort of converts (as many as 30% of the parish), I often import Protestant hymnody for choral selections and hymn singing. On Ash Wednesday we always do “Just As I Am”, which, besides its penitential nature, I find can be reinterpreted as Eucharistic.

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