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Bringing Sacred Music Back to Liturgy

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The department (abbreviated DEMUSLI, from the full Spanish title) just last week hosted this year's conference, in the city of Guadalajara. The event coincided with the 75th anniversary of the Higher School of Sacred Music of the Guadalajara Archdiocese. 

   Among those present was Melicia Antonio, a lay consecrated member of the Regnum Christi Movement and organist for the formation center for consecrated women in Monterrey, Mexico. ZENIT asked her to share her experience of the conference.

ZENIT: What was your general impression of the conference? 

Antonio: This was my first time attending this congress and I was deeply impressed. Sacred music is something of a rarity here in northern Mexico; in fact, in the four years I have lived here, I have not yet heard a choir sing polyphony or Gregorian chant in a church. Most Masses are accompanied by bands and choirs playing pop-style music, or by congregations singing the same, tired songs.

   What I encountered in the DEMUSLI congress was a vibrant, creative, and highly educated musical community, dedicated to restoring genuine sacred music to the cathedrals, parishes, seminaries and religious houses of Mexico. The liturgies we celebrated those days were among the most beautiful I have ever experienced; we were introduced to a great variety of polyphonies, Gregorian chants, and modern works composed and executed according to the liturgical tradition of the Church.

ZENIT: What themes were discussed at the conference this year?

Antonio: DEMUSLI has dedicated this congress and some subsequent ones to reflecting on the spirit of the liturgical year, so that participants can learn to collaborate more effectively with the Church in living deeply her liturgical seasons. This year's congress focused on the seasons of Advent and Christmas. In Mexico there are actually very few liturgical songs for these seasons: the Christmas liturgies tend to be filled with Christmas carols, most of which do not contain texts taken directly from Scripture or the liturgy.

   The Congress invited Monsignor Valentín Miserachs Grau, president of the Pontifical Institute for Sacred Music in Rome, to present a new repertoire of Spanish-language songs for Advent and Christmas. He presented 18 of his own compositions: simple and melodic songs of Gregorian inspiration that could be sung by a typical parish congregation. 

   Another objective of the DEMUSLI congresses is the implementation of the criteria in the Vatican II document "Sacrosanctum Concilium" on the sacred liturgy. Father Ernesto Estrella Vaca, former rector of the Higher School of Sacred Music of the Guadalajara Archdiocese, gave a conference on the current situation of liturgical music in Mexico and what changes would be needed in order to adjust attitudes and practices to the Church's criteria. 

ZENIT: What are some of the obstacles for the restoration of sacred music to Catholic liturgies? 

Antonio: First, the priests do not always receive a proper musical and liturgical formation from the moment they enter the seminary. The priest is the leader of his parish and is the first one who should know and live the true spirit of the liturgy. Second, the culture is increasingly desensitized toward the value of beauty and good form in music.

   A soprano I met in the congress complained to me that parishioners tell her that singers are not real musicians. In other words, anyone can sing, so why support a church choir or pay a trained cantor? Well, it's similar to saying, "Anyone can play football, so why pay professional football players?" If we are unable to recognize that a choir is off-tune and is singing songs that have nothing to do with the liturgical season, perhaps it says more about us than about the choir. 

ZENIT: What tools are there in Mexico for the training of liturgical musicians? 

Antonio: The congress itself is a magnificent venue for learning new skills, sharing new compositions, networking with fellow musicians and promoting new initiatives. This year's congress was attended by 167 musicians, a number which can definitely increase in the future, especially considering that from the large city of Monterrey only four people attended (myself, two other consecrated laypeople, and one parish priest). 

   In central and southern Mexico there are more than nine Higher Schools of Sacred Music where young men and women can receive four years of training in voice, piano, organ, Latin, liturgy, and theology, graduating with a college degree in sacred music. Some of the schools also offer intensive summer programs that can accommodate diverse skill levels.

   There is increasing support for the formation of children's choirs, the Pueri cantoris, where children are formed spiritually and morally through music. 

   Liturgical music workshops are offered throughout the year by individuals and smaller organizations: psalmody, organ, chant, etc. 

   And a number of seminaries in Mexico have hired trained liturgical musicians to teach their students: the major seminary in Guadalajara, for example, has a very fine schola cantorum.

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