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Liturgy: Two Anniversaries and a Reality Check

12/17/2003 - 11:00 AM PST

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ROME, DEC. 16, 2003 (Zenit) - As a special feature this week, our columnist Father Edward McNamara, a professor at the Regina Apostolorum Pontifical Athenaeum, comments on John Paul II's recent documents on the sacred liturgy.

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In recent days the Holy Father has published two letters on liturgical affairs. Both are brief commemorative documents celebrating the anniversaries of earlier pontifical or conciliar publications.

An apostolic letter, dated Dec. 4 and marking the 40th anniversary of the Second Vatican Council's constitution "Sacrosanctum Concilium," presents an overview of the principal liturgical questions past and present. The other letter, called a chirograph, and dated Nov. 22, is tailored to the subject of liturgical music and celebrates the centenary of Pius X's "Tra le Sollecitudine."

Pius X's document is considered a milestone in the history of liturgical reform, not only in restoring Gregorian chant to pride of place in the Church but in being the first papal document to advocate the "active participation" of the faithful in the sacred rites.

As commemorative letters, their value lies above all in being a brief and synthetic exposition of the Pope's present concerns in matters liturgical.

The letter celebrating "Sacrosanctum Concilium" is illustrative of this. The first section, "A Look at the Conciliar Constitution," offers a summary of the principal contributions that this constitution made to the theological understanding of liturgy highlighting, above all its placing liturgy in the context of salvation history whose aim is human redemption and God's perfect glorification.

This salvation is not only recalled, but renewed and made present, in every liturgical celebration in which Christ is made present in a particular way and associates the Church with himself.

The liturgy thus becomes the action of Christ the priest and his Body which is the Church. It is integral public worship, a foretaste of the heavenly liturgy and the summit toward which all the Church's activities tend and the font from which all her strength flows.

The Holy Father also recalls that the Council opened up a universal prospective for the liturgy by stressing the Church's mission of prayer and intercession on behalf of all humanity as well as the cosmic dimension of sanctifying time by a renewed attention to the liturgical year.

He furthermore stresses the Council's teaching that the liturgy, while being the high point of the Church's life, does not exhaust all its activities and indeed supposes the preaching of and living witness to the Christian life.

Of the many practical recommendations and reforms brought about by the Council, the Pope limits his attention to those which are apparently closest to his heart at this moment: liturgical music and sacred art. He refers principally to the document on music published a few days earlier.

This document reaffirms the principles regulating liturgical music enunciated by Pius X and later Pontiffs, including John Paul II himself who has called for the removal of unsuitable music from the Church's repertoire.

Pius X summed up the qualities of good liturgical music in three principles: sanctity, goodness of form, and universality.

The sanctity of this music is greater the closer it is wedded to the liturgical action. John Paul II recalls his encyclical "Ecclesia de Eucharistia" in which he affirms that not all forms of musical expression are suitable to the liturgy.

This is correlated to the second principle of "goodness of form." Liturgical music must also be true art and correspond to the sense and meaning of the rites and texts it seeks to express.

While music and song should correspond to the legitimate demands of liturgical adaptation and inculturation, this must be done with great care, fomenting the widest possible level of participation while avoiding shallowness or superficiality.

This means that Pius X's third principle of "universality" still applies to music destined for the liturgy while leaving ample space for the particular genius of each region to express itself. Universality means that nobody from another nation should be left with a bad impression on hearing the particular music of his hosts. It also means that the liturgy is no place to test new musical forms and expressions which cause unease due to their unfamiliarity.

John Paul II also confirms Gregorian chant's pride of place as the model of liturgical music and the organ as the primary, but not exclusive, liturgical instrument. He also categorically states that new vernacular compositions should be inspired by Gregorian chant, above all in imitating its spirit and its capacity for merging text and music into a single and religiously ...

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