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“In the 17th century came the crushing blow which destroyed the beauty of all Breviary hymns. Pope Urban VIII (d. 1644) was a Humanist. In a fatal moment he saw that the hymns do not all conform to the rules of classical prosody.”
— Fr. Adrian Fortescue (d. 1923)

Music & Beauty
published 19 August 2014 by Guest Author

HROUGHOUT MY LIFE, I have encountered God’s presence many times through the experience of beauty in Sacred Music. One such occasion was on a trip to France, while I was visiting the historic Church of Saint Sulpice in Paris. This is where the Sulpicians, who originally staffed Saint John’s Seminary, were founded. The church contains Pigalle’s famous statue of Our Lady Seat of Wisdom, which became a distinct mark of Sulpician spirituality. This is why we find a replica of it in our own Marian Courtyard. As I was praying after the daily noon Mass in the Blessed Sacrament chapel in the front of the church, suddenly the world-famous Cavaillé-Coll organ began to bellow out penetrating harmonies from behind us that filled the massive space. Soon thereafter, a choir of about one hundred voices joined in, intently singing the triumphant melody to Charles-Marie Widor’s Tu Es Petrus, which was originally composed on that very organ 136 years earlier.

It turned out that this professional choir was having a dress rehearsal for their concert that evening. As I sat there enjoying the free concert amid the beautiful surroundings of this historic church with its direct spiritual connection to Saint John’s Seminary, I was moved to tears by the way in which the music so powerfully captured the momentous encounter between Our Lord and Saint Peter. I had heard many times the scripture passage from Matthew 16:18, “You are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church and the gates of hell will not prevail against it.” But it was not until hearing it in this setting that its profound significance really struck me. It’s one of those pieces of music that makes one proud to be a Roman Catholic!

I share this story to demonstrate the power of beauty in music, through which Christ is made present to the world in a unique way. In several of his addresses, Pope Benedict XVI used the words of the 14th century Byzantine theologian, Nicholas Cabasilas, to describe the encounter with beauty as “the wound of the arrow that strikes the heart” of man. 1 By opening him up to the transcendent and causing him to look beyond himself, “toward the ultimate Mystery, toward God,” beauty thus reveals God as the ultimate true, good, and beautiful. 2 By its appeal and inherent attraction to the heart, the Church’s tradition of Sacred Music, which the Second Vatican Council identifies as “a treasure of inestimable value,” 3 conveys the sacred texts in ways that are often more profound than a spoken proclamation or theological discourse. 4 The chants of the Sacred Liturgy in particular, dating back to the early years of the Roman rite, form a perfect marriage of text and melody, which St. Basil describes as God’s way of further disposing the hearts of man to receiving His truth: a type of divine pedagogy. 5

As history has shown, Sacred Music plays a central role in evangelization and the formation of culture. It is one of the primary ways in which we experience the presence of heaven on earth during the Sacred Liturgy, and will thus forever remain an indispensible aid in raising our hearts and minds to the contemplation of the mysteries of the faith. I believe a quote of Simone Weil, which Pope Benedict once referenced, aptly summarizes this: “In all that awakens within us the pure and authentic sentiment of beauty, there, truly, is the presence of God. There is a kind of incarnation of God in the world, of which beauty is the sign. Beauty is the experimental proof that incarnation is possible.” 6

Guest post by Patrick Fiorillo, a Seminarian for the Archdiocese of Boston.

Patrick Fiorillo is a seminarian at St. John’s Seminary in Boston, Massachusetts. This article was originally printed in the St. John’s Seminary Magazine and is reproduced here with permission.


1   Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, “The Feeling of Things, the Contemplation of Beauty,” Address to the Communion and Liberation, August 24-30, 2002.

2   Pope Benedict XVI, “Address to Artists,” Vatican City, November 22, 2009.

3   Second Vatican Council, Sacrosanctum Concilium, 112.

4   C.f. Ratzinger, “The Feeling of Things, the Contemplation of Beauty.”

5   Rev. Jonathan Gaspar and Romanus Cessario, O.P., “Worthy of the Temple: Liturgical Music and Theological Faith, Nova et Vetera, English Edition, Vol. 3, No. 4 (2005): 679. St. Basil, Homily on the First Psalm, PG XXIX: 209.

6   Pope Benedict XVI, Speech in Sistine Chapel, November 21, 2009.