Conference: Music and Church – Cult and Culture 50 Years after Musicam Sacram

Rome, 2–4 March 2017

Musicam Sacram was a document issued by the Church in 1967, setting out its vision for sacred music in the context of the major reforms to the Church’s liturgy that emerged from the Second Vatican Council. March 2017 marks the fiftieth anniversary of the document, and a conference entitled Music and Church took place in Rome from 2–4 March, in order to celebrate the event and explore the current state of music in Catholic worship.

I was one of four British representatives at the conference, along with Mary Rouse, a trustee of the Society of Saint Gregory, Catherine Christmas, Music and Liturgy Adviser for the Diocese of Arundel and Brighton, and Paul Inwood, the internationally renowned composer and liturgist, who was one of the conference’s invited speakers.

The conference explored the ways music has developed in the Church in the last fifty years, the strengths and weaknesses of Church music today, and the opportunities and challenges facing those who ‘make music to God’. The range of views and experiences on offer amply reflected the diversity of traditional and contemporary music-making to be found around the globe. We heard from cardinals and composers, from scholars and from practising musicians. As well as Catholic musical tradition in its many facets, we heard from those working to integrate liturgical music into diverse cultures around the world. Fr Alois, prior of the Taizé, community recounted the remarkable success story of that community’s distinctive musical language. Sr Marana Saad from Lebanon illustrated new forms of musical expression emerging from the melting-pot of middle-eastern Christianity. We heard about the distinctive role of the animator of the singing assembly in the Church in France, of how Renaissance polyphony fused with the indigenous music of Latin America, and of how the music of the Church in South Korea emerged from the simplicity of folk traditions.

Among the unforgettable treats for the participants was a celebration of Vespers in the Sistine Chapel, and afterwards a concert given by the Sistine Chapel Choir, which included a performance of Allegri’s Miserere, sung in its original form, in the place and by the choir it was written for.

If there was a recurring theme among many of the presentations at the conference, it was the need for formation: musicians in the church can only carry out their tasks if they are given the essential training, and receive the support of the clergy, themselves perhaps the ones most in need of formation. This too was underlined by Pope Francis, who gave a special audience at the end of the conference, after which each participant in turn had the privilege of meeting the Holy Father. In his address, the Pope underlined the importance of the participation of the entire assembly in song, and of safeguarding the Church’s musical traditions, not in a nostalgic way but inculturated into the musical language of the present, with the aim of making people’s hearts vibrate with reception of, and participation in, the mysteries we celebrate.

There were challenges in embracing modern musical forms, the Pope added, not least in the danger of superficiality and banality creeping into our music. It was time, he said, for a renewal of liturgical singing, in dialogue with the musical currents of our time and with an ecumenical openness. Everyone involved with music making in the Church could contribute to this renewal.

At the end of the conference, the hope was expressed that this would be the beginning of something: a new movement to bring music to life in the Church. Cardinal Gianfranco Ravasi, president of the Pontifical Council for Culture, which organised the conference, said that the next step was to move ‘from the monody of presentations to the polyphony of dialogue’ so that the voices of more musicians from around the world could be heard. This will be something to look forward to.

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