For those of us interested in Roman Rite liturgy — and the even smaller sector focused on music — the election of Pope Francis was a rather harrowing experience. Here we were losing our beloved Pope Benedict XVI. His replacement had no prior history with liturgical concerns, and his first weeks out indicated that he had other issues in mind.
I’ll admit that my friends and I really sweated this one out for a while. Were we going to see efforts to reverse the progress? We would fall back into the default mode of the rupture that characterized the previous decades? Would everything unravel?
Those fears some of us had in the those days after the election seem seriously misplaced at this point. And this has reminded those of us who live and breathe liturgy that there are other issues that the Pope must concern himself with. New flash: It’s a pretty big job overall. There is curial reform. Evangelism. Scandals suppression. Doctrinal controversies. Religious orders. Politics. Really, it’s endless. And every Pope has a focus based on the needs of the time.
A story to reflect on here. Back in the middle of the 19th century, we saw the formation of what was later called the Liturgical Movement. They began a new effort to focus on the liturgy as a neglected feature of Catholic life. As part of this, the monks of Solesmes began a focus on repairing the chant from centuries of neglect. It took decades but then they were ready for real influence. They hoped and prayed for reform toward a more authenticate liturgical experience.
But they had to wait. Pius IX had to deal with the loss of the Papal states, the decline of the temporal power, the end of monarchy in Europe, the rise of the socialist menace, the push of democracy in the U.S. and abroad — of which meant gigantic changes in the way the Church relates to the world. He called a Church council and that led to more upheaval.
The liturgy people had to wait it out.
Then Leo XIII came along and had to deal with global economic upheaval, the rise of communism, the demands of labor, dramatic technological changes, extended lifespans and the demographic craziness that implied, the rise of prosperity and the moral issues thereby, the appearance of atheism and modernism, and the crying need for an expansion of Catholic moral teaching to the social sphere. This is a gigantic number of responsibilities.
The liturgy people had to wait.
A full half century went by from the beginnings of the liturgical movement before election of Pius X in 1903. Finally the moment had arrived. There was peace and many of the above questions had already been addressed. Now there could be focus. Like Benedict XVI, Pius X was a musician who had an intense interest in the liturgy and chant. He issued a Moto Proprio on music — one that generations had wait for. He approved the new chant books. He was the culmination of so much work and for those who cared about this issue, his pontificate was a dream come true.
But he died in 1914. Now there was a world, a ghastly murderous war that consumed the whole of Europe in flames and bloodshed. Benedict XV was there as a proclaimer of peace. He taught and worked toward this. He condemned war against civilians and the new age of industrial murder — a historical first. He was a serious man and did mighty and wonderful things to bring the teachings of the Church to bear on modern life. What had not figured into his outlook: liturgy. It was not part of what he did.
What did the musicians do? How did the liturgists respond? I can imagine that they were initially rather down in the dumps. Their issues were suddenly out of the spotlight. People stopped focussing on them. Probably many people stopped caring anymore. They probably felt a bit like orphans. Where are the controversies? Where is the momentum for change? Where is the life, the action, the energy, the productivity?
At this point, they might have just thrown in the towel and said: well, clearly we aren’t that important to the life of the Church. But that is not what happened. What they did was get to work. They built schools. They started organizations. They published books. They started new conferences. They trained others. They weren’t going to let this moment pass. They took the flame that Pius X had given them and turned it into a raging fire. The pontificate of Pius X turned out to be just the beginning.
So it is in our time. Benedict XVI and his papacy were epic for liturgy and music and for those who care so intensely. But these are not the only issues. We had our Pope and we had our time. But we must not depend on that. The idea here was to give us the push we needed and then send us out to do our work. If we do not do this work, we might as well be rejecting the gift and turning away from our responsibilities. Any cause that is right and true must continue to live and growth. It cannot depend on leadership. It must become self-sustaining.
That is where we are today. We are at the beginning of a long process. Where are nowhere near where we need to be. If you doubt it, drive about 60 miles from your home and attend a liturgy at the closest Catholic Church. See what happens. Observe the decor. Listen to the music. See how people respond. Check the skills and talents of the musicians. See the rubrics. What you will find is that this parish is probably only 10% of where it needs to be.
Consider your own role in this process. Are there things you can do in your own parish? Is there time you can commit? Is there a conference you can attend? Are there financial resources you can donate to the cause? Can you assist as a parent or teacher? If you feel that calling and you care, this is for a reason. You are probably being asked to play a bigger role. Now is the time to do it.
Benedict XVI gave us something spectacular. But there are other concerns in the world too and the Papacy must attend to those. It is up to us to make a difference and carry that Benedictan legacy forward into the future. There is work to be done. We must be the ones to do it. The change toward a brilliant future has just begun.
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