Choral Music in the Churches: Part I, Inculturation

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When I imagine liturgists, this is what comes to mind:

Dalek Meme

Inculturation, the adaptation of liturgical texts, languages, rites, and, most especially, of music, to respect or reflect the sensibilities of various peoples, while certainly a watchword in the postconciliar Church, has been a reality from the very beginning of Christian history.

At some point in the earliest years of the Church, we witnessed the divergence (whenever it was) of Aramaic, Greek, and Latin liturgy, alongside the emergence of the very unique Ethiopian tradition, amongst many others. Later on, history records the translation by Sts. Cyril and Methodius of the Greek liturgy into Old Church Slavonic, the fusion of the Frankish and Roman traditions of ecclesiastical singing into the Franco-Roman body of sacred song that would come to be known to the ages as Gregorian Chant, just to name a few representative examples.

In each case, these adaptations have come about by the conspiracy of legal fiat and organic growth, growth often born in response to the legal change. When Pope St. Gregory the Great in the 6th Century declared that, on weekdays, the petitions would be left out of the litany in order to draw attention to the meaning of the prayer contained in the formulaic response “Lord, have mercy” alone, he set in motion the process that would eventually express that humble and profound prayer for the Church and world more beautifully than any litany could. This gave birth to a text simple and supple enough to inspire music that moves as freely as a setting of Alleluia, but, unlike that cheery text, uses that freedom to convey the depth of this suffering world’s need for God’s loving help and great mercy:

Or, to take another instance, when Charlemagne insisted that the Church throughout his Empire should sing as the Roman Church, the exchange of master chanters that followed actually led to a mixture of the two traditions, and to their eventual harmonization into the so-called Gregorian chant. While those in authority may have a certain vision in mind when they set about reforming worship, what results often far exceeds it in scope, and lies certainly beyond their control.

While inculturation is often viewed as liturgy’s response to the culture in which it finds itself, history reveals that it is just as much, if not even more, that culture’s response to the liturgy.

It is interesting to see these two perspectives juxtaposed in the Magisterium of the 20th Century. On the one hand, in 1903, we have St. Pius X writing about sacred music in his famous Motu Proprio Inter Sollicitudines, which, in addition to containing the seeds of the liturgical reform and of vocal, congregational participation as a major priority of the Church, also contained the seeds of the modern discussion of inculturation. He writes:

“[W]hile every nation is permitted to admit into its ecclesiastical compositions those special forms which may be said to constitute its native music, still these forms must be subordinated in such a manner to the general characteristics of sacred music that nobody of any nation may receive an impression other than good on hearing them.”

Notice here that St. Pius assigns the agency of inculturation to the nations themselves, acknowledging the historical fact of the matter, especially obvious in sacred music, that cultures will attempt to suit the liturgy to their sensibilities, and to adorn it with their own contributions. The role of the Church’s authority is neither to encourage nor to discourage this, but rather to ensure that this natural process does not weaken the link of any local church’s liturgical prayer to that of the universal Church.

Contrast this attitude with paragraph 40 of Sacrosanctum Concilium, the Second Vatican Council’s Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy, which enjoins:

“The competent territorial ecclesiastical authority mentioned in Art. 22, 2, must, in this matter, carefully and prudently consider which elements from the traditions and culture of individual peoples might appropriately be admitted into divine worship. Adaptations which are judged to be useful or necessary should when be submitted to the Apostolic See, by whose consent they may be introduced.”

This attitude assigns the agency of inculturation to ecclesiastical authorities, whose responsibility it is to adapt the liturgy to the local cultures by incorporating local customs or traditions into the rites themselves, in an effort to render them more effective and edifying.

In broader context, this is a missionary attitude, echoing the Slavonic liturgical books of Sts. Cyril and Methodius, music sung in Iroquois during Mass in the missions, and the Chinese Rites controversies during the reign of Benedict XIV, which were especially fresh on the mind of the Council Fathers after the recent reversal of that pontiff’s negative judgment under Pius XII. In a preceding paragraph (38), the Council acknowledges this:

“Provisions shall also be made, when revising the liturgical books, for legitimate variations and adaptations to different groups, regions, and peoples, especially in mission lands, provided that the substantial unity of the Roman rite is preserved.” [emphasis mine]

It is also interesting to note in this paragraph the subtle change in expectation for the inculturated liturgical project. Whereas St. Pius X expects that this will exhibit practical unity throughout the Church, such that any Catholic from anywhere in the world can hear another culture’s liturgical music without scandal, and indeed come away with a good impression, the Council expects only that the substantial unity of the rite be preserved.

Reading immediately postconciliar commentators on Sacred Music, such as Joseph Gelineau, Lucien Deiss, and others, one cannot help but suspect that this relaxed expectation flows in part from a certain skepticism about even the possibility of music that truly transcends culture, an attitude that views art as intelligible only within its own cultural context, and incapable of aspiring to universal human values. It is similar to the view that yielded the “dynamic equivalence” model of translation for liturgical texts set forth in the 1969 document Comme le Prevoit, a model which at its worst views languages and cultures not as interactive, living realities, capable of absorbing other syntaxes, constructions, and thought patterns, but rather as frozen, hermetic realities, sealed in their own prison of self-reference, into which no new thought can be introduced unless it is expressed in the way it would have been expressed, had it originated in the target language and culture.

What I am arguing for should not be construed as cultural insensitivity! It is obvious, to take one example, that the Our Father (which, as an aside, 21st-century man is able to recite just fine with all its “thees” and “thous”) is both good English idiom and a literal translation in a way that so very nearly all of the pre-2011 ICEL prayers are neither. And no one can doubt that our language, Germanic though it may be, has been enriched by the liturgical idioms (“Lord, have mercy,” for instance) carried over quite literally from the Latin & Greek, and by all of the Hebrew words carried straight over without concern for translation. We are fortunate that, as of 2002’s Liturgiam Authenticam, the Church now recommends literal translation where possible, and dynamic equivalence only where absolutely necessary, and then discreetly and, as the document puts it, “soberly”. This represents a matured understanding of the way that languages respond to ritual texts, and are more enriched by a faithfulness to the content of the prayers than by any attempt to reproduce their “impact” on worshippers in the target language (supposing we have any native speakers of Latin on hand to experience and describe that “impact” in the original language). It also represents a renewed aspiration for that universality in worship called for by St. Pius X, in which local usages of the Roman rite are experienced harmoniously enough to engage and edify the faithful of whatever nationality.

With the 2011 translation of the Roman Missal, the American Church is once again able to experience a Gloria, responses, prayers, prefaces, and Eucharistic Prayers that are the genuine equivalents of those prescribed by the universal Church. Like tuck-pointing a building, this kind of restoration is not glamorous business, and its benefits are invisible to most; the inconvenience and expense of the work are what are most obvious to many. Possibly most of the response to it will consist of complaints. But the good it is accomplishing, though invisible, is real.

But how can this practical, experiential unity, the kind envisioned by St. Pius X, that is now being recovered in the language of the liturgy be recovered in the music of the liturgy? Dare we yet assert that musical expression might not be entirely culturally relative? That the people of one culture are not only not hermetically excluded from appreciating the music of other cultural expressions, but that they may adopt these modes of expression, take ownership of them and, perhaps by the addition of some local color, actually contribute to them?


Certainly this has been the case with popular music, and there’s a strong argument to be made that the same has been true for sacred music, which I hope to tackle in my next post.

Sean Connolly

Sean Connolly

Sean is a teacher of History, Latin, and Choir at the high school level and parish music director. He keeps his domestic church in ordered disarray with an equally beleaguered and altogether lovely lady and his little daughter.

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