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Church music: a flourishing garden that continues to grow Print
Guest column
Thursday, Oct. 18, 2012 -- 12:00 AM

Guest Column

The articles and letters published in the Catholic Herald this past month show that people value quality liturgical music and have strong convictions about it.

This is encouraging to me, and our Year of Faith theme (Evangelization through Beauty) provides an excellent background for a fruitful discussion. I also am eager for this discussion because I have devoted my entire life to Church music. As we move forward, I would like to make the following observations.

The treasury of Catholic music

The Second Vatican Council (1962-65) said sacred music “is a treasure of inestimable value, greater even than that of any other art (Constitution on the Liturgy, art. 112).” Historic music is to be “preserved and fostered with great care” (art. 114). Gregorian chant is given “pride of place” (art. 116) and pipe organs are held in “high esteem” (art. 120). Clearly, in many places this is not the case and it needs to be addressed in a thoughtful manner.

The Council also said, “To promote active participation, the people should be encouraged to take part by means of acclamations, responses, psalmody, antiphons, and song . . . ” (art. 30) and that the liturgy is more noble with the “active participation of the people” in the singing (art. 113).

Since nearly all of our historical repertoire was composed for trained singers, the Council Fathers anticipated the need for new music for these new times. They said that composers “should feel that their vocation is to cultivate sacred music and increase its store of treasures,” composing music not just for choirs, but for the congregation as well (art. 121).

A great deal of beautiful music was written before the Council. A great deal of beautiful music was written after the Council. It’s not as simple as saying “the old is beautiful and the new is not” (or vice versa) which seems to be an underlying theme in many places. Instead, as in so many Church documents, the Council desired “both/and.” Use the old and create the new.

Our discussion must start with this awareness that there are inherent tensions in the Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy. Gregorian Chant has pride of place, Renaissance choral music is encouraged, and the people should sing. Latin should be preserved and praying in one’s own language has an advantage (art. 36), the people should be “fully aware of what they are doing” (art. 8) and the rites “should not require much explanation” (art. 34).

There are numerous examples of these seemingly opposite statements.

Which trumps which? Neither! We can’t simply proclaim the sentence we like and ignore the sentence we don’t! We have to acknowledge the entire text — even parts that are challenging to us personally or as a parish or diocese — and then study and pray so that we can fulfill the grand vision of the Council.

The Church is so universal that one style can’t fit all and the Constitution itself declares, “Even in the liturgy, the Church has no wish to impose a rigid uniformity in matters which do not implicate the faith or the good of the whole community” (art. 37). In short, to live out the musical vision of the Council, we must admit both the old and the new into our liturgies.

Parish musicians

The discussion regarding Church music needs to involve the parish musicians in our diocese. These people (many of whom are volunteers and give up weeknights and weekends for the good of the Church) work hard and always try to do their best.

Most do not have formal training in the liturgy but over time they have learned more by attending conferences and subscribing to journals (often at their own expense).

They faithfully read the Sunday Scriptures and prepare music so that the people may praise God with full hearts, minds, and voices. Most wish that they could learn more, spend more time practicing, and have more resources at their disposal. They do their best and yet they still have the humility to want to do it even better.

They are great witnesses of faith and of service to the Church. I am looking forward to revisiting the Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy and other Church documents on music with them as the Year of Faith continues.

The law of love guides us

Our dialogue about music must — like all things — be done with love. Pope Benedict XVI has written extensively on love and has called on all people to “gratuitously” love one another (in other words, loving everyone without expecting anything in return).

This is what Jesus did and what he commanded us to do. This also is a guiding principle of our study and discussion.

A flourishing garden

Prior to his election, Pope John XXIII said, “We are not on earth to guard a museum but to cultivate a flourishing garden.”

For a beautiful garden to flourish the plants must have deep roots; they must be planted in fertile soil; they must be pruned; they must be nourished. Some plants are old, while others are just seedlings. Some thrive in one part of the garden but whither in another. Some take years to mature, and others live for a short season.

This Year of Faith gives us time to explore that garden. We can nourish the beauty and prune that which does not bear fruit. There is much to be done and I am hopeful we garden with love and humility for the good of all of the Church.


Dr. Patrick Gorman is the director of the Office of Worship of the Diocese of Madison. He has served as director of the Madison Diocesan Choir for over 20 years and has directed the Saint Raphael Cathedral Choir (now at Saint Patrick Church) for over 15 years. He was awarded the Doctor of Musical Arts degree by the University of Wisconsin-Madison, writing his dissertation on the reform of Catholic Church Music in the 19th and early 20th centuries.