How John Paul II Restored Liturgical Sanity

We tend to think of the papacy of Benedict XVI as the papacy that put the Catholic liturgy back together again, turning the “hermeneutic of rupture” into the “hermeneutic of continuity.” Rarely receiving the credit for preparing the way is John Paul II, who labored mightily and brilliantly during his pontificate—in a long and consistent series of liturgical teachings—to restore what had been lost and to prepare for a brilliant future. The July 5 announcement by Pope Francis of John Paul II’s pending canonization offers an opportunity for us to recall his extraordinary contribution to the restoration of sacred art, music, and liturgy.

The legacies of John Paul II and his successor Benedict XVI are obvious from every liturgy we observe today at St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome, and also many places around the world. Beauty is back. Chant is back. Even the traditional Latin Mass, the form used to open the Second Vatican Council but was later suppressed, is said in St. Peter’s daily, and is taught at seminaries around the world.

It turns out that the Age of Aquarius did not overthrow all things. Indeed, long-time observers of Vatican liturgy tell me it is more beautiful and more historically rooted today than it was in the decades prior to the Council. The message has been decisive and clear: The Catholic liturgy is ever old and ever new. The forms of the past remain valuable to us today, just as the developments of the future must necessarily be rooted in a deep love and respect for liturgical tradition.

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These are lessons we know today but were evidently lost on that generation that took charge after the Council closed. They bequeathed to us a few harrowing decades. From one generation to the next, the liturgical forms became unrecognizable. Tearing up the pea patch was the prevailing sport. Everything new was admitted and encouraged while everything old was frowned upon or banned. It was a classic revolutionary situation, one with massive casualties and one never intended by the fathers of the Council.

The Council taught that Gregorian Chant should have first place at Mass but by the late 1960s, it had no place at all. Pope Paul VI was distraught and spoke with sadness: “we are in the process of becoming, as it were, profane intruders within the sanctuary of sacred letters… We do indeed have reason for regret, and to feel as it were, that we have lost our way.” And yet he pressed on, seeming to reflect in his own words this spirit of disorientation, rupture, and even revolution.

Karol Józef Wojtyła became Pope John Paul II eight years after the reformed Mass came into the world. The dust was far from settled. On the contrary, the earthquake that began immediately following the Council’s close was still rocking the Catholic world. The folk Mass—supposedly more “authentic” than music for the liturgy used for 1,000 years—had become the new normal. Old books, vestments, and statues filled the landfills. The old rubrics were wiped away. The priestly orders and convents were melting down. “Wreckovations” gutted great Churches and cathedrals. The only consensus was the absence of consensus.

In the course of John Paul II’s 28-year papacy, he undertook many initiatives to restore beauty to the liturgy, make it clear that not all art forms are admissible at liturgy, heighten respect for the past, and to take the first steps toward the restoration of older liturgical forms.

He took on directly what we might call the “cult of the ugly” that came to dominate Catholic culture since the mid and late 1960s. You could see it in the clothes, hear it in the music, and observe it in the architecture. The prevailing idea, rooted in a form of nihilism, was that high artistic sensibilities were necessarily elitist and inherently exploitative of genuine human emotion, which can only be expressed through spontaneous outbursts and improvisation. Choirs were gone, training put down, and excellence in general was disparaged and dismissed.

John Paul II, trained and experienced in the arts and holding a profound appreciation for the role of the arts in the expression of the faith, set out to inspire a new kind of idealism in the Catholic world, one that necessarily spoke to the liturgical and musical problems of the day. He took on the prevailing ethos and gradually but firmly got us back on course as a Catholic culture with a purpose and a dignified bearing.

Below I list what might be called the top ten of his statements as they pertain to art, music, and liturgy, in the chronological order in which they occurred. You can observe in the course of them a growing intensification concerning the liturgical crisis, and the way out through a growing appreciation of history, legislation, scripture, and art. These statements prepared the way for the new renaissance in Catholic liturgy that we experience today.

1. Quattuor Abhinc Annos (1984). This important legislation took place during the crisis over the status of the Priestly Order of St. Pius X. After the order created Bishops without Rome’s approval, the Pope gave overt permission for what never should have been suppressed in the first place. This was a lifeline for millions of Catholics who had been cruelly cut off from the liturgy of their youth, and the liturgical forms of the previous 500 years. This legislation became the basis of the broader permission under Benedict and really began to heal the rupture between old and new. Today the ordinary and extraordinary forms of Mass are considered two expressions of the same rite. This understanding is rooted in this document.

2. Letter on the Occasion of the Fourth Centenary of the Death of St. Philip Neri (1994). Here was a very pointed statement that foreshadowed many that followed. He spoke of how St. Philip “undertook to reform and elevate art, restoring it to the service of God and the Church. Convinced as he was that beauty leads to goodness, he brought all that had an artistic stamp within the realm of his educational project.” He said that the contribution made by St. Philip to sacred music was “incisive and exemplary; he urged it to be elevated from a source of foolish amusement to being a re-creation for the spirit. It was due to his initiative that musicians and composers began a reform that was to reach its highest peak in Pierluigi da Palestrina.” Musicians understand the significance of such a statement: it took what had only recently been demonized in many Catholics circles and made it an ideal again.

3. Ad Limina Address of Pope John Paul II On Active Participation in the Liturgy  (1998). In the years before this statement, the slogan “active participation” had become the great excuse for tossing out all choirs, serious polyphonic music, and Gregorian chant. Anything not conducive to instant sing alongs was considered banned. John Paul did the take down: “active participation does not preclude the active passivity of silence, stillness and listening: indeed, it demands it. Worshippers are not passive, for instance, when listening to the readings or the homily, or following the prayers of the celebrant, and the chants and music of the liturgy. These are experiences of silence and stillness, but they are in their own way profoundly active. In a culture which neither favors nor fosters meditative quiet, the art of interior listening is learned only with difficulty.”

4. Letter to Artists (1999). This statement is worthy of a line-by-line commentary due to its depth and profundity. It continues to inspire Catholic sculptors, architects, composers, organists, singers, and artists of all types, toward the goal of rejecting the cult of ugliness and nothingness and finding true beauty and expressions of faith. “The Church needs art,” he wrote. “Art must make perceptible, and as far as possible attractive, the world of the spirit, of the invisible, of God. It must therefore translate into meaningful terms that which is in itself ineffable. Art has a unique capacity to take one or other facet of the message and translate it into colors, shapes and sounds which nourish the intuition of those who look or listen. It does so without emptying the message itself of its transcendent value and its aura of mystery.” With regard to music, he writes to praise the past that it had been so fashionable to condemn: “How many sacred works have been composed through the centuries by people deeply imbued with the sense of the mystery! The faith of countless believers has been nourished by melodies flowing from the hearts of other believers, either introduced into the liturgy or used as an aid to dignified worship.”

5. Address to Participants in the International Congress of Sacred Music (2001). Here came total clarity on the subject of Gregorian chant, the very art that had been purged by publishers and was hardly heard in parishes. “Sacred music is an integral part of the liturgy. Gregorian chant, recognized by the Church as being ‘specially suited to the Roman liturgy’ (ibid., n. 116), is a unique and universal spiritual heritage which has been handed down to us as the clearest musical expression of sacred music at the service of God’s word. Although the Church recognizes the pre-eminent place of Gregorian chant, she has welcomed other musical forms, especially polyphony.” The Pope then again heralded “the work of Pierluigi da Palestrina, the master of classical polyphony.” He then made a statement that must have given heartburn to countless music publishers at the time: Palestrina’s “inspiration makes him a model for the composers of sacred music, which he put at the service of the liturgy.”

6. Address to the Pontifical Institute of Sacred Music (2001). Here the Pope spoke to the guardians of St. Pius X’s push for chant to be the foundation of liturgical song. And contrary to every trend at the time, he spoke very clearly that some forms of music are privileged and others not. He cites the Council directly. “You, teachers and students, are asked to make the most of your artistic gifts, maintaining and furthering the study and practice of music and song in the forms and with the instruments privileged by the Second Vatican Council:  Gregorian chant, sacred polyphony and the organ. Only in this way will liturgical music worthily fulfill its function during the celebration of the sacraments and, especially, of Holy Mass.”

7. Chirograph for the Centenary of the Motu Proprio (2003). This statement thrilled every serious musician in the Catholic world, for it went a long way toward renewing the beautiful dream of St. Pius X from 1903, the Motu Proprio that led to the revision of the chant books and the publication of the Roman Gradual. The Pope made it clear that the teaching from before the Council pertained all the more after the Council. Sacred music must be beautiful, universal, and holy.  “Liturgical music must meet the specific prerequisites of the Liturgy: full adherence to the text it presents, synchronization with the time and moment in the Liturgy for which it is intended, appropriately reflecting the gestures proposed by the rite.” Further: “The musical aspect of liturgical celebrations cannot, therefore, be left to improvisation or to the arbitration of individuals but must be well conducted and rehearsed in accordance with the norms and competencies resulting from a satisfactory liturgical formation.” That sentence alone might as well have been an open rebuke to three decades of liturgical malpractice.

8. General Audience on Psalm 150 (February 26, 2003). I recall this one so well, because it was clearly turning up the heat. He suggested that in matters of sacred music, the abuse was so serious that it was time to raise the problem of sin itself. “We must pray to God with theologically correct formulas and also in a beautiful and dignified way,” he stated with utmost clarity. “In this regard, the Christian community must make an examination of conscience so that the beauty of music and hymnody will return once again to the liturgy. They should purify worship from ugliness of style, from distasteful forms of expression, from uninspired musical texts which are not worthy of the great act that is being celebrated.”

9. Spiritus et Sponsa, on the Centenary of the Constitution on Sacred Liturgy (2003). This statement really began the Papal initiatives to reclaim the constitution of 1963 on behalf of continuity rather than rupture. This was the most overt statement that not all innovations have been good and, indeed, some have been truly terrible, and that such approaches are not only absent in the Council’s intentions but aggressively contradict its aims. The only path forward, said the Pope, is through adherence to norms and traditional forms. “Lack of respect for the liturgical norms can sometimes even lead to grave forms of abuse that obscure the truth of the mystery and give rise to dismay and stress in the People of God,” he wrote. “This abuse has nothing to do with the authentic spirit of the Council and should be prudently and firmly corrected by Pastors.”

10. Mane Nobiscum Domine (2004). This is the final statement on the matter of the Eucharist in which the liturgy plays a very important part. He states: “Holy Mass needs to be set at the center of the Christian life and celebrated in a dignified manner by every community, in accordance with established norms, with the participation of the assembly, with the presence of ministers who carry out their assigned tasks.” Part of this requires that “singing and liturgical music be suitably sacred.” He urged that every parish community undertake to study the General Instruction of the Roman Missal—a task that would have led every parish to discover the propers of the Mass, Gregorian chant, the centrality of silence in liturgy, as well as solemnity and dignity of form as guiding principles.

No list would be complete without due mention of the document that came not directly from John Paul II but was issued under his leadership by the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments in 2001. This was Liturgiam authenticum. Nearly forty years following the permission for the vernacular, Rome was finally intervening to guide translations and take seriously its responsibility for the unity of the Roman Rite. This one document is the reason we now enjoy much more beautiful and faithful translations of the Mass every week—much to the relief of millions.

This was a process that began not under Benedict XVI but Pope John Paul II, who might also be considered a mighty shepherd of the Roman Rite in times of grave upheaval. We are all deeply in his debt, for he took a liturgical world of chaos and confusion and pastorally turned it back toward a solemn and beautiful order that points toward the eternal.

Editor’s note: The photograph above depicts Pope John Paul II celebrating Mass at Westminster Cathedral in 1982.


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