Wednesday, August 7, 2013

Pope Paul VI on Latin and Chant

An article at the Corpus Christi Watershed blog features the Apostolic Letter, Sacrificium Laudis, written in 1966. The article notes that this letter “was sent by Pope Paul VI to religious groups obliged to the choral recitation of the divine office” and notes that the Pope used some strong words to express his sentiments. The example mentioned in the article is this quote:

“For while some are very faithful to the Latin language, others wish to use the vernacular within the choral office. [ … ] We have been somewhat disturbed and saddened by these requests.”

Here are a few other excerpts from the letter; click on the above link to read the whole thing at the CCWatershed blog.

Early in the letter, the Pope extolls the virtues of the orders that sing the Divine Office, but then notes that (all emphases added)

…discordant practices have been introduced into the sacred liturgy by your communities or provinces (We speak of those only that belong to the Latin Rite.) For while some are very faithful to the Latin language, others wish to use the vernacular within the choral office. Others, in various places, wish to exchange that chant which is called Gregorian for newly-minted melodies. Indeed, some even insist that Latin should be wholly suppressed.

We must acknowledge that We have been somewhat disturbed and saddened by these requests. One may well wonder what the origin is of this new way of thinking and this sudden dislike for the past; one may well wonder why these things have been fostered.

Pope Paul VI also indicates that there were plenty of previous instructions regarding preservation of Latin:

In the first Instruction (ad exsecutionem Constitutionis de sacra Liturgia recte ordinandam), published on 26 September 1964, it was decreed as follows:

In celebrating the divine office in choir, clerics are bound to preserve the Latin language (n. 85).

In the second Instruction (de lingua in celebrandis Officio divino et Missa “conventuali” aut “communitatis” apud Religiosos adhibenda), published on 23 November 1965, that law was reinforced, and at the same time due consideration was shown for the spiritual advantage of the faithful and for the special conditions which prevail in missionary territories. Therefore, for as long as no other lawful provision is made, these laws are in force and require the obedience in which religious must excel, as dear sons of holy Church.

And yet, how many religious orders that pray the Divine Office have maintained the celebration in Latin? It seems to me that they are few and far between.
Pope Paul VI noted also that retention of Latin is not just for the sake of praying in Latin! There are other benefits to its use:

… For this language is, within the Latin Church, an abundant well-spring of Christian civilization and a very rich treasure-trove of devotion. But it is also the seemliness, the beauty and the native strength of these prayers and canticles which is at stake: the choral office itself, “the lovely voice of the Church in song” (Cf. St Augustine’s Confessions, Bk 9, 6). … The traditions of the elders, your glory throughout long ages, must not be belittled. Indeed, your manner of celebrating the choral office has been one of the chief reasons why these families of yours have lasted so long, and happily increased. It is thus most surprising that under the influence of a sudden agitation, some now think that it should be given up.

Do you hear what he’s saying?! He is saying that the long life of the religious orders that celebrate the Divine Office in Latin, using Gregorian chant, is due precisely to that very practice! There is something utterly compelling about psalms and hymns chanted in Latin. The Pope continues:

In present conditions, what words or melodies could replace the forms of Catholic devotion which you have used until now? You should reflect and carefully consider whether things would not be worse, should this fine inheritance be discarded. It is to be feared that the choral office would turn into a mere bland recitation, suffering from poverty and begetting weariness, as you yourselves would perhaps be the first to experience.

This corresponds to my personal experience. I began by reciting the Liturgy of the Hours, and found it rather tedious, though I tried to keep at it. When I learned to chant the Office, I found myself much more motivated to pray it. As I said, there is something very compelling about the Latin chant.

One can also wonder whether men would come in such numbers to your churches in quest of the sacred prayer, if its ancient and native tongue, joined to a chant full of grave beauty, resounded no more within your walls. We therefore ask all those to whom it pertains, to ponder what they wish to give up, and not to let that spring run dry from which, until the present, they have themselves drunk deep.

And indeed, it seems that in many parishes, where there is no longer a tradition of chanting even just the Latin ordinary at Mass, people are no longer drawn to the parish church to pray. There may be many reasons for that, but surely it is not helpful that the “ancient and native tongue” is no longer present and there is no “chant full of grave beauty”. Instead, we have substituted words and melodies more reflective of our view of ourselves than our view of God.

The Pope acknowledges that:

 Of course, the Latin language presents some difficulties, and perhaps not inconsiderable ones, for the new recruits to your holy ranks. But such difficulties, as you know, should not be reckoned insuperable…Moreover, those prayers, with their antiquity, their excellence, their noble majesty, will continue to draw to you young men and women, called to the inheritance of our Lord.

Can there be any doubt that this is true? The current pop Christian songs will be out-dated tomorrow, and in fact much of the music I hear at Mass is reminiscent of the ‘70’s… which does not make it contemporary at all!

But even more important, listen to the Pope as he addresses the power of the Latin chant:

On the other hand, that choir from which is removed this language of wondrous spiritual power, transcending the boundaries of the nations, and from which is removed this melody proceeding from the inmost sanctuary of the soul, where faith dwells and charity burns – We speak of Gregorian chant – such a choir will be like to a snuffed candle, which gives light no more, no more attracts the eyes and minds of men.

At this point, many among the older generation have “issues” with Latin and chant, and cling to their ‘70’s “folk Masses”. I’ve heard it joked that the main people attending a youth Mass are in their 60’s or older! Younger people who don’t have the “baggage” of the rebellion against Latin and sacred music, are more drawn to the chant. Since they have no pre-conceived notions that it’s a “step backwards”, they have a clearer view of the objective beauty and goodness of it. They are able to recognize that it “proceeds from the inmost sanctuary of the soul”.

Too many of our parishes have choirs that are the “snuffed candles” to which the Pope alludes. 

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