The Pope’s Music

This month I must reflect on a phone call I received from an old and discerning friend who was extremely upset over the music used at the papal Mass in Washington on April 17, and on a note another friend sent saying, “It was as if the Washington, D.C., crowd were pleasing themselves and not their guest.” 

I missed the Mass but heard that it included quite a mélange of musical styles. My oldest son, who watched at his grade school, did not like it. Neither did Rev. Richard John Neuhaus, who apparently said on EWTN that the music was an affront to the pope, whose classical music tastes are well known. I report this secondhand, as it was mentioned from the pulpit by the pastor at a northern Virginia parish where I attended Mass the next day. He was not happy with Father Neuhaus’s remarks, as they were considered non-inclusive. He expressed his relief that the Holy Spirit had chosen Joseph Ratzinger as pope, and not Richard Neuhaus.

The day before the pope’s Mass, the “Style” section of the Washington Post ran an amusing story by Hank Stuever on music and the pope’s visit, and on how the younger generation has turned against the Sixties and Seventies “Kumbaya Catholicism.” In one part, the story told of the experience of choir director Jeffery Tucker:
At a recent conference, a jazz pianist confided to Tucker that he’d been playing at church, but there was a new, young pastor who had taken over and “he said, ‘you know what that means’ [and] I said, ‘well, I’m not entirely sure.’ So, he added, surprised that he would have to clarify, ‘That means he wants Gregorian chant!’”
I take this as another sign that the Holy Spirit is active in the Church today.

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But where does Pope Benedict XVI stand on the music issue? As it turns out, there was an outstanding piece in The Australian (April 12), “A Battle Against Banality,” by Christopher Pearson that gives the answer. (Benedict’s travels this summer to Australia for World Youth Day.) In the article, Catholic theologian Tracey Rowland is quoted as saying of the pope’s cultural critique:
Ratzinger has focused on practices (that) diminish the possibilities of the soul or the self, for its own transcendence. The marketing of vulgar art, music and literature and the generation of a very low, even barbaric, mass culture is seen by Ratzinger to be one of the serious pathologies of contemporary Western culture. By this reading, clerics who think that they will win young people to the church by adopting the marketing strategies of public relations firms and attempting a transposition of the church’s cultural patrimony into the idioms of contemporary mass culture are only further diminishing the opportunities of youth for genuine self-transcendence.

One immediate consequence of this position has been Benedict’s insistence on music worthy of the liturgy, rather than “utility music” derived from 1960s youth culture. He says: “A church which only makes use of utility music has fallen for what is, in fact, useless. She too becomes ineffectual. For her mission is a far higher one. The church must not settle down with what is merely comfortable and serviceable at the parish level; she must arouse the voice of the cosmos and, by glorifying the creator, elicit the glory of the cosmos itself, making it also glorious, beautiful, habitable and beloved. Next to the saints, the art which the church has produced is the only real apologia for her history. The church is to transform, improve, humanise the world, but how can she do that if at the same time she turns her back on beauty, which is so closely allied to love? For together beauty and love form the true consolation in this world, bringing it as near as possible to the world of the resurrection.”
Surely, no one has spoken of music in a more exalted way than has this pope, who restores to art its hieratic purpose. Is this inclusive? Is the cosmos inclusive? Is Christ inclusive? As St. Clement of Alexandria taught, Christ is the “New Song” of the universe. “[It] is this [New Song] that composed the entire creation into melodious order, and tuned into concert the discord of the elements, that the whole universe may be in harmony with it.” How is that for inclusive? That New Song is not played on bongo drums, as that would be exclusive — in the sense that it would exclude the transcendent, which cannot be reached by any bongo drums I have ever heard.

My acid test for any part of the liturgy, including the music, is this: Would a complete stranger observing it believe that what is taking place is the most important thing in these people’s lives? I cannot express how I have missed that sense of sanctity in the Mass with which I grew up. I am also a man of the theatre. I was an actor in my early professional life, so I understand the stage. That is what infuriated me about the “new” liturgy of the 1970s. Any competent stage director could have told the liturgical innovators that it did not convey the presence of the sacred. It was so obvious that the conclusion occurred that they must not think the sacred was present. Many parishioners got the message, as they stopped believing in the Real Presence.
No, the transcendent can only be pointed to or reached by the greatest art. When is the last time you heard music at Mass that reinforced your faith rather than tested it? When is the last time you heard the cosmos in your parish?

The objection to this might be: What parish can afford Beethoven’s Missa Solemnis or a Bruckner Mass? True enough, which is why I cherish my visits to the Brompton Oratory in London, where great musical liturgies are sung at each 11:00 a.m. Mass on Sunday (which also proves with what dignity and solemnity the Novus Ordo can be said).
However, at my own parish in Virginia, the parochial vicar always chants the Consecration, for which I thank him each time. It does not cost a thing. What a relief to hear those most scared words invested with sacred music. As I grow older, I feel a part of this younger generation of Catholics who want Gregorian chant.

Robert R. Reilly is the music critic for Contact him at [email protected]


  • Joanna Bogle

    Joanna Bogle is a writer, biographer, and historian. She relishes the new translation of the Mass, the Ordinariate of Our Lady of Walsingham, her own excellent local Catholic parish, traditional hymns (especially, perhaps, Anglican ones) rain, good literature, sleep, the English coast, Autumn, buttered toast, and a number of other things too precious and important to list here. Visit her blog.

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