SOME OF OUR READERS are probably also listeners of the Catechism in a Year podcast, put out by Ascension Press. In this podcast, the wonderful and winsome Fr. Mike Schmitz reads several paragraphs of the Catechism of the Catholic Church and then offers some commentary that manages to be both unfailingly orthodox but also phrased in a modern and compassionate way that seems like it would be well suited to winning over nonbelievers. I’m a fan.
If you’ve been following along with the podcast as it’s come out over the last year, several recent episodes were devoted the eighth commandment, “Thou shalt not bear false witness against thy neighbor.” Surprisingly to me, there is a section of the catechism’s treatment of that commandment that covers sacred art, paragraphs 2500–2503. Give it a read here if it’s been a while. Here is a short quotation, drawing on the book of Wisdom, from paragraph 2502:
Sacred art is true and beautiful when its form corresponds to its particular vocation: evoking and glorifying, in faith and adoration, the transcendent mystery of God – the surpassing invisible beauty of truth and love visible in Christ, who “reflects the glory of God and bears the very stamp of his nature,” in whom “the whole fullness of deity dwells bodily.”
Let’s think about this in relation to sacred music. There is much to say on this topic, and it’s one that is both close to my heart and also personally convicting. Sacred music is not just designed to be beautiful, but to bear witness to the truth. This is why sacred art is discussed in the context of the commandment that prohibits lying. Is the music we are performing at Mass true and beautiful? Think about how much of what passes for sacred music fails the test of truthfulness. The less is said about that, the better. It’s not hard to see what kinds of music the Church proposes as best suited to bearing witness. First and foremost, her sacred chant, which should be favored over every other music and which some theologians consider to be a sacramental.
Of course, not only our music but indeed our very lives must also be oriented toward courageously bearing witness to the truth, even when it means sacrifice and self-denial. How often, alas, have I failed in that regard. For us musicians, today is the feast of our glorious patroness, St. Cecilia. I was privileged to take part in a Mass for her today, where most of the music was Gregorian, but with a Mass ordinary and a motet for one singer by Viadana. It was a day for thinking a bit more reflectively about the sheer beauty and truth of the chant, as it has been passed down.
Speaking of those who have passed down beautiful chant to us, you can read Dom Guéranger’s life of St. Cecilia here. Interestingly, the Catechism also addresses martyrdom under the eighth commandment (paragraphs 2473–2474), as of course it is the supreme act of bearing witness to the truth. Do you sing in the Church? You are also called, like the martyrs, to bear witness to the truth of the faith and of Christian doctrine. This echoes something that Jeff writes about all the time in relation to the North American martyrs.
What does this calling mean for us? Every time we sing at Mass, we should be bearing witness to the truth of Christ, not only by the music we sing but also by the way we live our lives and devote ourselves to our calling. I’m certainly convicted, thinking of every time that I as a singer and a conductor have failed to live up to that call. With God’s grace, we can live out our calling as witnesses. We never know how often we may touch, with our singing, the lives of those at the Mass with us and may be, in a small way, a conduit for God’s grace to those around us. It is a high call, and we need all the help we can get. Saint Cecilia, pray for us!