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Dear brothers and sisters!
With great joy I welcome you on the occasion of the pilgrimage organized by the Italian St. Cecilia Association, to which my praise goes with a cordial greeting to the president, whom I thank for his courteous words, and to all his collaborators. I greet all of you members of numerous “Scholae Cantorum” from every part of Italy! I am very happy to meet with you and also to know – as it was mentioned – that tomorrow you will participate in the eucharistic celebration presided over by Cardinal Archpriest Angelo Comastri in St. Peter’s Basilica, naturally offering your service of praise with song.
This conference of yours is intentionally linked with the 50th anniversary of the opening of Vatican Council II. And with pleasure I saw that the St. Cecilia Association intended in this way to repropose to your attention the teaching of the conciliar constitution on the liturgy, in particular where it treats of sacred music, in the 6th chapter. On this anniversary of the Council, as you well know, I wished for the whole Church to observe a special Year of Faith with the goal of promoting the deepening of faith in all of the baptized and the common commitment to the new evangelization. Thus, meeting with you, I would like briefly to underscore how sacred music can, above all, support faith and, moreover, cooperate in the new evangelization.
In regard to faith, there spontaneously comes to mind the personal experience of St. Augustine, one of the great Fathers of the Church, who lived between the 4th and 5th centuries after Christ. Listening to the singing of Psalms and hymns in the liturgies over which St. Ambrose presided certainly contributed in a relevant way to his conversion. If in fact faith always is born from listening to the Word of God – a listening that naturally occurs not only with the senses but from the sense passes on to the mind and the heart – there is no doubt that music, and song above all, can contribute a greater communicative force to the recitation of Psalms and biblical songs. Among the charisms of St. Ambrose was in fact a distinct musical sensibility and capacity, and he, upon being ordained Bishop of Milan, put this gift at the service of the faith and evangelization. The witness of Augustine, who at that time was a professor in Milan and sought God, sought faith, in this respect is very significant. In Book 10 of the “Confessions,” his autobiography he wrote: when I call to mind the tears I shed at the songs of your Church, at the outset of my recovered faith, and how even now I am moved not by the singing but by what is sung, when they are sung with a clear and skillfully modulated voice, I then acknowledge the great utility of this custom” (33, 50). The experience of the Ambrosian hymns was so powerful that Augustine retained it in his memory and often referred to it in his works; indeed, he wrote a book precisely on music, the “De Musica.” He says that he does not approve of seeking mere sense pleasure in sung liturgies but asserts that music and the well-composed song can aid in the reception of the Word of God and provoke salubrious emotions. This testimony of St. Augustine can help us to understand the fact that the constitution “Sacrosanctum Concilium,” in line with the tradition of the Church, teaches that “sacred song united to the words, forms a necessary and integral part of the solemn liturgy” (112). Why “necessary and integral”? Certainly not for purely aesthetic reasons, in a superficial sense, but because it cooperates, precisely through its beauty, in nourishing and expressing the faith, and so to the glory of God and the sanctification of the faithful, which are the ends of sacred music (cf. ibid.). For this reason I wish to thank you for the precious service that you render: the music that you perform is not an accessory or only an external ornament of the liturgy, but it is liturgy itself. You help the whole assembly to praise God, to make his Word enter into the depths of the heart: with song you pray and help others pray, and you participate in the song and prayer of the liturgy that embraces the whole of creation in glorifying the Creator.
The second aspect that I propose for your reflection is the relationship between sacred song and the new evangelization. The conciliar constitution on the liturgy recalls the importance of sacred music in the mission “ad gentes” and calls for an appreciation of the musical traditions of different peoples (cf. 119). But also precisely in countries, such as Italy, where evangelization occurred centuries ago, sacred music – with its own great tradition, which is our western culture – can and does have a relevant task of assisting in the rediscovery of God, a return to the Christian message and the mysteries of the faith. We think of the celebrated experience of Paul Claudel, the French poet, who converted listening signing of the Magnificat during the Christmas vespers at the Cathedral of Notre Dame in Paris: “At that moment,” he writes, “there occurred the event that dominated my entire life. In twinkling my heart was touched and I believed. I believed with such a powerful adherence, with such an elevation of my whole being, with such a strong conviction, in a certainty that did not leave space for any sort of doubt that, after that moment, no reasoning, no circumstance of my troubled life, was able to shake or touch my faith.”
But we need not have recourse to illustrious persons to think of how many people have been touched in their depths of their soul listening to sacred music; and of how many more have felt themselves newly drawn to God by the beauty of liturgical music like Claudel. And, here dear friends, you have an important role: work to improve the quality of liturgical song with being afraid to recover and value the great musical tradition of the Church, which has in Gregorian Chant and polyphony 2 of its highest expressions, as Vatican II itself states (cf. “Sacrosanctum Concilium,” 116). And I would like to stress that the active participation of the whole people of God in the liturgy does not consist only in speaking, but in listening, in welcoming the Word with the senses and the spirit, and this holds also for sacred music. You, who have the gift of song can make the heart of many people sing in liturgical celebrations.
Dear friends, it is my wish that in Italy liturgical music will ascend ever higher to worthily praise the Lord and to show how the Church is the plave in which beauty is at home. Thanks once again to all of you for this meeting! Thank you.
[Translation by Joseph Trabbic]