Concerts given in churches in our time are desirable manifestations of the sacredness of art, the evangelical mission of the Church, and an exemplary form of outreach to the community. Properly prepared and performed, such concerts give witness to the Gospel by addressing poverty of spirit through the unique power of music to inspire, elevate, teach, and heal.
Where modern society, with its technological emphasis, so frequently fails to uphold aesthetic values, the Church, following its practice since at least medieval times, has the opportunity to reintroduce these values through the ministry of art. Just as the great medieval Cathedrals were both spiritual and cultural centers, the Church in our time opens its doors to invite and embrace the community it seeks to serve.
The development of Western music has come largely through the encouragement of the Church, for whom it has served as a strong witness for evangelism and catechesis. In addition to the great corpus of musical literature passed on to us for liturgical use, there has also been created a unique repertoire which requires the ambience of the sacred space and which is rarely effective in the concert hall: cantatas, oratorios, passions settings, concerti da chiesa, liturgical music-dramas, mystery plays, and the great organ literature.
Intrinsic Sacral Character of Great Art
All art – indeed, all of creation – is a gift of God. Its inherent aesthetic merit and value lies within the work itself and does not derive from either the worthiness of the creative artist who fashioned it, or the personal intention in creating it. As such, it should be experienced and appreciated by persons of faith as a pale, yet real. reflection of the beauty of God, and is thus a further means of the knowledge of God.
This is further justification for the presentation of great works of music in Church settings. We recommend that such a perspective would be helpful if clearly stated and included in all such performances, perhaps even by inclusion in printed programs.
Aim and Purpose of the Letter
The Vatican letter collects and summarizes most of the Church's directives regarding music in the Church which have been issued over the past twenty-five years. In its focus on the use of church spaces for the performances of sacred or religious music concerts, the primary aim of the Vatican letter is to prevent abuses.
In the Church in the United States, we find no conflict between the primary aim of this letter and our general practice. The strong religious tradition in this country has generally protected our church buildings from inappropriate uses. However, the Church's role of a thousand years and more in promoting, nurturing, and offering the arts to the community at large remains an appropriate and desirable use of our building.
Sacred, Religious, and Secular
Certain issues raised in the Vatican letter need to be further clarified--issues involved in producing, sponsoring, and hosting concerts in churches. The letter defines concepts of sacred, religious, and secular, but further distinctions may be helpful.
Sacred music is defined as music set to liturgical texts and clearly intended for use in rites of liturgical worship.
Religious music is that which is clearly inspired by religious truth and the events of salvation history, but not normally intended for use in the liturgy.
The distinction is clear enough when a text is associated with the music. However, in the case of works composed only for instruments and/or organ, the distinction is often unclear and must remain so; for aside from religious titles given to works, or the employment of recognized musical elements associated with well-known, existing liturgical music, a vast amount of purely instrumental/organ literature, not clearly religious, but often religious by long association and use, is eminently worthy of use in liturgy--or concerts in church--and has been so used for centuries. (Sonata da chiesa, Sinfonia sacra, Epistle Sonata, Christmas concerto, etc.)
Making a Discerning Judgment
The use or non-use of a work of music in either a concert or liturgical setting is normally determined by the intelligent and discerning judgment of the user. The work is either appropriate, and thus enhances the liturgical act or the concert, or it is inappropriate.
Even this determination may seem ambiguous to some, depending upon the cultural context and background of the people who actually experience the event. Some instrumental music, because of the specific cultural context with which it is generally identified, may well be inappropriate for any use in Church. This is, in fact, a subjective "judgment call", and cannot be specifically determined simply by legislation. It depends upon intelligent, discerning, and informed musicians who can be consulted with confidence by the local ordinary.
A vast body of instrumental music, for example, exists whose nature is inherently ambiguous; yet it can be perfectly suitable for use in either a church or secular concert, or even in a liturgical context. Hearing a great Bach organ work can be an aesthetic and spiritual experience when heard in a concert hall. The same work can also be part of a religious or liturgical experience and can make a significant statement when it is placed in the appropriate setting.
The Performance Space
The Sanctuary has been defined--even in liturgical legislation--as anything from the area directly about the altar (presbyterium) to the entire church. Many Churches of recent design or renovation, following official directives and the redefined structure of the liturgical rites, have as their only performance space that which has traditionally been thought of as the sanctuary.
It is clearly the aim of the Vatican letter that such spaces be treated with great respect, because of their primary and pre-eminent purpose. The ambo, the altar, and the chair should certainly never be permitted to be simply "props" for concerts in Church. People performing in the midst of these sacred symbols of worship may need to be oriented or simply reminded of the character of the space. Everyone benefits by a reverence for the sacred character of both persons and place. Accordingly, such reverence may be further promoted by way of a simple request to withhold applause until the end of a program, thereby preserving attitudes of serenity, beauty, and respect.
When hosting musical events by non-resident organizations, it is helpful for everyone involved to employ clearly-stated, careful guidelines regarding the use of sacred spaces and manner of presentation, since such events carry with them automatic assumptions of approval and endorsement.
Everyone, regardless of ability to pay, ought to have access to church concerts; certain observations and suggestions may be helpful toward a practical application of this ideal.
Many concerts which require significant resources and which are worthy of being produced simply cannot be funded by voluntary donations. This is true despite the thousands of hours of time and effort contributed by many people. Furthermore, where church concerts have necessitated admission fees, the requested fees have often been far below those normally charged for such events under secular auspices. In the United States at least, many Cathedrals and parish churches have sought to produce and sponsor such cultural events with attitudes of outreach, enrichment, and evangelism. In some places, special funds have been established to defray the heavy expenses of such productions.
The aim of the Vatican letter, to provide access to everyone, regardless of ability to pay, nay be met by reserving blocks of tickets for gratis distribution to retired persons, for example, or through the good offices of charitable organizations. The division of the church space into "reserved seating" and "general admission" sections can easily facilitate such an arrangement. This policy is already in use in many churches in this country.
A further suggestion, often made necessary by local tax law, is the use of the term "suggested donation" rather than "admission."
CRCCM recommends the article, "Canonical Comments on Concerts in Church" by John Huels, O.S.M. in Worship (Collegeville: Liturgical Press, March 1988) as an authoritative and thoughtful interpretation of the Vatican letter for those charged with responsibility in these matters.
The Conference ardently hopes that our suggestions, as well as the continuing dialogue concerning the place of the arts in life of the Church, will be helpful to our Bishops, Cathedral rectors, and parish priests. The cultural heritage of the Church is gift to all people which will continue to enrich, attract, and inspire.
Finally, to those engaged presenting dignified, artistic concerts in churches, CRCCM can offer no stronger encouragement than the word of John Paul II:
Our Churches have for a long time played an important role in the cultural life of cities and towns. Is not the Church the house of the People of God? Has it not been in Churches that people have had their first aesthetic experiences in seeing the beauty of the building, its mosaics, paintings, statues, or sacred objects; in hearing organ music or the singing of the choir; in attending celebrations which draw people above themselves and cause them to enter into the heart of Mystery?
Outside liturgical celebrations there can be a place for religious music in concert. This can be an occasion offered to Christians who no longer practice their faith, or to non-Christians who are seeking God, to have access to an experience beyond simple aesthetic emotion. The presence of the pastor is thus desirable to show support and to ensure respect for the holy place. In this matter, the Church will remain, even through artistic presentations with no liturgical connection, the place where one can discover the presence of the living God, the source of all beauty. (Rome, May 22, 1987)
Music resounds from the humblest Church to majestic Cathedrals, both in the inspired melodies of Gregorian Chant and in the solemn compositions of noted composers. I especially recall the illustrious names of Palestrina, Lassus, Victoria, as well as Vivaldi and Bach... Devotion has truly produced masterpieces and inspired the greatest geniuses of music, enriching humanity with an artistic patrimony that cannot be ignored. (Rome, January 1, 1988)