RCHBISHOP ALEXANDER K. SAMPLE of Portland, Oregon, while bishop of Marquette, Michigan, composed this most comprehensive pastoral letter on sacred music:
Many of us had the good fortune of hearing him speak at the CMAA Colloquium in 2013. His words in person were highly consistent with this extraordinary pastoral letter. It is composed with clarity and conviction, but more importantly, imbued with a great sense of “sensus Ecclesiae” as spoken of by St. John Paul II. He understands well that sacred melody must express “the truth of the Mystery that is celebrated in the Liturgy.” (§12. Chirograph for the Centenary of Tra le sollecitudini )
But sadly, here lies the deep frustration: what he writes of may as well be a foreign language to most liturgical musicians and priests. This is not meant to be a criticism of clergy or musicians. Many, deeply devoted to the Church, are not well trained in sacred music. Furthermore, Archbishop Sample’s words are not a “foreign language” because of his writing style — it is direct and quite accessible. Yet, there is systemic misunderstanding:
HE BIGGEST LITURGICAL PROBLEM WE FACE — the most fundamental problem in Roman Catholic liturgical music is the prevailing misunderstanding of its very purpose. For example, how many clergy and liturgical musicians know what the propers are? Again, this is not a criticism! They have not been catechized. Our secular culture and our acceptance of it in the context of the sacred perpetuate misunderstanding. This is compounded by the rejection of our traditions. The rejection of our traditions leads to the notion of the Mass being up for personal interpretation. Such interpretation (a “Tower of Babel” in which individuals speak their own language but do not understand each other) leads to a systemic breakdown of the liturgy, which can bring about far worse than simple “misunderstanding.” The fundamental purpose of the mass then spirals out of control, leaving the sacred mysteries as secondary to personal desires. Sadly, this is not only common, but celebrated.
Of course, to understand well the purpose of sacred music, one must heed the words of Pope Saint Pius X, which Archbishop Sample quotes:
“The Church solemnly teaches us, then, that the very purpose of sacred music is twofold: the glory of God and the sanctification of the faithful.”
Therefore, the purpose of sacred music is not to entertain or to indulge our own personal tastes. (This cuts in every direction!) This is also not to downplay that certain music speaks to individuals for their own private devotions, a powerful tool in prayer. But our greatest prayer, the Mass, is directed by the entire community toward God. This act of communal praise strengthens the community — the “sanctification of the faithful.”
TO UNDERSTAND THE PROPER ROLE OF SACRED MUSIC, we must understand history, which Archbishop Sample discusses under “Some history and the nature and purpose of Sacred Music”:
“Since the psalms, part of Sacred Scripture, were meant to be sung, music was seen, ultimately, to be part of the very integrity of the Word of God. Furthermore, as Christian worship was moored to the Sacred Scriptures, music was seen as necessarily worthy of being preserved and fostered in the public worship of the Church.”
Most importantly, he adds:
”…the music proper to the Mass is not merely an addendum to worship, i.e., something external added on to the form and structure of the Mass. Rather, sacred music is an essential element of the worship itself.”
To illustrate that point somewhat, I often receive well-intended compliments that “the music was a wonderful addition to the mass.” Addition is often the key word. I politely, say “thank you” and do not dive into the Church documents then and there. But the prevailing notion of sacred music is that music at mass is there simply for its own sake. This can be a problem in any style including ambitious classical music, e.g. the Viennese masses of the late Nineteenth Century. Whereas, singing the mass, i.e., the acclamations and dialogues, the psalms and their antiphons, litanies, etc., is to sing the Rite itself – just as the cantor sings the Torah, an ancient practice as old as the Torah itself and reintroduced by Ezra after the Babylonian Exile.
That our sacred music is a descendant of such history is deeply profound. It is an imperative notion to grasp! Archbishop Sample addresses this very notion, that “the role of sacred music is to help us sing and pray the texts of the Mass itself, not just ornament it.”
ITH REGARD TO INTERPRETATION of Vatican II, let’s forget about Sacrosanctum Concilium. Forget Pius X’s 1903 Motu Proprio, Tra le Sollecitudini (“Instruction on Sacred Music”). Forget Archbishop Sample. Instead, let’s examine the 2007 US Bishop’s document Sing to the Lord: Music in Divine Worship. (SttL) We will see that in places, it too reads like a “foreign language” in its clear understanding of singing the Mass and not just singing at Mass. For example, with regard to the musical hierarchy of importance in what should be sung at mass, SttL is full of surprises! Why? Because of the pervasive misunderstanding of the very purpose of sacred music.
According to Sing to the Lord, here’s a quick summary of the most important to the least:
1 • Dialogues and Acclamations
2 • Antiphons and Psalms – this is in reference to not only the Responorial, but the Propers – the Entrance, Offertory and Communion Chants and their corresponding psalm verses.
3 • Refrains and Repeated Responses
4 • Hymns/Songs
It comes as a shock to most everyone that hymns and songs are considered least important while singing the very texts of the Mass are of the highest priority. We are also reminded that hymns are primarily the domain of the Divine Office. This is all very counter-cultural and revolutionary, but only because we have forgotten our traditions.
O, WHAT DO WE DO? Change everything all at once? When changing the culture, it is often best to look for progress, not perfection, at first. However, we must not be afraid to speak boldly about the dignity of the liturgy, as Archbishop Sample does in this pastoral letter. Furthermore, we must act with conviction as well. People must experience for themselves how their prayer might evolve and be nurtured through singing the mass, rather than reading words on a page on how this is accomplished.
As Ezra brought back the singing of the Torah after the Exile, may we too bring back the dignity of the Mass. The Mass is our greatest praise to God. Let this prayer be as beautiful as we can make it.
This is part of an 8-part series on Archbishop Sample’s historic letter: