Appeared in Fall 1992, Vol. XVIII, No. 3
During the week preceding the feast of Saints Peter and Paul, Christendom College, in collaboration with the Church Music Association of America, sponsors annually a Liturgical Music Colloquium which brings together conductors, composers, pastors and organists from all over the country. This piece was the keynote address of last year’s Colloquium, as delivered on 25 June 1992.
There are men and there are things; there are persons and there are objects. there are also principalities and powers, there are thrones and dominations. Theologians and moralists are familiar with virtues and vices; philosophers know qualities and modes of being. But what is musica sacra? What does “sacred” mean?
A recent response claims that “liturgical theology” knows liturgical art to be “appropriate only to the degree that it functions in support of sacred liturgical signs” (meaning, in the case of liturgical music, the “communitarian sign” of the liturgy, i.e. “our oneness in the Lord”). A practical conclusion is drawn from this postulate: “sacred music should only sustain the continuity of the voices during worship.” If it does not do so, it is “inappropriate to the liturgy and is then not sacred.” In a manner which evokes faded memories of the old society of st. Gregory and its “lists” white and black, proponents of this view pinpoint a lack of analysis as the reason why the standards for judging music to be sacred “are only restrictive,” and hence not useful as guides: “they help you selectively eliminate songs but do not show which to include.”1
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