From Pope Francis I And Patti Smith To The People’s Musical Needs

[Patti Smith] has spoken about how the Bible is “very resonant” today.

“It has everything – creation, betrayal, lust, poetry, prophecy, sacrifice,” Smith told The Independent. “It doesn’t really matter what religion you are or if you have no religion, those stories are still relevant to what people go through in their lives and they’re also beautifully written passages.” – Jess Denham, “Pope Francis Invites Patti Smith To Play At Vatican Christmas Concert”, The Independent, November 14, 2014

See, the former things have come to pass,
and new things I now declare;
before they spring forth,
I tell you of them.


Sing to the Lord a new song,
his praise from the end of the earth!
Let the sea roar and all that fills it,
the coastlands and their inhabitants.
Let the desert and its towns lift up their voice,
the villages that Kedar inhabits;
let the inhabitants of Sela sing for joy,
let them shout from the tops of the mountains.
Let them give glory to the Lord,
and declare his praise in the coastlands. – Isaiah 42:9-12

The difficulty of defining the musical office has often been regarded as a liability.  Then an attempt at definition forces the musician into “prophetic” or “priestly” molds, which is a mistake.  The lack of clarity here is part of the lyrical genius of music and a reminder of the balance needed.  It points to the Christian people, their story in song, and their character as pilgrims who never can nail things down too precisely without falling into idolatry.  Easy distinction between singer and leader of the song is different from them, complementary to them, and equally needed. – Paul Westermeyer, Te Deum:The Church and Music, p. 34

It is a story tailor-made for the main concerns of this site: The Pope, the Bishop of Rome, the Spiritual and Episcopal leader of one billion Roman Catholics around the globe has invited little old Patti Smith from northern New Jersey, a poet, a performer, a model, a mother, to perform at a Vatican Christmas concert to be held December 13.  If ever there was an example of a church leader heeding the call to “sing a new song”, this is it.  That Smith’s heyday as a musical performer is nearly four decades old now is neither here nor there; it is the wonder, the gratification, and the surprise that Pope Francis would find in her music – originals and covers – spiritual meaning and depth (which I would argue was always there; that’s what gave her power and appeal) and is unafraid to declare to the world, “Here is a new song.  Join with us,” is a testament not only to the Pope’s courage, but to the change not only in the Roman Catholic Church but in the cultural milieu in which it has to exist.  Considering Francis occupies the same office as Pius X who, a little more than a century ago, insisted that the best church music was Gregorian-style chant, I do believe this story should be taken lightly.

Yet as Paul Westermeyer notes in his history of music in the Church, musical decisions are fraught with complications.  Some of those complications can create havoc in churches.  We as a believing people are called to song; the Bible is filled with song.  Our faith cries out to be sung.  As for instructions about how that song is to be played . . .  That’s where things get messy, cause arguments, even get folks leaving one congregation for another.  One of Westermeyer’s central points is that music in the Church has always been music “of the people”, whether it was the Psalms which emerged from folk-styles, the hymnody of the Reformation (not counting Calvinist practice which reserved sole pride of place to simple musical settings for the Psalter), or even the current trend of praise music.  Decisions have to be made about what is appropriate: theologically; liturgically; and most of all what “fits” best with the preferences of the congregation without losing sight of the Biblical call that, living in a new creation, declaring with the prophet that the God of Israel is doing a new thing, demands we sing a new song.  It is here the distinction between priestly and prophetic, between pastoral and proclamatory, becomes most distinct.  It creates hundreds of questions, and few guides other than the history of what has gone before to help us through the morass of problems and possibilities.

As someone who is working through the theological and liturgical possibilities of all music, not just so-called “sacred” or “praise” music as worthy of being the songs of the congregation before God, Pope Francis’s decision mollifies me even as reaction to it highlights the very real problems facing the acceptance of allegedly “secular” songs as part of the Church’s repertoire.  There is nothing intrinsically wrong, and certainly not unChristian, in wanting to keep the music of the congregation something separate from that which is outside the walls of the church.  After all, the church is the ekklesia, those gathered together who have been called out, called out of the world in order to give glory to God for the salvation brought to the world in Jesus Christ through the Holy Spirit.  The Divine Act calls for sacred acts on our part in response.

At the same time, we must always reckon not only with the Biblical call for new songs, but the Christological reality that, by being both fully human and fully divine, Jesus Christ – as described metaphorically in the tearing of the curtain in the Temple – breaks down the barrier between our fully human understanding of what is “sacred” and what is “profane”.  This world, so beloved by God, is no longer in the grip of sin and death, but already a New Creation.  New Creation calls for new thinking, new worshiping.  It calls for new song, sometimes even challenging our notions of what praises God and what merely satisfies personal preferences without challenging a congregations inertia and comfort.  There is nothing wrong with loving those hymns that have brought us comfort, or remind us of the round of liturgical seasons, from Advent through Ordinary Time after Pentecost.  We have such a rich bounty of sacred music from which to bring forth praise worthy of God.  At the same time, as pastoral leaders and church musicians wrestle together, hopefully along with the congregations they serve, with the ever-present possibilities offered in new songs – new styles of music, new ways of praising God, different ways of singing praise from other cultures – all should keep their minds and hearts open to the possibilities inherent in the Gospel we profess and proclaim – that God’s salvation is to all, for all, and makes the dead not only in to the living, but discards the old for something never before seen.

Pope Francis’s invitation is a marvelous example of precisely what I would love to see done more: bringing not only contemporary styles of music, but even allegedly “secular” musical style and performers within the church walls, and hear them in a new context, a new setting, and perhaps open ourselves to the possibilities that they, too, are offering God praise.  We should allow ourselves to be surprised.

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About gksafford

I'm a middle-aged theologically educated clergy spouse, living in the Midwest. My children are the most important thing in my life. Right behind them and my wife is music. I'm most interested in teaching people to listen to contemporary music with ears of faith. Everything else you read on here is straw.
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