Sacrosanctum Concilium 112: Holy Scripture, indeed, has bestowed praise upon sacred song and the same may be said of the fathers of the Church and of the Roman pontiffs who in recent times, led by St. Pius X, have explained more precisely the ministerial function supplied by sacred music in the service of the Lord.
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In reviewing and discussing Thomas Day’s Why Catholics Can’t Sing [1990, 2013] I stated in the previous post that I would take time to examine what Vatican II, specifically its Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy, Sacrosanctum Concilium, has to say about the relationship of music and worship. SC was the first document promulgated by the Council, in its second or 1963 session, and it is worth your while to read it, though like all “committee documents,” it is not an essay that would win a Nobel literature prize. And it is obvious to even a novice reader that SC was a roadmap as much as a finished product, meaning that years of study, debate, and experimentation would need to put meat on the bones of SC’s general directives. One such follow-up is the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Sing to the Lord: Music in Divine Worship  which I will incorporate into this stream as we go along.
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The Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy does not address the issue of church music until the 112th paragraph, in part because the Council fathers did not envision radical changes in this area. In fact, SC cites the work of Pope [St.] Pius X as having set the tenor of continuing musical reform, so it is worth looking at the first liturgical reform document of the modern era, Tra le Sollecitudini, issued in 1903. Pius X is often regarded as a reactionary, and it is true that he feared the many changes taking place at the turn of the twentieth century—the growth of popular democracy, the separation of altar and throne, scientific method, free thinking, historical deconstruction of the Bible, Darwinism, psychiatry, etc. Pius referred to these societal changes collectively as “modernism,” a force he believed would destroy the Church.
To his credit, Pius recognized that the internal parochial life of the Church needed reform, and he intuited that the faithful needed assistance in coming closer to the mysteries of the Mass. I have only been to Mass once at the Vatican, and that was in 2013, so I have no idea of what the Italian parochial experience of Mass was like in, say, 1903, when Pius issued his reform decree. Historians in general look to legal decrees and legislation to form a picture of what the everyday life of a society must have been like. [Contemporary biographies and memoirs serve a similar purpose.] It can safely be said that Pius X had firsthand knowledge only of Italian customs—he never left the peninsula. However, we do know that peripatetic bishops visited popes all the time—including those from the United States. Archbishop John Hughes [“Dagger John”] of New York sailed to Rome on several occasions between 1840 and 1860. So, we can piece together a rough picture of what Pius X hoped to address in the liturgy by looking at his renewal.
Before looking at Tra le Sollecitudini, however, we need to acknowledge that Pius X is most famous for his directives on receiving the Eucharist. A centuries-old heresy, Jansenism, had caused most Catholics to stop receiving due to an obsession with unworthiness. This Eucharistic misunderstanding reached well into the twentieth century. In my youth my elderly relatives would tell me that it was not unusual to go to Sunday Mass at which no one received communion. As a former professor and liturgist, Pius encouraged frequent communion, and in his Quam Singulari, he dramatically changed the age of First Communion from teenaged years to the “age of reason,” understood in Canon Law today as about the age of seven. At the time this was a radical change, one that brought him considerable gratitude in many quarters. I have heard a story that a curia official [probably more than one] told the pope that children did not understand the depths of the Eucharistic mystery. Pius responded: “So long as a child knows the difference between the bread received at Mass and the bread eaten at home, I am satisfied.”
Pius explored more ways to engage the faithful in the mysteries of the Mass. He encouraged the use of missals so that participants could follow the actions on the altar in their own language, though Catholics of my age remember that even in the 1950’s people at Mass said the rosary or read private prayers during Mass. Pius’s Tra le Sollecitudini describes the goal of the Church’s sacred music: “that through it the faithful may be the more easily moved to devotion and better disposed for the reception of the fruits of grace belonging to the celebration of the most holy mysteries.” He goes on: “It must be holy, and must, therefore, exclude all profanity not only in itself, but in the manner in which it is presented by those who execute it.”
It seems that Pius viewed church music as a means of inspiration, a visceral capture of the emotions. He states in TLE that music must be “true art.” At the same time, he describes ideal church music as “universal.” He writes: “Special efforts are to be made to restore the use of the Gregorian Chant by the people, so that the faithful may again take a more active part in the ecclesiastical offices, as was the case in ancient times.” We can deduce that Gregorian Chant had fallen into disuse, sung only in monasteries where the Divine Office of psalms and prayers is conducted throughout the day [The Liturgy of the Hours], and even there into a pattern of musty routine. [The story is told that a Franciscan friary in San Francisco was singing its Gregorian-style psalms in its hum-drum fashion when the great earthquake struck the city and statues started toppling in the friars’ chapel. The superior slammed his book down and called out, “Never mind this. Let’s pray!”]
Pius called for church music to be “universal.” Some might argue that it is counterproductive to make the entire Church around the world sing the same things, but I think the pope was attempting to strike a chord here for a better consciousness of the worldwide nature of the Church and our responsibilities to bring the Gospel to the ends of the earth. Unless a 2022 Catholic subscribes to a national or international Church news source, the persecution of Catholics [and other Christian observants] in Iran, Afghanistan, Nigeria, Burkina Faso, and Myanmar, among other sites, goes unnoticed. But these victims are our fellows in Baptism and the Eucharistic celebration.
I am getting ahead of myself here, but Pius X’s advice of 120 years ago is certainly pertinent in our American homeland; last night at Mass I recognized at best one or two of the musical selections at my wife’s parish. I have no idea who chooses our selections—our musical directorship is currently vacant—but I hope that whoever eventually takes the reins understands that flooding a congregation with a stream of unfamiliar works destroys a parish’s unity and selfishly feeds artistic narcissism among those who are supposed to be ministers, not imposers. [See, among other chapters, “Ego Renewal: Father Hank and Friends” (pp. 55-91) in Why Catholics Can’t Sing (2013)].
For the sake of brevity, I will just tick off the key remaining instructions of Pius X which the Vatican II fathers drew from in the composition of Sacrosanctum Concilium:
+ In addition to Gregorian Chant, Pius called for Classic Polyphony [multiple voices in harmony], especially of the Roman School, which reached its greatest perfection in the fifteenth century, owing to the works of Pierluigi da Palestrina. [Polyphony] must therefore be restored in ecclesiastical functions, especially in the more important basilicas, in cathedrals, and in the churches and chapels of seminaries and other ecclesiastical institutions in which the necessary means are usually not lacking.
+ Modern music is also admitted to the Church, since it, too, furnishes compositions of such excellence, sobriety, and gravity, that they are in no way unworthy of the liturgical functions. The language proper to the Roman Church is Latin. Hence it is forbidden to sing anything whatever in the vernacular in solemn liturgical functions, much more to sing in the vernacular the variable or common parts of the Mass and Office. [Pius is addressing the practice of performing songs in the form of Italian grand opera, a practice of the time. See Day, Why Catholics Can’t Sing (2013) p. 199]
+ Although the music proper to the Church is purely vocal music, music with the accompaniment of the organ is also permitted. In some special cases, within due limits and with proper safeguards, other instruments may be allowed, but never without the special permission of the Ordinary [bishop]….
+ As the singing should always have the principal place, the organ or other instruments should merely sustain and never oppress it. [Why Catholics Can’t Sing considers the overbearing noise of instruments a major obstacle to congregational participation and singing.]
+ The employment of the piano is forbidden in church, as is also that of noisy or frivolous instruments such as drums, cymbals, bells and the like. It is strictly forbidden to have bands play in church, and only in special cases with
the consent of the Ordinary will it be permissible to admit wind instruments, limited in number, judiciously used, and proportioned to the size of the place.
+ It is not lawful to keep the priest at the altar waiting on account of the chant or the music for a length of time not allowed by the liturgy…The Gloria and the Credo ought, according to the Gregorian tradition, to be relatively short.
+ In general, it must be considered a very grave abuse when the liturgy in ecclesiastical functions is made to appear secondary to and in a manner at the service of the music, for the music is merely a part of the liturgy and its humble handmaid. [Again, to cite Thomas Day in our day, the function of liturgical music is primarily to assist the faithful in its full participation in the Eucharist or other worship.]
+ In seminaries of clerics and in ecclesiastical institutions let the above mentioned traditional Gregorian Chant be cultivated by all with diligence and love, according to the Tridentine prescriptions, and let the superiors be liberal of encouragement and praise toward their young subjects. In like manner let a Schola Cantorum [an ecclesiastical choir or choir school] be established, whenever possible, among the clerics for the execution of sacred polyphony and of good liturgical music.
+ Let care be taken to restore, at least in the principal churches, the ancient Scholae Cantorum, as has been done with excellent fruit in a great many places. It is not difficult for a zealous clergy to institute such Scholae even in smaller churches and country parishes. In these last the pastors will find a very easy means of gathering around them both children and adults, to their own profit and the edification of the people. [Pius X is encouraging choirs in even small parishes. However, in this document he continues the prohibition of women in church choirs, except in cloisters and convents; Pope Pius XII lifted this ban in the 1950’s though in practice in the United States women were singing in church choirs before Pius XII’s official OK.]
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The Roman Catholic Church clearly did not adopt to the letter the teachings of Pius X, particularly his Tra le Sollecitudini, during the composition of Vatican II’s decree on the Sacred Liturgy, Sacrosanctum Concilium, or in the numerous policies and directives that followed the Council as the Church reformed its sacred rites. But by including the name and memory of Pius X in SC 112, the Council fathers underscored several critical principles involving music and the sacred liturgy.
One of these is continuity. Para. 116 of Sacrosanctum Concilium specifically states the preeminence of Gregorian Chant in its Latin composition. We must stop and ask ourselves if one of the shortcomings of Vatican II’s liturgical renewal is precisely its discontinuity from our past. In several places Day makes a point of highlighting both an intellectual and an emotional overdetachment, an outright repudiation of Latin heritage and its music in favor of a sole contemporary music agenda. One wonders if the current estrangement of “progressives” and “conservatives” might never have festered to such stress had we adopted in our parishes and institutions a both/and approach, as the Council Fathers did. To carry it one step further, might we need to objectively examine the psychological-religious reasons for the repudiation of our past? In Santayana’s famous phrase, “those who ignore history are bound to repeat it.”