We read with great interest today John Paul II's letter on sacred music. It was written on the 100th anniversary of our document on sacred music, Tra le sollecitudini. It is not our intent to attack a former pope and saint. However, there is no human, or saint, who is free from error or who should be completely shielded from legitimate criticism. After reading John Paul II's letter, we find that he needs to be taken to task on two specific points.
JPII writes, "The special attention that is proper to reserve to sacred music, recalls the holy Pontiff [St. Pius X], derives from the fact that it, 'as an integral part of the solemn Liturgy, participates in its general end, which is the glory of God and the sanctification and edification of the faithful.' Interpreting and expressing the profound sense of the sacred text to which it is intimately bound, it is capable of 'adding greater efficacy to the same text, so that the faithful [...] are better disposed to receive the fruits of grace which are proper to the celebration of the most holy mysteries.'" Thus, JPII cites us to show his agreement over the importance of sacred music. However, he follows up the aforementioned quotation with the following: "On several occasions I have also recalled the valuable function and the great importance of music and of song for more active and intense participation at liturgical celebrations, and I have emphasized the necessity to 'purify worship from ugliness of style, from distasteful forms of expression, from uninspired musical texts which are not worthy of the great act that is being celebrated [St. Pius X]', in order to ensure dignity and integrity of forms to liturgical music." With all due respect, what the heck are you talking about? We have witnessed some horrible liturgies at which you presided. Pope Benedict XVI almost immediately started reigning in your personal liturgist because he could not stomach what was occuring at papal liturgies. World Youth Day is a great event overall, but it is a prime example of not only horrendous liturgical music, but also a flagrant disregard for our instructions to train the faithful in sacred music. Enough of this point, onto issue number two.
After asserting that Gregorian Chant followed by Classical polyphony holds primary place for sacred music in words less strong than ours, he discusses the necessity of allowing for modern forms of music in the liturgy. He writes on modern compositions, "With regard to liturgical music compositions, I make my own the 'general law' that Saint Pius X formulated in these terms: 'A composition for Church is sacred and liturgical insofar as it approaches Gregorian melody in flow, in inspiration, and in flavor, and so much less is it worthy of the temple insomuch as it is recognized as departing from that supreme model.' Evidently, this does not mean copying Gregorian chant, but rather seeing to it that new compositions be pervaded by the same spirit that gave rise to and so molded that chant. Only an artist profoundly immersed in the sensus Ecclesiae may try to perceive and translate into melody the truth of the Mystery that is celebrated in the Liturgy." This is a complete revision of what we wrote! JPII correctly quotes us in the above passage; however, when we wrote about music that follows "Gregorian melody in flow, in inspiration, and in flavor" we did not mean that it "be molded by the same spirit that gave rise to and molded that chant." By this broad reasoning, JPII can justify the music of Haas, Schutte, Joncas, et al. What the heck does it mean to compose music in the same spirit as those who composed Gregorian Chant? It almost sounds as if JPII is saying that if intentions are good, the music is OK. In short, there is not much objectivity to his guidelines for sacred music. That much is confirmed by his liturgies.