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J.P. Sonnen – Global Pilgrim

Young Catholics find escape in classical sacred music 

Voices Feb. 13, 2019

Participants in the inaugural B.C. Sacred Music Symposium chat with the Most Rev. Joseph Perry of Chicago, the keynote speaker at last year's conference.    Photo: OC-Travel

Local Catholics will be making their way this August to Saints Joachim and Ann parish in the Fraser Valley to participate in the 2019 BC Sacred Music Symposium.

The organizers have announced the dates of this second annual event for Aug. 2-4, 2019.  Early registration is open through the website bcsacredmusicsymposium.com.

The launch of the symposium last year drew large crowds, founded in part on a belief that classical liturgical music can appeal to younger audiences. The highest number of participants were the under-40s. 

This phenomenon is on par with research that shows a clear indication of new listening trends in North America. Some studies show almost half (45 per cent) of young people see classical music as an escape from the noise of modern life. 

The new symposium aimed at younger singers is based on more than just a trend. 

Young participants cited a desire for the sacred, a refuge from the world of noise and static music, seeking worship music that “makes your heart soar,” proving even the oldest of sacred music repertoire still has something meaningful to offer. 

The symposium seeks to bring together musicians and faithful of all skill levels and ages to gather for instruction, collaboration, and fellowship. 

The event includes the opportunity to attend choral workshops and lectures on multiple levels: beginner, intermediate, advanced, professional, and, new this year, chant intensive.

There will be a special emphasis on Gregorian chant. This is because chant serves as a model for the nature, the spirit, and the form of liturgical singing in the Roman Church. Among the ecclesiastically approved ways to set the Latin text to music, chant is the most notable one. 

While congregational signing is encouraged, singing by the people in the pews has its natural limitations.

Organizers believe the better the quality of sacred music, the closer the choir becomes the sublime interpreter of the congregation, bringing to the congregational singing a quality of expression that by themselves the faithful in the pews cannot achieve alone.   

The Catholic Church has always taught that musical art serves a vital purpose to help reveal the mystery of the Church, salvation, and the human person in a form appropriate to man’s sublime calling.

Cardinal Michael von Faulhaber, the beloved prelate who ordained Joseph Ratzinger priest in 1951, once described liturgical music as “a fiery tongue of the Holy Spirit.”

Catholics are keen to use musical art as a tool since the very essence of art is to present the invisible in visible form, the indefinite in the definite. At the same time, musical art needs religion if it wants to penetrate the very mystery of existence and so fulfill itself. 

Indeed, sung Mass in the Roman rite is, in its form and movement, in its Gregorian or polyphonic expressiveness, a true classical school of art, reverence, and veneration, a source of devotion and thanksgiving, a foundation for a spirit of joy and readiness for service. 

The 2019 symposium is also the occasion to gather genuine experts in Church music who are marked by their professional competence. They include teachers, musicologists, composers, and conductors. 

Mass during the 2018 BC Sacred Music Symposium. (BC Sacred Music Symposium photo)

These professionals come together to celebrate sacred music taught and learned as an independent discipline with its own laws. 

In the Church today there are confusing polemics around the area of what music is best suited for the sacred liturgy and how to define and combat the well-intentioned although problematic musical dilettantism of our age.  

This is in part because there is a difference between sacred music and liturgical music – they are not always the same. 

In view of the crisis in authority which is noticeable in many areas besides liturgy, it is a relief to see so much enthusiasm among young professional musicians for classical music in the liturgy. 

At the symposium the best of what the Church has to offer in the area of sacred music is provided to fill in the gaps and help equip parish choirs to communicate the inexpressible inspiration of sacred music.   

In musical theory and in performance and composition, the directors of the conference seek to preserve the precious heritage and help address new problems. 

Selected hymns are in both English and Latin. English for obvious reasons because the use of the vernacular is allowed in the Church’s music in addition to Latin.

Latin because the Church has created a great part of the musical inheritance of the human race in Latin, helping to make it the universal musical language. 

Latin’s optimal musical status is on account of its vocal richness and melodic flow and because of its rhythmic fullness.  In fact, it has been shown Latin can be better and more stereophonically heard than English.    

Further, Latin is better suited than vernacular languages in the area of musical metre, prosody, declamation, idiomatic expressions, sentence structure, and tonic accent. 

The Church has recalled to us in Vatican Council II (Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy, article 36): “Particular law remaining in force, the use of the Latin language is to be preserved in the Latin rites.” 

In contrast to various misleading translations of this injunction, it must be observed that the official text of the document employs the subjunctive servetur and therefore expresses a command, not merely a recommendation.  

Finally, participants at the symposium are given the opportunity to study and practise while also singing together and hearing the music in a liturgical context, namely during the chanting of the Divine Office and the concluding sung Mass in Latin, showcasing the mature musical culture of the Roman Church, the core of which is Solemn High Mass in Latin.    

The keynote speaker this year will be Msgr. Andrew Wadsworth, Executive Director of the International Commission on English in the Liturgy (ICEL).  He will address the theme of liturgy and sacred music meeting together at the symposium.    

It is hoped that not only by the external forms of musical styles, but also by their internal expressiveness, young hearts will be inspired.   

The more closely liturgical music is interiorly connected with divine worship, so much the greater is its religious meaning and expressiveness. 

J.P. Sonnen is a tour operator and history docent with Vancouver-based Orbis Catholicus Travel.