Pope St. Pius X and Liturgical Reform

10-01-2017Weekly ReflectionFr. Will Schmid

When Cardinal Giuseppe Sarto inherited the chair of St. Peter in 1903 (assuming the name of Pope Pius X) the Catholic world was facing confusing times. The powerful influence of the Enlightenment, the rise of science, and a series of political, social, and intellectual upheavals in Europe resulted in a secularization of Europe. For the completely secularized European mind, the 19th century ushered in a new movement of “progress,” by which the world could throw aside the shackles of religion and provide human answers to human problems, freeing itself from the tyranny of religion, which only offered superstitions of a “supernatural order.”

Pope St. Pius X’s predecessor, Pope Leo XIII, worked tirelessly during a 25-year papacy (1878-1903) to reestablish the church’s viability within the modern world. The intellectual crown of his papacy was the famous social encyclical, Rerum novarum, in which the Church formally condemned the errors of communism and socialism, and built up a theology of worker’s rights and man’s right to private property. Yet, although Pope Leo XIII’s long papacy was an outstanding gift to the Church and the world, the secularization of Europe had done serious damage to the faith of many Catholics.

Pope St. Pius X, in response to the challenges of the beginning of the 20th century, began his pontificate with a powerful encyclical E supremi apostolatus, in which he laid down what many would argue to be the theme of his pontificate: Instaurare omnia in Christo  (“to reestablish all things in Christ” - Ephesians 1:10). Pope St. Pius X desired nothing more than the reestablishment of man’s living relationship with Jesus Christ so that his deepest needs might be fulfilled and he might have the strength to fight against the lies of modernism.

For Pope St. Pius X, the greatest gift the Church possessed to reestablish all things in Christ was her liturgy, in particular, the Mass. If the Church could purify her liturgy from the influence of secularism and inspire a more faithful appreciation and love for the Eucharist, Catholics would have the supernatural grace and strength to withstand the assaults of the modern world. It is for this reason that his first motu proprio (a papal letter addressed to the entire Church), was Tra le solicitudini, arguably the most influential papal document on sacred music ever written.

Throughout his entire priesthood, Pope St. Pius X made liturgical renewal one of his central goals. As a young boy, Giuseppe Sarto was intimately involved in Church music, singing at Sunday Mass and even forming a new choir at his home parish. In the seminary, his command of the church’s chant was so exceptional that he was placed in charge of all seminarian chant. In his first parish pastor assignment, he established a school of chant for both children and adults, where he experimented with various styles of chant.

In addition, during the early years of his priesthood, Fr. Sarto encountered the Benedictine monks of Solesmes, a community founded by Dom Gueranger with the mission to catechize the faithful through the signs and symbols of the liturgy. Fr. Sarto’s relationship with the monks of Solesmes helped him reclaim the ancient tradition of Gregorian chant at the local parish level. He found the Church’s most ancient tradition of Gregorian chant to be the easiest for people to learn and the most effective at drawing them more deeply into the mysteries of the faith.

When Fr. Sarto became the Bishop of Mantua in 1884, he was able to expand his work on sacred music at a diocesan level. He convened a Diocesan Synod to focus on sacred music, developed a diocesan music curriculum, and formed a diocesan schola cantorum. He carried on this important work further when he was made the Cardinal of Venice in 1895. It was no surprise when Pope St. Pius X immediately began a movement during the first few months of his pontificate to reclaim and renew sacred music within the universal Church. After all, it had been an essential aspect of his entire priestly ministry.

What was it about the 19th and 20th century church music scene that troubled Pope St. Pius X so much that he referred to the liturgical abuse of sacred music in Tra le solecitudini, as “one of commonest of abuses, one of the most difficult to uproot?”

Much can be said of the typical parish musical scene at the turn of the 20th century, but the following are a few of the common abuses that inspired him to reform sacred music:

  1. Many of the sacred texts were set to the secular operatic melodies, making it impossible for the average lay person to sing or even understand them.
  2. Secular musical pieces including national hymns, polkas, waltzes, and other ballads were introduced, which distracted the faithful from prayerfully focusing on the liturgy.
  3. The organ was often played with such volume and magnitude that it dominated the chant and made it impossible for people to hear and/or sing.
  4. Musicians were regularly focused only on their part of the Mass, that when they were finished playing their particular pieces, they would pack up their instruments before the Mass was over and engage in loud and unnecessary conversation distracting the laity from the sacred liturgy.
  5. The music was often considered more important than the liturgical action it accompanied to the degree that the music would continue on well beyond the liturgical action, causing the priest and faithful to have to wait impatiently for the music to finish before moving to the next part of the liturgy.

It is within this historical context that Pope St. Pius X coined one of the most significant liturgical phrases in Church history and laid out the essential principles of sacred music for the universal Roman Catholic Church.

For Pope Pius X, in order for the faithful to have a deeper appreciation and love of the liturgy, the Church must help the laity recover an “active participation” within the liturgy. Concerning sacred music, this means that the faithful do not “sing at Mass,” but “sing the Mass.” The phrase, “active participation,” would eventually become the most significant and influential phrase of future liturgical reform.

As demonstrated above, the current musical liturgical abuses were preventing the laity from fully entering into the liturgical action and thus limiting the fruit that liturgical grace could produce in the souls of the faithful. By reforming sacred music, Pope Pius X sought to strengthen the faithful’s relationship with the living God as He reveals Himself to us in the celebration of the Eucharist.  

However, in addition to promoting an increased active participation among the lay faithful, Pope St. Pius X was also dedicated to maintaining “the beauty of the house of God.” Active participation cannot authentically be achieved apart from the preservation of the essential principles of the liturgy and the essential characteristics of the music that belongs in the liturgy. For this reason, he reminded the universal Church that the primary purpose of the liturgy is twofold: “the glorification of God, and the sanctification and edification of the faithful.” The many musical abuses were examples of violations of this twofold purpose of the liturgy. Much of the music that was played during the Mass was not chosen for this twofold purpose. Rather, they were chosen for purposes of either entertaining the people or glorifying the gifts and talents of the particular musicians, without paying due reverence and attention to the significance of the liturgical action (which was the real reason behind why the people of God were gathered together in the first place).

Consequently, Pope St. Pius X laid out three essential characteristics of sacred music that must be maintained in order for authentic active participation to be encouraged:

  1. The music within the liturgy must be “holy,” in that it must be set apart and free of the influence of the styles of modern music that are profane, theatrical, vulgar, or trivial. In other words, sacred music must be different than secular music. It must not be focused on inciting the passions of the people or entertaining them, but oriented toward fully revealing the meaning and dignity of the liturgical action and drawing the people more deeply into this action. 
  2. The music within the liturgy must be “true art,” in that it must be well composed and well rehearsed, and not thrown together in a sloppy or unprofessional manner.
  3. The music within the liturgy must be “universal” in that it must reflect the one law of belief and one prayer of the Church. In other words, it must always have a sense of transcending individual cultures.            

Following the explanation of these three characteristics, Pope St. Pius X explains that there are two musical styles that most perfectly embody these three characteristics: Gregorian Chant and Classic Polyphony. He explains that Gregorian chant is the “ideal model of true sacred music” because it is the most ancient of our chants and the one that we can properly call our own. It belongs to no culture other than the Roman Catholic Church. Classic polyphony is also an example of sacred music in that it is of the Roman School and finds its origin and roots in Gregorian chant. All other styles of music can be considered “sacred” insofar as they reflect these three particular characteristics and model themselves after the Church’s most ancient form of chant.

The reception of this motu proprio throughout the world has a simple, but also complicated history. It is simple in that it was mostly ignored throughout the universal church. However, it is complicated in that it was ignored for a variety of reasons, depending on the musical culture of particular regions. In the United States, there were two dominant trends within liturgical music that help explain why it wasn’t well received.

First, the Irish Catholic immigrants to the United States in the 19th century brought with them very little customary practices concerning liturgical music. The Irish Catholics experienced great persecution for their faith in their home land and often had to celebrate Mass in secret without music. One could argue that silence was their liturgical inheritance. Thus, for Irish Catholics in the United States, there was very little participation when it came to singing the Mass.

Second, the German Catholic Churches were greatly influenced by the Protestant Reformation, which eliminated chant and replaced it with modern hymns. Thus, many German Catholics in the United States were more accustomed to singing cultural or national hymns at Mass rather than chanting the Mass.  

Overall, the general attitude of American Catholics in response to Tra le solicitudini was that of apathy or indifference. The majority of American Catholics of the early 20th century preferred to have hired singers rather than embrace a new culture of the lay faithful singing the parts of the Mass. Chant was not a part of their perceived liturgical inheritance and they lacked the vision and leadership necessary to implement what Pope St. Pius X was envisioning.

In addition, the Protestant influence of the American culture with regards to religion was often one of “religious experience” or “spiritual feeling.” Because chant was different than what they were used to and because many American Catholics embraced the liturgical theological principles of Protestantism, the sacred music reform of Pope St. Pius X did not appeal to the “religious experience” of American Catholics. For this reason, many of the efforts to implement sacred music reform failed to take root and fizzled out without bearing much fruit.

Although the world has changed greatly over the past 114 years, we are still faced with similar challenges posed by modernism. There is a strong movement in our current American culture to become more secularized. If American Catholics are going to have the necessary strength to stand up against the assaults of 21st century modernism, we are going to need to rediscover the fullness of the gift of the liturgy, and enter into the Mass in such a way that we can benefit from the many graces that are made available to us.     

Liturgical reform is rarely easy because it almost always involves a reworking of customary practices loaded with sentimental attachment. A committed liturgical reform involves a willingness to surrender our own preferences and desires (which are often the hardest things to surrender to the Lord).

In future bulletin articles, I will examine several other 20th century Church documents concerning liturgical music reform and discuss how these documents are built upon the foundations laid out by Pope St. Pius X’s Tra le solicitudini.