Church Fathers and Church Music | Christopher B. Warner | CWR
The Fathers of the Church can help us refine our liturgical worship after 50 years of subjection to sentimental pop music.
At the beginning of this 50th anniversary year of Vatican II, Benedict XVI called for a renewed, authentic reading and implementation of the council documents. After suffering through many decades of vulgar, saccharine Church music, it is encouraging to note a rise of musicians who are serious about authentic reform of sacred worship. The recent Sacred Liturgy Conference in Rome was a great success, and there is a spirit of joyful, liturgical rejuvenation among the youth. Today’s composers are considering many facets of sacred music theory and history as they strive for the renewal of theocentric orthodoxy in liturgical worship. A brief look at the last 50 years in light of the early Church Fathers’ teachings provides a surprisingly relevant breath of fresh air.
Most Catholics are all too familiar with the folk music “reforms” to liturgical music of the 1970s and ’80s. Adopting secular music and the spirit of the age, untutored youth began setting music to pop-style rhythms and melodies, usually with acoustic guitar accompaniment. This style of liturgical music became immensely popular, spread rapidly, and was taken up by prolific composers such as Marty Haugen and David Haas. Michael Matheson Miller of the Acton Institute refers to this liturgical Candyland as the “suburban rite.” The problem with this music, noted by more than one critic, is that it is filled with fuzzy doctrine and the spirit of the sexual revolution: “peace,” “love,” and bad style.
On the other hand, many remember the Grammy-award winning CD Chant, which hit the music market in 1994 and became an overnight sensation. Chant, sung by the Benedictine monks of Santo Domingo de Silos, appealed to traditional Christians and New-Age listeners alike. It was considered the perfect antidote to a stressful, workaholic world exacerbated by paltry pop music. The perennial qualities of plainchant became self-evident to the listener of these recordings. But for the monks, plainchant was more than a musical expression that they appreciated and polished like curators of a museum; it was essential to their life of prayer. The monks explained in the jewel-case insert for Chant how they had become physically ill, suffering fatigue and exhaustion, while experimenting with post-Vatican II music for the Divine Office. The sentimental emotion of pop and folk melodies was not sustainable over a seven-hour worship day.
Sacrosanctum Concilium, the Second Vatican Council’s Dogmatic Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy, noted that, in addition to recent pontiffs, the early Fathers of the Church also illuminate the function of sacred music. A deeper reading of the Fathers, beloved by Pope Emeritus Benedict, can assist us in liturgical renewal.
St. Basil the Great and charismatic music
Far from being distant and “out of touch,” the words of the Fathers are quite down-to-earth and often humorous.