The Liturgy Wars: An Analysis of Pope Francis’s Recent Address

The subject of Sacred Music has come up at least once during the reign of almost every pope in the last century.  Pope St. Pius X started with his motu proprio in 1903.  Pius XI, who doesn’t get as much attention as either his predecessor or his successor, addressed it in 1928 in Divini Cultus.  Pope St. Pius XII probably wrote the most words on the subject, with his Mystici Corporis Christi in 1943; Mediator Dei in 1947; again with Musicae Sacrae in 1955; and again with De Musica et Sacra Liturgica in 1958.

Contrary to popular Fluffy Horde belief, the Second Vatican Council also set down rules for Sacred Music in Chapter Six of Sacrosantcum Concilium in 1963.

Pope Paul VI did the same with Sacram Liturgiam in 1964, and again with Musicam Sacram in 1967.

Pope St. John Paul II wrote a Chirograph on Sacred Music in 2003, on the centenary of Pius X’s motu proprio.

Pope Benedict XVI didn’t write anything on it when he was pope, but he did as Cardinal Ratzinger in 1995.

So, of course, it was only a matter of time before Pope Francis also weighed in on the brouhaha that is Sacred Music in the Catholic Church in modern society.  I’ve already written extensively on the subject here on this blog, so you have a fairly good idea of what is going on with the above mentioned “Liturgy Wars.”  It’s the Fluffy Horde versus the Orthodox Warriors, so to speak, and the fight continues.

Now, though, our current sitting Pope has added his voice to the conflict.  He gave the following address to the participants of the International Conference on Sacred Music that was held just this March.

As a disclaimer: no, I am not going to fisk the pope.

I will repeat:  NO, I AM NOT FISKING THE POPE.

But I will, however, give you my opinion — I say again: my OPINION, which is worth only about two cents in the grand scheme — of his remarks.

So, I’d better not see any shouts of “HERETIC!” in the comments section.  You have been warned.

The pope’s address itself is very short, only a few paragraphs, so he doesn’t ever get into a long, detailed analysis of Sacred Music.  That’s not necessarily a bad thing.  Having a non-musical person try to dissect the musicality of a piece usually just ends badly (and that’s exactly why you will never hear me talk about the “melodic art” of a piece like Palestrina’s Sicut Cervus, like these wonderful people at the CMAA do; I don’t have the expertise to understand it on that level).  And Pope Francis seems to be aware of his own musical limitations; he limits his address to the wider scope — the music in relation to the Church and to modern culture.


The introduction to his remarks starts like this (all bold points are added by me):

I am happy to meet all of you who have gathered in Rome from various countries to participate in the Conference on “Music and Church: Cult and Culture, 50 years after Musicam Sacram,” organized by the Pontifical Council for Culture and by the Congregation for Catholic Education, in collaboration with the Pontifical Institute of Sacred Music and the Pontifical Liturgical Institute of the Athenaeum Sant’Anselmo. I cordially greet you, beginning with Cardinal Gianfranco Ravasi, whom I thank for his introduction. I hope that the encounter and dialogue experienced in the last few days, in a shared reflection on sacred music and particularly on its cultural and artistic aspects, will bear fruitful results for ecclesial communities.

“Its cultural and artistic aspects”?  “Cult and culture”?  Okay, that could be taken a couple of different ways.  Either our Sacred Music affects the culture, or the culture affects our Sacred Music.  In an ideal world, it should be primarily the former, not the latter, in my opinion.  But which is he talking about here?

And now it comes out:

Half a century after the instruction Musicam Sacram, the Conference has wished to deepen the current relationship between sacred music and contemporary culture, and between the musical repertoire adopted and used by the Christian community and prevailing musical trends, from an interdisciplinary and ecumenical perspective.

What kind of relationship are we talking about here, Your Holiness?  I will grant that there is a relationship between everything the Church does and whatever culture She’s in at the time.  There’s no way around that.  But there is a proper relationship between the two, and it’s not a relationship of equals.  It’s more like the relationship between a teacher and a pupil, or a parent and a child.  The Church is the leader, the shaper of culture, not the servant of said culture.  She leads; as the Church goes, so goes the world, and that’s the way it has been for the last two thousand years, and rightly so.  That being said, I hope he means that the Church should get up off Her proverbial rear end and actually work at affecting modern culture, rather than allow the cesspool that is modern culture to affect Her.  Unfortunately, Pope Francis leaves the exact nature of said relationship vague and subject to the particular rose-colored lenses of the reader.

As to the “musical repertoire adopted and used by the Christian community and prevailing musical trends”?  That’s a frightening thought.  The “prevailing musical trends” usually include things like this (I went to YouTube’s home page and looked under the “Popular Music Videos” category, just to see what was there):

While not all of the above examples are intrinsically evil (I love Peter Hollens), they’re definitely not sacred.  So . . . why should Holy Mother Church concern Herself with the repertoire of the popular culture?  Why would we wish to bring something not sacred into the realm of the sacred?  Shouldn’t we instead work as hard as we can to take our sacred things out into the world with us?

When last I checked, “ecumenical” meant “representing a number of Christian churches.”  What do other denominations have to do with Holy Mother Church?

Absolutely nothing.  So why mention them in the first place?  Of course, the Catholic Church does not exist in a vacuum; She has to deal with a world in which there are other kinds of people who believe in Christ, and not in the same way She does.  Do I think that we as Catholics should stop caring about our separated Protestant brethren?  Absolutely not.  Do I think that we need to try and shove hardcore Catholicism down their throat with no regard for the kind of worship they’ve been used to their whole lives (and their parents’ lives, and their grandparents’ lives)?  No.  But at the same time, I don’t think that we should stop being who we are because we might shock them.  We don’t have to apologize for our Liturgy, for our believe in the Real Presence, or, for that matter, our traditional music, any more than the Baptists who live down the street should have to apologize for the music they’ve been singing to the Lord for the last century, either.  We can appreciate and respect the traditions of others without changing our own.

The importance of the aesthetic and musical formation both of clergy and religious was highlighted, and of the lay people involved in pastoral life and, more directly, in the scholae cantorum.

Now this is much more like what I was expecting to hear.  Musical formation of the leaders in our Church translates downward into musical formation of the laity.  It’s not just a joke that Catholics can’t sing; in fact, there’s a whole book on the subject.  Anything that addresses that deficiency is to be applauded.

The first document issued by the Second Vatican Council was precisely the Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy, Sacrosanctum Concilium. The Council Fathers perceived the difficulties the faithful felt in participating in a liturgy whose language, words and signs they could not fully understand.

An interesting note about the shift from Latin to the vernacular; there’s no arguing that being able to sing to the Lord in your native language is an advantage, at least on the surface.  Now, the actual content and style of some of those popular vernacular pieces might give any Orthodox person a case of apoplexy; just because it’s in the vernacular doesn’t automatically make it better than Latin.

In order to put into effect the fundamental guidelines outlined by the Constitution, Instructions were issued, among them, that on sacred music. From then on, although no new magisterial documents on the topic have been issued, there have been several significant pontifical interventions which have guided reflection and pastoral commitment.

I just wish they had “guided reflection and pastoral commitment” a little more firmly.  It’s fairly obvious, at least in the United States, that everyone in the pew has a different opinion about Sacred Music — hence the advancement of the Fluffy Horde — and, as another reflection of the dangers of listening too hard to the current culture, everyone’s opinion is equally valid, and what the Magesterium has to say is completely irrelevant.

The premise of the above mentioned Instruction is still highly relevant. “Liturgical worship is given a more noble form when it is celebrated in song, with the ministers of each degree fulfilling their ministry and the people participating in it. Indeed, through this form, prayer is expressed in a more attractive way, the mystery of the liturgy, with its hierarchical and community nature, is more openly shown, the unity of hearts is more profoundly achieved by the union of voices, minds are more easily raised to heavenly things by the beauty of the sacred rites, and the whole celebration more clearly prefigures that heavenly liturgy which is enacted in the holy city of Jerusalem” (n. 5).

Okay, there’s no arguing with a quote from Sacrosanctum Concilium.

Several times, following Council recommendations, the Document highlights the importance of the participation of the entire assembly of faithful defined as “active, conscious, full”.

Well, just as part of my whole personal opinion, I hate it when people use that “active participation” thing.  A lot of times, that word is used as an excuse for all kinds of abuses, and not just musical ones (like “Eucharistic ministers” and the “orans” posture, for example; the idea that you have to be talking, moving, singing, doing something AT ALL TIMES or you’re not “participating” in the Liturgy, while neglecting the necessary internal participation).  And in reality, the Latin word “actuo” more closely means “actual,” and not “active,” anyway.  But either way, the point remains valid that the congregation isn’t supposed to just sit in the pews like the proverbial bumps on a log, and expect to “get anything out of” the Mass.  Engaging the body, mind, and soul is a definite plus, and music — especially familiar music — helps accomplish that.

And it very clearly highlights that “the true solemnity of liturgical worship depends less on a more ornate form of singing and a more magnificent ceremonial than on its worthy and religious celebration” (n. 11).

Once again, can’t argue with a good quote.  It’s true that while the artistic value of the music itself is important, we’re never supposed to move into the ars gratia artis mode, or “art for art’s sake.”  Like I said about the music director at Archbishop Chaput’s installation: rather than having the music serve the Mass, he’d gotten the idea that the Mass should serve the music, and that’s just as wrong as anything the Fluffy Horde ever did.”

It is therefore firstly a matter of intense participation in the Mystery of God, in the “theophany” that occurs in each Eucharistic celebration, in which the Lord manifests himself in the midst of his people, called to participate in a true way in the salvation enacted by Christ’s death and Resurrection.

He’s not quoting here, and I can’t find a single thing wrong with what he said.  “Theophany” is “a visible manifestation of a deity.”  Once again, we’re not supposed to just sit there during Mass; we’re supposed to be there, and that includes both the proper internal participation and that outward participation previously mentioned.  Just because the outward things have been over-emphasized doesn’t mean that the idea itself, or the way it was presented in the original document, is incorrect.

Active and conscious participation consists, therefore, in knowing how to enter profoundly into this mystery, in knowing how to contemplate, adore and welcome it, in grasping its sense, thanks in particular to religious silence and to the “musicality of the language with which the Lord speaks to us” (cf. Homily at Santa Marta, 12 December 2013). It is precisely in this perspective that reflection on the renewal of sacred music and its precious contribution moves.

He’s right: silence is important, too.  The “musicality of the language with which the Lord speaks to us” is a great summary of Gregorian chant — the words of the psalms (or other antiphons) united to a melody which raises plain text into the realm of beautiful, united prayer.  And a “renewal of sacred music”?

Yes.  That.  Right now.  Please please please please PLEASE renew Sacred Music.  I’m begging you.  Save us from City of God and the Heritage Mass.

In this regard, a two-fold mission emerges which the Church is called to follow, especially through those who in various ways work in this area. On the one hand it calls for safeguarding and enhancing the rich and manifold patrimony inherited from the past, balancing it with the present and avoiding the risk of a nostalgic or “archaeological” outlook.


You’re probably looking at that and thinking, “wait, Lori the self-proclaimed Orthodox Organist actually agrees with something including modernity in Sacred Music?”  Yes, I do.  I never said that we shouldn’t use anything that wasn’t written in the sixteenth century.  I am not SSPX, thank you very much.

Just listen to a few samples of the new polyphony written by Kevin Allen.  I taught my choir (all five of us) to sing his version of O Sanctissima, Ave Sacer Christi, and Panis Angelicus.  Just because it was written recently doesn’t necessarily make it bad, or any less appropriate for the Mass.  It’s the nature of the thing, not the date it was written, that is important.

On the other hand, it is necessary to ensure that sacred music and liturgical chant be fully “inculturated” in the artistic and musical language of the current time; namely, that they are able to incarnate and translate the Word of God into song, sound and harmony capable of making the hearts of our contemporaries resonate, also creating an appropriate emotional climate which disposes people to faith and stirs openness and full participation in the mystery being celebrated.

Back the gravy train up a second.  Did he do what I just think he did?

*re-reads it, just in case*

Yep.  He did.  He said that Sacred Music needs to imitate the current time; and, the way the sentence is phrased, the implication is that our treasury of music isn’t “capable of  making the hearts of our contemporaries resonate.”

Listen to this and tell me that your heart doesn’t resonate, I dare you.

Or this:

Try to keep from crying when you hear this on Good Friday:

And a polyphony version, too:

In addition, the way the current culture is going, us trying to imitate them in music would be an unmitigated disaster.

Hold on, it already has been an unmitigated disaster.  It’s impossible to both maintain our traditions and follow the current culture.  The two are mutually exclusive; you can tell just by reading most of the headlines in the mainstream news media: every time you turn around, the world is condemning us for what we as Catholics (and also Christians in general) think and do and say.  And we’re supposed to imitate them?  If we do that, we become them.

Well, maybe His Holiness has some advice for how we’re supposed to do this.

Certainly the meeting with modernity and the introduction of speech in the Liturgy has given rise to many issues: of language, form and musical genre. At times a certain mediocrity, superficiality and banality have prevailed, to the detriment of the beauty and intensity of liturgical celebrations.

Yes, that’s absolutely true.  So . . . why should we want more of that mediocre, superficial, and banal modernity?

For this reason, the various key figures in this sphere, musicians, composers, conductors and choristers of the scholae cantorum, with liturgical coordinators, can make a precious contribution to the renewal, especially in qualitative terms, of sacred music and of liturgical chant.

Um . . . how?  I thought we were supposed to be more modern?  You can’t write modern chant.  It’s possible to write the Latin chants into English, as the CMAA and others have done quite successfully, but it’s never anything other than chant.  You can take the words of the psalms and sing them to guitar accompaniment in a modern style, but you can’t make that modern style anything other than a modern style.  Chant and pop music cannot exist in the same place.  They contradict each other.

In order to foster this development, an appropriate musical formation must be promoted, even of those who are preparing to become priests, in a dialogue with the musical trends of our time, with the inclusion of different cultural areas and with an ecumenical approach.

Again, why do we need to be ecumenical?  Why can’t we just be Catholic?  And sure, an “appropriate musical formation” must be promoted, but why should we “dialogue with the musical trends of our time”?  They gave us this:

And they gave us this:

And don’t forget this:

So . . . why in the world should we want to have MORE of this . . . nonsense?

I am truly confused.  We can’t be both.  We can’t be both immersed in the modern culture and true Catholics at the same time.  We must be in the world; we can never be of the world.

Dear brothers and sisters, I thank you again for your commitment to sacred music. May the Virgin Mary, who in the Magnificat sang of the holy mercy of God, accompany you.

I hope she will; we’re apparently going to need all the help we can get.

I encourage you not to lose sight of this important objective: to help the People of God to perceive and participate, with all the senses, physical and spiritual, in God’s mystery. Sacred music and liturgical chant have the task of giving us a sense of the glory of God, of his beauty, of his holiness which wraps us in a “luminous cloud”.

True, Sacred Music does exactly that.  But modern stuff doesn’t.  It can’t.  At best, it’s distracting; at worst, it’s open heresy and an occasion of sin (when you’re too mad to pay attention to the Liturgy itself because the music is so incredibly horrific, what else would you call it?).

On the bright side, there are plenty of those musicians who can keep with the traditional AND write new things for us.  See the above links to Kevin Allen’s music, all of which is wonderful, and a lot of it written for small, amateur choirs, making it accessible to people other than King’s College of Cambridge.  Also the CMAA and the Corpus Christi Watershed.  They’re busy working for exactly what Pope Francis said he wanted: to both respect the traditions, and make it easier for people with no music background to sing praise to God.

So . . . why do we need modernity again?

What are we supposed to think of this address?  A lot of what Pope Francis has said here is true, and some even helpful.  Yes, we do need a renewal of Sacred Music.  We need priests and the laity to be able to sing.  We need every reminder we can get of why it’s not “just music,” and of how important it is to sing the Mass.

But it seems to me that Pope Francis hasn’t actually helped us with our battle against the Fluffy Horde, the way I was truly hoping he would.  He did say some good things; I’ll give credit where it is due.  But when he tries to put one foot in the Orthodox Warriors camp, and the other in the Fluffy Horde camp, bad things happen.

There’s nothing in here specifically contradictory to anything that any of his predecessors have said.  Unfortunately, the vague suggestions have the tendency to simply reinforce the opinions of whoever is reading it.

I read this, and thought, “Okay, renewal, here we go.  CMAA and Corpus Christi Watershed are doing really good modern stuff.  I think I’ll get my choir to work on Kevin Allen’s Panis Angelicus for a second Communion hymn this weekend, and we’ll save Palestrina for some other day.”  Someone over in the Fluffy Horde will read the same thing and think, “Oh, FINALLY!  A pope who gets it!  We need to be modern.  We need to be ecumenical!  I’m going to go get my guitar right now and practice We Remember How You Loved Us for this weekend!  It’ll be great!”

And we’re right back where we started.

Worse, the next time I have to argue with a Fluffy Horde member about what is and is not appropriate for the Mass, guess what will be thrown in my face?  “You’re wrong!  Look, Pope Francis says to be modern and ecumenical!  So take your polyphony and chant and shove it!”

And instead of slogging though waist-deep mud towards Orthodoxy, I get to slog through waist-deep, half-dried cement.

There are days I wish Pope Francis just wouldn’t say anything at all.  The confusion he seems to leave in his wake isn’t doing anyone any good.

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1 Response to The Liturgy Wars: An Analysis of Pope Francis’s Recent Address

  1. I cannot begin to express how tired I am of “I am the bread of life”. It was horrid and trite at first blush, and it only gets worse with repetition. I’m at the point of using the music team roster to try and predict when it will appear so I can go to a different Mass.


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