CCTLS 4: Holiness as a Reference Point

Two weeks of John Paul II’s chirograph gets into a meaty, substantive matter with the necessity of having holiness as a reference point. Let’s explore what this means after reviewing the text of section 4:

4. In continuity with the teachings of St Pius X and the Second Vatican Council, it is necessary first of all to emphasize that music destined for sacred rites must have holiness as its reference point: indeed, “sacred music increases in holiness to the degree that it is intimately linked with liturgical action”[SC 112]. For this very reason, “not all without distinction that is outside the temple (profanum) is fit to cross its threshold”, my venerable Predecessor Paul VI wisely said, commenting on a Decree of the Council of Trent [Address to the Participants in the General Assembly of the Italian Association Santa Cecilia (18 September 1968):  Insegnamenti VI (1968), 479]. And he explained that “if music – instrumental and vocal – does not possess at the same time the sense of prayer, dignity and beauty, it precludes the entry into the sphere of the sacred and the religious”[Ibid.]. Today, moreover, the meaning of the category “sacred music” has been broadened to include repertoires that cannot be part of the celebration without violating the spirit and norms of the Liturgy itself.

St Pius X’s reform aimed specifically at purifying Church music from the contamination of profane theatrical music that in many countries had polluted the repertoire and musical praxis of the Liturgy. In our day too, careful thought, as I emphasized in the Encyclical Ecclesia de Eucharistia, should be given to the fact that not all the expressions of figurative art or of music are able “to express adequately the mystery grasped in the fullness of the Church’s faith”[EdE 50]. Consequently, not all forms of music can be considered suitable for liturgical celebrations.


I would not disagree with a threefold sensibility of prayer, dignity, and beauty. Yet these elements are often within the experience of individuals and communities. People pray in all sorts of contexts and with all sorts of aids. Beauty has a fairly wide range of acceptance within the Church as well. Some individuals have more broad ranges in which they accept beauty, and some more narrow.

Dignity: this quality is where things often turn in today’s church music. Dignity if often interpreted as something of the physical body: and even, stately, even proud bearing. But music, by lingo and in practice, is very much play. And play is not accepted as dignified in m any quarters.

I was struck by this thread at PrayTell where I mused that children are expected to be mini-adults. Paul Inwood in turn commented that, “We forget that Jesus asked us to become like little children, not to make little children become like us.”

So sure: let’s keep dignity on the table. But let’s make sure we are talking about the dignity of the Lord Jesus, who welcomed children, and who, on the night before he died, set aside outer cloak and offended the dignity of Peter who protested that some things just do not belong.

John Paul II recognizes in 4a that liturgical music is a subset of sacred music. We should be mindful of that.

In 4b, he sets out a more helpful standard: that art should be able to stand with the Church’s faith and assist in communicating it. What would other sacred art accomplish? The glory of its performers. The awe of its composer. Such things can also be play, according to the thinking of a child. But that undergirding of bearing the weight of mystery: this is needful.

Your thoughts?

About catholicsensibility

Todd lives in Minnesota, serving a Catholic parish as a lay minister.
This entry was posted in Chirograph for the Centenary of TLS, post-conciliar liturgy documents. Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to CCTLS 4: Holiness as a Reference Point

  1. What a filet mignon of concepts, Todd.
    Is “Catholic/JesusTown” big enough for vastly different (diffident?) notions of how children dignify the rites by their invitation and participation? For example, the CMAA world is rightly abuzz about not only the artistic accomplishments of the Madeleine Cathedral School students, but also their profound love for the art form and genuine, if innate, understanding of its genesis. I have a short video example of that which I’ve yet to post at the Cafe.
    But, at the same time, so many other elsewhere’s, the diet of Landry songs that are in situo in our parochial schools, RE programs, etc. seems to have taken hold of the ritual culture of children like kudzu. And don’t get me started on the manure that is proffered as Vacation Bible School musicals (which I know aren’t ritual) but should inform us about what we adults define as “play.”)
    Jesus obviously did not short-change “the children.” Why do we think it’s okay not only to do the opposite, but to believe it’s in their best interest?
    Is this condescension? You tell me.

  2. Todd says:

    I was thinking about children in the context of play, that music is played, and that’s not quite the same as adult dignity, as the culture understands it.

    MCS is doing some fine work, to be sure. But they’re not alone. Alas, the problem with not having even more programs like that one isn’t due to the liturgy wars, but to the American ethic for pragmatism, sports, and the prep school model of Catholic education. Your main beef shouldn’t be with VBS, but with the other fifty-one weeks of the year.

    Personally, I’m more familiar with the work of many fine children’s choir directors I’ve worked with over the years, as well as the high bar set by the Chorister’s Guild.

    It shouldn’t come as a surprise that I prefer a rather wide range of musical genres when working with kids. Mr Landry’s songs are about two generations old now, and perhaps not quite so ubiquitous in the midwest.

    You also know my meme is that 80% of the kudzu is about poor performance and leadership, not necessarily the songs themselves. Or the sources.

    I’m happy to see CMAA on the bandwagon for better art for kids, but I have to tell ya: I’ve been on it for close to thirty years. I’m sure you’re on it, too. So let’s not turn this into a Landry-Gregory slugfest. I’ll welcome your companions aboard and listen with interest how they fare with the sporting crowd.

  3. Heavens no, no slugfest intended. On the secular side, if there’s anyone the equal of Henry Leck and the Indianapolis Children’s Chorus, I’ve not yet encountered them, save for maybe the San Francisco Girl’s Chorus when Dr. Sharon Paul was their AD.
    I have just posted to YouTube a video of a MCS chorister’s solo. May I quote some of our postings here elsewhere?

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