Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Bishop Olmsted on Sacred Music: Part III

Bishop Thomas J. Olmsted, Bishop of Phoenix, has released part three of his four-part series on “Singing the Mass”.  This one has the subtitle, "Sacred music's role in evangelization", and appears in the Catholic Sun; the first two parts are accessible from links in that article, and were mentioned on this blog here and here.

In part three, Bishop Olmsted discusses the “double movement” of evangelization and enculturation: the Church proclaims the Gospel to people of different cultures, and at the same time pulls those people into Her own culture. He notes that:

Like Christ and in Him, the Church engages authentic human culture wherever she finds it. She proclaims the good news of Jesus Christ to a specific culture; and then whatever is good in the culture she purifies and transforms, drawing it into her own communal life in her various ecclesial "rites" (in our case, the Roman Rite).

What is the role of music, then, in this enculturation process? To answer this question, Bishop Olmsted addresses the difference between “religious” and “liturgical” music (emphases added).

The distinction between religious music and liturgical music (cf. part one of this series) embodies this double movement: religious music is, we might say, the earthly expression of a given culture’s faith in Christ; liturgical music is the sacramental expression of Christ and the true nature of the Church. The former tends to be particular, individual, temporal and profane; the latter tends to be universal, communal, eternal and sacred. Religious music comes from human hearts yearning for God; liturgical music comes from Christ’s heart, the heart of the Church, longing for us.
Many people have favorite “contemporary Christian” songs, and it seems always a temptation to include these in the Mass; often it is argued that using contemporary music will pull young people into the Church in a way that the “old-fashioned” hymns or Gregorian chant cannot. However, as Bishop Olmsted points out, even though the music may come from “hearts yearning for God”, it is best to leave that music outside the liturgy and offer the music “from Christ’s heart, the heart of the Church” to the faithful at Mass. (And, by the way, this music “from Christ’s heart” generally does not include the majority of the tunes from JourneySongs or Breaking Bread!)

Bishop Olmsted points out a good use of that “contemporary Christian” music, though:

Because religious music is marked by the particular and profane, it is especially useful for evangelization. Like St. Francis Xavier donning the silk garments of Japanese nobility in his missionary work in Japan, religious music "wears the clothes" of those it seeks to evangelize; it becomes familiar, taking in much of the cultural forms, and where possible doing this with minimal alteration. In religious music, the Church learns to sing, in many voices, through the familiar melodies and rhythms of various cultures.

He then turns the analogy around to bring us back to the importance of sacred music in the liturgy:

But in the sacred liturgy, we enter the precincts not of man's culture but the heavenly courts of Christ, the culture of the Church, the wedding feast of the Lamb: and new festive garments are required for this feast (cf. Mt 22:1-14). In liturgical music, the peoples drawn into the sacred liturgy learn to sing, in one voice, through the often unfamiliar melody and rhythm of the Church's sacred music. This oneness is exemplified (for us Roman Rite Catholics) primarily in Gregorian Chant and Polyphony, the musical "garments" of the texts of the sacred liturgy.

There’s more to the article than this - Bishop Olmsted has many good insights to share. Be sure to read the entire article, as well as parts one and two.

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