John Paul II's Statements on Music in the Church: A Fulfillment of the Theology of Vatican II

By Pavlick, Elizabeth-Jane | Sacred Music, Spring 2010 | Go to article overview

John Paul II's Statements on Music in the Church: A Fulfillment of the Theology of Vatican II


Pavlick, Elizabeth-Jane, Sacred Music


Pope John Paul II wrote an extraordinary amount during his twenty-six-year pontificate. While he was not a formative spokesman on sacred music, as one might say that Pius X and the Council Fathers of Vatican II under John XXIII and Paul VI were, John Paul II made several notable speeches addressing sacred music. This article will discuss some of the most significant ways in which John Paul II's concerns were influenced by the Second Vatican Council and offer a theological analysis of each of his substantial comments on sacred music, in order to examine his contribution to the church's understanding of music in the liturgy.

My inspiration for this paper was Robert F. Hayburn's exhaustive book, Papal Legislation on Sacred Music: 95 A.D. to 1977A.D. In light of John Paul II's multitude of writings on sacred music, I desired to bring this work up to date. Hayburn's opus concludes with several helpful observations that I use as a starting point. First, Hayburn notes that all the documents that he analyzes in his book "were written and enacted with an underlying purpose in mind: to regulate the dignity of worship." (1) Emphasizing the sacredness of the liturgy is a clear goal of John Paul II as well. Hayburn further states:

   Sacred music is more important than men may realize. It is not
   merely a beautiful but unnecessary ornament. Pius X, in the motu
   proprio of November 22,1903, stated that sacred music has always
   been an essential part of the liturgy. The pope used the expression
   parte integrante. Because it is an integral part of the solemn
   liturgy, it participates in the general scope of that same sacred
   action. (2)

In other words, music has a central role in the Mass; moreover, throughout church history, music has always carried this weight of importance. Music is much more than icing on the cake--music actually turns the human soul toward God, and it helps people to raise their hearts more fervently in prayer.

Hayburn's book includes hundreds of pages of papal legislation on sacred music. Legislative documents on most topics in the church usually stem from the overstepping or ignoring of previously declared rules and boundaries. Such occurrences have become so egregious at times that Pius X once lamented that "neither prayers, admonitions, severe and repeated orders, nor threats of canonical penalties were able to change some individuals from their disobedience"--and this specifically about church musicians! (3) Perhaps these earlier documents on music were not sufficiently introduced or communicated to church musicians by the bishops of the time. In many cases though, musicians deliberately disobeyed the guidelines set out by papal authority. Unfortunately, this behavior extends even to the present day. Hayburn gives a harsh critique of music in modern churches, saying that "choral music has been downgraded, if not completely eliminated" and that "almost everyone is making music in the churches, except trained musicians. Now one hears only unison singing, dull in style, and often secular in type." (4) While this statement is a broad generalization, it is clear that there is a need for examining the papal documents of the present day to see more clearly the context in which sacred music must work.

The documents I will be examining are largely directive laws, or laws that do not carry an obligation to observe them (versus preceptive laws, which do carry an obligation to observe them as a part of their formutation). Most directive statements begin with phrases such as, "It is praiseworthy ...," "We recommend ...,"or "It is a salutary practice...."In other words, they are not binding rules, although they are strongly recommended. The other possibility, the preceptive regulation, is phrased more stringently: "It is to be observed "So we write anew and command observance ...," "The custom is to be eliminated ...," etc. (5) However, the suggestions of the pope, even if they are non-binding, as in the case of directive laws, are still to be taken seriously, out of filial trust and respect. …

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