Monday, August 15, 2016

The 50th Anniversary of Pope Paul VI’s Sacrificium Laudis

There are a number of papal documents that seem utterly bizarre to read nowadays because of our retrospective knowledge of how totally and absolutely they were ignored and contradicted after their promulgation. The three most astonishing examples of this particular genre (as it were) might very well be a trio all having in common their liturgical essence: Pius XII's Mediator Dei of 1947, reining in the excesses of the liturgical movement; John XXIII's Veterum Sapientia of 1962, solemnly reaffirming the central place of Latin in the Church's life; and Paul VI's Sacrificium Laudis of August 15, 1966 -- fifty years ago today.

Pius XII, for example, lists in a famous paragraph a number of erroneous examples of antiquarianism, all of which subsequently became prominent features of postconciliar liturgical life:
62. Assuredly it is a wise and most laudable thing to return in spirit and affection to the sources of the sacred liturgy. For research in this field of study, by tracing it back to its origins, contributes valuable assistance towards a more thorough and careful investigation of the significance of feast-days, and of the meaning of the texts and sacred ceremonies employed on their occasion. But it is neither wise nor laudable to reduce everything to antiquity by every possible device. Thus, to cite some instances, one would be straying from the straight path were he to wish the altar restored to its primitive table form; were he to want black excluded as a color for the liturgical vestments; were he to forbid the use of sacred images and statues in Churches; were he to order the crucifix so designed that the divine Redeemer's body shows no trace of His cruel sufferings; and lastly were he to disdain and reject polyphonic music or singing in parts, even where it conforms to regulations issued by the Holy See.
Similarly, John XXIII wrote these memorable words on the role of Latin -- memorable if only for the utter tragedy of their abandonment in practice a few short years later:
[T]he “knowledge and use of this language,” so intimately bound up with the Church’s life, “is important not so much on cultural or literary grounds, as for religious reasons. … For the Church, precisely because it embraces all nations and is destined to endure to the end of time ... of its very nature requires a language which is universal, immutable, and non-vernacular” (Pius XI). … [T]he Catholic Church has a dignity far surpassing that of every merely human society, for it was founded by Christ the Lord. It is altogether fitting, therefore, that the language it uses should be noble, majestic, and non-vernacular. In addition, the Latin language “can be called truly catholic.” It has been consecrated through constant use by the Apostolic See, the mother and teacher of all Churches, and must be esteemed “a treasure ... of incomparable worth.” It is a general passport to the proper understanding of the Christian writers of antiquity and the documents of the Church’s teaching. It is also a most effective bond, binding the Church of today with that of the past and of the future in wonderful continuity.
John XXIII signed this document on the high altar in St. Peter's Basilica, in front of a large crowd of the faithful, to whom he explained its significance (scroll down in this article to read an eyewitness account from Fr. Suitbertus). As Romano Amerio soberly commented: “There is not, in the whole history of the Church, another instance of a document’s being so solemnly emphasized, and then being so unceremoniously cast out so soon afterwards, like the corpse of an executed criminal.”

But in many ways the greatest tragedy of the postconciliar period was the sudden, dramatic, worldwide collapse of religious life, especially in its contemplative branches, and the disappearance, as if overnight, of the chanting of the Divine Office in Gregorian chant. It was an anti-miracle, so to speak -- a feat of Satan who, appearing as an angel of light, lured the religious to their doom. The praises of God, which had been sung day and night for well over a millennium with melodies more beautiful than any the world has ever birthed before or since, fell silent, with the silence of the tomb.

And yet, Pope Paul VI, in words no less clear, stalwart, principled, and prophetic than those he uttered about birth control in Humanae Vitae, urged religious in 1966 to uphold their traditional choral office at all costs, for it was their special contribution to the life, health, and growth of the Mystical Body. While it is true that Paul VI, with his self-admitted Hamlet syndrome, walked a zigzag path in contrary directions, seeming to be trapped in the torments and doubts of his age, he nevertheless rose above the churning waters now and again to speak a clear word that, had it only been followed, would have been a blessing for the Church.

My purpose, however, is not to go into this vexed and over-complicated pontificate, but merely to commemorate the half-century anniversary of the much-neglected and yet wonderfully luminous Apostolic Letter of August 15, 1966, and to make its content better known, for the encouragement of all who strive, today, to restore to the Divine Office its full textual, musical, and ceremonial splendor, whether in the monastic rites, the old Roman usage, the Pius X reform, or the Pauline Liturgy of the Hours.

Apostolic Letter Sacrificium Laudis

(Translation by Fr Thomas Crean, OP)
To the supreme moderators of clerical religious institutes obliged to the choral recitation of the divine office.

Beloved sons, health and apostolic blessing.

Your families, dedicated as they are to God, have always held in honour, as an offering from lips that confess to our Lord, the ‘Sacrifice of Praise’: that is, the psalms and hymns by which the hours, days and seasons of the year are hallowed with religious devotion, in the midst of which the Eucharistic Sacrifice shines, as it were like the sun, and draws all things to itself. With good reason is it held that nothing should be preferred to so holy a work as this. It is not difficult to perceive how much honour is rendered by it to the Creator of all things, or what benefits it confers upon the Church. You have proved, by following this fixed and unceasing manner of prayer, what importance divine worship has for human society.

Yet, from letters which some of you have sent, and from many other sources, We learn that discordant practices have been introduced into the sacred liturgy by your communities or provinces (We speak of those only that belong to the Latin Rite.) For while some are very faithful to the Latin language, others wish to use the vernacular within the choral office. Others, in various places, wish to exchange that chant which is called ‘Gregorian’, for newly-minted melodies. Indeed, some even insist that Latin should be wholly suppressed.

We must acknowledge that We have been somewhat disturbed and saddened by these requests. One may well wonder what the origin is of this new way of thinking and this sudden dislike for the past; one may well wonder why these things have been fostered.

You yourselves know well how greatly We love your religious families, and how we value them. You can have no doubt of this. We have often marveled at the examples of outstanding holiness and the products of deep learning which ennoble them. We think it a happiness if We are able, in any lawful and fitting way, to support them, to comply with their wishes, to take thought for their betterment.

Yet those things that We have mentioned are occurring even though the Second Ecumenical Vatican Council has after due deliberation declared its mind in solemn fashion (Sacrosanctum Concilium, 101,1), and after the publication of clear norms in subsequent Instructions. In the first Instruction (ad exsecutionem Constitutionis de sacra Liturgia recte ordinandam), published on 26th September, 1964, it was decreed as follows: In celebrating the divine office in choir, clerics are bound to preserve the Latin language (n. 85). In the second Instruction (de lingua in celebrandis Officio divino et Missa “conventuali” aut “communitatis” apud Religiosos adhibenda), published on the 23rd November, 1965, that law was reinforced, and at the same time due consideration was shown for the spiritual advantage of the faithful and for the special conditions which prevail in missionary territories. Therefore, for as long as no other lawful provision is made, these laws are in force and require the obedience in which religious must excel, as dear sons of holy Church.

What is in question here is not only the retention within the choral office of the Latin language, though it is of course right that this should be eagerly guarded and should certainly not be lightly esteemed. For this language is, within the Latin Church, an abundant well-spring of Christian civilisation and a very rich treasure-trove of devotion. But it is also the seemliness, the beauty and the native strength of these prayers and canticles which is at stake: the choral office itself, ‘the lovely voice of the Church in song’ (Cf. St Augustine’s Confessions, Bk 9, 6). Your founders and teachers, the holy ones who are as it were so many lights within your religious families, have transmitted this to you. The traditions of the elders, your glory throughout long ages, must not be belittled. Indeed, your manner of celebrating the choral office has been one of the chief reasons why these families of yours have lasted so long, and happily increased. It is thus most surprising that under the influence of a sudden agitation, some now think that it should be given up.

In present conditions, what words or melodies could replace the forms of Catholic devotion which you have used until now? You should reflect and carefully consider whether things would not be worse, should this fine inheritance be discarded. It is to be feared that the choral office would turn into a mere bland recitation, suffering from poverty and begetting weariness, as you yourselves would perhaps be the first to experience. One can also wonder whether men would come in such numbers to your churches in quest of the sacred prayer, if its ancient and native tongue, joined to a chant full of grave beauty, resounded no more within your walls. We therefore ask all those to whom it pertains, to ponder what they wish to give up, and not to let that spring run dry from which, until the present, they have themselves drunk deep.

Of course, the Latin language presents some difficulties, and perhaps not inconsiderable ones, for the new recruits to your holy ranks. But such difficulties, as you know, should not be reckoned insuperable. This is especially true for you, who can more easily give yourselves to study, being more set apart from the business and bother of the world. Moreover, those prayers, with their antiquity, their excellence, their noble majesty, will continue to draw to you young men and women, called to the inheritance of our Lord. On the other hand, that choir from which is removed this language of wondrous spiritual power, transcending the boundaries of the nations, and from which is removed this melody proceeding from the inmost sanctuary of the soul, where faith dwells and charity burns – We speak of Gregorian chant – such a choir will be like to a snuffed candle, which gives light no more, no more attracts the eyes and minds of men.

In any case, beloved Sons, the requests mentioned above concern such grave matters that We are unable to grant them, or to derogate now from the norms of the Council and of the Instructions noted above. Therefore we earnestly beseech you that you would consider this complex question under all its aspects. From the good will which we have toward you, and from the good opinion which we have of you, We are unwilling to allow that which could make your situation worse, and which could well bring you no slight loss, and which would certainly bring a sickness and sadness upon the whole Church of God. Allow Us to protect your interests, even against your own will. It is the same Church which has introduced the vernacular into the sacred liturgy for pastoral reasons, that is, for the sake of people who do not know Latin, which gives you the mandate of preserving the age-old solemnity, beauty and dignity of the choral office, in regard both to language, and to the chant.

Obey, then, these prescriptions sincerely and calmly. It is not an excessive love of old ways that prompts them. They derive, rather, from Our fatherly love for you, and from Our concern for divine worship.

Finally, We impart most willingly to you and to your religious, as an earnest of heavenly gifts and as a sign of Our favour, the apostolic Blessing in our Lord.

Given at Rome, at St Peter’s, on the 15th day of the month of August, on the feast of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary, in the year 1966, the fourth of Our pontificate.

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