OPE SAINT JOHN PAUL II’s Letter to Artists (1999) is an inspired document worth reading and rereading. In it he outlines the relationship between art and faith – between beauty, goodness, and truth as well as our responsibility to an “artistic vocation in the service of beauty.” (Letter of His Holiness Pope John Paul II to Artists, §3) Implications for the liturgy are unmistakable and its influence on faith incontrovertible.
With regard to the liturgy, Saint John Paul is clear in the relationship between beauty and truth. Through this relationship, Gregorian Chant expresses the eternal in celebration of the mass:
Gregory the Great compiled the Antiphonarium and thus laid the ground for the organic development of that most original sacred music which takes its name from him. Gregorian chant, with its inspired modulations, was to become down the centuries the music of the Church’s faith in the liturgical celebration of the sacred mysteries. The “beautiful” was thus wedded to the “true”, so that through art too souls might be lifted up from the world of the senses to the eternal. (Ibid, §7)
This is a bold statement, especially in light of St. John Paul’s strong words on Gregorian Chant, just a few years later in 2003:
12. With regard to compositions of liturgical music, I make my own the “general rule” that St Pius X formulated in these words: “The more closely a composition for church approaches in its movement, inspiration and savour the Gregorian melodic form, the more sacred and liturgical it becomes.” (Chirograph for the Centenary of Tra le sollecitudini)
St. John Paul also makes an appeal to musicians and architects. Such a profound effect architecture has upon our worship and our soul! It can be deleterious, or it can lift our minds to greater things. Architecture can remove us from present worldliness and draw us heavenward into timeless eternity. Likewise, music does the same. It can either be harmful, or sometimes worse – endlessly harmless. Or music can uplift, edify, and sanctify the soul.
I appeal especially to you, Christian artists: I wish to remind each of you that, beyond functional considerations, the close alliance that has always existed between the Gospel and art means that you are invited to use your creative intuition to enter into the heart of the mystery of the Incarnate God and at the same time into the mystery of man. (Letter of His Holiness Pope John Paul II to Artists, §14)
AINT JOHN PAUL LAYS OUT THE RESPONSIBILITY of the artist. He clearly recognizes not only the importance and “profound respect” for art, but for its necessity. It is our responsibility to seek and employ what is beautiful, and to do the best we can with what is possible. Through this beauty we praise God. Through beauty, we evangelize. Art expresses our faith, articulates our prayer, and reminds us of how we must live. Beauty lifts the faith of those around us. St. John Paul calls us to this responsibility but also gives a stern warning:
The particular vocation of individual artists decides the arena in which they serve and points as well to the tasks they must assume, the hard work they must endure and the responsibility they must accept. Artists who are conscious of all this know too that they must labour without allowing themselves to be driven by the search for empty glory or the craving for cheap popularity, and still less by the calculation of some possible profit for themselves. (Ibid, §4)
Finally, it must be understood that the simple is often beautiful. We likely do not have endless resources, financial and otherwise, to create the most beautiful sacred liturgy. We must do what is possible. The simplest of chant and inspired melody, sung well and with prayerful heart, expresses truth. One might evoke Pope Francis who calls for a Church of and for the poor. In the recognition of all human dignity, the poor especially deserve truth from which beauty emanates. The greatest beauty often comes from the least among us.
N COMPOSING THE Mass in Honor of Pope Saint John Paul II, I pray that I have lived up to some of the his words. If not, I will strive further! This mass is published with the approval for liturgical use by the Committee on Divine Worship, United States Conference of Catholic Bishops.
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PDF • Mass in Honor of Pope Saint John Paul II (for Schola, Organ, SATB)
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PDF • Mass in Honor of Pope Saint John Paul II (for Schola, Organ)
• SATB Recordings by the St. Cecilia Choir, Boston, MA, with the 1999 Smith & Gilbert Organ:
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