Renewing Sacred Liturgy: Patriarch Sarto Shows Us How

As it is in our own day, so it was at the turn of the twentieth century: the situation of church music was extremely wretched, impoverished, and desperate. As we seek Eucharistic Renewal, perhaps we should take a page from one prelate’s successful intervention.

When Giuseppe Sarto (the future Pope Pius X) was preparing to assume the office of Patriarch of Venice and requested Gregorian chant for his inaugural Mass, his choirmaster Lorenzo Perosi wrote in dismay that he could hardly find any chant books in Saint Mark’s Basilica and hastily ordered thirty copies of the Kyriale from Solesmes. About six months after his inauguration on May 1, 1895, Patriarch Sarto released a pastoral letter implementing a ‘minimum’ program for musical reform, with diocese-wide requirements that might well be taken up as a model today by truly forward-thinking bishops:

“The Cardinal ordered that, at least once a month, in all the churches [of Venice], the Kyrie, Gloria, Credo, Sanctus, and Agnus Dei should be sung in Gregorian chant, as well as the Introit, the Gradual, the Offertory, the Communion chant, and the office of Vespers. He forbade the piano and bands in churches, and ordered that every parish should set up a school of Gregorian chant. He also created a [diocesan] Sacred Music Commission, with the task of promoting the study and performance of sacred music and chant, and of making sure that the prescribed norms were observed.”

Cardinal Sarto was elected pope only eight years later, and this time he waited only three months before issuing the momentous motu proprio Tra le Sollecitudini.  In this motu proprio Pope Pius X affirmed the primacy of Gregorian chant which had fallen out of favor in Italy inf avor of more theatrical music, and the superiority of Reniassance polyphony. The Pope recognized that some modern compositions are “of such excellence, sobriety and gravity, that they are in no way unworthy of the liturgical functions,” but warned that they needed to be “free from reminiscences of motifs adopted in the theaters, and be not fashioned even in their external forms after the manner of profane pieces.” Thus we can see how a true reformer, a good shepherd, acts quickly to remedy the evils that oppress his flock.

Those who advocate a serious return to the plainchant tradition, whether in its original Gregorian form or in vernacular adaptations that mirror the modes and rhythms of their model, are often met with incredulous reactions: “Are you serious?” they say. “You don’t know what it’s like on the ground; your head must be in the clouds. The Catholic faithful have no idea what chant is, they’ve never heard it, they can’t sing it, and the music ministers don’t know how to navigate it either. And besides, it’s hopelessly out of date. Sure, you can point to popes who recommend it, but that was then, and this is now. We have a new style of music that suits the contemporary Church, and who are you to say that it’s bad or harmful? Maybe, just maybe, chant’s artistically superior, but you’re in danger of judging by art alone, not by pastoral needs. And besides—don’t let the best be the enemy of the good.”

All of this is at best a well-meaning but elaborate dodge or feint. It skirts around the real questions by taking refuge in that infinitely malleable concept “pastoral.” The real questions are as follows. Is there a type of music that the Church teaches should have pride of place in the Roman rite? Yes, of course; we have seen what Vatican II and subsequent popes have said. Chant, the optimal sacred music for the liturgy, is put forward as a baseline to start from and an ideal to work towards. Given that this is so, is there a Roman rite liturgy on the face of the earth where it would not be most fitting to use chant? Leaving to one side the necessity or desirability of a quiet “low Mass,” where there is no intention of having any music at all, the answer is a resounding No: there could not be any liturgy in which some other type of music would be more fitting to use than chant, although there are occasions when other worthy music may join the chant as a compatible partner.

The situation for Gregorian chant today is vastly better than the one I faced in the late 1980s. We have downloadable chant tutorials, live online classes, specialized workshops for clergy, and in-person chant courses around the country. Bestselling chant recordings linger for weeks on Billboard music charts (so much for the notion that “this old music is obscure and unappealing”!). It has never been easier for everyone involved, from clergy to laity, to get effective and inexpensive training. And did I mention that the music itself is either available for free or, in the case of vernacular chant, not especially pricey? We are living now in a veritable chant renaissance—a moment when it is possible, perhaps for the first time ever, to implement the teaching of Vatican II across the entire globe, from the rising of the sun even to its setting: “The Church acknowledges Gregorian chant as characteristically belonging to the Roman liturgy, with the result that, other things being equal, in liturgical actions it should take possession of the first place” (SC 116).

It is not my position that Latin chant should replace everything else; I love polyphony, classic English hymnody, and noble instrumental music. All of these can and should have their places in the worship of the Church today. I even think that a certain limited pluralism is a good thing: some parishes or chapels ought to become known for the quality of their chant, others for their blend of chant and polyphony, others for their addition of hymnody to chant—and still others for their quiet and contemplative Masses. There is abundant room for ancient and modern sacred music that has the requisite qualities of holiness, artistic excellence, and universality; there is room for extensive silence too, always provided that chant, which is part of the very fabric of the Roman rite, is not marginalized or omitted altogether (here I have in mind the Ordinary of the Mass, the orations, dialogues, and Preface, and the responses and acclamations of the people). There is also room outside the Mass for various popular devotions, for hymns to sing around the campfire or in the home.

All the same, we must not let the good be the enemy of the best. The chanted Roman liturgy is our birthright as Roman Catholics; it is a privilege to be able to sing this great music; and it is an injustice and a travesty when the chant is not generously shared with choirs and congregations. The music that grew up intertwined with the texts and ceremonies of the Roman rite, the music in which this rite is enshrined and through which it is most profoundly expressed, is the music that Holy Mother Church reasonably expects to be the clothing of our public worship, whatever ornamentation or decoration we may borrow from other traditions or other periods. Like all other historic rites in the Catholic Church, the Roman rite is a well-articulated set of prayers, chants, ceremonies, and implements, structured as a sequence of chanted texts accompanied by symbolic gestures. The sacred liturgy is an organic whole, a body-soul composite, that Our Lord Jesus Christ established in its germinal form and that the Holy Spirit has brought to maturity over the course of centuries in diverse ritual traditions.

As Pope Benedict XVI frequently reminded us, the liturgy belongs to the Church precisely as a gift inherited, not as a construct to be manipulated, a container for whatever “relevant content” we may want to inject. So it is, too, with the music of the liturgy, which, as Vatican II reminded us, is intimately connected with the liturgical action: this music must in itself clearly and consistently bear that history, that tradition, that gift, and impress it upon the souls of the faithful so that all of us may be shaped and formed by its beauty.

Advocates of the widespread restoration of Gregorian chant—or, for that matter, of any traditional element or aspect of liturgy—are not suggesting that only the best is good enough and that everything lesser must be abandoned. Rather, they are striving to implement the teaching of Holy Mother Church by correcting the bad, enriching the good, and crowning it all with the best, in accord with the given nature of the liturgical rite. And why? Because this is what Latin-rite Catholics do, this is who we are.

Editor’s Note: This essay has been adapted from Dr. Peter Kwasniewski’s new book Good Music, Sacred Music, and Silence: Three Gifts of God for Liturgy and for Life (hardcover, 344 pp., $29.95, ISBN 978-1505122282) is available from the publisher TAN Books: Or from Amazon and from the author directly if you wish to have a signed copy (here).

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