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The essential role of music in the Mass
To gain a small understanding of the connection between the Mass and music one must first take a brief look at what music is in relation to the human person.
Music is commonly known as "the language of the soul". We can see the universality of musical expression throughout the course of history when we look at the array of cultures from various times and places. Culture comes from the Latin word cultus which means "to worship".
Each and every culture, without exception, expresses its worship of the transcendent through music, either in the form of pitch or beat. "No one, therefore, will be astonished that always and everywhere, even among pagan peoples, sacred song and the art of music have been used to ornament and decorate religious ceremonies," wrote Pius XII in his 1955 encyclical Musicae Sacrae.
The music of the revealed Faith, however, does not find its inspiration within the hearts and minds of its people. Rather, it is inspired by God Himself. Where the pagan aspires to the worship of the transcendent, the Catholic is inspired in the worship of God.
For this reason the Church has always taught that the music used in her Sacred Rites must be that which finds its inspiration and roots in God. The Second Vatican Council's liturgy document, Sacrosanctum Concilium, explains that "the Church acknowledges Gregorian Chant as specially suited to the Roman Liturgy. Therefore, other things being equal, it should be given pride of place in liturgical services."
Many people claim that the Church needs to update her music and its language. Leaving aside personal preferences, let us read from both a Doctor and a Pope.
St John Chrysostom offers the following: "And even if you do not understand the meaning of the words, for the time being teach your mouth to say them, for the tongue is sanctified by the words alone whenever it says them with good will." Notice that he says "for the time being". It is our duty to learn, to live and to love our tradition and to leave it in its full beauty for the next generation to partake of.
Pope Paul VI warned the Church about changing music and its language in an apostolic letter ( Sacrificium Laudis) to heads of religious congregations in 1966, saying: "[If you] take away the language that transcends national boundaries and possesses a marvellous spiritual power and the music that rises from the depths of the soul where faith resides and charity burns – we mean Gregorian chant – the choral office will be like a snuffed candle: it will no longer shed light, no longer draw the eyes and minds of people."
In this time of the new evangelisation of the world (and of the members of the Church) let us hope and pray for a revival of sacred music within the Church. As Pius XI wrote: "The liturgical chant played no small part in converting many barbarians to Christianity and civilisation."
Reprinted from AD2000 Vol 26 No 6 (July 2013), p. 13
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