One weak point of this pontificate concerns liturgical music. Benedict XVI's grand vision is not being backed up by actions, which are even moving in the opposite direction. The latest proof: the ostracism of the Pontifical Institute of Sacred Music
by Sandro Magister
ROME, May 30, 2011 – A century ago, Pius X was quick as lightning. Just three months after his election as pope, he promulgated the motu proprio "Tra le sollecitudini": the manifesto that prohibited "tunes" in the churches and marked a rebirth of great liturgical music, Gregorian and polyphonic.
And shortly afterward, in 1911, he created in Rome the advanced school set up for this rebirth: what is today called the Pontifical Institute of Sacred Music and is celebrating its centenary with a grandiose international conference of musicologists and musicians.
Benedict XVI is also a pope of recognized musical competency, even more so than his holy predecessor. On music in general and on sacred music, he has said and written memorable and brilliant things.
But unlike with Pius X, the current pope's words have not been backed up with actions.
Instead of reviving it, Benedict XVI has let slide what was the musical glory of the pontifical liturgies: the choir of the Sistine Chapel. When the choir was decapitated in 1997 with the ouster of its highly qualified conductor, Domenico Bartolucci, by pope Karol Wojtyla's directors of ceremonies, then-cardinal Joseph Ratzinger was the only high official in the curia who came to his defense.
As pope, in 2010, he made Bartolucci a cardinal. But never, up until today, has he received him in audience. Nor has he ever consulted him to ask for advice, for example, on the appointment of the new director of the Sistine Chapel: an appointment that then fell, still in 2010, on a figure, Don Massimo Palombella, clearly not up to the role.
Not only that. As cardinal, Ratzinger called for the creation of a pontifical organism endowed with authority over everything concerning sacred music in the Catholic sphere: an organism that does not exist in the curia, leaving room for disorder and confusion.
As pope, however, he has never done anything about that old proposal of his.
In order to bring into better focus this distance between words and actions, it is enough to go back – as far as the words are concerned – to the third of the three capital discourses of the pontificate of Benedict XVI: the one on September 12, 2008 at the Collège des Bernardins in Paris (the third after the one to the Roman curia on December 22, 2005 and that of Regensburg on September 12, 2006).
At the Collège des Bernardins, pope Ratzinger said:
"For prayer that issues from the word of God, speech is not enough: music is required. Two chants from the Christian liturgy come from biblical texts in which they are placed on the lips of angels: the 'Gloria,' which is sung by the angels at the birth of Jesus, and the 'Sanctus,' which according to Isaiah 6 is the cry of the seraphim who stand directly before God. Christian worship is therefore an invitation to sing with the angels, and thus to lead the word to its highest destination.[...] From this perspective one can understand the seriousness of a remark by Saint Bernard of Clairvaux, who used an expression from the Platonic tradition handed down by Augustine, to pass judgement on the poor singing of monks, which for him was evidently very far from being a mishap of only minor importance. He describes the confusion resulting from a poorly executed chant as a falling into the 'regio dissimilitudinis,' the 'zone of dissimilarity' [...], into a remoteness from God, in which man no longer reflects him, and so has become dissimilar not only to God, but to himself, to what being human truly is. Bernard is certainly putting it strongly when he uses this phrase, which indicates man’s falling away from himself, to describe bad singing by monks. But it shows how seriously he viewed the matter. It shows that the culture of singing is also the culture of being, and that the monks have to pray and sing in a manner commensurate with the grandeur of the word handed down to them, with its claim on true beauty. This intrinsic requirement of speaking with God and singing of him with words he himself has given, is what gave rise to the great tradition of Western music. It was not a form of private 'creativity', in which the individual leaves a memorial to himself and makes self-representation his essential criterion. Rather it is about vigilantly recognizing with the 'ears of the heart' the inner laws of the music of creation, the archetypes of music that the Creator built into his world and into men, and thus discovering music that is worthy of God, and at the same time truly worthy of man, music whose worthiness resounds in purity."
And so, what actions correspond to these sublime heights of the papal vision?
Last May 1, the Mass of beatification of John Paul II was observed by millions of people all over the world. From the liturgical point of view, it was a model, as are all the Masses celebrated by Benedict XVI. But not from the musical point of view. The two choirs that accompanied it, conducted by Don Palombella and Msgr. Marco Frisina respectively, made one think precisely of the "poor singing" and "poorly executed chant" condemned by Saint Bernard in the discourse by the pope just cited.
And just as the bad music of his time was for Saint Bernard "evidently very far from being a mishap of only minor importance," so the inadequacy of the liturgical music performed today at the papal Masses in Rome has serious effects: it cannot help but give a bad example to the whole world.
There was every reason, in recent days, for one of the most celebrated orchestra conductors, maestro Riccardo Muti, to call for the umpteenth time that "the churches return to the great Christian musical patrimony" and get rid of the "tunes."
Fortunately, there are still places in the world where liturgical music is performed well and in keeping with the liturgy itself.
For example, it was stunning how high the quality was of the choir that accompanied the vespers celebrated by Benedict XVI on September 17, 2010 at Westminster Abbey, with a marvelous fusion between ancient and modern pieces.
And even in Rome, it would not be impossible to elevate the quality of the songs that accompany the papal liturgies, if only there were the will to start over from the beginning and rely on competent men who have the same vision of liturgical music as the pope.
The place in which this vision is most alive and present, in Rome, is precisely the Pontifical Institute of Sacred Music that is celebrating its centenary during these days, with its president Msgr. Valentino Miserachs Grau.
Incredibly, however, everything is being done at the Vatican curia except for valuing the men and the approach of this Institute. On the contrary, it seems to be doing all it can to boycott them.
Last March 14, Archbishop Fernando Filoni, the substitute secretary of state at the time, had pledged in writing that the pope had "benevolently accepted the request for a pontifical audience and for an apostolic letter" on the occasion of the celebrations of the centenary.
On the invitation to the conference, in fact, the Institute also printed the announcement of the audience with the pope.
But then, a few days before the opening of the conference and with the invitations already sent, the prefecture of the pontifical household made it known that there would be no audience, nor any apostolic letter.
In their place, the pope would simply send a message, in the form of a letter to Cardinal Zenon Grocholewski, prefect of the congregation for education and therefore the grand chancellor of the Institute.
This took place on the morning of Thursday, May 26, the opening day of the conference. But with another slap in the face. Unlike for all the other papal messages of this kind, this one was not made public by the Holy See press office, nor was it mentioned by Vatican Radio.
And it's not finished. The edition of "L'Osservatore Romano" printed on the afternoon of the same day completely ignored both the opening of the conference for the centenary and the pope's message. Not one line. There was instead, on the culture page, an article regarding a concert offered for Benedict XVI the next day by the president of the republic of Hungary, with music of Ferenc Liszt . . .
The prefecture of the pontifical household also made it known that a papal audience would not be granted to the Pontifical Institute of Sacred Music even in the following months, after the centenary.
It has become clear that Benedict XVI, in a drastic selection of his engagements, has declined to act and to make decisions in the field of sacred music.
But it is also all too evident, at this point, that those who decide in this field in his place – in the secretariat of state as in the prefecture of the pontifical household or elsewhere – often work differently from and even in contrast with the pope's vision.
Given this divergence, it remains incomprehensible why Pope Benedict would tolerate it.
In other words, it remains incomprehensible why he should have decided to decline a few simple practical decisions that were and are fully within his grasp, in a field like this, which he sees as so crucial and on which he has very clear ideas. And why he has left such decisions to men who, seeing what they do, certainly are not helping him in his effort to restore light and the "splendor of truth," including musical, to the Catholic liturgy.