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The Sound of Truth

Ratzinger’s writings on church music offer criteria for its renewal. They underline the central importance of the liturgy and open global perspectives. They are collected in the volume A New Song for the Lord (1996).


by Fr. Uwe Michael Lang

Buchcover Von Joseph Ratzinger, Benedikt XVI. "Ein neues Lied für den Herrn" - Christusglaube und Liturgie in der Gegenwart

The volume A New Song for the Lord (published in German in 1995) contains important contributions by Joseph Ratzinger on church music. The author’s preference for music results first of all from his biography: at an early age he learned to love this form of art, especially the work of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. The German pope’s predilection for music closely connects him with his brother Georg (d. 2020), who served for thirty years as director of the highly regarded boys’ choir at Regensburg Cathedral (Regensburger Domspatzen). 

Georg Ratzinger und Papst Benedikt XVI verbunden durch die Musik

How we attend to liturgy determines the fate of the faith and the Church.

Joseph Ratzinger’s perspective is not that of a musicologist, but that of a theologian, for whom sacred music is an essential expression of the mystery of Christ celebrated in the liturgy. For the publication of the book, Ratzinger wrote a preface that begins with a provocative assertion:

Throughout the years of the Liturgical Movement, as well as at the outset of the Second Vatican Council’s reform of the liturgy, it appeared to many as if striving for the correct liturgical form were a purely pragmatic matter, a search for the form of worship most accessible to the people of our time. Since then it has become increasingly clear that liturgy involves our understanding of God and the world and our relationship to Christ, the Church, and ourselves. How we attend to liturgy determines the fate of the faith and the Church[1]

Papst Benedikt XVI mit Weihrauch

As a theologian and pope, Benedict XVI was always concerned with a form of liturgical worship that draws people into the mystery of God and opens their hearts and minds to the saving work of Christ.

The liturgy gives sensory expression to the Christian faith’s understanding of God and the world. The “glory” of God can be experienced in the beauty of the liturgy, in which Ratzinger sees a living proof of the faith that goes beyond the power of rational arguments. As a theologian and pope, Benedict XVI was always concerned with a form of liturgical worship that draws people into the mystery of God and opens their hearts and minds to the saving work of Christ. 

At the celebration of Vespers in the Cathedral of Notre-Dame in Paris on 12 September 2008, he praised this masterpiece of Gothic architecture as “a living hymn of stone and light” in praise of the Incarnation of the Eternal Word of God in Jesus Christ. Benedict recalled that the poet Paul Claudel, during the singing of the Magnificat at Vespers in Notre-Dame on Christmas Day 1886, had a direct experience of God’s beauty, which was a decisive moment in his conversion to the Catholic faith. [2]

gregorianischer Chor singt

His analysis of the problems facing church music is captivating in its breadth and depth

Joseph Ratzinger has also confronted the many problems church music is facing today, and his analysis is, as usual, captivating in its breadth and depth. On the one hand, these problems are rooted in the radical upheaval following the Second Vatican Council. An almost puritanical reading of the principle of the “active participation” (participatioactuosa) of all the faithful in the liturgy often led to the replacement of music that makes certain artistic demands and needs trained musicians with banal compositions that supposedly help to build community. From this perspective, the traditional repertoire, from Gregorian chant to the polyphonic works of the twentieth century, is considered unsuitable for divine worship and is relegated to the concert hall, where it becomes a merely cultural event or is even transformed into a kind of “secular” liturgy.

The crisis of the “fine arts” and rock and pop music

On the other hand, European modernism has led to a crisis of the “fine arts” that for centuries offered a foundation for sacred music to build upon. Ratzinger considers pop and rock music unsuitable for Christian worship because, like certain types of pagan cult music in antiquity, they ultimately aim at a “Dionysian” experience of intoxication and ecstasy. 

Especially extreme forms of rock music aim at a release from self and absorption in the collective, which contradict the Christian idea of redemption and freedom. After his considerations were met with incomprehension, as expected, Ratzinger deepened his arguments against certain forms of music in worship. 

Notre Dame schön erleuchtet innen bei Nacht

Philosophical critique of commercial pop culture

In doing so, he invokes a philosophical critique of culture that characterises pop music as industrial mass production. In contrast, he emphasises the artistic purpose of music for worship, which he develops in a reflection on the Psalm verse Psallite sapienter (Ps 46:8 in the Vulgate), here rendered as “Sing artfully”. Against the accusation of elitism, Ratzinger also pays tribute to religious music rooted in popular traditions, which, unlike commercial pop culture is truly of the people.

As a historically-minded theologian, Joseph Ratzinger is aware that the definition of what can be considered authentically sacred music was at times hotly contested in the long history of the Church. The early Christians were anxious to separate the music of their liturgy from that of the cults. One consequence of this clear discernment was the exclusion of instruments from the Christian liturgy – a practice that is still maintained today by the Eastern Churches and is also a strong current of tradition in the Latin West (with the exception of the organ).

Criteria for a genuine renewal of church music

Christian liturgy can be understood as the result of a “process of spiritualisation” leading from the Temple cult of the Old Covenant with its animal sacrifices to the logike latreia (Rom 12:1), the “spiritual worship” that is in harmony with the divine Word and with human reason – a key theme in Ratzinger’s thought. 

With the development of Gregorian chant in the Roman liturgy, a remarkable harmony was achieved between the theological demands for music in worship and the natural desire for artistic expression. A significant advantage of Gregorian chant lies in its close connection to the biblical text, to which it gives musical form.

Joseph Ratzinger is not concerned with the canonisation of a particular musical style. The still current reflections from A New Song for the Lord rather offer criteria for a genuine renewal of church music and open global perspectives on how cultural traditions of young churches can be incorporated into divine worship.

Joseph Ratzinger, A New Song for the Lord: Faith in Christ and Liturgy Today, Crossroad (New York, 1996)

[Translate to English:] Portrait Pater Uwe Michael lang

Fr. Uwe Michael Lang is a priest of the Oratory of St.  Philip Neri in London. In addition to his pastoral ministry, he teaches Church history at St Mary’s University, Twickenham, and at Allen Hall Seminary. Fr. Lang is editor of Antiphon: A Journal for Liturgical Renewal.

[1] Joseph Ratzinger, A New Song for the Lord: Faith in Christ and Liturgy Today, trans. Martha M. Matesich (New York: Crossroad, 1996), ix. Ratzinger’s writings on church music are now accessible in Theology of the Liturgy: The Sacramental Foundation of Christian Existence, ed. Michael J. Miller, trans. John Saward, et al., Joseph Ratzinger Collected Works 11 (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2014), 421-515.

[2] Benedict XVI, Homily at the Celebration of Vespers, Notre-Dame Cathedral, Paris (12 September 2008).