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Deacon Kyle Eller: Lost in the fire? Notre Dame invites us to consider rebuilding other treasures

May 13, 2019

Sometimes the coming together of seemingly unrelated events sparks a new insight. In the days after the Cathedral of Notre Dame in Paris burned, I was preparing for a radio interview about something else, a sacred music workshop in Hibbing I’m helping with in early May.

Deacon Kyle Eller
Mere Catholicism

In the midst of this, a line from one of the documents of the Second Vatican Council came to mind: “The musical tradition of the universal Church is a treasure of inestimable value, greater even than that of any other art.”

That’s the first sentence from the chapter in the council’s Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy — the magna carta of modern liturgical reform. If you really stop to think about what those words mean, it’s an extraordinarily bold statement. The events at Notre Dame really put its question to us. Here we are in the midst of grappling with the potential loss of the cathedral and its contents. Catholics, of course, thought (or should have thought) of the most precious thing the cathedral contained, infinitely more precious than the whole building and everything else in it, the Blessed Sacrament. We also thought of irreplaceable relics.

These things are of a different and higher order than any mere artwork.

But we were rightly grieved, too, at the thought of losing the architecture and irreplaceable and priceless works of art. Consider their worth to the human race. Now multiply that. Think of St. Peter’s in Rome. Think of all the other beautiful churches in Rome, let alone all of Europe.

For that matter, think closer to home. Last year around this time, I had the privilege of going to St. John Cantius parish in Chicago for liturgical training, and it seemed like every time I walked around a corner there was another amazing nook with relics or sacred art. Every time I step into the beautifully renovated St. Joseph’s Cathedral in Sioux Falls, where I have family, or even into its adoration chapel, my heart is lifted to God.

Think of the treasures even just in our own local parishes.

And here are the fathers of the Second Vatican Council saying the treasure of the church’s sacred music exceeds all of that other art. Imagine!

The rest of the chapter is about how this “treasure of sacred music is to be preserved and fostered with great care” by the church in her liturgy, giving Gregorian chant “pride of place,” with greater formation for clergy in sacred music, the fostering and promoting of choirs, improved versions of the chant books, liturgical training for composers and singers, and so on.

As I read it, new compositions are put in the context of this incredible patrimony of sacred music we were to receive and preserve and foster — as taking their place within and building upon that living tradition.

And then the absolute opposite of that happened.

While vestiges still remain, in many parishes, this tradition of sacred music was almost completely eradicated, replaced with music that both in form and in lyrical content is often utterly alien to it.

Over many years now, I have worked to learn this lost patrimony of sacred music myself and to share it with others in my small way through singing it and teaching it and encouraging it. It is easy for me to grieve over what might have been, what ought to have been, had the church carried out this aspect of liturgical reform in the way I believe Vatican II intended.

I can imagine magnificent plainchant adaptations, harking to ancient modal melodies of millennia-old chants, the faithful still praying in vernacular translations the rich liturgical texts that now languish largely unsung, unsaid, unnoticed in the missals.

I can imagine what it would be like had new generations of composers and choirs, formed in the mind of the church, who knew Palestrina and Byrd and the rest, built on that tradition, and what their motets might sound like during the Offertory had we invested in that since 1963.

But rather than dwell on what has been lost in the metaphorical fire, as it were, perhaps this literal fire at Notre Dame presents us an invitation to a more positive approach.

We have been reminded that beauty matters — that it can be, in fact, a way to God, even a privileged way in our difficult times of evangelization. The church even has a name for it — the “via pulchritudinis,” the “way of beauty.” Debate over how Notre Dame is to be rebuilt has rekindled in us a renewed sense of why it was built in the first place. It has, too, proposed for us the question — the examination of conscience — over why we “don’t build them like that anymore.”

Should our renewed sensitivity to these questions not transfer over to the rest of our faith life? Should we not reconsider the other things that have been lost, particularly when it’s clear they were great treasures never, ever meant to be lost? Ones that can be recovered, rebuilt?

I’m very grateful to belong to and to serve as a deacon in a parish in which plainchant and other forms of sacred music are no longer alien, no longer like a long forgotten musical “mother tongue.” They are part of our liturgical life every weekend. It is my fond hope that they become ever more so, in our parish and in many others.

It’s true that this rebuilding is difficult, especially at first. But do you know what else it is? Possible. Possible, that is, if we want it to be.

Deacon Kyle Eller is editor of The Northern Cross. Reach him at [email protected]