Liturgical music should lift heart to Christ, says Pope


Rite and Reason: Pope Benedict XVI has described rock music "as a symptom of contemporary western cultural decline", recalls Prof Gerard Gillen

Pope Benedict's love for music is well known. In an interview with German journalist Peter Seewald in 1996, the then Cardinal Ratzinger revealed that music was an important part of his life.

Brought up in Bavaria in the shadow of Salzburg, the city of Mozart, he confessed that "there Mozart penetrated our souls, and his music still touches me deeply because it is so luminous, and yet at the same time so deep.

"His music is not just entertainment, but it contains the whole gamut of the tragedy of human experience".

The Pope's elder brother, Georg, was director of Germany's most distinguished cathedral choir, the Domspatzen (cathedral sparrows) of Regensburg from 1964 to 1994. It is not surprising therefore, that church music and its role in the post-conciliar liturgy is a subject dear to the new Pope's heart and one to which he has applied the rigour of his considerable intellect.

Central to his thinking is the Augustinian view he expressed in a lecture on "Liturgy and Church Music" delivered in Rome in 1985 in which he stated: "Where human beings praise God, mere words do not suffice . . . (it) has called for help to music."

For the Pope, music is essential for worship ceremonies and is intrinsic to liturgical celebration.

In his book The Spirit of the Liturgy (2000), he submits musical usage in the liturgy to a critical historical examination, dwelling on both its power and the dangers attendant upon that power.

He considers the cultural universalisation the church must undertake if she is to transcend the limits of the European mind. How in this context can sacred music preserve the identity of Christianity, while leaving open its expression to local forms?

He ponders the problems posed by legitimate inculturation, but warns against the incorporation of contemporary rock music into the liturgy. He is mindful of Plato and Aristotle and of how they viewed music, dividing it into two fundamental types: Apollonian music that subdues the senses to the spirit and so brings humankind to wholeness, and Dionysian music that subjects the spirit to the senses.

He views rock as belonging to the latter category, and is, therefore, a symptom of contemporary western cultural decline: "It is the expression of elemental passions, and at rock festivals it assumes a cultic character, a form of worship, in fact, in opposition to Christian worship.

"People are, so to speak, released from themselves by the experience of being part of a crowd and by the emotional shock of rhythm, noise, and special lighting effects," he said.

He fears, therefore, the trivialising of liturgy in the name of inculturation. In holding the line against the pressures to incorporate contemporary musical forms into the liturgy, the then cardinal called for what he described as "the courage of asceticism, the courage to contradict. Only from such courage can new creativity arise."

The Pope reminded us that Christian liturgy is always a cosmic liturgy and that liturgical music should lift the heart to Christ, rather than plunge it into intoxicating sensuality.

In the debate on liturgy and culture the then cardinal sided strongly with those who see Christianity as a culture in itself, as opposed to those who perceive it as shaped by cultural circumstances.

Liturgy is a gift of God to which we respond with body, heart, mind and voice. It is a timeless rite, not a performance by priest, choir, organist or dancers.

He criticises liturgical dance, but makes a clear distinction between African processional dances and what he calls "dance pantomimes", and he utterly deprecates the modern fad for applause in church which reduces liturgy to entertainment. He also attacks what he calls "fanaticism about vernacular", and berates those who would forbid the singing of Latin in the liturgy.

He comments on the illogicality of such an attitude in our multicultural societies and notes that the Latin Mass always had Aramaic (Amen, Alleluia, Hosanna) and Greek (Kyrie Eleison), while the sermon was given in the vernacular. So linguistic pluralism is not a new phenomenon.

In a tribute to his brother on his retirement from his post in Regensburg in 1994, the cardinal commended him for "striving to manage continuity in development and development in continuity" during the immediate post-conciliar period, "so that the liturgy in Regensburg Cathedral kept its dignity and excellence and remained transparent to the cosmic liturgy of the Logos in the unity of the whole church without taking on a museum-like character."

Finally, he urged that true reform would "flourish in the spirit of the second Vatican Council - reform that is not discontinuity and destruction, but purification and growth to a new maturity and a new fullness".

Dr Gerard Gillen is professor of music at NUI Maynooth and Titular Organist at Dublin's Pro-Cathedral. He is chair of the Bishops' Advisory Committee on Church Music. The Church Music Association's Annual Summer School begins in Maynooth today