St Cecilia (1626), Simon Vouet, Blanton Museum of Art
– Aurelio Porfiri
Santa Cecilia, a Roman martyr of the third century, is a significant saint in the Catholic Church, especially so for musicians, of whom she is patron. During the wedding party, a wedding with Valeriano she was forced to accept, while the pagan wedding hymns resounded, Cecilia sang in her heart a hymn to her only Spouse, the one whom she had chosen, Jesus Christ. To Valeriano she had said that would not be with him and that an angel protected her. The groom asked to see this angel and Cecilia told him that he could see him only after he was baptized. And he saw it, in fact, after the baptism, with the special grace that this had brought him.
In fact, a Christian is not simply the one who participates in some ceremonies in some moments of his life, but he who can see with new eyes all of reality, a reality that is almost transfigured in the light of revelation.
Cecilia sang a song of love while in the air there were the pagan songs. Today we are sometimes forced to leave churches where pagan music resounds to be able to sing the song of love in the silence of our rooms. And not that the Church has never warned against these abuses in liturgical music. We must think that in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries the operatic style prevailed also in the music of the Church, and the Popes issued a large number of documents to put an end to that abuse. But the fight between lawful and illicit dies and is reborn in every season.
A truly important word was the one by St Pius X with his Motu Proprio of November 22, 1903, exactly 115 years ago. This legal code of sacred music, quoted in many places by the Second Vatican Council in the Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy Sacrosanctum Concilium and reaffirmed also in the teaching of other Popes, such as Pius XII, gave practical indications for the use of music in the liturgy.
Speaking of liturgical abuses, the Pope said: “Today Our attention is directed to one of the most common of them, one of the most difficult to eradicate, and the existence of which is sometimes to be deplored in places where everything else is deserving of the highest praise — the beauty and sumptuousness of the temple, the splendor and the accurate performance of the ceremonies, the attendance of the clergy, the gravity and piety of the officiating ministers. Such is the abuse affecting sacred chant and music. And indeed, whether it is owing to the very nature of this art, fluctuating and variable as it is in itself, or to the succeeding changes in tastes and habits with the course of time, or to the fatal influence exercised on sacred art by profane and theatrical art, or to the pleasure that music directly produces, and that is not always easily contained within the right limits, or finally to the many prejudices on the matter, so lightly introduced and so tenaciously maintained even among responsible and pious persons, the fact remains that there is a general tendency to deviate from the right rule, prescribed by the end for which art is admitted to the service of public worship and which is set forth very clearly in the ecclesiastical Canons, in the Ordinances of the General and Provincial Councils, in the prescriptions which have at various times emanated from the Sacred Roman Congregations, and from Our Predecessors the Sovereign Pontiffs.” If the theatrical music was replaced with the commercial one, could this passage also not be written today?
We are fully aware of the contribution that the Church has given to our civilization also through the development of arts and music: “With this heightened sense of mystery, we understand how the faith of the Church in the mystery of the Eucharist has found historical expression not only in the demand for an interior disposition of devotion, but also in outward forms meant to evoke and emphasize the grandeur of the event being celebrated. This led progressively to the development of a particular form of regulating the Eucharistic liturgy, with due respect for the various legitimately constituted ecclesial traditions. On this foundation a rich artistic heritage also developed. Architecture, sculpture, painting and music, moved by the Christian mystery, have found in the Eucharist, both directly and indirectly, a source of great inspiration. Such was the case, for example, with architecture, which witnessed the transition, once the historical situation made it possible, from the first places of Eucharistic celebration in the domus or ‘homes’ of Christian families to the solemn basilicas of the early centuries, to the imposing cathedrals of the Middle Ages, and to the churches, large and small, which gradually sprang up throughout the lands touched by Christianity. The designs of altars and tabernacles within Church interiors were often not simply motivated by artistic inspiration but also by a clear understanding of the mystery. The same could be said for sacred music, if we but think of the inspired Gregorian melodies and the many, often great, composers who sought to do justice to the liturgical texts of the Mass. Similarly, can we overlook the enormous quantity of artistic production, ranging from fine craftsmanship to authentic works of art, in the area of Church furnishings and vestments used for the celebration of the Eucharist? It can be said that the Eucharist, while shaping the Church and her spirituality, has also powerfully affected ‘culture,’ and the arts in particular” (St John Paul II, Ecclesia de Eucharistia).
This is certainly true also when arts and music have to incarnate in a mission land (even if the phrase “mission land” today has a somehow shifted meaning). We need to remember that the treasure of sacred art and music, our tradition, belong to every people and every land: “In this effort to adore the mystery grasped in its ritual and aesthetic dimensions, a certain ‘competition’ has taken place between Christians of the West and the East. How could we not give particular thanks to the Lord for the contributions to Christian art made by the great architectural and artistic works of the Greco-Byzantine tradition and of the whole geographical area marked by Slav culture? In the East, sacred art has preserved a remarkably powerful sense of mystery, which leads artists to see their efforts at creating beauty not simply as an expression of their own talents, but also as a genuine service to the faith. Passing well beyond mere technical skill, they have shown themselves docile and open to the inspiration of the Holy Spirit. The architectural and mosaic splendours of the Christian East and West are a patrimony belonging to all believers; they contain a hope, and even a pledge, of the desired fullness of communion in faith and in celebration. This would presuppose and demand, as in Rublëv’s famous depiction of the Trinity, a profoundly Eucharistic Church in which the presence of the mystery of Christ in the broken bread is as it were immersed in the ineffable unity of the three divine Persons, making of the Church herself an ‘icon’ of the Trinity. Within this context of an art aimed at expressing, in all its elements, the meaning of the Eucharist in accordance with the Church’s teaching, attention needs to be given to the norms regulating the construction and decor of sacred buildings. As history shows and as I emphasized in my Letter to Artists, the Church has always left ample room for the creativity of artists. But sacred art must be outstanding for its ability to express adequately the mystery grasped in the fullness of the Church’s faith and in accordance with the pastoral guidelines appropriately laid down by competent Authority. This holds true both for the figurative arts and for sacred music” (St John Paul II, Ecclesia de Eucharistia). But unfortunately in lands where Christianity is new, recent, sometimes we have the dominating culture from the west – not the Christian one, but the commercial and capitalistic ones. And also local interests prevent a real development of an inculturated sacred music, respectful of the tradition and open to good influences coming from local culture.
Cecilia sang in her heart a song of love, even if the songs of the world resounded in the air. Today we are at the paradox that in order to get out of the world we must go deeper, looking for our spiritual dimension that is not compromised with pastoral and liturgical arrangements that do not serve the official Church worship, but use the same to affirm ideas and directives that with the Church they have nothing to do. That even our heart can be, like that of Cecilia, not confused, that even through the difficulties of the present time it may be never lost.