Monday, August 15, 2016

The Church's Lost Song

Today, the Solemnity of the Assumption, also happens to be the 50th anniversary of Blessed Pope Paul VI's Apostolic Letter Sacrificium Laudis ("Sacrifice of Praise"), which was addressed to the general superiors of clerical religious institutes obliged to choral recitation of the Divine Office. Like so much of the post-conciliar liturgical legislation - indeed like much of Vatican II's liturgical constitution itself - much of its wisdom was quickly lost in the weirdness of the 1960s, with deleterious consequences both for religious communities and for the overall life of the Church.

The context for Paul VI's letter was the introduction of what the Pope called "discordant practices" into the liturgy and an apparent flood of requests for a vernacular Office with contemporary music. The Pope described himself as "disturbed and saddened" by all this and wondered how it had come about, given the clearly contrary direction of the Vatican Council's liturgy constitution (e.g., Sacrosanctum Concilium 101.1: In accordance with the centuries-old tradition of the Latin rite, the Latin language is to be retained by clerics in the divine office.)

Well, that is an old battle in a long-ago war, its outcome long-since settled. For better or for worse, we are all the heirs of the 1960s. That is who we have become, and the challenge is not to try to recreate some artificially idealized past but to make the best of what the present offers and build anew for the future. Still, the Pope's lament about the loss of the Church's song seems not just poignant but prophetic.

Pope Paul realized that the ultimate issue was not just one of language but the very nature and survival of the choral office itself. He warned communities bound to choir that their way of celebrating the choral office had been one of the factors underlying the survival of those communities. and he wondered whether people would still frequent those communities' churches if the Church's song was no longer sung there.  Switching from audio to visual imagery, he called the potential alternative "a snuffed candle," neither giving light nor attracting others. 

In fact, however, such a sad state of affairs had already become normative in much of the modern Church. The French Revolution and its attendant movements and conflicts had led to widespread suppressions of religious houses and entire religious communities. In earlier centuries there had been multiple opportunities all over Catholic Europe for the faithful to experience the sung Office publicly celebrated on a daily basis. The cataclysmic breakdown of organized religious life thanks to the suppression of religious houses and the consequent numerical decline of religious communities deprived the ordinary Catholic layperson (and not a few members of religious communities) of any real opportunity to participate in the sung Office. The Office survived into modern times primarily as the opposite of what it was supposed to be - as something to be read, rather than sung, by clerics and religious, a duty done largely individually and in private. Prior to the 1st Vatican Council, proposals were indeed made to "reform" the liturgy and in particular the Office, but not for widely restoring the public sung conventual Office.

When I was growing up on the eve of Vatican II, the only access I would have had to the public sung conventual Office would have been if I had had occasion to travel downtown to Saint Patrick's Cathedral, where Solemn Vespers were sung on Sundays (only) at 4:00 p.m. In the aftermath of the Council even that minimal concession to the public sung character of the Office would eventually disappear. Of course, the Council itself proposed the opposite. It recommended recitation of the Office in common even by clerics not bound to choir and called for at least Vespers to be sung on at least Sundays and greater feasts. But then the weirdness of the sixties took over, and the Church's song grew even fainter and rarer than it had already been before the Council.

History shows how easy it has so often been to destroy the legacy of the past. The challenge of constructing a viable Christian community life in the present period is to start building for the future - not artificially rebuilding what has been irretrievably lost but building a new structure for the Church's communal prayer, properly rooted so that it can salvage the spirit of the ancient Office in a way that can be made meaningful in a post-modern Church.

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