Undignified Liturgical Music?

Do you know about the OSV Talks series? Our Sunday Visitor bills it as “a series of topics from prominent Catholic leaders to spark discussion, explore new or re-explore old approaches, and inspire creative thinking, all from the heart of the Church.” (Pray Tell highlighted Dan Cellucci’s talk in the OSV series last March.)

The good folks at OSV invited me to highlight Justin Dery’s talk, “Undignified Liturgical Music,” at Pray Tell and post a response to it. (Yeah, we’re cross-linking and helping each other drive traffic to their websites.)

Justin is a contemporary Catholic worship leader, singer-songwriter, speaker, and youth minister. He’s dynamic and charismatic. He has his audience in the palm of his hand.

I – a scholar and practitioner of Gregorian chant and organ-based traditional music – find it highly intriguing that Justin is a contemporary musician who seems to have become interested recently in Gregorian chant and a very old papal document from 1903. Good interests to have!

Justin pretty much lands about where I would on liturgical music – that a wide variety of genres is a good thing, that there can be a synergy between chant, contemporary music, and traditional music, that music should lead us to God, that chant and traditional music can still speak to people, that music ministry isn’t about the musicians’ egos, and so forth.

My main issue is how Justin gets there. Gosh, I’m all about Tra Le Sollecitudine, issued by Pope Pius X in 1903. I’ve read and studied it many times, I’ve published commentary on it, I have a chapter on it in my big book, I teach it in our M.A. in Liturgical Music degree program at St. John’s School of Theology and Seminary.

But the 1903 document is not a good play to go to for the fundamentals of Catholic liturgical music today, some 56 years after the Second Vatican Council. It is no criticism of old Pius X to note that he doesn’t say anything about how music functions in the simplified, reformed, participative liturgy of the Second Vatican Council. He was in a good place for 1903, but a lot has happened since then in the magisterium’s understanding of liturgy and music.

There’s a reason why John Paul II issued a chirograph in 2003, the hundredth anniversary of Pius X’s document, bringing it up to date based on the reforms of the Second Vatican Council and all the advances and changes in Catholic theory and practice of the previous century. Read 2003 for today’s church. Read 1903 for historical interest and to see how we got where we are today.

Or better yet, read the U.S. bishops’ 2007 document Sing to the Lord: Music in Divine Worship. Whatever is of value in 1903, or 1958, or any other older document, it’s brought forth into the landmark 2007 document and applied to our reality.

Do people not know about Sing to the Lord? Do they not realize that it is the go-to document for U.S. Catholic musicians? (Full disclosure: I was on the committee that drafted this document for the bishops’ conference.)

Pius’s characteristics of holiness, true art, and universality in music have had their role to play historically. But honestly, Pope Pius came from a Eurocentric world with a rigidly uniform and clericalized all-Latin liturgy, and from a time (this is before Vatican II’s Gaudium et spes) when the Catholic Church was basically oppositional toward the modern world, fighting democracy and religious liberty and freedom of the press, and trying to get the Papal States back. Pius X said lots of good things about sacred music in 1903, but it all came from a different context and needs a lot of transposing and translating to fit our purposes.

And that work has been done by the U.S. bishops in Sing to the Lord. The bishops make clear that we should think about liturgical music not based on allegedly intrinsic qualities such as holiness or good art or universality, but rather based on the demands of the ritual (the reformed liturgy) and the purposes of the liturgy as a communal act.

Again, I think Justin gets all of that intuitively. But he’d find a better vocabulary to express his good intuitions by going to the 2003 or 2007 documents of the magisterium.

Sing to the Lord says good and wise things about, for example, how to retrieve Latin chant and use it within the context of the current liturgy. We’ll get further in promoting Gregorian chant if we know what we’re doing, which chants to start with, and how to make sure they fit the liturgy and engage worshippers. I shudder to think that some people would hear Justin talk about Gregorian chant – I like his enthusiasm!, and jump in in the wrong place or the wrong way. They could quickly get discouraged or turned off to chant.

I have some quibbles here and there about accuracy in this OSV talk – e.g., Pius X was elected in 1903, not 1914; he was opposed not to profanity (a la F-bombs) in the lyrics, but to anything profane reflecting the bad modern world; and the 1958 document was issued by the Sacred Congregation for Rites, not Pius XII – his great document on sacred music came in 1955. But that’s the kind of minutiae which is interesting to an introverted monk ensconced in academia.

My take-away: this is an interesting and inspirational OSV Talk from someone with good instincts and an endearing passion for church music. Hurrah! Just base it on Vatican II and the current documents and OSV will be performing an even better service to the Church.


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