RCHBISHOP SAMPLE’S pastoral letter on sacred music has several wonderful passages to consider. While there are many discussions that should, and will, flow forth from this letter, I particularly appreciate the good Archbishop’s description of the qualities of sacred music.
When discussing liturgical art in general, and liturgical music in particular, it is easy to fall into thinking that the quality and appropriateness of literature is subjective. Archbishop Sample elucidates the qualities of sacred music in a way that puts the discussion in objective terms. Agreeing on criteria like this is essential if any discussion is to be had about what the Church wants from us in musical worship.
The three criteria shared by the Archbishop are the sanctity, beauty, and universality of music. By sanctity in music, he means the way in which music is executed in the liturgy, in a manner conducive to worship as well as its connection to the ritual itself. Not only should the choice of music be connected to the liturgy, but its performance also needs appropriate reverence. We need to avoid “profanity not only in itself, but in the manner in which it is presented by those who execute it.” Certainly a conversation can take place as to what constitutes “profanity” in music (profane, in this case, being defined as the opposite of sacred), but surely we can agree that turns of music that call to mind secular celebrations and not sacred prayer.
The second criterion, beauty, is the most subjective, but we still have some guidance here. We are called to music that is “true art,” so that it is clear that it has its place in the divine liturgy. The third element for consideration is the universality of sacred music. This is where the most interesting idea comes in, in my opinion. It relates back to the first criterion, the holiness of music, and that holiness transcends culture. Notice that this enculturation refers only to music that is already culturally relevant to worship, not simply all cultural practices to be worked into the liturgy. When cultural practices are connected to worship, they can be Christianized, when appropriate, and brought to the liturgy, provided they also fulfill the first two criteria.
THERE IS MUCH TO BE CONSIDERED in Archbishop Sample’s letter on pastoral music, and it is encouraging that such a musical and liturgical thinker is now so connected to the nation’s most overwhelmingly influential liturgical publishing house. This letter should provide for much consideration and conversation, and hopefully assist all of us in our mission of the worship of God and the edification of the faithful.
This is part of an 8-part series on Archbishop Sample’s historic letter: