The Catholic Thing
The Sound of Faith Print E-mail
By Robert Reilly   
Saturday, 03 March 2012

There is no intellectual in public life today who understands the essence of music in a more penetrating way than does Benedict XVI. He is a musician himself and his brother Georg is a musician and a composer. But his appreciation goes well beyond mere technical knowledge, and is beautifully expressed in The Spirit of the Liturgy, A New Song for the Lord, and various remarks on the occasions of concerts.

For the pope, the purpose of art is to make the transcendent perceptible. In 1985, then Cardinal Ratzinger wrote, “Whether it is Bach or Mozart that we hear in church, we have a sense in either case of what Gloria Dei, the glory of God, means. The mystery of infinite beauty is there and enables us to experience the presence of God more truly and vividly than in many sermons.” 

How does this happen? He went on to say:

Faith becoming music is part of the process of the word becoming flesh. . . .When the word becomes music, there is involved on the one hand perceptible illustration, incarnation or taking on flesh, attraction of pre-rational powers, a drawing upon the hidden resonance of creation, a discovery of the song which lies at the basis of all things. And so this becoming music is itself the very turning point in the movement: it involves not only the word becoming flesh, but simultaneously the flesh becoming spirit.

Where does inspiration come from to create music at this exalted level? Ratzinger’s answer: “The Holy Spirit is love, and it is he who produces the singing. . . .The Holy Spirit leads us to the Logos, and he leads us to a music that serves the Logos as a sign of the sursum corda, the lifting up of the human heart.” That’s exactly it, even if not every inspired composer could put it in these profound words. Even an artist as vaguely religious as Sibelius said, “the essence of man’s being is his striving after God. . . . [Composition] is brought to life by means of the Logos, the divine in art. That is the only thing that really has significance.” 

In a similar vein, the pope explains that:  “It is not the case that you think something up, then sing it; instead, the song comes to you from the angels, and you have to lift up your heart so that it may be in tune with the music coming to it.” Scottish composer James MacMillan, who composed the Mass of Blessed John Henry Newman for the 2011 papal visit to Great Britain, concurs: “The great composers were like angels who fell to earth to give the rest of us a glimpse of heaven.”

This vision has important implications for liturgy:  “But above all this is important, the liturgy is not a thing the monks create. It is already there before them. It is entering into the liturgy of the heavens that has always been taking place. Earthly liturgy is liturgy because and only because it joins what is already in process, the greater reality.” 

       Joseph Ratzinger, musician

That’s why the liturgy and the music that accompanies it must be beautiful. Otherwise, it disfigures the greater reality it is supposed to reflect and participate in. Benedict XVI has said that not every kind of music is appropriate for worship:  “it has its standards, and that standard is the Logos.”

When music serves its hieratic function, it is the sound of faith. The pope has described his experience at a Bach concert, conducted by Leonard Bernstein, after the death of conductor Karl Richter. He was seated next to evangelical Bishop Hanselmann. “As the final tones of one of the great cantatas of the Cantor of St Thomas died away triumphally,” he recalled, “we looked at each other spontaneously and, just as spontaneously, said to each other: anyone who has heard that knows that faith is true.”

This is more than a pious sentiment. It helps explain the numerous conversions to Christianity in Japan when conductor Masaaki Suzuki and his Bach Collegium performed a series of Bach Cantatas.

Some of the pope’s views on music may occasionally seem too Platonic, but they are not. They are incarnational, because Logos became flesh: “Thus we come to the paradox that it can be said of Christ that ‘you are the most beautiful of all men,’ even when his face was disfigured. . . .Just in that disfigured face, the true and final beauty emerges; the beauty of love that goes to the last and shows itself stronger than lies and violence. . . .for together beauty and love form the true consolation in this world, bringing it as near as possible to the world of the resurrection.”

We should be “overpowered by the beauty of Christ,” which “is a more real and deeper perception than mere rational deduction. . . .[T]o have contempt for, or to reject therefore the shock of the heart’s encounter with beauty as the true way to perception impoverishes and makes empty faith as well as theology. We must find our way back to this way of perception – that is an urgent demand of this hour.” 

Benedict XVI believes that music is the most profound medium for this encounter: “To sing with the universe means, then, to follow the track of the Logos and to come close to Him. All true human art is an assimilation to the artist, to Christ, to the mind of the Creator.”

To meet the demand of this hour, we must listen. To what? Not necessarily liturgical music. The important thing can be found in the great secular compositions of Bach, Beethoven, Bruckner, and Mozart. There, as well, you will hear what St. Clement of Alexandria called “the New Song” of the universe, the base of all things. When you hear it, you will know whence you came, where you are going, and to whom you belong.

Robert Reilly is a former director of the Voice of America. He has taught at the National Defense University and served in the White House and the Office of the Secretary of Defense. His most recent book is The Closing of the Muslim Mind: How Intellectual Suicide Created the Modern Islamist.

© 2012 The Catholic Thing. All rights reserved. For reprint rights, write to: This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it

The Catholic Thing is a forum for intelligent Catholic commentary. Opinions expressed by writers are solely their own.

Rules for Commenting

The Catholic Thing welcomes comments, which should reflect a sense of brevity and a spirit of Christian civility, and which, as discretion indicates, we reserve the right to publish or not. And, please, do not include links to other websites; we simply haven't time to check them all.

Comments (7)Add Comment
written by Carol O., March 03, 2012
Terrific food for thought.
written by Grump, March 03, 2012
Well done, Mr. Reilly. In addition to the composers you listed, I also would add Signore Verdi, whose composed many operas that are spiritually uplifting including my favorite, La Forza del Destino. Listen to Pace, Pace mio dio, in which Leonora prays that she may find peace in death. It is a much beloved aria among the many Verdi composed made famous by such great sopranos s as Callas, Price and Tebaldi, and sums up the yearning we all share for peace.

Verdi's requiem rivals Mozart's masterpiece as well in sublime beauty. And although Mozart's The Magic Flute has many elements of freemasonry the vocals by the three priests and Sarastro are stirring.

Lastly, Beethoven's 9th Symphony and the final Ode to Joy movement that longs for the brotherhood of all is incomparable and considered by many to be the greatest music every written.

My favorite stanza:

Be embraced, millions!
This kiss for the whole world!
Brothers, above the starry canopy
Must a loving Father dwell.
Do you bow down, millions?
Do you sense the Creator, world?
Seek Him beyond the starry canopy!
Beyond the stars must He dwell.

One can only imagine the music that will be sung and heard in heaven.
written by Tony Esolen, March 03, 2012
I just recently stumbled upon Ralph Vaughan Williams' Fantasia on a Theme of Thomas Tallis (Tallis' Third Mode Melody). I think that if I can set a series of sacred paintings to this music, my students will learn more about the faith than they have in all the lectures they've heard from us all year long ...
written by Patrick K, March 03, 2012
On Friday, I went to Stations of the Cross set to Pergolesi's Stabat Mater. This was in an old Polish church in Chicago, St. John Cantius, which had fallen into disrepair during the 20th century. The Canons Regular of St. John Cantius are working on what they call "Restoration of the Sacred."

I've been delving deeper into the work of Olivier Messiaen. Although it is quite modern, Messiaen's music conveys a powerful sense of the glory and transcendence of the Faith, as well as of the beauty of the natural world. There's a performance of his Oiseaux Exotiques conducted by Pierre Boulez you can search for on YouTube.
written by Randall Peaslee, March 04, 2012
Was it St Augustine who said, "Singing is praying twice"?
written by Chris in Maryland, March 04, 2012
Bravo! I love Pope Benedict's ode to the beauty of Christ. It calls to mind one of the most poignant lyrics I have ever heard in song, from the hymn 'Jesus Christ The Apple Tree' - "His beauty doth all things excel..." I commend to all music lovers the sublime setting to music by Eliz. Poston - and recoomend the recording by The Theatre of voices, or the you-tube of Choir of King's College, Cambridge.
written by Graham Combs, March 04, 2012
Prof. Esolen: The Ralph Vaughan Williams' piece has been one of my favorites for years. Another piece that I found spiritually moving is Gorecki's Symphony No. 3. That it was an "international hit" in the 1980s was cause for hope. But it is an enduring piece. I recommend it to you.

Yes, an extraordinary piece Mr. Reilly. I am recommending it to the music director at my parish.

Write comment
smaller | bigger

security code
Write the displayed characters