Benedict XVI seeks a greater sense of the sacred in church music

Benedict XVI seeks a greater sense of the sacred in church music

A major ingredient of many desacralised liturgies has been the inferior quality of their music, much of it little more than warmed over 60s folk and pop songs. Constant exposure to such unsuitable church music can erode one's sense of the sacred and appreciation of what is taking place at Mass.

In his writings before becoming Pope, Benedict XVI expressed disquiet about this situation and put the case for reform. In this regard, a concert in the Sistine Chapel conducted by Msgr Domenico Bartolucci on 24 June 2006 was of significance.

With this concert, according to Vatican commentator Sandro Magister, Benedict symbolically restored the Sistine Chapel "to its true maestro". The famous chapel is not only the sacred place decorated with the frescoes of Michelangelo, it also gives the name to the choir that for centuries has accompanied the pontifical liturgies.

Musical approach

Monsignor Bartolucci was named the "perpetual" director, the director for life, of the Sistine Chapel by Pius XII in 1959. Under Pius and later popes, Bartolucci was an outstanding interpreter of the liturgical music founded upon Gregorian chant and sacred polyphony. However, following years of opposition to his musical approach, he was dismissed in 1997 and replaced by a choirmaster thought to be better suited to John Paul II's musical preferences.

Bartolucci's replacement was the final stage of the almost complete elimination of Gregorian chant and polyphony, as sought by the authors of the postconciliar liturgical reform - despite Vatican II's explicit recommendation that these forms of sacred music be preserved and encouraged.

According to Sandro Magister, the person responsible for Bartolucci's removal was the master of pontifical ceremonies, Piero Marini, still in service with Benedict XVI although close to his own retirement. Marini brought in Msgr Giuseppe Liberto as head of the Sistine Chapel, having noticed and appreciated his work as musical director during John Paul II's visits to Sicily.

At the time, the only significant figure in the Roman Curia who came to Bartolucci's defence was Cardinal Ratzinger, for reasons that were both musical and liturgical, as he has explained in his essays and books.

His positions then were isolated. But with his election as Pope, he immediately indicated his intention of proceeding, in the liturgical and musical field, with what he calls "the reform of the reform."

This was evident with the inaugural Mass of his pontificate in St Peter's Square, the celebration of which was distinguished by a more classical style.

It was also clear from one of his first changes in the Roman Curia, when he replaced the secretary of the Vatican Congregation for Divine Worship (see World News, page 4).

In the areas of liturgy and music, Benedict XVI knows that decrees from the authorities are not enough. His intention is that of re- educating more than issuing orders. The concert by Maestro Bartolucci in the Sistine Chapel was one of these "teaching moments", according to Sandro Magister.

In the concert, Bartolucci presented an offertory, two motets, and a "Credo" by Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina, the prince of sacred Roman polyphonic music and maestro of the Sistine Chapel until the end of the 1500s.

But Barlolucci also conducted some of his own compositions: three motets, an antiphon, a hymn, and an "Oremus pro Pontifice nostro Benedicto," composed in 2005 after Cardinal Ratzinger's election as pope.

The combination of ancient and modern polyphony was not accidental. Speaking at the end of the concert, Benedict XVI noted:

"All of the selections we have listened to - and especially in their entirety, where the 16th and 20th centuries stand parallel - agree in confirming the conviction that sacred polyphony, in particular that of what is called the 'Roman school', constitutes a heritage that should be preserved with care, kept alive, and made better known, for the benefit not only of the scholars and specialists, but of the ecclesial community as a whole". He added: "An authentic updating of sacred music can take place only in the lineage of the great tradition of the past, of Gregorian chant and sacred polyphony."

Benedict described the music and the choir as "a vehicle of evangelisation," which should not be limited to concerts, but should again animate and adorn the liturgies, beginning with the pontifical ones.

By restoring the Sistine Chapel to maestro Bartolucci, Benedict XVI has clearly signalled his intentions.

Sense of the sacred

The Pope's stance was endorsed by leading Melbourne Catholic singer and songwriter Juliette Hughes who remarked, "There's lots of dreadful guitar music that is a stumbling block to people who want to come back to church".

Benedict's call for a return of more traditional forms of sacred music is complementing the present moves towards an improved English translation of the Missal which will communicate a greater sense of the sacred.

These developments run counter to the views of many of the liturgists who have called the shots since the 1970s. The desacralised liturgies - both in the banal hymns and supermarket English in the Mass translation - have contributed to an emptying of the pews.

With restoration of a more sacred atmosphere to the churches, one might hope that some of the "lost sheep" will be drawn back to regular Sunday Mass attendance.

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