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.