An Authentic Update
Music and the New Translations


Sometimes in order to know where we are going, we need to know where we have been.  In our Church Liturgy, it is good to pause and remember that the Saints, in great majority, prayed the Mass in Greek and Latin.  The New Translation of the Roman Missal, because of its careful linguistic changes, will allow us to pray the Mass in a new way.  It will also allow us to better connect with the way our ancestors prayed.  The Second Vatican Council encouraged this continuity, especially by upholding the esteemed treasury of Sacred Music. 


Today we see the renaissance of the Sacred, not only with the reminder of the importance of the Extraordinary Form, but with a heartfelt desire to reconnect with ancient tradition as a whole.  The Holy Father, for example, often prays the Preface and Canon of the Mass in Latin, as we saw a few weeks ago in his Papal Visit to the United Kingdom.  This is a beautiful sign of unity, allowing for greater participation amidst a very diverse world.  As Americans however, despite our ever more diverse culture, we sometimes fail to see the need for this unification, partly because we have witnessed a time detached from ancient tradition.


Music is the most tangible sign of this rupture with the past.  In our own country we have endured the wildest musical creativity within our Churches.  However, this was not the intention of the 2nd Vatican Council or our pontiffs.  Pope Paul VI personally witnessed this break, and took steps in an attempt to remedy the loss of the Sacred.  Subsequently in 1976, he issued a minimum repertoire of Sacred music in a small pamphlet entitled “Jubilate Deo.”  Virtually unknown today, it is uncertain why this clear directive was not utilized to any great degree.  Perhaps it was lost in the desire for novelty. 


However, with the 3rd Edition of the Roman Missal and its New English Translation upon us, we are once again called to conform to the directives of the Church.  Let us listen again to the words of Pope Paul VI:  “[Music] has nourished men's faith and has fostered their piety, while in the process achieving an artistic perfection which the Church rightly considers a patrimony of inestimable value and which the Council recognized as ‘the chant especially suited to the Roman liturgy.’"


The Council itself used the words “inestimable value” about the ancient chants and choral music of the Church, calling the congregation to sing the parts of the Mass in Latin that pertain to them.  Perhaps some believe this is outdated in our time?  Venerable Pope John Paul the Great and indeed our present Holy Father have clarified this for our personal sanctification and edification. 


In 2003, during his centenary message of Pope St. Pius X’s document on Sacred Music, Pope John Paul II stated: "The Christian community must make an examination of conscience so that the beauty of music and song will return increasingly to the liturgy."


Pope Benedict XVI is famed for saying: “An authentic updating of sacred music can take place only in the lineage of the great tradition of the past, of Gregorian chant and sacred polyphony."


This “lineage” reminds us that Sacred music is integral to the Mass, not secondary or inserted by opinion.  On the same hand, it does not infer that everything must be sung in Latin.  Aside from language, often seen as the barrier, the text and the style of the music must also be given full attention, in respect of the Holy Sacrifice on the Altar. 


Why does it matter, isn’t music just filler?  The quality and content of the music have full bearing on all aspects of the Catholic faith, including catechesis, interior and exterior participation, evangelization, theology, and the very formation of our souls. 


Very simply, Catholic Sacred music should be suitable for the temple, not taken from outside of it.  Chant and chant-like music, as well as Sacred choir pieces or “polyphony” are “endowed with a certain holy sincerity of form.”  As instructed, we need to give it the “pride of place” in our Liturgies.   


In future articles, we will look at the musical changes in the New Translation, as well as how we can better praise God, as Sacred Scripture says: “in psalms, and hymns, and spiritual canticles, singing and making melody in your hearts to the Lord.”


Continue to Part II