Friday, October 19, 2007

Restoring Tradition: Pope Benedict's initiative on sacred music

News from Sandro Magister’s Chiesa:

Melancholicus remembers with a vivid clarity that momentous day of the 19th April 2005, when he saw Cardinal Jorge Medina Estevez appear on the balcony of St. Peter’s basilica to announce to the world that the 266th successor of St. Peter had been elected to succeed the late John Paul II. He remembers the unbearable tension before his eminence named the new pope; he remembers the tremendous shout of his fellow seminarists as the community leapt to their feet as one man, cheering and applauding, and he remembers afterwards weeping with a mixture of joy and relief. The results of the conclave might have been very different, but almighty God had not forgotten his Church, which for forty years had suffered unremittingly from the torments of the devils unleashed at the council.

He has been only two years in office, but already there is a sense of a change in the air. A glimmer of light can be seen in the east, and we wonder in hope if it might be the light of dawn, at long last, after forty years of night—and what a night it has been, impenetrable and inky black. When the name of the new pope-elect had been announced, we were all delighted: Benedict XVI. A traditional name. A pre-conciliar name. Many of us privately thanked God that he had not called himself John, or Paul, or John Paul. Before the conclave Melancholicus was resigned, without much hope, to the gloomy reign of a John Paul III, one which would be every bit as much business as usual, and every bit as damaging to the Church as the previous pontificate. He muttered as much, in a spirit of sour discontent, to his brethren in the days leading up to the election of the new pope. He was never so blissfully happy—nor so tremendously relieved—when the Holy Ghost proved him wrong.

The Holy Father has been slowly, painstakingly and with great care trying to repair some of the damage done to Christ’s holy Church over the previous four pontificates. Melancholicus is relieved that at last we have a pope who understands the liturgy — a subject of which his predecessor apparently was ignorant — and who appreciates how important to the inculcation of the faith is right order and praxis in the celebration of the liturgy.

How encouraging have been the Holy Father’s first steps in reforming the mess that is the post-conciliar Mass! A new translation of the Roman Missal is currently in preparation, a translation faithful to the Latin original and correcting the errors of the 1970 ICELese foisted by the liturgical revolution upon English-speaking Catholics throughout the world. We hope too that this new translation, when it appears, will be beautiful, especially since the current translation of the Mass is so pedestrian and banal.

Furthermore, what words of ours can possibly do justice to the Holy Father’s generosity in his motu proprio Summorum Pontificum, in which he gave to the Church an inestimable gift, namely the restoration of the traditional Roman rite of the Mass, which, in the face of so much opposition from corrupt and worldly episcopates throughout the world, demonstrates his tremendous pastoral concern for the spiritual welfare of those who love the Church?

Now the Holy Father seeks to restore the majestic musical heritage of holy Church to its proper place. The Roman curia will have a new office with authority in the field of sacred music, and the choir of the Sistine Chapel will receive a new director, to foster the rebirth of sacred music:

The first of these events took place on Monday, October 8. On that morning, Benedict XVI held an audience with the "chapter" of Saint Peter's basilica – meaning the bishops and priests who, together with the archpriest of the basilica, Angelo Comastri, celebrate Mass and solemn Vespers each Sunday in the most famous church in the Christian world.

The pope reminded them that "it is necessary that, beside the tomb of Peter, there be a stable community of prayer to guarantee continuity with tradition."

This tradition goes back "to the time of Saint Gregory the Great," the pope whose name was given to the liturgical chant characteristic of the Latin Church, Gregorian chant.

One example the pope gave to the chapter of St. Peter's was the celebration of the liturgy at the abbey of Heiligenkreutz, the flourishing monastery he had visited just a few weeks earlier in Austria.

In effect, since just over a year ago, Gregorian chant has been restored as the primary form of singing for Mass and solemn Vespers in Saint Peter's basilica.

The rebirth of Gregorian chant at St. Peter's coincided with the appointment of a new choir director, who was chosen by the basilica chapter in February of 2006.

The new director, Pierre Paul, a Canadian and an Oblate of the Virgin Mary, has made a clean break with the practice established during the pontificate of John Paul II – and reaffirmed by the previous director, Pablo Colino – of bringing to sing at the Masses in St. Peter's the most disparate choirs, drawn from all over the world, very uneven in quality and often inadequate.

Fr. Paul put the gradual and the antiphonal back into the hands of his singers, and taught them to sing Mass and Vespers in pure Gregorian chant. The faithful are also provided with booklets with the Gregorian notation for Kyrie, Gloria, Credo, Sanctus, Agnus Dei, and the translation of the texts in Italian, English, and Spanish. The results are liturgically exemplary celebrations, with increasing participation from a growing number of faithful from many nations.

There's still much to do to bring back to life in St. Peter's what was, in ancient times, the Cappella Giulia – the choir specifically founded for the basilica – and to revive the splendors of the Roman musical style, a style in which the sacred polyphony pioneered by Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina and Gregorian chant, also sung in the Roman manner (virile and strong, not like the monastic models inspired by Solesmes), alternate and enrich each other.

But there has been a new beginning. And Benedict XVI wanted to tell the chapter that this is the right path.

Deo Gratias. Ad multos annos, Most Holy Father!

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