AS IT NECESSARY to change our forms of worship to suit “modern man”? Was it necessary to get rid of our glorious musical heritage and replace it with newly fabricated utility music that mimicked the styles of the secular world? This, after all, was the argument used to justify abolishing Latin, chant, Renaissance polyphony, and Masses by Haydn: all of these are products of other time periods, other cultural contexts; so they are “antiquated” and don’t “speak” to us where we are right now.
We may refute this with six observations.
1. All serious religions maintain centuries-old (or even millennia-old) customs of worship and ritual languages or bodies of music, the most obvious examples being Judaism, Eastern Orthodox Christianity, Anglicanism, Hinduism, and Islam. This is a fearful observation, since it shows that the Catholic Church alone (or certainly greatly in excess of the others) has abandoned its vast artistic and liturgical heritage in favor of what appears to be a fashionable contemporary agenda. Catholicism thus appears, to all impartial observers, as the religion that takes its own traditions least seriously and is prepared to change its most solemn observances and rituals. If I were not a Catholic but were searching for the true religion, this massive disconnect between what the Church says it is and how it has acted in the past half-century might very well have put me off permanently. I would have reasoned (and it is not altogether unreasonable): “Orthodox Jews, Eastern Orthodox Christians, High Church Anglicans, Moslems―all of them have clung faithfully and steadfastly to their age-old traditions, have cultivated them and treasured them, and would not give them up for anything. But Catholics threw over all that had been considered, during much of their long history, as most sacred, most beautiful, most solemn, most worthy, and most sanctifying. I conclude that the Catholic Church hardly knows what it is doing, and folly on so great a scale is a convincing proof that the spirit of religion, of fidelity and continuity, is not there.” Ratzinger made similar observations. If this is an unacceptable conclusion, then so is the short-sighted, ungrateful behavior towards tradition that leads to it.
2. Many people not only can respond to this music and art, but already love it or find it intriguing and convincing when exposed to it―it’s “authentic.” They love the sound of Latin and chant, the look of Gothic cathedrals, stained glass windows, noble statuary. Witness the popularity of recordings of medieval and Renaissance music, or art books filled with photographs of the great churches, altarpieces, and tapestries of yore. Such things are perennially appealing to everyone, from the illiterate to the highly educated. All you have to do is watch the looks of amazement and wonder on the faces of so many people who visit Gothic cathedrals in Europe. In short, majestic beauty still speaks powerfully of the divine, the eternal, the immortal, the spiritual. It is sensuous catechesis, experiential mystagogy. We human beings desperately need it.
3. It is the purpose of good liturgy and music to train the senses, to habituate people to beauty, to induct them into a higher way of living, thinking, and feeling. We are born simpletons who can learn to find contentment in far less than our human dignity, fashioned after the image and likeness of God, deserves and is capable of. The old masterpieces are God’s greatest gifts to Christian culture and should therefore serve as the norm used to measure all other contributions. Indeed, it would be exactly backwards to let the tastes of popular culture in its deviation into mass-marketed pseudo-art dictate what Catholics ought to esteem most highly.
4. We call these works of art “great” because they are essentially timeless in their greatness, as the Latin tongue itself is timeless, a common possession of all nations and the property of no one. To what nation does the Missa Papae Marcelli belong? To what period is the Requiem of Mozart confined? To which social class are the Magnificat fugues of Pachelbel restricted? To what special occasion are the Gregorian propers limited? Foolish questions! All great sacred music, even any art that shares in the demonstrable qualities of great art, belongs to everyone, is the inheritance and blessing of all members of the Mystical Body of Christ, the joy of all souls wherever the Catholic Church builds her churches and consecrates her altars. Who would say that the works of Johann Sebastian Bach are “antiquated” and can no longer move people’s hearts? Nay, Bach’s work moves the heart as profoundly as it can be moved.
5. Those who keep close tabs on the fine arts know (to their consolation) that there have always been and continue to be good serious modern pieces in all artistic media―in the area of sacred music alone, the repertoire for organists and for choirs is always expanding with worthy new additions. Such works can be effortlessly integrated into the larger panorama of tradition, since they naturally tend to derive from it and enrich it symbiotically, embodying the same ideals and serving the same purposes. There was never any need for a violent derailment of the past and a slap-dash effort to replace it by infinitely inferior things created on the spur of the moment. While great music is immortally youthful, mediocre music embarrassingly shows its age.
6. If use of the vernacular is really so important for today’s Catholics, why then would we not have retained the time-honored liturgy and prayers of our forefathers, rendered in a beautiful vernacular translation, as Byzantine Christians and traditional Anglicans do? And why, further, would we not draw upon the immense wealth of exquisite vernacular music where it exists, e.g., in the English or German or French choral traditions? (Let me but mention the names Tallis and Byrd, and my meaning becomes clear.) Even vernacular plainchant has been successfully created by masters like Fr. Samuel Weber and Fr. Columba Kelly and their influential students. The fact that this obvious solution―combining the use of the vernacular with the recovery or renewal of the best of our musical-cultural heritage―has been so rarely tried is a particularly telling sign that we are dealing with no mere disagreement over the best way to “speak to modern man,” but rather, with a much deeper disagreement over the very nature of liturgy, the aesthetic capacity and transcendent vocation of man, and, ultimately, the reality of the redemptive Incarnation, wherein “deep calls to deep.”
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