How the Liturgy is Healing Medicine for Strident Times

One of the most concise and cogent descriptions of these often strident times came from Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger in 1986. It is contained in, of all places, his treatise on the theology of sacred music in a book called The Feast of Faith (Ignatius Press, 1986). His comments have been republished in a larger compendium of his works, Collected Works: Theology of the Liturgy (Ignatius Press, 2014, Vol 11).

It is hard to describe our times as anything but contentious. Loud, strident protests often predominate over reasoned discourse and thoughtful argumentation.

To be sure, every era has had, and has needed, protest and public opposition to injustice. There is a time and a place for loud protest and the use of memorable sound bites.

However, it is the predominance of loud protest and civil disobedience that stands out today. Sound bites, slogans, and simplistic “war cries” have to a large extent replaced thoughtful, reasoned discourse. Volume, power, and visually flashy techniques are prized; they are being used more and more. Such approaches too frequently produce more heat than light.

Consider, then, this remarkable analysis by Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, written back before the Internet and social media had turned up the volume even more. Ratzinger paraphrased an insight of Gandhi’s, applied it to his analysis of our current times, and then proposed a healing remedy to restore balance:

I would like to note a beautiful saying of Mahatma Gandhi … Gandhi refers to the three habitats of the cosmos and how each of these provides its own mode of being. The fish live in the sea, and they are silent. The animals of the earth scream and shout; but the birds, whose habitat is the heavens, sing. Silence is proper to the sea, shouting to the earth and singing to the heavens. Man has a share in all three of them. He carries the depths of the sea, the burden of the earth, and the heights of the heavens in himself. And for this reason, all three properties also belong to him: silence, shouting, and singing.

Today – I would like to add – we see only the shouting is left for the man without transcendence, since he only wants to be of the earth.

The right liturgy, the liturgy of the Communion of the Saints, restores totality to him. It teaches him silence and singing again by opening him to the depths of the sea and teaching him to fly, the angels’ mode of being. It brings the song buried in him to sound once more by lifting up his heart. . . .

Right liturgy … liberates us from ordinary, everyday activity and returns to us once more the depths and the heights, silence and song … Right liturgy … sings with the angels … is silent with the expectant depths of the universe, and that is how it redeems the earth (Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, Collected Works, Vol 11, Theology of the Liturgy, Ignatius Press, p. 460).

This is a remarkable analysis and an insightful application of liturgy and cosmology to the issues and imbalances of our day! It is in the vein of “Save the liturgy, save the world.” For indeed, only in the worship of God do we find our true selves. Only in the liturgy is our true personality formed. The human person in his glory unites the material and spiritual orders. We are capable of pregnant, expectant silence; of the joyful shout of praise and the Gospel going forth; and of the song of Heaven.

As Ratzinger pointed out, though, we too often are preoccupied with and value only one aspect: the shouting of the earthbound creatures of this world. But the liturgy – good and proper liturgy – trains us in all three and accomplishes the balance that is so often lost today. The liturgy is a training ground, not only for our heavenly destination, but also in what it means to be truly human.

Read and carefully consider Cardinal Ratzinger’s reflection. It will bless your soul; I know it has blessed mine.

Here is a song of the heavens:

What is Sacred Music? The History Is More Complex Than You Might Think

sacred music

sacred musicNote to readers: The following article is long (3500 words). This is because I have been adding to it over the years as my research has continued. I am by avocation a church musician. Before my ordination, I was a Choir director and an organist. Like most of you, I have my preferences in the area of Church music, but we must be careful not merely to dogmatize them. If we are going to talk intelligently about Church music, knowledge of history is important. It would certainly be incorrect to think that the debates about music in the liturgy began in 1965. In fact, such debates go back to the very beginning of the Church. In order to provide some historical perspective (and a context for the reflection on what is and is not appropriate music) I have been writing and expanding upon this essay for several years. Since it is long, I want to provide a PDF, which you may find here, so that you can print the article out and read it at your leisure.  If you do not have the time or the interest to read this full article, you can get the gist of it in the summation at the end.

With the exception of chant, almost every form of music that is today regarded as sacred initially had a stormy reception in the Church before being admitted to the ranks of music commonly called “sacred.”

That music is controversial in the Church is nothing new, as we shall see in this modest survey of the history of music in Catholic liturgy. Some of my sources are listed at the end of this post, but it is really the product of many years of reading and studying.

On some level, I hope to provide some perspective on the claim that is often made today that certain modern forms of music are inadmissible because they are not “sacred.” In no way do I intend to approve of all forms of modern music nor to encourage the admission of all of them into the liturgy, but it is worth appreciating that the definition of “sacred music” has changed over time. New forms have been admitted— sometimes reluctantly—to the exalted class we refer to as “sacred music.”

Here, then, is a brief look at the history of Church music in terms of what has been considered sacred and what has not.

I.   The early, pre-Constantine period: Chant reigns supremeWhile little if any music survives in written form from the earliest days of the Church, it seems clear (as Johannes Quasten records) that the leaders of the early Church (the Fathers and bishops) preferred monophonic music. This seems largely due to the association of harmony with the excesses of the pagan world and pagan worship.

Frankly, there was in the early Church a very persistent theme that music itself was problematic. Many ancient bishops and Fathers of the Church barely tolerated it, sought to limit its influence, and/or were deeply suspicious of any singing at all.

In his essay “On the Theological Basis of Church Music,” Cardinal Ratzinger (drawing from sources such as Pope Gregory the Great, St. Jerome, Gratian, and even as recent as St. Thomas Aquinas) describes the rather negative opinion in the early Church of any music involving instruments, harmony, or anything deemed “theatrical.” He writes,

Instrumental music, understood as a Judaizing element, simply disappeared from the early liturgy without any discussion; the instrumental music of the Jewish temple is dismissed as a mere concession to the hardness of heart and sensuality of the people at that time. What the Old Testament said about music and worship could no longer be applied directly; it had to be read by them allegorically; it had to be spiritualized

(Ratzinger, “On the Theological Basis of Church Music,” quoted from Collected Works Vol XI, pp 425-432).

Summarizing the views he had received from the earlier Church, St. Thomas wrote, “In the praise of God, the Church does not employ musical instruments … lest she appear to be falling back into Jewish ways” (Summa Theologica II, IIae, q. 91 a 2 ad 3).

Cardinal Ratzinger continues,

Analyzing the texts, not infrequent in the Fathers, which are critical of music or even openly hostile to it, one can clearly identify two constant and governing factors:

A.  In the first place there is the one-sidedly “spiritual” understanding of the relationship between the Old and New Testaments … [So] Christian liturgy … took on a more or less Puritan form. … The idea that God can only really be praised in the heart means that no status can be accorded to music … In Christian worship … music must be relegated to a secondary level. Augustine is a splendid example of this. His sensitivity to music causes him much torment because his mind is dominated by a spiritualizing theology that ascribes the senses to the Old Testament, the old world; he is afraid of “sinning grievously” when he is “moved more by the music then by the reality to which the singing refers” … and would prefer “not to hear singing at all.” Fortunately, his rigorism is dampened when he recalls the profound stirring his soul experienced when he first heard Church music in Milan. [He thus adopted a view of music later stated by St. Thomas, which held that among the reasons for Church music was that] “Thus the minds of the weak be more effectively summoned to piety.”

B.  The second group of ideas that stood in the way of a positive the valuation of Church music … is put in a nutshell in Thomas’ fundamental article on the praise of God, where he says that vocal worship is necessary, not for God’s sake, but for the sake of the worshiper (Ibid).

Cardinal Ratzinger argues in the essay that this tended to lead to a utilitarian view of Church music: necessary to some degree, but somehow less than ideal. He reflects that this created a barrier to any satisfactory theology, not only of Church music, but of all prayer whatsoever.

He also adds (in a later essay) another reason for the restrictive notions about music in the early Church:

To the extent that it distanced itself from the Semitic world, the development of Christological art songs [also] threatened more and more to turn into an acute Hellenization of Christianity … The fascination of Greek music and Greek thinking [now excluded] … so that the new music rapidly became the domain of Gnosticism … For this reason [too] the Church immediately and rigorously rejected the poetical and musical innovation and reduced Church music to the psalter … This limitation of liturgical singing which gradually began asserting itself from the second century … led to a forbiddance of private song compositions and noncanonical writings in liturgical services. The singing of the psalms also came to be restricted to the choir whereas others “should not sing in church” (See canon 59 of the Synod of Laodicea 364 AD) (Ratzinger, Ibid, p. 505).

Thus music in general, given its Semitic and pagan associations, was widely resisted in the early Church and tolerated only in limited ways. Music with any harmony was altogether excluded and would not reappear until the Late Middle Ages.

As a final sample of the Patristic skepticism of music or demonstrative worship, consider St. Cyprian, who wrote the following early in the 3rd century:

When we pray, our words should be calm, modest and disciplined. Let us reflect that we are standing before God. We should please him both by our bodily posture and the manner of our speech. It is characteristic of the vulgar to shout and make a noise, not those who are modest. On the contrary, they should employ a quiet tone in their prayer ….

When we gather to celebrate the divine mysteries with God’s priest, we should not express our prayer in unruly words; the petition that should be made to God with moderation is not to be shouted out noisily and verbosely. For God hears our heart not our voice. He sees our thoughts; he is not to be shouted at …

(Treatise on the Lord’s Prayer by Saint Cyprian, bishop and martyr (Nn. 4-6: CSEL 3, 268-270)).

So much, it would seem, for demonstrative prayer and exuberant singing.

Another reason that the early Church seems to have favored non-harmonic singing was somewhat rooted in the cosmology of the time, wherein there was an emphasis on the unity of all things. Whatever diversity was discovered was viewed as coming from the one hand of God. Monophonic music seemed to better express this unity, at least to the ancient Christian mind.

This cosmology of unity still finds its expression in the way that most Prefaces in the Mass are concluded. The Latin text speaks of the multitude of the choirs of angels, joining with the voices of the many saints (cum Angelis, et archangelis, cum Thronis, et Domininationes … et òmnibus Sanctis). Yet despite the vast multitude of voices, at the end of the Preface it says that they all sing “as with one voice, saying” (una voce dicentes), “Holy, Holy, Holy, Lord God of hosts.”

And so at the earliest stage, music was limited, and to the degree it was it was largely what we today call chant. To the ancient Church, harmony was widely considered to be secular, even pagan.

II.  The Church after Persecution: Chant developsThe earliest chants were quite simple and largely syllabic (one note per syllable); there were few elaborations. However, after the Edict of Constantine (321 A.D.) as the Church came out of a more hidden worship, the use of large, cavernous buildings started to influence the singing.

Cantors began to elaborate on the chant, making full use of the echoes in the larger, basilica-like buildings. Vocals became increasingly melismatic (multiple notes per syllable) rather than syllabic, especially during festival seasons. Syllables (such as those in the word “Alleluia”) began to be extended over more and more notes.

Singers also “yielded to the spirit,” and the long melismata became a kind of ecstatic “singing in tongues.” Though at first any elaboration was resisted, certain chants did begin to develop in some areas. As these melodies became increasingly complex, they were written down and collected by Pope St. Gregory (among others), hence the modern name, “Gregorian chant.”

As these chants became more and more elaborate, their sacredness was only gradually conceded. In fact, they became so complicated that the faithful in the congregation, who were already being discouraged from singing at all, had great difficulty joining in most of the chants. For this reason, special choirs called “scholas” were formed.

III. The High Middle Ages: Harmony entersThe next major development in Church music took place during the High Middle Ages, generally speaking in the 13th century. The first developments of harmony occurred in the musical schools in France, particularly around Paris. It was here that we saw the first widespread introduction of harmony into Church music.

Several factors influenced the introduction of harmony. First, there was the reintroduction of Greek philosophy and some of its views back into the Western world through scholasticism.

Among the Greek notions was a cosmology that spoke of the planets orbiting the sun in perfect circles, each of them ringing out a different tone and creating a beautiful celestial harmony in the heavens as they did so. This was the “music of the spheres” and the idea of a great and beautiful harmonic sound in the heavens. Thus the association of harmony with the sacred began to seem more plausible in the minds of Christians.

The first experimentation with harmony seems to have been singing the Gregorian melodies and adding a hollow harmony of a fourth or fifth. Sometimes this involved several singers singing the words in those harmonies. Other times the harmonizers simply “droned” in the background, somewhat like bagpipe drones.

Architecture was another factor that influenced the harmonies. The soaring new cathedrals with their vaulted ceilings that began to dot the landscape of Western Europe seemed to demand more soaring music. These cathedrals were the skyscrapers of their day.

As harmony began to sound more pleasing to the ears, scholars worked to study it using, of all things, the Pythagorean Theorem, to mathematically set forth the harmonic scale. Thus mathematics and music came together to quantify a kind of music theory. Gradually, as the years just prior to the 16th century ticked by, we came to have what we know of today as the 12-tone scale.

The introduction of harmony in the Church (as with most things musical) was not always without controversy. Some thought that it made the words harder to understand, a complaint that would plague polyphonic music in its early stages.

Nevertheless, as a general rule, the new harmonies from the Paris school swept through Europe to widespread acclaim. People flocked to the cathedrals to hear this splendid new music.

IV.  Late Middle Ages to Renaissance: Musical revolution and a growing crisis for polyphonyIt is hard to describe what took place in music from the late 1300s to 1500 as anything less than revolutionary. The modern harmonic scale as we now know it came into full realization. Harmony went from two-part, to three-part, and then to four and more parts, amazing listeners everywhere.

The incredible development of music during this period paralleled the remarkable developments in painting: increasing use of shadow, light, perspective, and depth. By the early 1500s, Renaissance polyphony was in all of its glory. Composers such as Isaac, Lassus, Palestrina, Victoria, Tallis, and Byrd brought this art form to an amazing richness.

But the music was not without controversy. There were two main problems with this new style called polyphony.

The first problem was the intelligibility of the text. With multiple harmonies being sung, the Latin text, often staggered across many parts and voices, became harder and harder to understand. Clergy in particular complained of this, arguing that the sacred text was taking a backseat to musical flourishes. In addition, the “theatrical showiness” seemed secular to many.

The second troubling issue was that many of the composers of the day drew from secular melodies that were often heard in taverns, in theaters, and on the streets. They would often take these recognizable melodies and set them as a cantus firmus (musical theme or foundation) of sacred compositions, including the parts of the Mass.

Heinrich Isaac, as early as the 1400s in his Missa Carminum, drew from many of these tavern songs. But perhaps the most egregious example of this, and something that almost caused polyphony to be banned completely from the Catholic Church, was a Mass composed by Orlandus de Lassus.

The Mass in question was his Missa Entre Vous Filles. The main melody of both the Kyrie and the Gloria came from a secular piece by the French composer Jacob Clemens non Papa, the words of which bordered on the pornographic. As the Mass grew widely popular (for it is a lovely melody), Church authorities discovered its source and a great uproar ensued.

This controversy took place during the years of the Council of Trent, and though some scholars are dubious of all the details, it is reported that there were Council Fathers who were serious about seeing that sacred polyphony was forever banned from the Catholic liturgy.

Among those who came to the rescue, I am happy to report, was my patron saint, Charles Borromeo. He assembled some increasingly dubious bishops and cardinals who were attending the sessions of the Council of Trent so that they could hear the Pope Marcellus Mass by Palestrina. This particular Mass seems to have been specifically composed to address some of the critiques about the intelligibility of the text and the secular origins of many melodies. The presentation calmed some of the fears regarding this new music and the crisis largely passed.

This incident demonstrates that what many today consider a very sacred sound (namely Renaissance polyphony) was actually quite controversial in its day. It was only thought of as sacred in a widespread way later on. After surviving this first crisis, polyphony became less “florid” and gave greater emphasis to the intelligibility of the text. Secular melodies were also excluded. For these reasons, later works by Palestrina are more austere than those from his earlier period.

Thus we see how the definition of what makes for sacred music had already passed through two major periods. In the first, harmonies were considered too secular; in the second, harmony was introduced but only slowly accepted as sacred in nature.

V.  The Renaissance to the Baroque: New controversies, old problemsIn the period of the middle Renaissance, a new cosmology began to replace the idea that the planets revolved around the sun in perfect circles. Astronomy started to reveal that most of the planets revolved around the sun in elliptical orbits, some of them quite elongated. The notion of the circular orbits of the planets, symbolized by the “music of the spheres” and imitated by Renaissance polyphony, began to give way to the understanding of the mathematical progression of elliptical orbits—a kind of Bach fugue in the sky. This change in cosmology helped to usher in the rather more elaborate, yet mathematical, music of the Baroque period.

In this period, we find the wonderful and mathematically precise music of Bach, Vivaldi, Handel, Mozart, Gabrieli, Schubert, Scarlatti, and many others. Perhaps the fugue best exemplifies the kind of mathematical cosmology of the time. In a fugue, mastered by Bach but not wholly unique to him, a musical theme is set forth. For example, quarter notes may announce the theme of the fugue. This theme is then repeated in the left hand and then in the feet (of the organist). It also progresses mathematically: into eighth notes, then into sixteenth and even 32nd notes. Math meets music! Other musical forms like canons emerged similarly. Symphonies also grew to have movements, which were often named for their tempo (e.g., allegro, adagio, presto).

The classical and baroque periods brought the great orchestral or “Classical” Masses, by composers such as Mozart, Schubert, and Scarlatti. Even Bach and Beethoven set the Catholic Mass in great symphonic and orchestral renderings.

Much controversy accompanied these newer forms. Once again, the principle concern was the intelligibility of the text. Another concern was the length of many of these Masses; in some, the Glorias and Credos could go on for twenty minutes or longer.

Some complained that these musical settings of the Mass made it sound more like being at the opera than at Mass. Indeed, they often broke the sacred text into movements sprinkled with soprano or tenor solos and duets, grand choral sections, and often with full symphonic accompaniment. It was quite a feast for the ears! These Masses were generally so elaborate that they could only be performed in the larger, well-endowed, city churches.

The controversy concerning these kinds of Masses continued for many years. Even as liturgical reforms began in the early 1900s, Pope Pius X frowned on their usage, referring to these orchestral Masses as “theatrical” (see Tra Le Sollecitudini # 6). This led to a de facto banishing of the form from the Catholic liturgy at that time. Only after the Second Vatican Council was this form rehabilitated in a small way.

Here, too, we see that what many Catholics today consider unquestionably sacred (e.g., a great Mozart Mass) had to survive much controversy and even a kind of banishment. What is thought of as sacred today has not always enjoyed that rarefied distinction!

VI.  The Modern Era: New musical forms, new controversies This leads us to the modern era. As we have seen, those who think that debates about what constitutes sacred music are new are simply mistaken. These disputes have been quite a constant part of Church life almost from the beginning. To place them at the feet of the Second Vatican Council is to lack historical perspective.

It is true that two documents of the Second Vatican Council (Musicam Sacram and Sacrosanctum Concilium) opened the door to newer forms with a greater freedom toward enculturation (e.g., MS # 18, 63), but they also reasserted the special accord to be given to chant (# 50a), polyphony, and the pipe organ (# 4a).

Although debate continues about newer forms of music and whether or not they are sacred, such tensions have long existed. Some newer forms have already been tried and found wanting (e.g., Polka Masses). Other forms such as “folk,” gospel, or contemporary music, with adaptions over time, have remained.

Summation:

  1. Historically, no form of music currently considered sacred achieved that status without controversy.
  2. Indeed, music itself was controversial in the early Church and was barely tolerated by many of the Church Fathers.
  3. Time ultimately proves where wisdom lies and ultimately mediates for us what is sacred in a way that transcends mere passing tastes or preferences.
  4. Music has made several revolutionary leaps during the age of the Church.
  5. Provided necessary rational limits are applied, there is no need to rush to exclude every newer form.
  6. If we were to do so, only chant would exist in the Church, and we would be deprived of a great treasury of music from the era of polyphony and the classical period.

In saying this I do not mean to indicate that all music is just fine, or that all modern forms are here to stay, or that newer forms should not be questioned; it is clear that some forms are wholly inimical to the Sacred Liturgy. Rather, I seek to remind people that what is called “sacred music” is historically quite complex. It is the result of long and vigorous discussions, refinements, and other factors as diverse as cosmology, architecture, mathematics, and culture.

We do well to let some of the conversations and controversies work themselves out, lest in too quickly ending them by judicial fiat we impoverish ourselves and block what might bless others and even our very selves.

These are just a few of my sources for the above article:

  1. Music and Worship in Pagan and Christian Antiquity (Johannes Quasten)
  2. Theology of the Liturgy (Joseph Ratzinger)
  3. Papal Legislation on Sacred Music (Msgr. Robert F. Hayburn)
  4. Sacred Music (a four-part production of the BBC)
  5. Coming of Age in the Milky Way (Timothy Ferris)
  6. Why Catholics Can’t Sing (Thomas Day)

Here are the Kyrie and Gloria from the Missa Entre Vous Filles by Orlando de Lassus, the polyphonic Mass setting that almost torpedoed polyphonic music in the Church. To our “distant” ears it is delightful and melodic. At the time, however, it engendered great outrage as nearly pornographic, because it drew from the melody of a “racy” song of the time.

A Short Consideration of a Central Liturgical Principle

Some years ago, I was praying with a group of servers and other liturgical ministers just prior to going forth from the sacristy to celebrate a rather complex liturgy. I remember asking God in the prayer, “Please Lord, help us to serve you well, but above all, help us not forget to worship you.” For indeed, it is possible to be so focused on details that we forget the very Lord to whom the details are directed. A priest, server, lector, or musician can feel very good about how a liturgy has gone technically. I sang well. I preached or presided well. I remembered this detail or that one.  Yet, the most critical factor of all often goes unconsidered: Did I worship God? In other words, did I make room for him in my heart and mind? Even more radically, did I really even think that much of God at all during the Liturgy?

Cardinal Robert Sarah’s wonderful new book, The Power of Silence Against the Dictatorship of Noise, contains a wonderful meditation on this subject. He uses as an example the magnificent praise the Lord Jesus receives on that first Palm Sunday and then makes an observation I had never considered:

When Jesus went down from Bethany to Jerusalem on Palm Sunday, he was given a grand, solemn reception. The people spread coats and branches beneath his feet and acclaimed him as a Son of David. They all cried: “Hosanna! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord, even the king of Israel!” (John 12:13).

…When the festivities were over and it was late, oddly enough, seeing no one to offer him hospitality or give him something to eat, Jesus left the city and went back to spend the night in Bethany with his disciples.

The Son of God was welcomed triumphantly but found no one to open his door to him. Similarly, in our age, how often our welcome, our love, and our praises are superficial, without substance, really a coat of religious varnish….

Nowadays, in a similar way, when we acclaim Christ during the major liturgical feasts, we must insistently make sure that our joy is not merely artificial. Often we do not give the son of God the opportunity to do well in our hearts.

(The Power of Silence, pp. 60-61)

Like many of you, I love liturgical beauty; there is nothing wrong with such beauty. The problem is in our heart; we have so little room there. Perhaps asking ourselves a few simple questions after each Mass will help us to better discipline our thoughts and attention:

  1. Did I worship God or just enjoy the splendor?
  2. How and when in this liturgy did I encounter the Lord and experience his presence?
  3. How am I different from this encounter?
  4. Am I grateful?

 

On the Power of Liturgy and Prayer

There is a text from the Acts of the Apostles (read last week at Mass) that sets forth quite well some of the qualities of the Sacred Liturgy. Although the “liturgy” cited in this passage is not a Mass, the description should apply to all our liturgies; from the Liturgy of the Hours to baptism, from a penance service to a full sung Mass. Let’s look at the passage and learn from it the power of liturgy to deliver, instruct, and transform us and the world.

About midnight, while Paul and Silas were praying
and singing hymns to God as the prisoners listened,
there was suddenly such a severe earthquake
that the foundations of the jail shook;
all the doors flew open, and the chains of all were pulled loose.
When the jailer woke up and saw the prison doors wide open,
he drew his sword and was about to kill himself,
thinking that the prisoners had escaped.
But Paul shouted out in a loud voice,
“Do no harm to yourself; we are all here.”
He asked for a light and rushed in and,
trembling with fear, he fell down before Paul and Silas.
Then he brought them out and said,
“Sirs, what must I do to be saved?”
And they said, “Believe in the Lord Jesus
and you and your household will be saved.”
And they spoke the word of the Lord to him and to all who were in his house.
And he took them the same hour of the night and washed their wounds;
and he was baptized at once, he and all his family (Acts 15:25-33).

DeterminationAbout midnight, while Paul and Silas were praying and singing hymns to God as the prisoners listened … Here they are in an awful place, a deep dungeon with rats and filth all about, and yet they are singing.

An old hymn reminds us to persevere in praise: “Whatever my lot, thou hast taught me to say, ‘It is well with my soul, it is well.’” Yes, happiness is an inside job. There may be times when we don’t feel emotionally ready to praise God, but we have to command our soul. In the words of the psalm, I will bless the Lord at all times. His praise shall continually be in my mouth (Psalm 34:1).

Note that this is communal not personal prayer, and thus it is a kind of liturgy. They are singing hymns, a form of communal and liturgical prayer. More literally, the Greek text says that they were singing praises (humneo) to God. “Hymn” comes from humneo. Perhaps they were singing psalms or perhaps they were singing newly composed hymns such as we see in Philippians 2:5-11, Ephesians 1:3-14, or Colossians 1:15-19. But note their determination to praise the Lord anyway. Such praises will bring blessings, for when praises go up, blessings come down.

The Church must always be determined to celebrate the liturgy. The last thing we should ever consider stopping is the Mass! Recall how many priests and bishops locked up in prisons were earnest to obtain even the slightest scraps of bread or drops of wine in order to celebrate the Mass. Recall the many martyred priests during troubled times in England who risked everything to celebrate the Holy Mass. We must always be determined to pray, and whenever possible, to celebrate the Sacred Liturgy, even at great risk.

Disturbance… suddenly such a severe earthquake that the foundations of the jail shook … Does our worship rock this world to its foundations? It should. The world ought to know and experience that we are at prayer! We should rock this world with our refusal to be discouraged at what it dishes out.

Further, good prayer, preaching, and the simple presence of the Church ought to shake things up a bit. It is said that a good preacher will comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable. Each of us has a little of both within us.

Note that the early Christians were often arrested for being “disturbers of the peace.” They said politically dangerous things like “Jesus is Lord” rather than “Caesar is Lord.” Religiously, they upset the order by announcing that many of the old rites were now fulfilled. Temple worship was over. Jesus was the true temple and Lord, and the Eucharist now supplanted the lucrative temple rites. Morally, the Church shook things up by demanding love of one’s enemies and that people no longer live as did the pagans, in the futility of their minds. These things and more tended to disturb the political, social, and religious order. Liturgically, we gather to celebrate and learn many earthshaking truths and to be liberated from the hold of the world, the flesh, and the devil.

Yes, the presence of the early Church was a kind of earthquake. When the Church is strong she not only consoles; she disturbs and even rocks things to their foundations by the simple declaration, “Thus says the Lord” and by our praise of Him who is true Lord and Sovereign King, far outranking all other kings and those who demand our loyalty and conformity.

Deliverance… all the doors flew open, and the chains of all were pulled loose. The liturgy of praise and worship of God should effect an ongoing deliverance. The prayer of the Church in her liturgy should set people free: prison doors swing open, chains fall loose, and increasing freedom is granted to faithful.

I am a witness to this and I pray that you are as well. I have attended and celebrated Mass every day for more than thirty years now. In that time, through praise, hearing God’s Word, being instructed in God’s Word, receiving the Word Made Flesh in Holy Communion, and deep abiding fellowship with believers, I am a changed man. Many shackles have come loose. A new mind and heart have been given to me and the prison cells of anxiety are no longer. Deliverance is what happened to us when the Lord took us out of the kingdom of darkness and into the Kingdom of Light. Through the liturgy, that deliverance becomes deeper, richer, broader, and higher.

DignityWhen the jailer woke up and saw the prison doors wide open, he drew his sword and was about to kill himself, thinking that the prisoners had escaped. But Paul shouted out in a loud voice, “Do no harm to yourself; we are all here.” The liturgy we celebrate is that of the Catholic Church. The term Catholic refers to the universality of the Church’s mission. All are to be called.

One effect of the liturgy on us should be that we neither hate nor exclude anyone. Paul and Silas do not gloat over the misfortune of their jailer. Knowing his dignity, they call out to him, even at the risk of their lives.

The Church, too, seeks the welfare and salvation of even our most bitter opponents. Our liturgy is celebrated not only for our friends but for the whole world.

The Church is Catholic; all are called. Painting a picture of the Church, Scripture says, I [John] looked, and there before me was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, tribe, people and language, standing before the throne and before the Lamb. They were wearing white robes and were holding palm branches in their hands (Rev 7:9). I realize how true it is that God does not show favoritism but accepts from every nation the one who fears him and does what is right. Everyone who believes in him receives forgiveness of sins through his name (Acts 10: 34-35, 43).

Discipleship[The jailer] asked for a light and rushed in and, trembling with fear, he fell down before Paul and Silas. Then he brought them out and said, “Sirs, what must I do to be saved?” And they said, “Believe in the Lord Jesus and you and your household will be saved.” And they spoke the word of the Lord to him and to all who were in his house. And he took them the same hour of the night and washed their wounds; and he was baptized at once, he and all his family.

Making disciples (not just members) is the primary job of the Church. To be a disciple is to be a follower of the Lord, but the word “disciple” also comes from the same Latin root (discere) as the word “learning.” Thus, the Church in her liturgy not only worships the Lord, she instructs the faithful and supplies the sacraments.

Note that the jailer asks for light. Do not think of this as merely a practical request. Asking for light is asking for the enlightenment that comes from Faith and Baptism. The Church in her liturgy and by her witness supplies light and acclimates the faithful to that light.

The jailer, having asked for the light, been instructed, and become accustomed to the light, is baptized.

Here, then, are some goals of and a description of true liturgy, one that rocks the world and yet delivers the faith, forming the people in the beauty of God’s grace. Do you and your fellow parishioners see the liturgy this way or do you see it as distant, even boring? See what this Scripture passage teaches about the truest goals and nature of every liturgy, great or small, in the Church.

What is Sacred Music? It’s a Bit More Complex than You May Think

March 1 blog postThere was a discussion a few years ago on my Facebook page about Church music. My parish, Holy Comforter-St. Cyprian in Washington, D.C., was featured on EWTN’s nightly news (see video below); the discussion centered on that report.

Among the many forms of music we use here at my parish, gospel music is predominant at our 11:00 AM Mass. While many of the comments on the Facebook page were encouraging and supportive of this music, there were still a significant minority that spoke of gospel music as being inappropriate for Catholic liturgy and of it not being sacred. Chant, polyphony, and traditional hymns were held up as sacred, while gospel and some modern forms of music were labeled “not sacred,” and/or inappropriate for Catholic worship.

While everyone is certainly entitled to his personal preferences, is there really a definitive answer to the question, what is sacred music and how is it that some forms have come to be more widely regarded as sacred than others?

The answer to this question is a little more complex than most people realize. With the exception of chant, almost every form of music that is today regarded as sacred initially had a stormy reception in the Church before being admitted to the ranks of music commonly called “sacred.”

That music is controversial in the Church is nothing new, as we shall see in this modest survey that I make of the history of music in Catholic liturgy. Some of my sources are listed at the end of this post, but it is really the product of many years of reading and studying.

On some level, I hope to provide some perspective on the claim that is often made today that certain modern forms of music are inadmissible because they are not “sacred.” In no way do I intend to approve of all forms of modern music nor to encourage the admission of all of them into the liturgy. But it is worth appreciating that the definition of “sacred music” has changed over time. New forms have been admitted— sometimes reluctantly—to the exalted class we refer to as “sacred music.”

Here, then, is a brief look at the history of Church music in terms of what has been considered sacred and what has not.

I. The early, pre-Constantine period: Chant reigns supreme – While little if any music survives in written form from the earliest days of the Church, it seems clear (as Johannes Quasten records) that the leaders of the early Church (the Fathers and bishops) preferred monophonic music. This seems largely due to the association of harmony with the excesses of the pagan world and pagan worship.

Frankly, there was in the early Church a very persistent theme that music itself was problematic. Many ancient bishops and Fathers of the Church barely tolerated it, sought to limit its influence, and/or were deeply suspicious of any singing at all.

In his essay “On the Theological Basis of Church Music,” Cardinal Ratzinger; drawing from sources such as Pope Gregory the Great, St. Jerome, Gratian, and even as recent as St. Thomas Aquinas; describes the rather negative opinion in the early Church of any music involving instruments, harmony, or anything deemed “theatrical.” He writes,

Instrumental music, understood as a Judaizing element, simply disappeared from the early liturgy without any discussion; the instrumental music of the Jewish temple is dismissed as a mere concession to the hardness of heart and sensuality of the people at that time. What the Old Testament said about music and worship could no longer be applied directly, it had to be read by them allegorically, it had to be spiritualized (Ratzinger, “On the Theological Basis of Church Music,” quoted from Collected Works Vol XI, pp 425-432).

Summarizing the views he had received from the earlier Church, St. Thomas writes, “In the praise of God, the Church does not employ musical instruments … lest she appear to be falling back into Jewish ways” (Summa Theologica II, IIae, q. 91 a 2 ad 3).

Cardinal Ratzinger continues,

Analyzing the texts, not infrequent in the Fathers, which are critical of music or even openly hostile to it, one can clearly identify two constant and governing factors:

A. In the first place there is the one-sidedly “spiritual” understanding of the relationship between the Old and New Testaments … [So] Christian liturgy … took on a more or less Puritan form. … The idea that God can only really be praised in the heart means that no status can be accorded to music … In Christian worship … music must be relegated to a secondary level. Augustine is a splendid example of this. His sensitivity to music causes him much torment because his mind is dominated by a spiritualizing theology that ascribes the senses to the Old Testament, the old world; he is afraid of “sinning grievously” when he is “moved more by the music then by the reality to which the singing refers” … and would prefer “not to hear singing at all.” Fortunately his rigorism is dampened when he recalls the profound stirring his soul experienced when he first heard Church music in Milan. [He thus adopted a view of music later stated by St. Thomas, which held that among the reasons for Church music was that] “Thus the minds of the weak be more effectively summoned to piety.”

B. The second group of ideas that stood in the way of a positive the valuation of Church music … is put in a nutshell in Thomas’ fundamental article on the praise of God, where he says that vocal worship is necessary, not for God’s sake, but for the sake of the worshiper (Ibid).

Cardinal Ratzinger argues in the essay that this tended to lead to a utilitarian view of Church music as necessary to some degree, but somehow less than ideal. He reflects that this created a barrier to any satisfactory theology, not only of Church music, but of all prayer whatsoever.

He also adds (in a later essay) another reason for the restrictive notions about music in the early Church:

To the extent that it distanced itself from the Semitic world, the development of Christological art songs [also] threatened more and more to turn into an acute Hellenization of Christianity … The fascination of Greek music and Greek thinking [now excluded] … so that the new music rapidly became the domain of Gnosticism … For this reason [too] the Church immediately and rigorously rejected the poetical and musical innovation and reduced Church music to the psalter … This limitation of liturgical singing which gradually began asserting itself from the second century … led to a forbiddance of private song compositions and noncanonical writings in liturgical services. The singing of the psalms also came to be restricted to the choir whereas others “should not sing in church” (See canon 59 of the Synod of Laodicea 364 AD) (Ratzinger, Ibid, p. 505).

Thus music in general, given its Semitic and pagan associations, was widely resisted in the early Church and tolerated only in limited ways. Music with any harmony was altogether excluded and would not reappear until the Late Middle Ages.

Another reason that the early Church seems to have favored non-harmonic singing was somewhat rooted in the cosmology of the time, wherein there was an emphasis on the unity of all things. Whatever diversity was discovered was viewed as coming from the one hand of God. Monophonic music seemed to better express this unity, at least to the ancient Christian mind.

This cosmology of unity still finds its expression in the way that most Prefaces in the Mass are ended. The Latin text speaks of the multitude of the choirs of angels, joining with the voices of the many saints (cum Angelis, et archangelis, cum Thronis, et Domininationes … et òmnibus Sanctis). And yet despite the vast multitude of voices, at the end of the preface it says that they all sing “as with one voice saying” (una voce dicentes), “Holy, Holy, Holy, Lord God of hosts.”

And so at the earliest stage, sacredness was associated with what we today call chant. To the ancient Church, harmony was widely considered to be secular, even pagan.

II. The Church after Persecution: Chant develops – The earliest chants were quite simple and largely syllabic (one note per syllable); there were few elaborations. However, after the Edict of Constantine (321 A.D.) as the Church came out of a more hidden worship, the use of large, cavernous buildings started to influence the singing. Cantors began to elaborate on the chant, making full use of the echoes in the larger, basilica-like buildings. Vocals became increasingly melismatic (multiple notes per syllable) rather than syllabic, especially during festival seasons. Syllables (such as those in the word “Alleluia”) began to be extended longer with more and more notes.

Singers also “yielded to the spirit,” and the long melismata became a kind of ecstatic “singing in tongues.” Though at first any elaboration was resisted, certain chants did begin to develop in some areas. As these melodies became increasingly complex, they were written down and collected by Pope St. Gregory (among others), hence the modern name, “Gregorian chant.”

As these chants became more and more elaborate, their sacredness was only gradually conceded. In fact they became so complicated that the faithful in the congregation, who were already being discouraged from singing at all, had great difficulty joining in most of the chants. For this reason, special choirs called scholas were formed.

III. The High Middle Ages: Harmony enters – The next major development in Church music took place during the High Middle Ages, generally speaking in the 13th century. The first developments of harmony occurred in the musical schools in France, particularly around Paris. It was here that we saw the first widespread introduction of harmony into Church music.

Several factors influenced the introduction of harmony. First, there was the reintroduction of Greek philosophy and some of its views back into the Western world through scholasticism.

Among the Greek notions there was a cosmology that spoke of the planets orbiting the sun in perfect circles, each of them ringing out a different tone and creating a beautiful celestial harmony in the heavens as they did so. This was the “music of the spheres” and the idea of a great and beautiful harmonic sound in the heavens. Thus the association of harmony with the sacred began to seem more plausible in the minds of Christians.

The first experimentation with harmony seems to have been singing the Gregorian melodies and adding a hollow harmony of a fourth or fifth. Sometimes this involved several singers singing the words in those harmonies. Other times the harmonizers simply “droned” in the background, somewhat like bagpipe drones.

Architecture was another factor that influenced the harmonies. The soaring new cathedrals with their vaulted ceilings that began to dot the landscape of Western Europe seemed to demand more soaring music. These cathedrals were the skyscrapers of their day.

As harmony began to sound more pleasing to the ears, scholars worked to study it using, of all things, the Pythagorean Theorem to mathematically set forth the harmonic scale. Thus mathematics and music came together to quantify a kind of music theory. Gradually, as the years just prior to the 16th century ticked by, we came to have what we know of today as the 12-tone scale.

The introduction of harmony (as with most things musical) in the Church was not always without controversy. Some thought that it made the words harder to understand, a complaint that would plague polyphonic music in its early stages.

Nevertheless, as a general rule, the new harmonies from the Paris school swept through Europe to widespread acclaim. People flocked to the cathedrals to hear this splendid new music.

IV. Late Middle Ages to Renaissance: Musical revolution and growing crisis for polyphony – It is hard to describe what took place in music from the late 1300s to 1500 as anything less than revolutionary. The modern harmonic scale as we now know it came into full realization. Harmony went from two-part, to three-part, and then to four and more parts, amazing listeners everywhere.

The incredible development of music during this period paralleled the remarkable developments in painting: increasing use of shadow, light, perspective, and depth. By the early 1500s, Renaissance polyphony was in all of its glory. Composers such as Isaac, Lassus, Palestrina, Victoria, Tallis, and Byrd brought this art form to an amazing richness.

But the music was not without controversy. There were two main problems with this new style called polyphony.

The first problem was the intelligibility of the text. With multiple harmonies being sung, the Latin text, often staggered across many parts and voices, became harder and harder to understand. Clergy in particular complained of this, arguing that the sacred text was taking a backseat to musical flourishes. In addition, the “theatrical showiness” seemed secular to many.

The second troubling issue was that many of the composers of the day drew from secular melodies that were often heard in taverns, in theaters, and on the streets. They would often take these recognizable melodies and set them as a cantus firmus (musical theme or foundation) of sacred compositions, including the parts of the Mass.

Heinrich Isaac, as early as the 1400s in his Missa Carminum, drew from many of these tavern songs. But perhaps the most egregious example of this, and something that almost caused polyphony to be banned completely from the Catholic Church, was a Mass composed by Orlande de Lassus.

The Mass in question was his Missa Entre Vous Filles. The main melody of both the Kyrie and the Gloria came from a secular piece by the French composer Jacob Clemens non Papa, the words of which bordered on the pornographic. As the Mass grew widely popular (for it is a lovely melody), Church authorities discovered its source and a great uproar ensued.

This controversy took place during the years of the Council of Trent, and though some scholars are dubious of all the details, it is reported that there were Council Fathers who were serious about seeing that sacred polyphony was forever banned from the Catholic liturgy.

Among those who came to the rescue, I am happy to report, was my patron saint, St. Charles Borromeo. He assembled some increasingly dubious bishops and cardinals who were attending the sessions of the Council of Trent so that they could hear the Pope Marcellus Mass by Palestrina. This particular Mass seems to have been specifically composed to address some of the critiques about the intelligibility of the text and the secular origins of many melodies. The presentation calmed some of the fears regarding this new music and the crisis largely passed.

This incident demonstrates that what many today consider a very sacred sound (namely Renaissance polyphony) was quite controversial in its day. It was only thought of as sacred in a widespread way later on. After surviving this first crisis, polyphony became less “florid” and gave greater emphasis to the intelligibility of the text. Secular melodies were also excluded. For these reasons, later works by Palestrina are more austere than those from his earlier period.

Thus we see how the definition of what makes for sacred music had already passed through two major periods. In the first, harmonies were considered too secular; in the second, harmony was introduced but only slowly accepted as sacred in nature.

V. The Renaissance to the Baroque: New controversies, old problems – In the period of the middle Renaissance a new cosmology began to replace the idea that the planets revolved around the sun in perfect circles. Astronomy started to reveal that most of the planets revolved around the sun in elliptical orbits, some of them quite elongated. The notion of the circular orbits of the planets, symbolized by the “music of the spheres” and imitated by Renaissance polyphony, began to give way to the understanding of the mathematical progression of elliptical orbits—a kind of Bach fugue in the sky. This change in cosmology helped to usher in the rather more elaborate, yet mathematical, music of the Baroque period.

In this period we find the wonderful and mathematically precise music of Bach, Vivaldi, Handel, Mozart, Gabrieli, Schubert, Scarlatti, and many others. Perhaps the fugue best exemplifies the kind of mathematical cosmology of the time. In a fugue, mastered by Bach but not wholly unique to him, a musical theme is set forth. For example, quarter notes may announce the theme of the fugue. This theme is then repeated in the left hand and then in the feet (of the organist). It also progresses mathematically: into eighth notes, then into sixteenth and even 32nd notes. Math meets music! Other musical forms like canons emerged similarly. Symphonies also grew to have movements, which were often named for their tempo (e.g., allegro, adagio, presto).

The classical and baroque periods brought the great orchestral or “Classical” Masses, by composers such as Mozart, Schubert, Scarlatti, and many others. Even Bach and Beethoven set the Catholic Mass in great symphonic and orchestral renderings.

Much controversy accompanied these newer forms. Once again, the principle concerns was the intelligibility of the text. Another concern was the length of many of these Masses; in some, the Glorias and Credos could go on for twenty minutes or more.

Some complained that these musical settings of the Mass made it sound more like being at the opera than Church. Indeed, they often broke the sacred text into movements sprinkled with soprano or tenor solos and duets, grand choral sections, and often with a full symphonic accompaniment. It was quite a feast for the ears! These Masses were generally so elaborate that they could only be performed in the larger, well-endowed, city churches.

The controversy concerning these kinds of Masses continued for many years. Even as liturgical reforms began in the early 1900s, Pope Pius X frowned on their usage, referring to these orchestral Masses as “theatrical” (see Tra Le Sollecitudini # 6). This led to a de facto banishing of the form from the Catholic liturgy at that time. Only after the Second Vatican Council was this form rehabilitated in a small way.

Here, too, we see that what many Catholics today consider unquestionably sacred (e.g., a great Mozart Mass) had to survive much controversy and even a kind of banishment. What is thought of as sacred today has not always enjoyed that rarefied distinction!

VI. The Modern Era: New musical forms, new controversies – This leads us to the modern era. As we have seen, those who think that debates about what constitutes sacred music are new are sadly mistaken. These disputes have been quite a consist part of Church life almost from the beginning. To simply place them at the feet of the Second Vatican Council is to lack historical perspective.

It is true that two documents of the Second Vatican Council (Musicam Sacram and Sacrosanctum Concilium) opened the door to newer forms with a greater freedom toward inculturation (e.g., MS # 18, 63), but they also reasserted the special accord to be given to chant (# 50a), polyphony, and the pipe organ (# 4a).

Although debate continues about newer forms of music and whether or not they are sacred, such tensions have long existed. Some newer forms have already been tried and found wanting (e.g., Polka Masses). Other forms such as “folk” or contemporary music, with adaptions over time, have remained.

Finally, let me say a few things about gospel music, the debate about which occasioned this rather lengthy post.

  1. Simply stating that gospel music is not sacred or that it is inappropriate for Catholic liturgy does not make it true. As we have seen, the judgment about what is sacred often takes time to be worked out. The notion of what sounds or seems sacred also changes; there are forms that were once considered improper that have since been admitted to the ranks of the sacred.
  2. Gospel music, unlike many other modern forms (e.g., polka, mariachi), has sacred roots. It emerged from the spirituals and hymns of the antebellum period and the early 20th century. And while gospel music is not strictly Catholic in origin, that fact does not disallow it per se from Catholic liturgy.
  3. One virtue of gospel music is its focus on God. Too many contemporary “worship songs” speak more of us and the “gathered community” than of God. Not so gospel, which is centered almost entirely on God.
  4. Like almost any form of music, gospel can have its excesses, but this does not mean that the whole form is flawed—only that certain rational limits should be observed. This was the case with early polyphony and the Classical Masses, and it is also true of gospel.
  5. Many complain that gospel looks too “performed.” Generally, however, most “outsiders” confuse the exuberance of the congregation and the singers with performance. Clapping is also not for the performer per se but is directed to God and is in gratitude for this manifestation of the Spirit.
  6. If one does not “prefer” or even like gospel music, he is free to stay away from it. But mere preference or taste does not mean that gospel is intrinsically lacking in sacred qualities. Similar things can be said about the use of hymnody. To my mind, the use of metrical hymnody is a good way to once again engage the faithful in the singing of sacred texts in ways that are melodic, memorable, appropriate, and easily learned. But for others, the Protestant origins of this form and most of its repertoire are a sticking point. Over the years, many of these hymns have found a solid place in Catholic liturgy.

Summation: Historically, no form of music currently considered sacred achieved that status without controversy. Indeed, music itself was controversial in the early Church and was barely tolerated by many of the Church Fathers. Time ultimately proves where wisdom lies and ultimately mediates for us what is sacred in a way that transcends mere passing tastes or preferences. Music has made several revolutionary leaps during the age of the Church. Provided necessary rational limits are applied, there is no need to rush to exclude every newer form. If we were to do so, only chant would exist in the Church and we would be deprived of a great treasury of music from the era of polyphony and the classical period.

In saying this I do not mean to indicate that all music is just fine, or that all modern forms are here to stay, or that newer forms should be unquestioned. It is clear that some forms are wholly inimical to the Sacred Liturgy. Rather, I seek to remind people that what we call “sacred music” is historically quite complex. It is the result of long and vigorous discussions, refinements, and other factors as diverse as cosmology, architecture, mathematics, and culture.

We do well to let some of the conversations and controversies work themselves out, lest in too quickly ending them by judicial fiat we impoverish ourselves and block what might bless others and even our very selves.

These are just a few of my sources for the above article:

  1. Music and Worship in Pagan and Christian Antiquity (Johannes Quasten)
  2. Papal Legislation on Sacred Music (Msgr. Robert F. Hayburn)
  3. Sacred Music (a BBC four-part production)
  4. Coming of Age in the Milky Way (Timothy Ferris)
  5. Why Catholics Can’t Sing (Thomas Day)

Here are the videos that sparked the discussion on my Facebook page:

Restoring Greater Reverence to Sick Calls: Some Considerations

sick-callsIn my Parish, I work with the men of the Holy Name Society and the women of the Sodality to ensure that the numerous sick are visited regularly. I try to visit each of the sick members of my parish at least once per quarter to ensure that they have had Confession and the Anointing of the Sick. But since I do not have an assistant priest, as a general rule I must depend on the men and women of these organizations to bring Holy Communion to the sick on a more frequent basis.

We met as a group some time ago and had an interesting discussion about a concern voiced by many: that of a lack of reverence. When they arrive at the home of the sick individual, it is not uncommon to find a television blaring, and that the person to whom they are bringing Holy Communion has not been prepared by others to receive the Eucharist. Often, the extraordinary minister must ask that the television be turned down and that others prayerfully participate. I, too, upon visiting many of the sick encounter similar issues: loud televisions, other family members who do not understand the sacredness of the moment, and a generally difficult setting in which to pray or reflect.

I do not blame either the sick or their family members for this situation. I blame myself and my fellow clergy, many (though not all) of whom have failed to teach or explain to parishioners and family members (some of whom are not Catholic) the proper protocol in this matter.

I explained to the extraordinary ministers that we must re-catechize and teach on this matter. It will take time, but little by little perhaps we can make progress toward restoring a greater reverence to sick calls. Sick calls have become very informal over the past forty years. When the liturgy underwent sweeping changes in the 1970s, many things were dropped (though we were not directed to drop them) that we are now rediscovering to be of importance.

In the “old days,” the visit of the priest to bring Holy Communion and/or Anointing of the Sick was a matter of some formality. Most homes had a “Sick Call Set” on hand that included things like a crucifix, candles, a cloth, cotton, and a bowl of water. If the priest were on First Friday rounds he might even be escorted by a server with a lit candle. At other times, a family member might greet the priest at the door with a candle and escort the priest to the room where the sick person was. Family members usually stood by quietly while the priest administered the Sacraments. If the priest did talk with the sick person or the family, it was usually very brief. Since He had the Blessed Sacrament with him, casual talking was kept to a minimum. As he left, if he still had the Blessed Sacrament, he was again escorted by a family member with a candle.

Now what is described in the paragraph above did vary based on location and circumstances. First Friday Holy Communions were more formal than others. On the other hand, emergencies might cause the exclusion of some of the formalities. And there were also ethnic differences. Other factors (e.g., the catholicity of other family members and how devout each family was) were also taken into account. But what I described above was the usual practice, give or take a few details.

In recent times, though, most of these details have fallen away. As with so many things in our culture, we have become very casual, very informal with sick calls. But it may be beneficial for us to rediscover some of the older practices in order to restore greater reverence. I would like to suggest a few matters of protocol for your reflection. I will begin with a few disclaimers and then offer some suggestions.

Disclaimers:

  1. Not everything in the list that follows is possible or even advisable in every situation. Sometimes sick calls are hastily arranged due to emergencies, and preparing a sick call altar might mean time away from a distressed or dying relative. Sometimes in nursing homes all the implements are not available or even allowed. For example, many nursing homes do not permit the burning of candles. Hence, prudential judgment should be used to determine what is necessary, possible, or even advisable.
  2. Family situations may also affect the preparation of the sick call altar and other protocols. There may be no one in the home healthy enough to assemble the implements. There may be family members who are non-Catholic and choose not to participate in the rites and preparations.
  3. Not all the implements mentioned above are necessary for every sick call. Sometimes there will not be anointing. If that is the case, then a fair number of the items are not necessary. Even if there is an anointing, not every item may be required.
  4. What follows are recommendations only, not absolute requirements. The hope is to instill some thoughtfulness as to the reverence due to the occasion of a sick call. Reverence is not a pure science. Externals can and do help, but ultimately it is our internal disposition that is most important.
  5. Regarding these recommendations, take what you like and leave the rest. Add to them and distinguish as you wish. Discussion with your parish priest is also helpful.

Recommendations:

    1. Consider preparing the place where the sacraments will be celebrated. If possible and necessary, tidy up a bit.
    2. Consider preparing a sick call table or altar. Most commonly such a table includes at least a candle, and preferably a crucifix and two candles. A small glass of water is helpful since a sick person can sometimes have trouble swallowing the host. A spoon can be useful if the person has a hard time sitting up to drink the water. A napkin of some sort can help if the person spills any water when drinking. If the priest is going to anoint the sick person, it may be useful to have some cotton balls for him to wipe his fingers. If he does use them, though, they should later be burned. Bread and lemons can be used to help the priest to purify his fingers after anointing, but they are rarely necessary and should not be supplied unless the priest asks for them ahead of time.
    3. Sick call sets containing many of these items are available through Catholic catalogues (for example, HERE).
    4. If possible and advisable, have the sick person awake and aware that the sacraments are about to be celebrated.
    5. Be sure that when the priest, deacon, or extraordinary minister arrives, the television, radio, etc. are turned off and that other unnecessary conversations and activities in the house are ended.
    6. In the past, it was customary for someone to meet the priest at the door with a candle. This was done out of reverence for the Blessed Sacrament. This can still be done today and is a wonderful way to teach others of the sacredness of the moment.
    7. It is preferable to have all the members of the household prayerfully aware of what is taking place. If the room is large enough, they can all be encouraged to pray along. It may be necessary for some brief privacy while the priest hears confession, but otherwise, members of the household can and should join in prayer. It is certainly inappropriate for loud conversations to be taking place in the next room, for children to be playing video games, and for unnecessary activities to be taking place. Even non-Catholics should be respectful of the sacred rites. Usually just a word of invitation/encouragement is all that is needed.
    8. It is best for the priest, deacon, or extraordinary minister to celebrate the rites without delay. Surely a greeting is appropriate, but long conversations prior to the reception of sacraments is inadvisable. After the celebration of the sacraments, longer conversations may take place. Sometimes the priest, deacon, or extraordinary minister has other stops to make and thus is still carrying the Blessed Sacrament. In such a case it is not wrong to have a conversation with the sick person as an act of charity, but one ought to balance the fact of the presence of the Blessed Sacrament and the need for conversation with prudence and reverence. Staying for lunch and lengthy, chatty visits are discouraged in such cases.
    9. Reverential prayer and celebration of the rites is also necessary for those who bring Holy Communion.
    10. Those who bring Holy Communion to the sick should go immediately to them and not make stops along the way there. While transporting the Blessed Sacrament it is best to drive in silence, pray, or listen to religious music rather than secular radio.

So those are some of my recommendations. Remember that all of these are not possible all of the time. The recommendations are made in the hope of provoking thought and discussion about reverence in sick calls. They are made more as gentle reminders than polemical pronouncements. I do not assume that any one intends to be irreverent. It is just that we have become very casual these days and reminders seem opportune. I invite you to chime in with your additions and/or critiques in the comment section.

The Sanctus – A Far More Remarkable Prayer than You Might Imagine. A Reflection on a Teaching of Joseph Ratzinger

blog9-13-2015What we call the Sanctus, or the Holy, Holy, Holy of the Mass is not one prayer or one acclamation, but two. And this fact presents a teachable moment for us as well as providing a defense of a practice that is often scorned by modern liturgists.

The two parts of the Sanctus are as follows:

  1. The Sanctus – Holy, Holy, Holy, Lord God of Hosts. Heaven and Earth are full of your Glory.
  2. The Benedictus – Blessed is He who comes in the name of the Lord. Hosanna in the Highest.

The first part comes from the Book of Isaiah:

I saw the Lord sitting upon a throne, high and lifted up; and the train of his robe filled the temple. Above him stood the seraphim. Each had six wings: with two he covered his face, with two he covered his feet, and with two he flew. And one called to another and said, “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts; the whole earth is full of his glory!” (Is 6:1b-3)

And thus this acclamation is that of the highest heavens and the highest rank of the angels, the Seraphim (“burning ones”), who stand before the throne of God in Heaven. It is their acclamation that Isaiah overheard in the vision he felt utterly unworthy to experience.

That we, mere mortals, take up this acclamation is bold indeed. We are enabled to sing it only on account of the saving ministry of Jesus, our savior. Through Jesus, and as members of His Body, we now have access to the Holy of Holies in Heaven!

Scripture says,

But when Christ appeared as high priest of the good things that have come, passing through the greater and more perfect tent (not made with hands, that is, not of this creation) he entered once for all into the holy places, not by means of the blood of goats and calves but by means of his own blood, thus securing an eternal redemption (Heb 9:11-12).

Therefore, brothers, since we have confidence to enter the holy places by the blood of Jesus, by the new and living way that he opened for us through the curtain, that is, through his flesh, and since we have a great priest over the house of God, let us draw near with a true heart in full assurance of faith, with our hearts sprinkled clean from an evil conscience and our bodies washed with pure water (Heb 10:19-22).

Yes our singing of this great acclamation of the highest angels is bold, but our boldness is only in Jesus. Otherwise, how could we dare to enter the Holy of Holies in Heaven and take up the song that only angels of the highest rank sing?

At every Mass, the priest (in the Preface Dialogue) bids us, Sursum Corda (Lift up your hearts). In other words: Brethren we are now in Heaven with Christ our Head and are swept up into the heavenly Liturgy. Therefore we give thanks to the Father through Christ His Son and our Lord. And with the Cherubim, the Seraphim, and all the heavenly hosts we, with one voice, proclaim, Holy, Holy, Holy, Lord God of Hosts … This is an acclamation of great ascent of the Lord into the Holy Place.

The second half of the Sanctus is a very different acclamation. It is far more earth-bound and comes from a completely different Scripture. It is the song of the Hebrew children, who greeted Jesus as the Messiah when he entered Jerusalem, meek and humble, riding on a donkey:

Hosanna! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord! Hosanna in the highest heaven! (Mk 11:9-10)

How different this second half is! It is an acclamation of praise, but by men not angels. And though it resonates to the highest Heaven, it is an acclamation from the earth. It is in praise of the Lord, who has descended in the incarnation and is entering the earthly Jerusalem.

The first part of the Sanctus was of angels to the Lord who dwells in highest Heaven. The second half, the Benedictus, is of men to the Lord, who descended to these lower realms of our earth.

Thus what we call the Sanctus is a complex combination of two very different prayers, two very different scriptural acclamations, two very different contexts.

For this reason it was common in the Traditional Latin Mass (today, the Extraordinary Form of the Mass) to split the Sanctus, singing part one before the consecration and part two after it. Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, speaking in 1996 at Regensburg, mentioned this practice and explained it in the following manner:

Whereas the Sanctus evolved from Isaiah 6 and was then transferred from the heavenly to the earthly Jerusalem and so became the song of the Church, the Benedictus is based on a New Testament rereading of Psalm 118:26. In the Old Testament text this verse is a blessing at the arrival of the festive procession in the Temple. On Palm Sunday it received a new meaning … When the youths of Jerusalem shout this verse to Jesus, they are greeting him as the Messiah, as the King of the last days who enters the Holy City.

[So] the Sanctus is ordered to the eternal glory of God; in contrast, the Benedictus refers to the advent of the incarnate God in our midst. For this reason the Benedictus is meaningful both as an approach to the consecration and as an acclamation to the Lord who has become present in the Eucharistic Species (Joseph Ratzinger, Collected Works, Vol XI “Theology of the Liturgy” Ignatius Press, p. 477).

And thus the Lord, who dwells in the Highest Heaven, descends at the consecration to dwell humbly among us as our food. So, in the Old Latin Mass, it was considered the appropriate time to sing, “Blessed is He who comes in the Name of the Lord.” Yes, blessed is He who has descended from the highest Heaven and is now present among us in the Eucharist upon our Altar. May the highest praises be His!

It seems such a glorious acclamation in this sense and with this background. And so it’s no wonder that the united text of the Sanctus was “paused” midway and the second half routinely sung after the consecration.

In a way it is sad that this was altogether lost in the Ordinary Form. This seemingly perfect acclamation was replaced by newly composed acclamations called “The Mystery of Faith,” which imitate the Eastern Liturgies. They are not bad in themselves, but they wholly replaced something that was beautiful and also adequate. Most liturgists insisted that the old practice of splitting the Sanctus in two was to be stopped without exception. Cardinal Ratzinger continues,

The reformers of the Liturgy, following the Byzantine rite, composed an acclamation of the people “We proclaim your death, O Lord …” But the question of other possible acclamations … has been proposed. 

It is evident to me that there is no more appropriate or more profound acclamation, or one that is more rooted in tradition than precisely this one: Blessed is He who comes in the Name of the Lord.

The pedantic proscription of such a split … should be forgotten as quickly as possible (Ibid, p. 478).

Most liturgists would severely frown on eliminating one of the Mystery of Faith acclamations from the Ordinary Form of the Mass in favor of splitting the Sanctus. But as the Cardinal, now Pope Emeritus, opines, we might wish to consider it as an option. For now, the option exists only in the Extraordinary Form of the Mass.

Yet in the end, much is gained by reflecting on the text of the Sanctus. It is actually two texts, and shows the remarkable and beautiful tension of ascension and condescension, of transcendence and immanence, of the heavenly Jerusalem and the earthly one, of angels and men.

Two texts, two songs, one Sanctus. A remarkable moment in the Liturgy!

Here is a polyphonic and an orchestral Sanctus:

Titles and Descriptions of Satan from the Rite of Exorcism and What They Have to Teach Us

blog-9-7-2015In the realm of demonology there is a cautious balance to maintain. Sadly, an exorcist must usually inflict pain upon demons in order to drive them out. This is done through the prayers of the Rite of Exorcism and through other things recommended by the rite such as the use of holy water, the use of relics, the touch of a stole, and the use of the Holy Cross.

And yet the exorcist must be careful not to hate demons or harbor unjust anger toward them. For in so doing, they would have him; he would be drawn into their territory. If they can get him to hate and to have vengeful anger then they have made him to be like themselves; he is theirs, little better than they save for the possibility that he can still repent.

Hence the exorcist and any who would pray for deliverance from demons for themselves or others, do well to stay inside the norms of the Church and Scripture. These norms warn and set limits for those who would confront demons, lest they stray by pride or anger.

What are some of these norms? Here are just a few, but they are properly cautionary to be sure.

  1. A lay person should never undertake to drive out demons except by the following simple formula: “I command you, all evil spirits to leave me at once in the name of Jesus Christ the Lord.” At no time should a lay person ever engage a demon in conversation, ask questions, or in any way seek information.
  2. The same holds true for priests who engage in minor exorcisms. While they are permitted to use more elaborate imprecatory prayer found in the Manual of Minor Exorcisms, priests are not to go beyond the commands therein. They are not to ask questions or to demand names or signs from demons.
  3. Only appointed exorcists, delegated by the bishop, may or should inquire of the names and numbers of demons, their time of entry, why they possessed the individual, their rank, and so forth. The rite makes clear that only necessary questions should be asked. Other impertinent information is both unnecessary and harmful.
  4. Within the formal Rite of Exorcism, an exorcist does well to stick to the formulas, expressions, and norms of the rite. Banter, insulting language, and toe-to-toe debate are to be avoided. Good exorcists indicate that returning to the prayers of the rite is essential when demons seek to engage in debate, ridicule, and diversionary talk. Obmutesce pater mendacii (Be silent, father of lies) is a quick command from the rite to order the demons to be silent, and it is a good way to refuse to enter into pointless conversation or ridicule.

Scripture attests to the need to refrain from reviling demons:

For Even Michael the archangel, when he disputed with the devil and argued about the body of Moses, did not dare pronounce against him a reviling judgment, but said, “The Lord rebuke you!” (Jude 1:9)

Further, hate and ridicule of any person (angelic or human) whom God has created is an ungodly attitude. Scripture says,

For you O Lord love all things that are and loathe nothing that you have made; for you would not fashion what you hate (Wisdom 11:24).

Therefore anyone who confronts demons or suffers their oppression is warned that hatred and unjust anger, reviling and ridiculing, is no way to fight them, for if we do so we become like them.

That said, exorcists and priests must often use strong language approved by the minor and major prayers of exorcism, most of which are drawn from Scripture or Sacred Tradition.

Consider, for example, the following rebuke of Satan from Scripture:

How are you fallen from heaven, O Lucifer, son of the morning! How are you cut down to the ground, who did weaken the nations! For you have said in your heart, “I will ascend into heaven, I will exalt my throne above the stars of God: I will sit also upon the mount of the congregation, in the farthest sides of the north: I will ascend above the heights of the clouds; I will be like the most High.” Yet you shall be brought down to Sheol, to the depths of the lake of fire (Is 14:12-15).

These verses speak truth. They do not revile; they say what happened and they point to Lucifer’s prideful fall.

The Rite of Exorcism has collected many descriptions from Scripture and Tradition. They are not intended to ridicule or revile, but rather to remind Satan of who and what he has chosen to become. They remind him of his pride, his destruction by God’s justice, his ultimate fate, and the many ways he seeks to harm us. Consider, then, some of the “titles” and descriptions of Satan drawn from both the old and new rites of exorcism:

Enemy of the faith

Foe of the human race

Carrier of death

Robber of life

Shirker of justice

Root of evil

Fomenter of vice

Seducer of men

Traitor of the nations

Instigator of envy

Font of avarice

Source of discord

Exciter of sorrows

Transgressor

Seducer full of deceit and lies

Enemy of virtue

Persecutor of the innocent

Horrible dragon

Prince of accursed murder

Author of incest

Leader of sacrilege

Teacher of all negative action

Teacher of heretics

Inventor of every obscenity

Hateful one

Scourge

Unclean spirit

Every satanic power  

Every assault of the infernal adversary  

Legions congregations and diabolical sects

Evil dragon

Diabolical legion

Inventor and teacher of every lie

Enemy of man’s salvation

Prince of this world

Deceiver of the human race

Ancient foe of mankind

Father of lies

Evil dragon

Cunning serpent 

All you powers of darkness

Get thee gone, Satan! 

I have compiled a pdf of these in both Latin and English here: Titles of Satan from the Rite of Exorcism.

Thus, whether driving out Satan in a major exorcism or seeking to expel his oppression in a minor exorcism, all are cautioned not to stray from the understandings and descriptions of Satan that the Church provides in Scripture and Sacred Tradition. Again, the reason for this is that Satan seeks to draw us into his world of hatred and revilement. Do not go there in your thoughts and surely not in your heart.

It may be hard to accept, but God does not hate Satan. God does not hate even the worst of sinners. Surely justice requires God to recognize the final disposition of a person (angelic or human). Some are justly permitted to live apart from God’s kingdom in a hellacious parallel universe; that is their choice. But God does not hate fallen angels or fallen humans. God is Love and Love does not hate—and neither should we.

We ought to be sober about what sin has done to demons, fallen angels who were once glorious. But now, through the ugly disfigurement of sin, they are in darkness and are horribly contrary to the glory for which they were made. They are to be pitied and kept at a distance. They will not change (for angels choose once and for all). Their lies are to be resisted. Though they can still appear as lightsome, it is only for a time and then their terrifying state of horror and darkness roars forth.

Do not be deceived. But do not hate, either. Be sober, watchful, and distant from the once-glorious fallen angels we rightly call demons.