Let’s first examine what Vatican II said.
Afterwards, I’ll draw some conclusions.
The One Who Convened • Nine months before Vatican II began, the very pope who convened the council (POPE SAINT JOHN XXIII) issued a forceful decree called Veterum Sapientia. Pope John XXIII said he was “fully determined to restore this language to its position of honor,” declaring that bishops must remove (!) any professor who “writes against the use of Latin […] in the Liturgy, or through prejudice makes light of the Holy See’s will in this regard or interprets it falsely.” It’s impossible to imagine a document which promotes liturgical Latin more forcefully.
Laughter • ALFONS CARDINAL STICKLER attended Vatican II as a perítus (“expert”). In a 1999 interview, he said: “I still remember very well how after several radical proposals a Sicilian bishop rose and implored the fathers to allow caution and reason to reign on this point, because otherwise there would be the danger that the entire Mass might be held in the language of the people—whereupon the entire hall burst into uproarious laughter.” The idea that liturgical Latin would be abandoned was absurd to the fathers of Vatican II. Even some of the most progressive clerics, such as AUGUSTIN CARDINAL BEA (who had attempted to radically modify every liturgical book in existence), declared that: “No concession should ever be made for the singing of the EXSULTET, in whole or in part, in the vernacular.”
The Word “Whether” • On 4 December 1963, the Second Vatican Council solemnly declared (with 2,152 in agreement and only 4 against): “The use of the Latin language is to be preserved in the Latin rites.” This wasn’t a suggestion; it was a command. Vatican II also declared: “It is for the competent territorial ecclesiastical authority […] to decide whether, and to what extent, the vernacular language is to be used.” Notice that word: whether.
One Eighty-Fourth! • How many bishops were pushing for a vernacular liturgy? Consider the case of the French bishops. Right before Vatican II, the pope asked them for their vota (“wishes”). Out of eighty-four French bishops, only sixteen were interested in expansion of the vernacular. Furthermore, out of those eighty-four French bishops, only one bishop (!) wanted vernacular for the entire Mass, and even that bishop didn’t want the Canon to be prayed in the vernacular. Another way to say the same thing: Out of 84 French bishops, not even one desired the entire Mass in the vernacular.
Latin Plainsong Not Optional • The Second Vatican Council solemnly declared that Carmen Gregorianum (GREGORIAN CHANT) was to be given “principal place in liturgical services” under normal circumstances. Vatican II also declared: Quae totius populi plena et actuosa participatio, in instauranda et fovenda sacra Liturgia, summopere est attendenda… (“In restoring and nurturing the sacred Liturgy this full and active participation of all the people is very much to be considered…”). These two decrees show us the fathers of Vatican II in no way considered plainsong—sung in Latin—to be incompatible with proper participation at the Holy Mass.
Only Solution Possible • Cardinal Antonelli was appointed as SECRETARY OF THE CONCILIAR COMMISSION ON THE LITURGY on 4 October 1962. With regard to Latin, Cardinal Antonelli wrote as follows: “The Constitution [Sacrosanctum Concilium] chose the only solution possible in this case: that of a compromise. Certain parts of the Mass, such as the Canon, remain in Latin, while others, especially those directed to the people, such as the readings and the restored Oratio fidelium, can take place in the vernacular.”
“The Great Majority” • The Sacred Congregation of Rites wrote on 23 July 1964 that during Vatican II “the great majority of the Fathers approved the various dispositions concerning a wider use of the vernacular precisely because of the existence of that first paragraph [Sacrosanctum Concilium paragraph 1 of §36] which ensured substantial preservation of the Latin, apart from a few particular cases (salvo jure particulari), such as the concession made to China.”
OW IS NOT an appropriate time to dwell on things over which I have no control. For example, we could discuss the hypocrisy of bishops who allow every conceivable language—Vietnamese, Spanish, Tagalog, and so on—except the language mandated by the Second Vatican Council. Perhaps that topic can be dealt with another time. Today, I consider the following question: What should the conscientious choirmaster do in today’s circumstances?
Being Specific • Let me be more specific. Upon rising each morning, before even glancing at one’s phone, each Catholic must offer his day to JESUS CHRIST: both the joys and the sorrows. Moreover, we’re supposed to strive to conform to the Will of God. I believe Father Valentine Young (d. 2020) is a saint, because each day he tried to do just one thing: God’s Will. What is God calling the conscientious choirmaster to do? Should we discard everything Vatican II mandated? Contrariwise, should we “ram down the throats” of Catholics a whole bunch of Latin prayers, in spite of the fact that doing so may cause them spiritual harm?
Aesthetic Considerations • We have seen that Vatican II (broadly speaking) wanted a mixture of languages at Mass. I would suggest that church musicians should be wary of priests who have contempt for Church’s official language. That being said, I find the MA (“mixed approach”) somewhat vexing. I don’t pretend to offer a solution. For one thing, I find the MA displeasing from an aesthetic point of view. Personally, I prefer Mass to be either entirely in the vernacular or entirely in Latin. But if the entire Mass is in English except for the music, which is in Latin, this can be “jarring” or “unsettling” or “unsatisfactory.” In other words, the MA can make music seem disconnected from the Mass itself.
Norway (1 of 4) • A tiny country called “NORWAY” has preserved its own language. Suppose you’re someone who studies cinema. Would it be wise to study films shot in Norwegian only? Wouldn’t that be severely limiting? In other words, is it likely that all the great films were shot in Norwegian? Isn’t it much more likely that the best films were shot in English, which is spoken in the USA (331 million), India (265 million), Pakistan (104 million), the United Kingdom (68 million), Nigeria (60 million), Australia (27 million), Singapore (5 million), the Philippines (112 million), and tons of other countries?
Norway (2 of 4) • A similar situation exists vis-à-vis music. The vast, vast, vast majority of masterpieces for the Roman Rite were written in Latin. FULL STOP. The Second Vatican Council called this the thesaurus musicae sacrae (“treasury of sacred music”) declaring that it must be “preserved and fostered with great care.” Unfortunately, in spite of the mandate by Vatican II, the thesaurus has frequently been “denigrated, sneered at, and outlawed.”
Norway (3 of 4) • With some notable exceptions, most of the vernacular music composed since Vatican II is garbage. One problem has been the vernacular translations, which are replaced with reprehensible frequency. What serious composer will spend time composing music for texts which will be obsolete within a few years? Another problem is that many of the big Catholic publishing companies have promoted liturgical music (!) by individuals who reject the teachings of the Catholic Church and (too often) commit loathsome crimes. My colleague, Andrea Leal, recently mentioned some examples. There’s yet another problem. When it comes to vernacular plainsong, “good intentions” are insufficient. That is to say, poorly done adaptations can leave a bad taste in the congregation’s mouth. I’m aware of several “chant composers” who have the very best of intentions, but lack the training and experience necessary to create artistic adaptations of plainsong. Time and again in my articles I’ve put forward the idea that listening to liturgical music should be a delight—not a burden. I attempted to make this case in the ARTISTIC CREDO published back in November. Too many choir directors absolutely refuse to listen to recordings of their choir…because they don’t like the way their choir sounds. If that’s the case, should we really be shocked to learn the pastor has developed contempt for sacred music? In other words, singing poorly-adapted plainsong in the vernacular—even by people with good intentions—can do more harm than good.1
Norway (4 of 4) • The biggest problem, however, gets back to my NORWAY example. More than 99.9% of choral masterpieces written over the last 1,200 years were written in Latin. It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to realize that “discarding” or “ignoring” or “tossing into the garbage” all those masterpieces is foolish. The same would be true of a film student who studies movies in Norwegian only—and no other language. At the very least, we should seek to adapt those masterpieces for use in the sacred liturgy. I attempted to do precisely that in my Mass in Honor of Saint Noël Chabanel, written for use in the Ordinary Form.
Aesthetics Again • I have suggested that multiple languages at Mass can be jarring and displeasing from an aesthetic point of view. At the same time, I never claimed to be infallible. That’s just my opinion. I have already demonstrated a billion times (see above) that Vatican II wanted a mixture, although they may have been asking for something without ever having experienced it. Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre had strongly endorsed vernacular at Mass in the summer of 1965. Indeed, for decades before Vatican II, German priests routinely proclaimed the EPISTLE and GOSPEL in the vernacular—not in Latin—although certain “trad influencers” refuse to admit this reality. I know certain members of the Priestly Fraternity of Saint Peter who do the same thing at Low Mass (but I’m not going to reveal their names, for obvious reasons). In 1958, Pope Pius XII promulgated a document which said: “It is desirable that in read Masses on Sundays and feast days, the Gospel and Epistle be read by a lector in the vernacular for the convenience of the faithful” (De Musica Sacra §14.c). In the Extraordinary Form, when this is done, the priest reads those readings quietly at the Altar while a seminarian (or lector) simultaneously reads them in the vernacular. At the very least, therefore, mixing languages has historical precedent.
Following God’s Will • Considering all we have discussed above, how can a choir director follow God’s Will in today’s circumstances? I don’t think it will be possible for someone with a superficial or immature faith. Prayer is crucial. Resignation to God’s Will is crucial. Reading the lives of the martyrs is crucial. The ability to offer up suffering and pain to JESUS CHRIST is crucial.
On a practical level, I believe the PARISH PRIEST has to be the leader, and (ultimately) the choirmaster must follow and obey his governance. In other words, my recommendation would be to “stay in touch” with your parish priest. If you’re doing the MASS ORDINARY in Latin, make sure he’s okay with that. If you’re doing motets in Latin, make sure he’s on board with that. If you’re singing parts of the PROPRIUM MISSAE in Latin, make sure he supports that. Prior to World War I, Germany was scared to death of fighting a two-front war. I do not feel the COMPETENT CHOIRMASTER can successfully wage a two-front war. In other words, choir director’s vocation is already hard enough. Mastering an instrument is hard enough. Becoming an expert on sacred music and theology is hard enough. Constantly inspiring your choirs and finding awesome repertoire is hard enough. Considering all this, “butting heads with your priest” is a recipe for disaster. The parish priest must have the musician’s back.
1 My colleague, Dr. Lucas Tappan, has also spoken about this. Specifically, he has said that inartistic and boring settings of the PROPRIUM MISSAE can cause singers to develop a loathing for plainsong. However, he’s not at liberty to reveal everything—because one can end up making enemies very quickly (which does nobody any good). Suffice it to say, I’m not the only one who feels this way.