I had to go back to see what Sacrosanctum concilium said about “popular religious song” to get to the bottom of what John Paul II was trying to tell us, referring to this term. I confess I still don’t get it. Here’s section 11:
11. The last century, with the renewal introduced by the Second Vatican Council, witnessed a special development in popular religious song, about which Sacrosanctum Concilium says: “Religious singing by the faithful is to be intelligently fostered so that in devotions and sacred exercises as well as in liturgical services, the voices of the faithful may be heard…”[SC 118]. This singing is particularly suited to the participation of the faithful, not only for devotional practices “in conformity with the norms and requirements of the rubrics”[SC 118], but also with the Liturgy itself. Popular singing, in fact, constitutes “a bond of unity and a joyful expression of the community at prayer, fosters the proclamation of the one faith and imparts to large liturgical assemblies an incomparable and recollected solemnity”[John Paul II, Address to the International Congress on Sacred Music (27 January 2001), n. 4].
And here’s the very brief section from SC:
118. Religious singing by the people is to be intelligently fostered so that in devotions and sacred exercises, as also during liturgical services, the voices of the faithful may ring out according to the norms and requirements of the rubrics.
When I hear the term “popular religious song,” I’m not sure I equate that with liturgical singing. “Popular” might mean well-liked, as in the cool kids at school. “Popular” might also express a quality of music that is not classical, “serious,” of jazz, or folk, or other genres that are out of favor with the corporate elites and the fans of their figurehead pop stars.
It strikes me that SC was driving less at “popular” by either of these two definitions, and more a quality of liturgical singing that is “by the people.” In that, I’d say that John Paul’s observations:
- bond of unity
- joyful prayer
- proclamation of faith
- incomparable solemnity
are all spot on for what good liturgical music, sung by the people, accomplishes.