ON THE SACRED LITURGY
SOLEMNLY PROMULGATED BY
POPE PAUL VI
ON DECEMBER 4, 1963
46. Besides the commission on the sacred liturgy, every diocese, as far as possible, should have commissions for sacred music and sacred art.
These three commissions must work in closest collaboration; indeed it will often be best to fuse the three of them into one single commission.
Paragraph 46 appears innocent enough, but since the promulgation of Sacrosanctum Concilium in 1963, there have been few matters more fiercely argued than liturgical art and environment, in terms of who is authorized to make artistic decisions, who is qualified to make such decisions, and the end products themselves: the buildings, the music, the rites. Paragraphs 112-121 go into the music issue more specifically but with the idea that conferences of bishops will develop specific guidelines after the Council. In the United States the USCCB issued its most recent and detailed directives on sacred music, Sing to the Lord: Music in Divine Worship, in November 2007. I am grateful that the Diocese of Yakima, Washington, has paid for the rights to publish the full document on-line; it is a worthy addition to your resource library.
I must make two admissions here: I devoted much of my life between 1984 and 1988 to the construction of a new church, from first draft to dedication, and I would be lying if I denied I got burned in the process precisely by following the liturgical laws then in effect, one example being the regulation calling for a cross—not a crucifix—in the sanctuary. Second, I am in general agreement with Thomas Day’s controversial critique, Why Catholics Can’t Sing (1992, 2013). Day’s 1992 work was a serious yet humorous critique of the music and general shoddiness of American Catholic liturgy after Vatican II. His 2013 edition has been redacted to reflect a general fatigue on matters of worship in the recent past. One reviewer of Day’s 2013 edition quotes a Catholic convert friend describing the twenty-first century Mass as a “long and very very sleepy campfire.”
I rarely say that a statement is “point blank wrong,” but para. 46’s assertion that liturgists, artists, and musicians essentially sit as equal planners at the table has caused considerable post-Council unrest. I lived through the immediate post-Council era and worked at it from the musical side. I did not have the liturgical training I would later get, but that was not recognized as a problem until, as Day argues, a mediocre practice was well established. We operated back then on very basic principles of theology--pop psychology, really--such as “get everybody singing;” or “build togetherness.” Our writing and usage of music reflected those basic goals without much thought to the quality of music as music. Coupled with that was the arrogance of the young and the restless, leading to the old joke, “What is the difference between a liturgist and a terrorist? You can negotiate with a terrorist.”
Sacrosanctum Concilium would lay out principles in subsequent paragraphs—as would our own USCCB—that might have eased difficulties in the period of the liturgical reform. There was, for all the radical changes envisioned in SC, a respect for the past, as the use of Latin within considered parameters, including Gregorian Chant. There were priorities established for the use of music at Mass, with emphasis upon the parts of the Mass themselves, such as the “Holy Holy” and the “Gloria.” Historians will look back and wonder how the U.S. Church drifted from singing the Mass itself to the now-famous “four hymn sandwich.” [Or, in my parish, the four-hymn communion rite.] The term “four hymn sandwich” refers to the American practice of filling the Mass with composed songs, which runs counter to universal church law that places emphasis upon singing the parts of the Mass and the Psalms.
The fathers of the Church who approved para. 46 in 1963 can be credited with opening some important doors. The first was a recognition that art, in Aristotle’s famous definition in the Poetics as an experience of cleansing the senses or catharsis, is part and parcel of worship. The second is recognition that Holy Orders, while it confers many duties and offices, does not turn an ordained priest into an interior designer or musical arranger. There is a subtle but real nudge here in SC for dioceses to hire and trust true experts, graduates with resumes and peer reviewed bodies of work. If nothing else, such professionals will save dioceses thousands of dollars in costs of correcting the eccentricities and personal tastes of pastors.
Paragraph 46 is also a statement of sorts regarding the purpose of music and structure: like the Gospel, liturgy is a challenge, a movement from the comfortable to the challenging. The basis Greek meaning of “liturgy” is work, or public works. Liturgy will always be something of a struggle between peace of mind and the call of the cross, presenting an on-going challenge to both preacher and artist. Thomas Day’s 1992 work cited above coins the phrase “mad scramble” in the context of the years immediately following the Council to meet the demands of full participation in the Mass. (p. 94) In that scramble, art lost out to pragmatism and enthusiasm, and here in 2017 the Church continues the search for balance of sense and song in worship that makes the Eucharistic reenactment a true catharsis and not a sleepy campfire.