Tuesday, September 26, 2023

Blast from the Past: The 50th Anniversary of Cardinal Villot’s Letter to Cardinal Siri on Sacred Music

The choice before us
Those who specialize in liturgy will often find themselves picking up a doorstopper of a book called Documents on the Liturgy 1963-1979. If you ever want to know what bureaucracy and overly enthusiastic reformism looks like, make sure you weight-lift this 1,500-page tome and flip through its contents: it is probably the best way to get a vicarious sense of how much was being constantly put up for discussion, questioned, changed, and changed again in the period of years covered in the book.

That is all by way of preface. I happened to notice the other day a letter written by the then-Secretary of State, Cardinal J. Villot, to Cardinal G. Siri of Genoa, on the occasion of a national meeting on sacred music in Genoa, Italy, 26-30 September 1973... exactly 50 years ago.

Let’s have a look at what this letter (DOL n. 521, pp. 1325-26) was saying, and how infinitely remote it was from the conditions on the ground, at that time or for many decades to come.
We must avoid and bar from liturgical celebrations profane types of music, particularly singing with a style so agitated, intrusive, and raucous that it would disturb the serenity of the service and would be incompatible with its spiritual, sanctifying purposes. A broad field is thus opened for pastoral initiative, the effort, namely, of leading the faithful to participate with voice and song in the rites, while at the same time protecting these rites from the invasion of noise, poor taste, and desacralization. Instead there must be encouragement of the kind of sacred music that helps to raise the mind to God and that through the devout singing of God’s praises helps to provide a foretaste of the liturgy of heaven.
          Pope Paul VI therefore invites all composers of sacred music to devote themselves completely to supplying music for the Church’s liturgy that is truly alive and contemporary, yet without disregarding the ancient heritage, as a source of inspiration, enlightenment, and direction. The liturgical reform still in progress offers to composers “an opportunity to test their own abilities, their inventiveness, their pastoral zeal” (Address to Cecilians, 24 September 1972); the reform initiates “a new epoch for sacred music” (General Audience, 22 August 1973). The Church awaits a new springtime in the art of sacred music that will also interpret the ritual texts in their vernacular versions.
          It remains Pope Paul’s firm expectation that Gregorian chant will be preserved and performed in monasteries, religious houses, and seminaries as a privileged form of sung prayer and as an element of the highest cultural and instructional value. He notes the many requests worldwide to preserve the Latin, Gregorian singing of the Gloria, Credo, Sanctus, Pater Noster, and Agnus Dei. The Pope again recommends, therefore, that every appropriate measure be taken to transform this desire into fact and that these ancient melodies be treasured as the voice of the universal Church and continue to be sung as expressions and demonstrations of the unity existing throughout the ecclesial community.
Fine sentiments, dashed hopes, empty encouragements, and a wasteland instead of a new springtime. This is the legacy of Paul VI.

Visit Dr. Kwasniewski’s Substack “Tradition & Sanity”; personal site; composer site; publishing house Os Justi Press and YouTube, SoundCloud, and Spotify pages.

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