In a recent address to the bishops and priests of St. Peter’s, Pope Benedict called for a greater “continuity with tradition” in the music of the Church, and spoke of the value of the Church’s older musical traditions, among them the baroque sacred music of the 17th and 18th centuries and Gregorian Chant. The address followed the pope’s issuance, in July, of an Apostolic Letter (accompanying letter in English here) in which he permitted broader use of the Latin Mass, the “Tridentine” rite authorized by the Council of Trent in the sixteenth century and promulgated most recently by John XXIII in 1962.
The pope’s pronouncements were received with skepticism by those who regard his views on sacred music, like his sympathy for the Latin Mass, as so much reactionary old-fogeyism. But neither the pope’s critics nor even many of his supporters appear to have grasped what His Holiness is up to.
The pope adheres to old Greek belief that words and sounds — and the rhythmic patterns in which they are bound together in music and poetry — have a unique power to awaken the mind. He has spoken frequently of the power of rhythm to prepare the soul to receive truths that would otherwise remain unintelligible. In 2002 he described the experience of listening to music as an “encounter with the beautiful,” one that becomes “the wound of the arrow that strikes the heart and in this way opens our eyes.” He went on to say,
For me, an unforgettable experience was the Bach concert that Leonard Bernstein conducted in Munich after the sudden death [in 1981] of Karl Richter. I was sitting next to the Lutheran Bishop Hanselmann. When the last note of one of the great Thomas-Kantor-Cantatas faded away, we looked at each spontaneously and right then we said, ‘Anyone who has heard this, knows that the faith is true.’ The music had such an extraordinary force of reality that we realized, no longer by deduction, but by the impact on our hearts, that it could not have originated from nothingness, but could only have come to be through the power of the Truth that became real in the composer’s inspiration.
For Benedict, the music and poetry of the liturgy are not merely ornamental; they are essential to the education to the soul. “How often,” the pope exclaimed, in October, to members of the Pontifical Institute for Sacred Music, “does the rich biblical and patristic tradition stress the effectiveness of song and sacred music in moving and uplifting hearts to penetrate, so to speak, the intimate depths of God’s life itself!”
It is this conception of the educational power of rhythm that underlies the pope’s defense of the Latin Mass and of the baroque and Gregorian traditions. It is a fair assumption that, in liberating these forms from liturgical purgatory, His Holiness hopes that their rhythmic virtues will serve as a bulwark against the bad rhythm (kakometros) that today permeates the West.
Those who dismiss the pope’s efforts as an exercise in retrograde pomposity are oddly tone-deaf. They fail to grasp the power of the traditional Mass’s auditory as well as its visual music, its intricate interplay of harmonious sound and harmonious movement. Andrew Sullivan rejects the Tridentine Mass as “a relic.” Fr. James Martin, S.J., was quoted in Time as saying that the revival of the Latin Mass “would make it much more difficult for people to engage in full conscious and active participation” in the liturgy. Fr. Martin’s critique echoed that of Lord Macaulay, who argued that the “service, being in a dead language, is intelligible only to the learned; and the great majority of the congregation may be said to assist as spectators rather than as auditors.”
Introibo ad altare Dei . . . Sursum corda . . . Agnus Dei, qui tollis peccata mundi, misere nobis . . . Critics of the Tridentine rite who contend that the Latin is a barrier to what the pope calls an “encounter with the Mystery of the Most Holy Eucharist” overlook the fact that the words of the liturgy, beautiful and mysterious as they are, are but approximations of the Word (et Deus erat Verbum) that, according to the Gospels, was born in Bethlehem, died on the cross, and ascended into heaven — the logos which, St. Paul says in first Corinthians, we perceive now only as an αινιγμα, a dark saying, a riddle, an enigma. The music of the Mass does as much to illuminate this mystery as the words.