Things are moving on the Sacred Music front and the old guard is frightened

The plenary session of the USCCB just jammed through a document of guidelines on sacred music, a document which was reclassified so that it didn’t need a recognitio from the Holy See. 

In Rome, however, things in Rome are heating up over the issue of musica sacra, which the Council described as pars integrans in the liturgy.

In the Italian daily La Stampa there are several articles of great interest.  La Stampa has a liberal bias. The way Italians use the term "teocon" is not the same as in the USA.  In the USA "theocon" points to religious people who share part of the neocon agenda (e.g., Novak, Weigel, etc.).  In Italy, "teocon" refers to people who are not really religious, but who share some common ground with Benedict XVI concerning politics and the public role of religion.  In the liberal mind of the Italian journalist, "teocon" is pejorative.  For Italian liberals the is usually sharply defined in templates.  In the poltical sphere, for example, you must be anti-American and you must hate President Bush.  If you don’t, you must a little stupid.  When we port this paradigm approach over to the Church scene, your vision of the Church is an entity marginalized from the public square, which might be useful only as an agent of social change, and not too intellectual, but rather very populist.   That is the enlightened way to see the Church.  If, however, you are interested in a Church with a strong voice in the public square, traditional and vigorous expressions of teach and liturgy, etc., then you must be rather shallow, sort of a neanderthal.  Thus, even traditional clergy get lumped into the "teocons". 

La Stampa is quite worried about the return of conservatives within the Church, these "teocons", because it signals a deeper involvement of the Church in public life.  After last years referendum and the enormous "Family Day", that is nothing less than terrifying.  Thus, the issue of sacred music is going to make these liberals crazy, because it heralds something far more threatening.  The tables are being turned on the progressivists in the Church, and the progressivists are freaking out because the people being brought in are actually competent.  That must be scary.

But let’s get at a couple of the piece in La Stampa.

Canti gregoriani invece di chitarre … Gregorian chant instead of guitars

This whiny article laments the arrival of Catholic "teocons" on the scene.  They are lumping into "teocon" men like the new papal M.C. Msgr. Guido Marini.  The idea is that they are not really deep thinkers.  They are interested in dressing up, having pretty music according to their tastes, etc.  The ouster of (deep thinkers, forward looking visionaries like) Msgr. Piero Marini suggests to the jittery writers of La Stampa and their ilk that other men are at risk of losing their jobs, namely, Msgr. Guiseppe Liberto, Master of the Cappella Sistina.

Liberto has sytematically been replacing more traditional chants and pieces with his own schlocky compositions.  He an Piero Marini were in synch.   La Stampa reveals is bias about the threat of a return to traditional liturgy and music.  The article basically says that if there is a return to more a traditional style of things (which clearly the writer thinks is going to happen) frogs will fall from the sky and active participation will be no more because of the selfish imposition of personal tastes on the universal Church by a few reactionary "theocons".  Attend: the opening of the article mentions that the 1st Sunday of Advent could be important for those watching sacred music matters.

An interesting point: The first question is: Per chi stona il coro della Cappella Sistina…. This si a bit hard to put into English.  "For whom is the Cappella Sistina singing out of tune?"

There is a another piece, "Oggi pensano a fare soldi con i dischi… These days they just want to make money off of CD’s"

This is a brief interview with the Maestro Emeritus of the competing choir at the Vatican, the Cappella of the Basilica of St. Peter.  Msgr. Colino, a nice fellow but not the greatest choir director, was at least a proponent of Gregorian chant who had to battle against the current established by Piero Marini and his minions.  Colino lost, like Bartolucci, and got the boot.

This interview is pretty bitter.  Colino blasts what is going on at the Lateran Basilica (under the charge of the Vicariate of Rome) where the goopy music of Msgr. Marco Frisina reigns supreme.  They record a lot of his stuff with the Diocesan choir and sell CD’s all over Italy where this music is lapped up like the cloying Karo-syrup it is and imitated in cathedrals and parishes.  Colino says that the proof of the terrible state of sacred music is demonstrated at the Lateran where "abominable things are happening.   Maestro Marco Frisina has zeroed out sacred music and rendered it all light, inconsistent and useless.  Frisina isn’t really player in the field of sacred music, even if thanks to the media everyone thinks he is a great composer."  There is more of the same.  Frankly, one can pick this up in nearly all major cities with cathedrals.  But I digress.  Colino is looking toward the 1st Sunday of Advent.  (Sound familiar?)  Colino sees Benedict, with moves like Summorum Pontificum to be trying to revive the Church’s tradition of sacred music.  At the end, Colino mentions the "theocons": "If the ‘theocons’ have set up their ideological banner so much the better: that can only be good for the Church."

Then there is a piece quoting Liberto himself, the man whose job is probably on the line: "L’epurato: ho fatto dialogare le culture…  The man who’s been sacked: I started a dialogue between cultures".  The word "epurato" comes out of the political economic struggles in Italy: it means someone who was "purged" from a party or a worker who was fired.   This whole thing is being framed in political terms.  This piece is an apologia pro vita sua: "I composed a great deal of music, for nearly every large pontifical ceremony."  He then recounts what he thinks are his triumphs.  Personally, I remember nearly writhing through them in an endurance test between my sensibilities and the ability of the Sistine screamers to shatter my composure.  But I digress. "I always wedded my fresh new work with Gregorian chant.  I tried always to join the liturgy to living language, because of the challenge the Council bequeathed to us – so-called "aggiornamento" which consists exactly in opening the past to diverse cultures".  Do you see how this fellow was hand in glove with Mons. Piero Marini?  A nearly perfect paradigm of how sacred music is pars integrans in the liturgy.   

We also read here a brief interview with Mons. Miserachs Grau of the Pontificial Institute for Sacred Music.  He is also the Maestro of the Cappella at St. Mary Major, one of the places in Rome with the longest and most distinguished musical tradition, along with St. Peter’s and St. Johns.  This fellow, in my opinion, is matter to Liberto’s anti-matter as far as theory of sacred music is concerned.  I have heard him speak and he is great.

The title of the piece: "Everyone has created for himself his own repertory: thus, the destruction of the spiritual life."

Again, La Stampa sticks to the "theocon" issue.  This is the point La Stampa is trying to hammer home with the average person.   They are shaping the readers view in anticipation of the changes that they sense are coming.

"Q: What do you think about seeing classical music become part of the patrimony of the theocons.

It seems to me there is emerging a sense of guilt over the obvilion tradition was thrust into.  Theocons have made this a point of an ideological battle.  This is seen also in the connection made between the defense of sacred music and Mass in Latin [NB: he probably is referring to the TLM here].  I appreciate their intentions, even if our position is not bound strictly to the old rite.

Q: Do you see in embracing the theocons any risk of being used?

No.  For us it is a question of art and faith.  Even if for them it is only a question of aesthetics, I can be a user fellow traveller, above all in at a time when those who were in control open the way to every sort of abuse.

Q: What are you referring to?

"The damage done to sacred music which has been tolerated for years at St. John Lateran, the Cathedral of Rome.  In the Lateran Basilica you hear absurdities, like arranging Gregorian chant with four voices.  If you can believe it, they suspend the music program during summer.  Everyone is creating his own repoertory for himself and up to now there has been only one result: the destruction of the spiritual life."

You can see, the war is joined.

And the USCCB is going to put out its guidelines on sacred music.  The document was reclassified so that it would not have to go to Rome for a recogitio.

About Fr. John Zuhlsdorf

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  1. Jason in San Antonio says:


    I find it hard to believe that many of those most in fear of the impending “shift” within the interior life of the Church actually go to Mass and whether these liturgical battles–which they’ve so deftly politicized in the media–have any effect on most of them at all. Makes one wonder: What’s it to you, pal, what language Mass is in or what kind of music we have when you’re never there?

    I believe more people–on both sides of the street–are beginning to understand the broader cultural significance of the liturgy in the life of the broader society.

    Save the liturgy, save the world. (That slogan only now makes full sense.)

    Thank you for being a warrior all these years.

  2. WFW says:

    I watched the vote yesterday on EWTN around 11:45am (EST) and I seem to remember that the document did need a 2/3 majority to pass and would have to be sent to the Vatican for a recognitio. I might have heard incorrectly but I am fairly sure that was the case–especially since there had been talk that it had been downgraded so that it would not need the Vatican’s approval.

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  5. Jason says:

    I feel like I’ve dropped into the middle of a long, on-going war, where many of the pieces being fought over are not clearly related to the principles of either side.

    So, forgive me if these questions/thoughts miss the mark… I’m trying to come up to speed:

    1) What is the goal of the traditional/conservative groups with regards to music in the Mass?

    It seems to me, to be a ‘return to all Gregorian Chant, all the time, use only the organ, and that is enough for everyone.’ I freely admit that this may be a bad summary, but it is what I see. If it is a bad summary, please tell me.

    I have several more questions/thoughts, but they’re so deeply interwoven with the first one, that it’d only waste everyones time.

  6. chironomo says:

    to say a return to “all chant, all the time” is the popular view, though it is a view that is not totally correct. The “traditional/ conservative” position on music can be found most eloquently expressed in Benedict XVI’s essay “Liturgy and Church Music”. A quick summary would be to say that the Church’s musical tradition was built upon Gregorian Chant and polyphony for nearly 1000 years… however new compositions were always being composed within this tradition, using the formal and stylistic models of the past as a starting point. Suddenly, in the wake of the Council, this traditional model was abandoned in favor of popular music/ broadway show tunes as models. This is not being pejorative; the composers of this music (Haas/ Haugen, et al) cite these as their models. The traditionalists position is that this change in paradigm was NOT called for by the council, which clearly stated that the Church’s treasury of Sacred Music must serve as the model for truly liturgical compositions. As was the case with the TLM and nearly every other issue concerning liturgy, an authentic implementation of the council documents (Musicam Sacram, Sacrosanctum Concilium) concerning music is desired. How’s that?

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  9. Sid Cundiff says:

    With respect to the remarks about music in the Lateran Basilica, and as a fan of all things “Roman” (in all three meanings of the word!), I would appreciate it if a frequent Roman traveler or recent pilgrim to Rome can tell me, In which of the four major basilicas is the music traditional and the Mass and reverential?

    Elsewhere in Rome (and in Italy) I have been to some reverential Masses with high musical quality.

  10. Sid: I would have to say St. Mary Major.

  11. Sid Cundiff says:

    Thank you, Father Z. I’ve heard similar reports about St. Mary Major, and I’m glad you can confirm them.

  12. Richard says:

    I have always thought that liberals in the Church were always more political than theological in their concerns and agenda.

  13. Ruthy Lapeyre says:

    So glad to read this interesting article. One of the things I try to teach my seminarian students in the all too brief time I have them is that there is more to musical liturgy than just guitar music and “Karo syrup” (loved that line in the article). The vast majority of these young men are very happy to learn a little music history!

  14. RichR says:

    It is the timeless struggle between the immanence and transcedence of God. God is both omnipotent, mysterious, and divine, yet through Christ He has demonstrated that He was willing to reach out in love to mankind and become one of us. Over-emphasis of the immanence leads one to view God as a cuddly furball that is just like us. The over-emphasis of God’s transcendence can lead one to forget that God is intimately involved in the individual believer’s life and, as in the case of Christ, is fully man (though a divine person).

    Here’s what I believe most liberals don’t grasp: the goal of worship is not to drag God down to our level. It is to lift the believer up to God. So often, the goal of liturgy and music is to make people feel comfortable at Mass. That’s not what people want. People want to step out of the usual, the common, and the banal, and step into a universe where they experience the glory of the hope that is to come – Heaven. This experience of transcendence inspires the believer to virtue, humility, and fortitude to forbear the weekly burdens that he must face when he “comes down from the mountaintop.”

    If Mass is too cozy, too neutered, and too much like the secular life, then people will fall into apathy because they are not experiencing anything beyond this world.

  15. Br. Luke says:

    “If Mass is too cozy, too neutered, and too much like the secular life, then people will fall into apathy because they are not experiencing anything beyond this world.”

    This state of apathy is exactly where a majority of people are, and are content to remain there. I have found in my own work in Church music that most people simply want to be entertained at Mass, and want the experience to end as quickly as possible. I’m sorry if this sounds negative, and I am aware that this is not the case everywhere, but it is the case for the majority, I believe, and is an indicator of how far down we have fallen as regards appreciation of music and liturgy.

  16. Luca says:

    Padre, perdonate la stupidita’ dei giornalisti italiani… anche se purtroppo il danno culturale e’ immenso.

  17. Luca: Gli’americani non sono mica meglio.

  18. RichR says:

    Br. Luke,

    I agree with you. We are content to lay in the liturgical mud because we have little appreciation for the metaphysical reality occurring before us. Even if we gather what is going on, there are so many Americans living a hedonistic lifestyle that ther eis no room for a prayer life. If they aren’t praying at home, what are they expecting to bring to Mass?

    It’s much like a married couple who only communicates via “the marital act.” If they aren’t communicating on any other level, this ultimate form of “communication” is meaningless. For those who aren’t praying to God regularly, they don’t get much out of Mass precisely because they BRING nothing to Mass. If they haven’t “learned” how to pray in the daily grind, they aren’t praying at Mass. If that’s the case, then they are merely playing religious games. Mass is a fleeting moment, not a culmination of all the divine encounters from the previous week.

    I think the first step is to get people to pray. Perpetual Adoration has really been a font of graces in our parish. Our previous pastor (and current one) have placed great importance on this devotion and only interrupt it for the most serious of reasons. Because people pray, they want to learn. When they learn their catechesis and pray, they get (and give) more at Mass.

  19. Syriacus says:

    DonZ: “Thus, the issue of sacred music is going to make these liberals crazy, because it heralds something far more threatening. The tables are being turned on the progressivists in the Church, and the progressivists are freaking out because the people being brought in are actually competent. That must be scary.”

    The first known example of the figurative use of the phrase “Turn the tables” (deriving from the ‘tables’games, from the practise of reversing the board so that players play from their opponent’s previous position) in print is in Robert Sanderson’s XII sermons, 1634:

    “Whosoever thou art that dost another wrong, do but turn the tables: imagine thy neighbour were now playing thy game, and thou his.”

  20. Syriacus: Interesting! Thanks for that!

  21. Luca says:

    Dear Father, perhaps you can explain me a matter I am asking about.
    At the end of the XIX century there was an impulse to expel profane music (e. g. operas and so on) from the liturgy and the churces in general. During the Sixties there was a strong impulse to introduce rock, pop (the stuff we call “musica leggera” in Italy) and even pseudoAfrican music during the liturgy. They say that both the impulses were from a so-called “liturgical movement” and would be part of the same direction towards the reform of sacred music.
    It looks to me viceversa, that the two tendencies are contrary to each other.
    How can they say they are in continuity?

  22. Syriacus says:


    Syriacus: Interesting! Thanks for that!
    Comment by Fr. John Zuhlsdorf — 17 November 2007 @ 8:52 am

    Prego. Although…Non nobis Domine!

    (Great site!)

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