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Posted April 20, 2007

The Reason for Music and Its Role in Worship

by Joseph Ratzinger, now Pope Benedict XVI

By itself, the question of the liturgy’s essence and the standards of the reform has brought us back to the question of music and its position in the liturgy. And as a matter of fact one cannot speak about worship at all without also speaking of the music of worship. Where the liturgy deteriorates, musica sacra degenerates, too. And where worship is correctly understood and lived out in practice, there too will good church music grow and thrive. We noted earlier that the concept of “congregation” (or “assembly”) appears in the new Catechism for the first time at the point when the Holy Spirit is described as the one who shapes or forms the liturgy, and we had said that it is a precise description of the congregation’s inner location. Similarly, it is no accident that in the Catechism we find the verb to sing for the first time in the section that deals with the cosmic character of the liturgy, in a quotation from the conciliar constitution on the liturgy:

In the earthly liturgy we take part in a foretaste of that heavenly liturgy which is celebrated in the holy city of Jerusalem toward which we journey as pilgrims . . .With all the warriors of the heavenly army we sing a hymn of glory to the Lord.

A recent author has found a very good way to express that state of affairs by modifying the famous aphorism of Ludwig Wittgenstein, who wrote, “One must remain silent about that which one cannot utter.” This now becomes: That which one cannot utter can and must be expressed in song and music when silence is not permissible.” And the author adds that “Jews and Christians agree in viewing their singing and music-making as referring heavenward or coming from heaven, as eavesdropped from on high.”

In these few sentences we find set forth the fundamental principles of liturgical music. Faith comes from hearing God’s word. And whenever God’s word is translated into human words, there remains something unspoken and unutterable, which calls us to silence, into a stillness that ultimately allows the Unutterable to become song and even calls upon the voices of the cosmos to assist in making audible what had remained unspoken. And that implies that church music, originating in the word and in the silence heard in that word, presupposes a constantly renewed listening to the rich plenitude of the Logos.

While some maintain that in principle any kind of music can be used in a worship service, others point to the deeper and essential relationships between certain vital activities and forms of musical expression that are fitting and appropriate to them: “I am convinced that there is also a type of music particularly appropriate (or, as the case may be, inappropriate). . .for man’s encounter with the mystery of faith.” And as a matter of fact, music meant to serve the Christian liturgy must be appropriate and fitting for the Logos, which means, concretely: such music must be meaningfully related to the Word in which the Logos has found utterance.

Even in its purely instrumental form, such music cannot disengage itself from the inner direction or orientation of this word, which opens up an infinite space but also draws certain boundaries and establishes criteria of distinction. In its essence, such music must be different from a music that is meant to lead the listener into rhythmic ecstasy or stupefied torpor, sensual arousal or the dissolution of the ego in nirvana, to mention but a few of the attitudes that are possible. Saint Cyprian has a find observation in this connection, in his commentary on the Lord’s Prayer:

But let our speech and petition when we pray be under discipline, observing quietness and modesty. Let us consider that we are standing in God’s sight (sub conspectu Dei). We must please the divine eyes both with the habit of body and with the measure of voice. For as it is characteristic of a shameless man to be noisy with his cries, so on the other hand, is it fitting to the modest man to pray with moderated petitions. . .And when we meet together with the brethren in one place, and celebrate divine sacrifices with God’s priest, we ought to be mindful. . .not to throw abroad our prayers indiscriminately, with unsubdued voices, nor to cast to God with tumultuous wordiness a petition that ought to be commended to God by modesty . . . for God . . . need not be clamorously reminded . . .

It goes without saying that this interior standard of a music appropriate to the Logos must be related to life in this world: it must introduce men into the fellowship of Christ as fellow suppliants at prayer here and now, in this era and in a specific location. It must be accessible to them while at the same time leading them onward in the direction that the divine liturgy itself formulates with unsurpassable brevity at the beginning of the Canon: sursum corda — lift up your hearts! Lift up the heart, meaning the inner man, the totality of the self, to the heights of God himself, to the sublimity that is God and that in Christ touches the earth, drawing it with and upward toward itself.

Before I attempt to apply these principles to a few specific problems of church music in the cathedral of Regensburg, something must be said about the subjects of liturgical music and the language of the chants.

Whenever an exaggerated concept of “community” predominates, a concept that is (as we have already seen) completely unrealistic precisely in a highly mobile society such as ours, there only the priest and the congregation can be acknowledged as legitimate executors or performers of liturgical song.

Today, practically everyone can see through the primitive activism and the insipid pedagogic rationalism of such a position, which is why it is now asserted so seldom. The fact that the schola and the choir can also contribute to the whole picture is scarcely denied any more, even among those who erroneously interpret the council’s phrase about “active participation” as meaning external activism.

However, a few exclusions remain, and about them we shall speak presently. They are rooted in an insufficient interpretation of liturgical cooperative action in community, in which the congregation that actually happens to be present can never be the sole subject but may only be understood as an assembly open toward and from above, synchronically and diachronically, into the breadth of divine history.

A recent author has stressed an important aspect of the question by speaking of highly developed forms that are not lacking in the liturgy as a feast of God, but which cannot be filled by the congregation as a whole. He reminds us that “the choir, in other words, is not related to a listening congregation as it is to a concert audience which allows something to be performed for it. Rather, the choir is itself part of the congregation and sings for it as legitimate delegate.” The concept of delegation is one of the basic categories of all Christian faith and applies to all levels of faith-filled reality, and precisely for this reason it is essential in the liturgical assembly.

The insight here regarding delegation in fact resolves the apparent conflict of opposites. The choir acts on behalf of the other and includes them in the purpose of its own action. Through the singing of the choir, everyone can be conducted into the great liturgy of the communion of saints and thus into that interior prayer which pulls our hearts on high and permits us to join with the heavenly Jerusalem in a manner far beyond all earthly expectations.

But can one really sing in Latin when the people do not understand it? Since the council, there has arisen in many places a fanaticism for the vernacular that is in fact very difficult to comprehend in a multicultural society, just as in a mobile society it is not very logical to hypostasize the congregation. And for th moment let us pass over the fact that a text translated into the vernacular is not thereby automatically comprehensible to everyone: this touches upon an entirely different question of no little importance.

A point that is essential for Christian liturgy in general was recently expressed in splendid fashion:

This celebration is not interrupted whenever a song is sung or an instrumental piece is played. . .but it shows by that very fact its nature as “feast” or “celebration.” But this requirement does not demand unity of liturgical language nor of style in the various musical parts. The traditional, so-called “Latin Mass” always had parts in Aramaic (Amen, Alleluia, Maranatha), Greek (Kyrie eleison, Trisagion) and the veernacular (the sermon, as a rule). Real life knows little of stylistic unity and perfection. On the contrary, a thing which is really alive will always exhibit formal and stylistic diversity. . ., the unity is organic.

It was on the basis of insights such as these that in the three decades of theological and liturgical turmoil during which the retiring choirmaster (Cardinal Ratzinger’s brother, Monsignor Georg Ratzinger — Ed.) Did his duty, supported by the confidence both of auxiliary bishops Flugel, Guggenberger, and Schraml. He steered a course of continuity in development and development in continuity, often in spite of the difficulty caused by powerful contrary currents.

Thanks to the profound agreement between the choirmaster and the responsible prelates and their collaborators, he was in a position unswervingly, but at the same time in an open way, to make an essential contribution to the preservation of the dignity and grandeur of liturgical worship in the cathedral of Regensburg, which maintained its transparency toward the cosmic liturgy of the Logos within the unity of the worldwide church, without becoming a museum piece or petrifying into a nostalgic byway.