“The liturgy requires an artistic transposition, originating in the spirit of faith, of the music of the cosmos into human music that glorifies the Word made flesh.”

Ratzinger, Collected Works: Theology of the Liturgy, pp. 480-93

To the Parish Choir

Let’s be honest: church music has been in a state of crisis for many years now. Those of you who lived through those years after the Second Vatican Council know what I am talking about. One Sunday, there was a parish choir which sang Gregorian chants and beautiful, traditional hymns in four-part harmony. The next Sunday, there was a folk band strumming out feel-good music on banjos and guitars. In this parish, we are blessed to have an excellent choir once again, devoted to singing beautiful music for the glory of God and to leading our people in prayer and praise. Nonetheless, we must ask— What happened in those years? Why did the Church change her music at all? 

On one level, it’s a pastoral question. The Second Vatican Council did, in fact, call for the actual participation of the faithful in the liturgy. Certain liturgists took this to mean that everyone in church must be doing something at all times. They took it as a pastoral need, therefore, to disband the old choirs, with their “elitist” music, and start singing simple tunes so that everyone could join in. Music was reduced to something purely functional, “community-building” at our community meal. Beauty, artistic value, was relatively low on the priority list. 

However, there is a deeper theological reason for the change, and that is a resurgence of iconoclasm. Iconoclasm is a perennial temptation in the Church. It is as old as the origins of Christianity, when Christians left the Temple to worship in the house churches. Many theologians regarded Christianity as opposed to Temple, cult, and priesthood and concluded that Christian worship must therefore be “profane,” commonplace. The spirit of iconoclasm sprung up in the East in the seventh and eighth centuries with the destruction of icons; it ravaged the West after the Protestant Revolt, when John Calvin and his followers whitewashed churches, toppled statues, and desecrated the Blessed Sacrament in the name of a purer, reformed Church. 

Like the iconoclasts of old, many Catholics today are convinced that “Puritan functionalism” and a liturgy of the commonplace is truer to the original spirit of Christianity. But they are mistaken. “Church music with artistic pretensions is not contrary to the nature of Christian liturgy but, rather, is a necessary way of expressing belief in the universal glory of Jesus Christ” (Ratzinger, 491). Our liturgy, like the Tempe liturgy of old, is supposed to be glorious, “disclosing … the glorification of God that lies hidden in the cosmos and causing it to resound” (ibid).  To do this, sacred music must be beautiful, the words must be comprehensible, and the beauty of words and melody together must draw the hearts of the listeners upwards to the harmonies of heaven. This is noble work. Psallite sapienter!

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