A nun conductor and the Tongyuan Church choir in a hymn singing event at Sanyuan Diocese in China on Oct. 15, 2015. (Photo supplied)
The Pontifical Council for Culture and the Congregation for Catholic Education held an international conference on sacred music to mark the 50th anniversary of Musicam Sacram, the Second Vatican Council's instruction for music in the liturgy.
When receiving the conference participants on March 4, Pope Francis said that "sometimes a certain mediocrity, superficiality and banality have prevailed to the detriment of the beauty and intensity of liturgical celebrations."
The pope's words reflected a certain reality of the Catholic Church in China. As such, we must pay more effort to develop Chinese church music as this is an obligation requested by the council document Sacrosanctum Concilium (Constitution of Sacred Liturgy) that says "sacred music is to be considered the more holy, the more closely connected it is with the liturgical action."
Church music in China is still in early development. Everyone is very active and enthusiastic in learning church music. However, there are certain aspects that are still not ideal. For example, the Chinese church so far does not have an official, unified and high-standard hymn book. There are also few composers of sacred music and works are scarce.
Thus, liturgies in China are filled with all kinds of grotesque and unsuitable songs.
Misunderstanding active participation
The development of Chinese church music faces difficulties. First, a misunderstanding of the Vatican council's liturgical concepts. More precisely, the meaning of "active participation."
"The liturgy is the summit toward which the activity of the church is directed … Mother Church earnestly desires that all the faithful should be led to that fully conscious, and active participation in liturgical celebrations," the council document says.
But the Sacrosanctum Concilium is highly generalized and should not be understood literally word-by-word. To interpret it correctly it is necessary to learn the church teachings on liturgical music and to study theologians' writings on scared music. The most authoritative and systematic theology on sacred music was written by emeritus Pope Benedict XVI.
As Pope Benedict XVI said, "fully conscious and active participation" in the liturgy cannot be simply understood as "participation of all" but rather everyone should play his or her role.
Some singing sessions in the liturgy need to be accomplished by the choirs while the others participate by listening with devotion. Not all the hymns need the faithful to sing together as certain songs require practice and therefore should be sung by a choir. Practicing music ahead of the Mass is also part of "participation."
Mistaking active participation as the mobilizing of all congregants, hymn selection suffers because it has to take into consideration the performance the whole congregation and diminish the role of the choir. As a result, beautiful and solemn choruses are losing their foothold.
A conductor leads a choir in a hymn singing event at Sanyuan Diocese in China on Oct 15, 2015. (Photo supplied)
Secondly, clerics' negligence on church music is another issue.
During Mass, the clerics' proclamation and the congregants' response is an important part of liturgical music. It is the first level of church singing. Therefore, the clergy needs to strengthen their own music formation, their disposition on sacred music and understand the importance of the chant in Mass celebrations. They also need to cultivate the singing performance of the faithful.
How to develop church music healthily?
First, we should pay importance to the Gregorian chant and learn it, at least chanting correctly the Gregorian hymns that are often used and then dig deeper through systematic learning.
Each diocese needs to allocate a considerable amount of funding to develop for church music instructors. Well-established dioceses should follow the universal church's guidelines to recruit the right people to a sacred music commission and form a base for music training.
The Chinese church currently has a lot of training on different kinds of "sacred music" but most of them do not include correct concepts of liturgical music, the systematic study of Gregorian chants or polyphonic church music.
In recent years pipe organ courses in the China church have bloomed. But the result was far from ideal as there were no follow-up courses. Therefore, we need to develop and spend money wisely thinking of long-term results.
Church music is not show business
Lastly, we must help the faithful understand that training in church music is not for show business or an image-building project but only for devotion and reverence to God.
Church choirs should have a certain level of ability and an appreciation of polyphonic church music composed in the Renaissance era. As Pope Benedict XVI said, liturgy has a "cosmic dimension" beyond history and we should not treat classic church music as a museum piece.
Liturgies in many Chinese parishes today are too jolly with little solemnity. We need to study the conciliar document on liturgy correctly. It is not a separation from the past but an integration that sheds light on today's liturgy and its implementation.
If our liturgy becomes vulgar and ordinary just to catch up with modern times, leaving the sacred and solemn behind, will not attract people to God.
Implementing liturgy correctly without turning solemnity into a jolly atmosphere, people will become more devout and actively receive the nourishment of the Eucharist.
Father John Baptist Zhao of China obtained a Master's Degree on Music Composition at the Pontifical Institute of Sacred Music in Rome.