HENEVER POPE Francis speaks, he often raises eyebrows, much due to the force of his blunt speech and popular appeal. However, a good deal of it is nothing new, especially his recent remarks on sacred music to the Pontifical Council for Culture’s Conference on Music which marked the fiftieth anniversary of Musicam sacram (March 5, 1967).
Compared to remarks from Francis’ recent predecessors, what sets Francis apart is his tone and heightened visibility. Recent comments are still reverberating and need time to digest, especially the following: “Sometimes a certain mediocrity, superficiality and banality have prevailed, to the detriment of the beauty and intensity of liturgical celebrations.”
You can read a translation of Pope Francis’ full address here.
But a call for reform in sacred music is hardly new, and most notably dates in more modern times to Pope St. Pius X’s 1903 Motu Proprio, Tra le Sollecitudini (“Instruction on Sacred Music”). Few realize, this document was a catalyst for sacred music reform in Vatican II. Such was Pius X’s influence on Vatican II that the Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy makes direct reference to him by name: e.g., “in recent times, led by St. Pius X, have explained more precisely the ministerial function supplied by sacred music in the service of the Lord. (SC §112)
Consider remarks from recent predecessors, in particular, Pope Saint John Paul II. In 2003, in his Chirograph for the Centenary of Tra le sollecitudini of Pope Saint Pius X, he states:
3. “…I have also stressed the need to ‘purify worship from ugliness of style, from distasteful forms of expression, from uninspired musical texts which are not worthy of the great act that is being celebrated, to guarantee dignity and excellence to liturgical compositions.” (emphasis added)
Pope Francis clearly echoes this, but in less poetic terms. In fact his remarks share a more common tone with the 2007 US Bishops’ document Sing to the Lord: Music in Divine Worship (SttL)
To admit the cheap, the trite, or the musical cliché often found in secular popular songs is to cheapen the Liturgy, to expose it to ridicule, and to invite failure. (SttL §135)
These harsh words date back to the US Bishops’ previous document Music in Catholic Worship. But the warning has gone unheeded. Similarly, Pope Saint John Paul’s remarks in 2003 went largely unnoticed.
Pope Benedict XVI is the greatest champion of the inseparability of liturgy and sacred music, since Pope St. Pius X. But even Benedict softened his tone with regard to implementation, urging that reform cannot come about by fiat or decree, but through example. And many have heeded this call, teaching through example as their life’s work. But Benedict’s exhaustive writings on the liturgy are sometime sadly dismissed. Few avail themselves of his writing that happens to be far more accessible (and even pastoral) in tone than perhaps Pope St. John Paul’s.
BUT POPE FRANCIS’ PLAIN WORDS do not go unnoticed. He commands the largest stage of any pope, which is saying a great deal. In part it is due to the age of twenty-four hour coverage and social media, but this is not a new dynamic in our world. His light is not hidden under a bushel, but shines high on a hill. As such, it garners more attention, and at times more scrutiny.
Such musical exhortations are not new, but the tone and visibility are. Although it is unlikely they will have much immediate effect, Francis’ words get noticed. They are spoken from the biggest stage.
Let us pray unceasingly for Pope Francis.
Soli Deo gloria