Benedict on Music as the encounter with the divine

[I]n no other cultural domain is there a music of greatness equal to that which was born in the domain of the Christian faith. From Palestrina to Bach, to Händel, even down to Mozart, Beethoven, and Bruckner, Western music is something unique, which has no equals in the other cultures.

Text of an address given on 4 July 2015 by Pope Benedict XVI at Castel Gandolfo upon receiving honorary doctorates from the Pontifical University John Paul II and the Academy of Music, Krakow. 

Eminence! Excellencies! Your Honors! Illustrious Professors! Ladies and Gentlemen!

In this moment I cannot help but express my greatest and most heartfelt thanks for the honor that you have reserved for me in conferring upon me the “doctoratus honoris causa.” I thank the grand chancellor, his dear eminence Cardinal Stanis?aw Dziwisz, and the academic authorities of both universities.

I rejoice above all that this is making even more profound my bond with Poland, with Kraków, with the homeland of our great saint John Paul II. Because without him my spiritual and theological journey is not even imaginable.

With his living example, he showed us how the joy of great sacred music can go hand in hand with the task of common participation in the sacred liturgy, solemn joy with the simplicity of the humble celebration of the faith.

In the years of the post-council, a very ancient disagreement on this point had been manifested with renewed passion. I myself grew up in the state of Salzburg marked by the great tradition of this city. Here it went without saying that the feast day Masses accompanied by choir and orchestra were an integral part of our experience of the faith in the celebration of the liturgy. It remains indelibly imprinted on my memory how, for example, as soon as the first notes of the Coronation Mass by Mozart were sounded, it was as if heaven was opened and one experienced very profoundly the presence of the Lord. And thanks also to you, who have had Mozart played for me, and also to the choir: magnificent songs!

Alongside of this, nonetheless, there was also present the new reality of the liturgical movement, above all through one of our chaplains who later became vice-regent and then rector of the major seminary of Freising.

During my studies in Munich I then entered more and more concretely within the liturgical movement, through the lessons of Professor Pascher, one of the most significant experts of the Council in liturgical matters, and above all through liturgical life in the community of the seminary.

In this way, little by little there became perceptible the tension between the “participatio actuosa” appropriate to the liturgy and the solemn music that enfolded the sacred action, even if I was not yet so strongly aware of it.

In the constitution on the liturgy of Vatican Council II, it is written very clearly: “The treasure of sacred music is to be preserved and fostered with great care” (114). On the other hand, the text highlights as a fundamental liturgical category the “participatio actuosa” of all the faithful in the sacred action.

That which peacefully coexists in the constitution was afterward, in the reception of the Council, often in a relationship of dramatic tension. Significant segments of the liturgical movement maintained that, for the great choral works and even for the Masses for orchestra, in the future their only place would be in the concert halls, not in the liturgy. Here there would be room only for singing and for the common prayer of the faithful. 

On the other hand, there was dismay over the cultural impoverishment of the Church that would necessarily be unleashed by this. How could the two things be reconciled? How could the Council be implemented in its fullness? These were the questions that imposed themselves on me and on many other faithful, on ordinary people no less than on persons in possession of a theological formation.

At this point it is perhaps just to pose the fundamental question: What in reality is music? From where does it come and to what does it tend?

I think that it is possible to localize three “places” from which music emerges.

One of its first sources is the experience of love. When men were seized by love, another dimension of being was unveiled to them, a new greatness and breadth of reality. And this also drove them to express themselves in a new way. Poetry, song, and music in general are born from this being struck, from this unveiling of a new dimension of life.

A second origin of music is the experience of sadness, being touched by death, by pain, and by the abysses of existence. In this case as well there are unveiled, in the opposite direction, new dimensions of reality that can no longer find a response in speech alone.

Finally, the third place of origin of music is the encounter with the divine, which from the beginning is part of that which defines the human. For all the more reason there is present here the totally other and the totally great that elicits within man new ways of expressing himself. Perhaps it is possible to affirm that in reality also in the other two areas – love and death – the divine mystery touches us and, in this sense, it is being touched by God that on the whole constitutes the origin of music.

I find it moving to observe how for example in the psalms even singing is no longer enough for men, and appeal is made to all the instruments: the hidden music of creation is reawakened, its mysterious language. With the psalter, in which the two motifs of love and death are also at work, we find ourselves directly before the origin of the sacred music of the Church of God. It can be said that the quality of music depends on the purity and greatness of the encounter with the divine, with the experience of love and of pain. The more pure and true this experience is, the more pure and great will be the music that is born and develops from it.

At this point I would like to express a thought that has recently taken hold of me more and more, as the different cultures and religions enter into closer relationship with each other.

In the domain of the different cultures and religions there is present great literature, great architecture, great painting, and great sculpture. And everywhere there is also music. And nonetheless in no other cultural domain is there a music of greatness equal to that which was born in the domain of the Christian faith. From Palestrina to Bach, to Händel, even down to Mozart, Beethoven, and Bruckner, Western music is something unique, which has no equals in the other cultures. And this – it seems to me – should make us think.

Of course, Western music goes far beyond the religious and ecclesial domain. And nevertheless it finds its deepest origin in the liturgy, in the encounter with God. In Bach, for whom the glory of God ultimately represents the end of all music, this is entirely evident. The great and pure response of Western music developed in the encounter with that God who, in the liturgy, makes himself present to us in Christ Jesus.

This music, for me, is a demonstration of the truth of Christianity. Wherever a response like this is developed, there has taken place an encounter with the truth, with the true Creator of the world. This is why great sacred music is a reality of theological stature and of permanent significance for the faith of the whole of Christianity, even if it is by no means necessary that it be performed always and everywhere.

On the other hand, it is also clear that it cannot disappear from the liturgy and that its presence can be an entirely special form of participation in the sacred celebration, in the mystery of the faith.

If we think of the liturgy celebrated by Saint John Paul II on every continent, we see the whole breadth of the expressive possibilities of the faith in the liturgical event; and we also see how the great music of the Western tradition is not extraneous to the liturgy, but was born and raised in it and in this way contributes ever anew to giving it form. We do not know the future of our culture and of sacred music. But one thing seems clear to me: where the encounter with the living God who comes to us in Christ really takes place, there is born and grows anew also the response whose beauty comes from the truth itself.

The activity of the two universities that have conferred this doctorate honoris causa upon me – for which I can again say thank you with all my heart – represents an essential contribution so that the great gift of music that comes from the tradition of the Christian faith may remain alive and help the creative power of the faith not to be extinguished in the future.

For this I thank all of you from my heart, not only for the honor that you have reserved for me, but also for all the work that you do in service of the beauty of the faith. May the Lord bless you all.

Translated from Italian by the Chiesa Espresso blog.

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