In a surprising July 4 public address, Pope Emeritus Benedict discusses the quest for beauty in the arts, especially in music, and praises faith-inspired Western music. Here is the text…
Pope Emeritus Benedict is an accomplished musician and an articulate apologist for the quest for beauty in the arts, and particularly in sacred music. He gave a rare public address on July 4 at Castel Gandolfo upon receiving two honorary doctoral degrees: one from the John Paul II Pontifical University, and one from the Krakow Academy of Music, both based in Krakow, Poland. Benedict’s talk was addressed to Cardinal Dziwisz of Krakow and to the academic authorities of the two Polish universities.
Your Eminence, Your Excellencies, Distinguished Rectors, Eminent Professors, Ladies and Gentlemen,
At this time I can do none other than express my great and most heartfelt gratitude for the honor that you have given me in awarding me the doctorate honoris causa. I thank dear Cardinal Stanislaw Dziwisz, Lord Chancellor, and the academic authorities of both universities. I am especially delighted by the fact that, in this way, my bond with Poland, with Krakow, with the homeland of our great Saint John Paul II, has become even stronger. Indeed, without him, my spiritual and theological development is not even imaginable. By his living example he showed us how the joy of great sacred music can go together with the task of common participation in the sacred liturgy, just as grandiose joy can accompany the simplicity of a humble celebration of faith.
In the post-conciliar years, a very ancient conflict about this point arose with renewed passion. I myself grew up in the region of Salzburg, marked by the great tradition of that city. There it went without saying that feast day Masses accompanied by a choir and orchestra were an integral part of our experience of faith in the celebration of the liturgy. It remains indelibly impressed on my memory how, for example, no sooner than the first notes of the Mozart Coronation Mass sounded, the heavens practically opened and one experienced the Lord’s presence very profoundly. (And my thanks also to you, who arranged for me to listen to Mozart, and also to the choir: some great pieces!)
Still, together with this, the new reality of the Liturgical Movement was also already present — above all, via one of our chaplains who later became vice regent and then rector of the major seminary of Freising. Later, during my studies in Munich, I entered in a much more concrete way into the Liturgical Movement by means of the classes of Professor Pascher, one of the most important experts of the Council in liturgical matters; and above all I entered in via the liturgical life of the seminary community. Thus, bit by bit, the tension between participatio actuosa true to the liturgical spirit and the solemn music that enfolded the sacred action became perceivable, even if I did not yet notice it so strongly.
In the Constitution on the Liturgy of the Second Vatican Council it is written very clearly: “The patrimony of sacred music is to be conserved and built up with great care” (114). On the other hand, the text stresses as a fundamental liturgical category the participatio actuosa of all the faithful in the sacred action. Those things which, in the Constitution, were still peacefully together, were thereafter, in the reception of the Council, often seen in a relationship of dramatic tension. Significant circles of the Liturgical Movement held that, in the future, only concert halls could accommodate the great choral works and even orchestral Masses, not the liturgy. Here, rather, there could only be space for the common singing and prayer of the faithful. What’s more, there was dismay for the cultural impoverishment of the Church that would necessarily follow from this. In what way, then, could the two sides be reconciled? How could the Council be carried out in its entirety? These were the questions that weighed down upon me and on many other faithful — from ordinary people to those having a theological formation.
Perhaps it is appropriate at this point to pose the fundamental question: What, in reality, is music? Where does it come from and what is its aim?
I think that we can pinpoint three “places” from which music originates.
One of its first sources is the experience of love. When men were seized by love, another dimension of being opened up to them — a new greatness and breadth of reality. And this led even to a new mode of expression. Poetry, song, and music in general were born from this being struck, from this being awakened to a new dimension of life.
A second origin of music is the experience of sadness — of being touched by death, by pain, and by the depths (abysses) of life. Also in this case, new dimensions of reality opened up in opposite directions; new dimensions which cannot find expression in discourse alone.
Finally, music’s third place of origin is in the encounter with the divine which, from the beginning, is a part of that which defines the human reality. It is this encounter of man with the totally other and the totally great that elicits even more so new ways of expression. As a matter of fact, perhaps it could be said that even in the other two areas — love and death — the divine mystery touches us and, in that sense, it is the fact of being touched by God that constitutes the origin of music, all told. I find it moving to observe how in the Psalms, for example, singing alone does not suffice: appeal is made to all instruments. In this way the hidden music of all creation — its mysterious language — is aroused. With the Psalter, in which the motifs of death and love are also operative, we find ourselves right at the origin of the sacred music of the Church of God. One can say that the quality of music depends upon the purity and the greatness of the encounter with the divine, with the experience of love and of pain. The purer and truer this experience is, the purer and greater also will be the music that is born and develops from it.
At this point I would like to share an idea that lately has increasingly caught my attention, especially as the various cultures and religions become more interconnected. In different cultures and religions there is present a great literary corpus, great architecture, great paintings, and great sculptures. And everywhere, there is also music. But in no other cultural setting is there music of equal greatness to that which arose from the environment of the Christian faith: from Palestrina to Bach, to Handel — all the way to Mozart, Beethoven, and Bruckner. Western music is something unique that has no equal in other cultures. And this — it seems to me — should make us think.
Certainly, Western music goes far beyond the religious and ecclesial environments. But, in any case, it finds its most fundamental origins in the liturgy and the encounter with God. In Bach, for whom the glory of God represents the ultimate end of all music, this is quite evident. The great and pure response of Western music grew within the encounter with that God who, in the liturgy, makes himself present to us in Christ Jesus. To me, such music is a demonstration of the truth of Christianity. In order for such a response to have developed there was an encounter with truth, with the world’s true Creator. For this reason, great sacred music is a reality of theological rank and of permanent significance for the faith of all of Christendom, even if it is not at all necessary that it should be performed always and everywhere. However, it is also clear that it cannot disappear from the liturgy and that its presence can be an entirely special way to participate in the sacred celebration, in the mystery of faith.
If we call to mind the liturgy celebrated by St. John Paul II on every continent, we see the full breadth of possibilities for expressing the faith in the liturgical event; we see also how the great music of the Western tradition is not foreign to the liturgy but is born and developed in it. In this way, it can contribute anew to shaping the liturgy. We do not know the future of our culture and of sacred music. But one thing seems clear to me: wherever the encounter with the living God — who, in Christ, comes to us — really takes place, there is born and grows anew also the response, the beauty of which comes from the truth itself.
The activity of the two universities that have bestowed upon me this doctorate honoris causa — for which I again offer wholehearted thanks — represents an essential contribution so that the great gift of music that comes from the Christian faith tradition might remain alive; also so that it might help to preserve the creative force of the faith even into the future. For this, I thank you all from my heart, not only for the honor you have given me, but also for all the work that you undertake in the service of the beauty of the faith. The Lord bless you all.
Translated from the Italian by Fr. Bryan W. Jerabek, J.C.L.m