The Sound of Faith

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 Director of the Westminster Institute and 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. He is the author of The Closing of the Muslim Mind: How Intellectual Suicide Created the Modern Islamist. His most recent book is Making Gay Okay: How Rationalizing Homosexual Behavior Is Changing Everything.

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