In conclusion, let me reference a statement issued in 2003 by John Paul II to commemorate the one-hundredth anniversary of the document Tra le sollectudini, dealing with sacred music and promulgated by Saint Pius X in 1903. The Pope’s new document is dated November 22, the feast of St. Cecilia, the patron of music, and in it he warns that not all music, even if sacred in nature, is suitable for liturgical use. He goes on to urge the Congregation for Divine Worship to “pay closer attention” to the issues of liturgical music. He repeats that exhortation in a plea for episcopal conferences to “pay closer attention” to the music used in the liturgy in their respective countries. One interpretation of these warnings could result in a paranoid fear that Big Brother is watching. I prefer to take the more benign reading and think the Pope recognizes the real power of music (as well as the other sacred arts) to transform us, to shape our life of prayer and our ways of thinking about God. The more benign reading suggests the sacred arts, particularly music, are not merely something we use to decorate the liturgy but an essential part of worship. As such they need as much care and attention as all the other details mentioned in teh General Instruction of The Roman Missal. – Michael S. Driscoll, “Musical Mystagogy: Catechizing Through The Sacred Arts”, in Charlotte Kroetzer, ed. Music in Christian Worship: At The Service Of The Liturgy, p. 43
As with the other pieces, I read this while listening to music. In this case a concert/interview with the now-defunct band October Project. As I write, I’m listening to the Polish progressive rock band Riverside (I chose them because Poland is a Catholic country, believe it or not). The musics in question are very different, providing a richness of context through which to consider what Driscoll, a Roman Catholic, has to say about matters of music, aesthetics, and mystagogy. He spends an awful lot of time of John Paul II’s 1999 Letter to Artists. What’s most interesting to this Protestant reader is the vast distance JPII traveled between the 1999 letter and the 2003 statement. The former, earlier letter is an open invitation to all artists to consider their works as possibly revelatory, even if they are not aware of it. He also links the aesthetic and the moral in a way many artists (and the Pope was a poet and playwright prior to being made Bishop of Rome) have done through the centuries. While I think Driscoll gives JPII a bit too much of the benefit of the doubt in his latter statement – considering who he was grooming to replace him – I do think both the more “paranoid” and “benign” interpretations have much merit to them, not least because of the reality that not all music, not even sacred music, is a good fit for the liturgy.
All the same, the larger portion of Driscoll’s essay concerns itself with mystagogy not as a part of the formal catechetical practice of the church, but a life long journey in which and through which the believer becomes ever more aware of the mystery of the Divine through the immersion in the sacred arts of the liturgy. While critical of pre-Vatican II liturgical practice as more performative than inclusive, he is also critical of the Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy for its overemphasis on getting the words of the Mass correct, neglecting the non-verbal parts of the total immersion that Christian worship is supposed to be. Finally, while the title of the essay is “Musical Mystagogy”, its focus is far broader, on the arts in general as far as they contribute to the liturgical practices of the church, i.e., to draw the praying community together to the mystery of God-With-Us.
I think this essay could have benefited from a a focus on the specifics of the title; that is, now that much of the High Mass is spoken rather than chanted; now that the sermon is spoken rather than chanted; now that hymnody is flourishing in Roman Catholic circles, providing a variety of expressions of faith outside the ancient Missae, Driscoll could have talked about how all these changes have altered the important function of mystagogy. In particular, as a Protestant, I can say that we de-emphasize the mysterious aspects of faith at the expense of rational clarity of expression, what with our emphasis being on the Word read and proclaimed, rather than the entire worship experience, including the aesthetic surroundings being a communal immersive event, offering the congregation the opportunity to live within while contemplating the reality of the mystery of the Incarnate Son, for the Father, through the Spirit.
Still, there is much fruit here, at least for a further discussion of aesthetics and liturgy and how they work to express the mystery that is the faith of the gathered community. As someone who is always learning, I appreciate especially the insistence that mystagogy not be limited to a particular portion of the life of the believer (i.e., catechesis) but be something we explore throughout our life of faith. I also believe we should be able to find in a variety of arts, most especially music, those moments of transcendence that demonstrate for us that mystery surrounds us, holds us, saves us, and will deliver us. While not all music is suitable for the liturgy, I believe much of the music we humans create, from progressive rock to jazz to heavy metal to hip-hop can be a source of awe and wonder, giving the listener a glimpse of the ineffable mystery that is God’s never-ending love for all creation.