Pope Benedict XVI’s Musical Legacy

One of the many lasting legacies of the papacy of Benedict XVI concerns liturgical music. Enormous progress has been made in his papacy. Incredibly this progress has happened without new legislation, new restrictions, new mandates, or firm-handed attempts to impose discipline on musicians and artists. The change has happened through the means that Benedict XVI has always preferred: he has led through example and through the inspiration provided by his homilies and writings.

You can observe the difference by watching any Papal liturgy, whether live or on television or through webcast. Gregorian chant is back but not just as a style preferred to the pop music that still dominates parish liturgy. More importantly, chant is back in its rightful place as the sung prayer of the liturgy. Viewers can now depend on hearing the chanted introit from the liturgical books at every Mass. The communion chant is sung. The offertory chant has made a return in many Masses. Incredibly, even the ancient version of the Psalm between the readings has more recently been employed as a deeply contemplative alternative to the responsorial version most people hear at Mass.

The musical legacy turns the tide and foreshadows a future of beauty in Catholic art.

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The musical issue in the Catholic Church has been fraught with controversy for many centuries. This is nothing new. Nor is the postconciliar crisis in music something particularly new in Church history. We tend to think it is just because we experience it so intensely. And this feature is precisely what makes liturgical music such a dicey issue. It affects everyone in the pew in the most profound way. Everyone has an opinion, and it is rarely positive.

Truly, you have to put yourself in the frame of mind of someone who doesn’t entirely understand what happened to liturgical music after 1965 to fully appreciate the shock that comes when one first encounters the parish reality. You step into the church with a hope for a profound religious experience, something like what you might have seen in a movie or heard about from popular chant CDs. Instead of solemn music, you are hit by an upbeat song about gathering as a community or a tune that seems to belong on an evangelical radio station. It can be deeply alarming for anyone who is not yet acculturated to the reality.

The question everyone asks is: how did this happen? The second question everyone asks is: why doesn’t someone stop it?

The answers to both questions are complex.

The musical agenda of the Second Vatican Council, as Benedict XVI well understood because he was there, was to more closely link the music with the liturgy, and to realize the hope of the Liturgical Movement that people would be actively involved in hearing and singing this music. The hope was to turn the tide away from “Low Mass” with four English hymns—which had become standard practice in many parts of the world—toward the liturgical ideal in which the core music of the rite was an extension of the liturgical text itself.

Gregorian chant is that ideal because it grew up alongside the Roman Rite ritual. It uses the text of that ritual. Its musical structure is a reflection of the liturgical purpose of the music. That’s why the chant between the readings is long and contemplative whereas the music of the entrance is more syllabic, thematically evocative, and forward feeling.

These features of chant have long been understood by competent experts in the field. It is an “inestimable treasure,” as the Council said. The Council even made a clear declaration, for the first time in Church history, that Gregorian chant should have the first place at Mass, and that people should sing the parts of the Mass that belong to them.

That agenda seems clear enough but there was a wrinkle. The Council also authorized a change in the language from all-Latin to some English, leaving the apportionment to the national conferences. Well, it didn’t take long before English was everywhere. Latin chant vanished over the course of only a few years. The common preconciliar practice of English hymns went on hyperdrive. By the late sixties, even before the introduction of the new Missal, pop music at Mass had become the norm. Gregorian chant was a distant memory. This was a case study in a plan that had gone very wrong.

And so it remained for forty years, which raises the question: why didn’t someone do something to stop this? I think often of the average parish situation. The pastor is not typically a trained musician. He doesn’t usually have money to hire trained musicians. He has to depend on the resources he has at his disposal. The last thing he can do is alienate the musicians in his parish, who are doing what they think is best. It does no good to march up to them and say: sing Gregorian chant. They can’t. They can’t read the notes. They can’t understand the language. The singers lack experience and the guitar players have no understanding whatsoever. Plus, the shift might be too much for the congregation. Lacking any clear way out, the pastor grits his teeth and learns to adapt. The same is true for the laity.

Popes since Vatican II have attempted to turn the tide. Paul VI saw what was happening and regretted it all greatly. His solution appeared in 1974. It was a book of Latin music that he sent to all Bishops in the world, giving them permission to freely copy and use it. It was a proposal for a new core music for liturgy. He wrote: please “decide on the best ways of teaching the faithful the Latin chants of Jubilate Deo and of having them sing them…. You will thus be performing a new service for the Church in the domain of liturgical renewal.”

This fell on deaf ears. The music ended up in the waste can. His successor John Paul II issued several very important statements that similarly urged a change. They were beautifully written and inspiring. But again, it had no effect. In the intervening years, a large industry of private publishers had already arisen to provide music to parishes on a subscription basis. Everyone was already hooked on this pop material. All the urges from Rome to embrace the musical ideals of the Second Vatican Council amounted to nothing.

Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger was different. He had written an entire book on the music issue. He had written another book on the liturgical question. He had spoken about the subject on many occasions. He never feared the subject and this is for two reasons: 1) he understood the goals of Vatican II and saw that they had been seriously distorted, and 2) he was a trained music of the highest calibre who understood the role of music in the Roman Rite.

When he became Pope, the changes began and they were relentless. We started hearing chant in Papal liturgy, just a bit at first and then more as time went on. With Summorum Pontificum (2007) he took away the stigma that had been attached to traditional chant by granting full permission to the liturgical structure that had originally given rise to chant. This was deeply encouraging for a generation that was ready to move forward. We started seeing chant workshops fill up. Groups began to form at the parish level. New resources started to be published by independent publishers. A real fire had been lit in the Catholic music world. And it all happened without any impositions or legislation.

The musical program of St. Peter’s Basilica began to attract the attention of serious musicians. A new standard came to be applied to visiting choirs: you must know the basics of Gregorian chant or you cannot sing at St. Peter’s. This was a gigantic decision that fundamentally upset the dynamic that had long developed between Rome and traveling choirs. Now choirs had to learn and discover chant if they hoped to take that long-sought pilgrimage to Rome.

Meanwhile, Joseph Ratzinger’s writings on music were selling more than ever, and having an ever larger influence. Benedict XVI spoke about the topic often in homilies and spontaneous remarks following concerts. He worked to elevate high art to a new status on his travels. His team worked hard to encourage groups that sang for liturgy for his trips to embrace chant and polyphonic music of the Renaissance. It didn’t always work but the progress was obvious.

Today we look at the situation and marvel. It is a beautiful thing to see and hear. The chant is back and not just in Latin. Some of the biggest-selling books in the English world are pushing English chant—forty years late but it is still a triumph. And we should not forget the huge importance of the new English Missal that came out in 2011. It has more music embedded in it than any Missal ever published, and it is entirely chanted. This was a bold move, pushed hard by Rome under the leadership of Benedict XVI.

The legacy is much larger and much long-lasting than that. A priest friend wrote the following:

I am a priest of the Benedict XVI Generation.

The way that I approach theology, liturgy, preaching, pastoral life, everything, has been profoundly influenced by this amazing man.  I will always thank God for his constant presence in my life, and in the lives of those I touch because of his example to me.  I have enough sentiment in me to want to write the Holy Father personally to tell him all this, but I know that he will never receive it.  But even in that he continues to teach me.

We are not out of the woods yet but the progress is very much in evidence. The future is clear. Chant will again be the universal music of the Roman Rite. New compositions will be inspired by it. It will have first place in the liturgy. Music appropriate to the liturgy will follow its inspiration.

What I find most impressive is the method that the pope used to achieve this. It was through inspiration and not imposition. For this reason, this change is fundamental and lasting. Mark my words: chant will come to a parish near you. We can thank Benedict XVI for his wisdom and foresight in achieving what most people thought was impossible.

As he has understood, the musical question is only superficially about style. The real substance of the question concerns what elevates the text and reflects the liturgical purpose of glorifying God. In the long run, there can be no separation between the Roman Rite and the music that is native to it. If that point seems obvious now, it is only because the papacy of Benedict XVI made it so.


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