Sunday, July 06, 2008

Father Samuel Weber tells it like it is

Part II of the Zenit interview with Fr. Weber is even more powerful than Part I. Here he speaks very plainly and frankly about the musical difficulties of Catholic parishes, the reasons for them, and the prospects for the future. He speaks in a way that is very clear and without any of the meandering around and over-qualification tendency of many people when speaking about these issues.

Q: Why did the Second Vatican Council state that Gregorian chant should be given "pride of place" in the Church's liturgy?

Father Weber: The Second Vatican Council's constitution on the liturgy, "Sacrosanctum Concilium," as well as numerous statements of the Popes and the General Instruction of the Roman Missal [GIRM], teach us that Gregorian chant and sacred polyphony -- that is, sacred music sung in harmony -- such as compositions of Palestrina, are to enjoy "pride of place" in sacred worship.

This means that chant is not only to be in common use in the liturgy, but it is also to provide examples and inspirations for new compositions.

The reason for this is to assure a genuine organic development in the sacred music Catholics experience in worship -- in continuity with the Church's history, and transcending limitations of time and cultures.

Understanding and appreciating this universality in Catholic music for worship might be seen as one facet of the obedience of faith.

We need to remember, of course, that the Council teaches under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit. God is telling us both how he wants to be worshiped, and what best serves the religious needs of those gathered for sacred rites.

Before all else, worship is about God. It is the duty of the creature to know, love and serve the Creator, and to render to God the service of prayer, praise and thanksgiving that is his due.

Worship is about us, the creatures, only insofar as we desire with all our hearts to serve God as he tells us he wants to be served.

Historically, Gregorian chant is in direct, organic development with ancient cantilation -- chanting -- patterns of the psalms in temple and synagogue. This was the background and experience of the first Christians. So our chanting today is in direct relationship with theirs.

One can see, then, that when we sing the chant, we are truly "in connection" with our fathers and mothers in the faith.

Jesus, Mary and Joseph heard and sang many of these patterns of sacred chant in synagogue and temple worship. The apostles, the martyrs, the great saints whose witness continues to inspire us today, were all nourished on these traditions of sacred chanting.

Even the saints and blesseds of our own day -- Blessed Teresa of Calcutta, St. Pio of Pietrelcina, St. Gianna Beretta Molla, for example -- all sang, heard and knew the chant and the traditions of sacred music inspired by the chant.

They were formed in this "school of sacred music" that is the chant, and, to borrow a phrase from St. Athanasius, the "gymnasium of spiritual exercises" that is the Psalter -- the Psalms of David.

I think, too, of my grandparents and parents, so many beloved family members, teachers and friends, who have gone before us "marked with the sign of faith."

How they loved the sacred chants, and passed them on to me with piety, devotion and reverence. What an opportunity to participate in the Communion of Saints. What could be richer or more spiritually satisfying?

Gregorian chant serves the word of God. It has no other purpose than to draw us to the sacred text, especially the Psalms, and to enable us to treasure God's word ever more deeply in our hearts.

It is entirely free of anything that is contrary to the faith, free of purely human agendas or experiences that lead us away from God's will and plan for us. To use the language of our computer age: The chant is "safe and secure." No viruses can enter.

Q: Benedict XVI has given a number of speeches discussing the importance of preserving the Church's heritage of sacred music, and a number of documents have been issued by the Holy See calling the universal Church back to that grand tradition, yet little seems to have changed on the ground. Why is there resistance to what should be seen as a form of Vatican II's concept of "ressourcement," that is, return to the sources?

Father Weber: Perhaps it is not so much resistance as a lack of communication and ineffective teaching that stalled things.

Pope Benedict is tireless in his teaching -- even before he became Pope -- for example, "A New Song for the Lord." An accomplished musician himself, he fully understands the power of music on the human heart, thus the central role of music in the liturgy.

Clearly, part of our task is to help "get the word out." I think we can already see many positive results of the recent actions of the Holy See concerning the liturgy.

For one thing, there is a growing interest among Catholic people in reviving their immensely rich heritage of music and art, and a real desire for greater beauty, reverence and solemnity in worship.

But when there is actual resistance? In the end, I believe that this comes down to the perpetual struggle between good and evil. God is constantly giving us all the grace we need to know, love and serve him.

But we are tempted by the devil, and suffer under the effects of original sin, so we sometimes make choices that, sadly, draw us away from God our Creator, and even extinguish the fire of love in our hearts.

It is the duty of all the pastors -- that God in his love has given us -- to call people back to that which will bring us true peace and blessedness. With great wisdom, over the centuries the popes, the Councils, have understood the importance of sacred music, art, architecture and ritual in the spiritual formation of the human person.

As a result, they have never ceased to teach us about the care that must be exercised in cultivating all sacred arts that serve divine worship.

Now it is our job to receive this teaching and implement it in our lives for our spiritual good.

Q: The book "Why Catholics Can't Sing" highlighted the abysmal state of congregational singing present in most American parishes. Why do you think parishes will be able to handle Gregorian chant? Isn't that harder to sing?

Father Weber: The author, Thomas Day, suggested -- among other things -- that people don't sing because the music they often encounter at Mass is not really worth the effort. Silence is one response to music that is inappropriate -- whether from the standpoint of aesthetics or theology.

Another factor is the disappearance of choirs from parishes, since choirs can effectively lead and encourage congregational singing.

It's encouraging to know that many people who are discovering chant for the first time are so strongly attracted by its beauty and solemnity that they want to become a part of its revival.

Speaking from experience, I would agree that Gregorian chant may require a greater discipline, more attention and sacrifice of time and energy in order to "make it happen" in our parishes.

But difficulty is not a real impediment.

In our American society we greatly value sports. I'm a Green Bay Packers fan myself, rabid, actually. I'm really grateful to the Packers for all the hours they spend in practice and preparation for their games. All the sacrifices they make. It's worth it.

The payoff is really something awesome. We, the fans, would settle for no less. Doesn't this same expectation apply to the things of God? It really isn't that hard to understand, is it?

St. Augustine taught the people of Hippo: "Cantare amantis est." Singing is characteristic of a lover. If the supreme love is, as we believe, between Christ, the Bridegroom, and the Church, his Bride -- can any effort be spared to express this love in true beauty? Is any sacrifice too much?

We don't have to guess at the song. This tremendous Lover of ours tells us the song that he wants to hear from our lips and our hearts.

This is our Catholic faith. What more need be said? Let us begin!