HE EIGHT-YEAR pontificate of Pope Benedict XVI was an extraordinary period. In those years, the faithful of the Church were blessed by Papa Ratzinger’s gentle humility, his prayerful spirituality, and his exquisite clarity of thought. Needless to say, the Pope Emeritus remains worthy of emulation for many of his personal attributes. Not the least of his traits deserving our imitation is his ars celebrandi, at once totally faithful to the rule of the Church and steeped in reverent beauty.
So many of the Holy Fathers of the past century have distinguished themselves in one way or another. John Paul II was energetic and athletic; John XXIII combined simple piety with a down-home touch; Leo XIII gave societal standing to the working class; Francis has a contagious love for the poor. In the case of Benedict XVI, not only is he a world-class theologian, but he is also a musician of uncommon ability and discerning taste.
For this reason, Pope Benedict’s teachings and commentary on sacred music require special attention. Although he sadly never delivered an official document of papal teaching on the subject, there were numerous occasions on which he did offer reflections on the role of music in liturgy. These we may add to his corpus of similar writings from before his election to the See of Rome.
My favorite words from Benedict on the topic of sacred music actually come not from any prepared text. They were, instead, a set of unprepared remarks made following a concert given by the Cappella Musicale Pontificia on December 20, 2005. I present these impromptu remarks in full below:
Dear Maestro, Mons. Liberto,
Dear Choir Boys of the Sistine Chapel,
Dear Singers, Teachers and Collaborators,
I did not have time to prepare a talk, although my idea was quite simple: to say, in these days before Christmas, that they are days of thanksgiving for gifts; to say, in these days, a “thank you” to you for all that you give us the whole year round, for this great contribution to the glory of God and to the joy of the people on earth.
On the night when the Saviour was born, the Angels proclaimed Christ’s birth to the shepherds with these words: “Gloria in excelsis Deo et in terra pax hominibus.” Tradition has always claimed that the Angels did not simply speak like people, but sang, and that their song was of such heavenly beauty that it revealed the beauty of Heaven.
Tradition also claims that choirs of treble voices can enable us to hear an echo of the angels’ singing. And it is true that, in the singing of the Sistine Chapel Choir at the important liturgies, we can sense the presence of the heavenly liturgy, we can feel a little of the beauty through which the Lord wants to communicate his joy to us.
In fact, praise of God demands song. Therefore, throughout the Old Testament—with Moses and with David—until the New Testament—in the Book of Revelation—we hear once again the hymns of the heavenly liturgy that offer a lesson for our liturgy in God’s Church.
Consequently, your contribution is essential to the liturgy: it is not a marginal embellishment, for the liturgy as such demands this beauty, it needs song to praise God and to give joy to those taking part.
I wish to thank you with all my heart for this major contribution. The Pope’s liturgy, the liturgy in St. Peter’s, must be an example of liturgy for the world. You know that today, with television and radio, a vast number of people in every part of the world follow this liturgy. From here, they learn or do not learn what the liturgy is, how the liturgy should be celebrated. Thus, it is very important not only that our masters of ceremony teach the Pope how best to celebrate the liturgy, but also that the Sistine Choir be an example of how to convey beauty in song, in praise of God.
I know—since my brother has, as it were, enabled me to have a first-hand experience of a choir of treble voices—that this beauty demands a huge commitment and many sacrifices on your part.
You have to rise early, boys, in order to get to school; I know Rome’s traffic, and I can therefore guess how difficult it often is for you to arrive on time. Then, you have to practice to the very end in order to achieve this perfection with the competence that we have just heard once again.
I thank you for all this, also because at these celebrations, while your companions go on long outings, you have to stay in the Basilica to sing and sometimes even have to wait for an hour before being able to sing; and yet you are always ready to make your contribution.
I feel this gratitude every time, and on this occasion I wanted to tell you of it. Christmas is the feast of gifts. God, Himself, gave us the greatest gift. He gave us Himself. He took flesh, He made Himself a child. God gave us the true gift and thus also invites us to give, to give with our hearts; to give a little of ourselves to God and to our neighbour. He also asks us to offer signs of our kindness, of our willingness to offer joy to others.
So I, too, therefore, have attempted to make my gratitude visible through presents that will now be given out to you as an expression of my gratitude, which is too strong for words.
These words may be nearly a decade old, yet they remain refreshing today.