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 The Word From Rome

April 9, 2004
Vol. 3, No. 33

global perspective


"Vatican II had two beautiful phrases. We must conserve, but we must also augment. Conservation of the antique musical repertory is a custodial duty, but this can't block the charism and the prophecy of inventing new forms."

Msgr. Giuseppe Liberto,
maestro of the pope's own Sistine Chapel Choir

The maestro of the pope's own Sistine Chapel Choir; The priest shortage; Relations between the Holy See and Israel; Human trafficking; The next big story coming out of Rome - liturgical abuses


Editor's Note: We posted Word from Rome early this week because of Good Friday.

For all those who romanticize about a “golden age” of sacred music prior to the Second Vatican Council, for all those who would banish any melody but Gregorian chant from the Mass, the Catholic church’s top musician has a simple message:

Get over it.

“Any kind of guerilla action against Vatican II doesn’t produce good fruits,” said Msgr. Giuseppe Liberto, maestro of the pope’s own Sistine Chapel Choir. “The council’s principles by now are untouchable.”

By that, Liberto does not mean that the Second Vatican Council (1962-65) tossed out the great musical patrimony of the church — far from it, since the Sistine Chapel Choir routinely performs Gregorian chant. What he means, however, is that the great challenge posed by the council is not conservation but creativity, finding new musical wine to pour into new liturgical wineskins.

That, he said, is a work largely yet to be done.

Since 1997, Liberto has been the force behind the music at all papal liturgies and other Vatican events. His 55-member strong choir (35 boys and 20 adults) is the largest in the Catholic church. Liberto spoke April 7 in an exclusive interview with NCR in his Vatican apartment, just before the peak period of Holy Week.

“Liturgical music isn’t an abstract art,” Liberto told NCR. “In fact, you can’t start from the music at all. You have to start from the revised missal, the new rites. Music has to be at the service of the celebration.”

In that context, Liberto said, the main artistic challenge is not to go back but to go forward.

“Vatican II had two beautiful phrases,” he said. “We must conserve, but we must also augment. Conservation of the antique musical repertory is a custodial duty, but this can’t block the charism and the prophecy of inventing new forms.”

Liberto’s comments come amid a growing debate over music within Catholicism, as pressure for more traditional forms of verbal expression, especially in the translation of liturgical texts, is being matched in some quarters by pressure for more traditional music. Above all, this usually means Gregorian chant and polyphony.

Liberto insisted that the “disappearance” of Gregorian chant and polyphony was not the fault of Vatican II.

“In the parishes, before the council, who sang Gregorian chant?” he asked. “It was sung, if at all, by small groups. The people knew how to pray the rosary and to sing the Salve Regina to the Madonna, and that was it.”

Yet even if widespread use of Gregorian chant were somehow possible today, Liberto said, it wouldn’t be enough.

“By now the liturgy is in Italian, in French, in German, in all the languages ,” he said. “Certainly a minimum of Gregorian should be conserved, especially for international Masses. But in most other contexts, it won’t work. Music is a language, and we just can’t speak today in the language of the fourth century, or the 14th. Today, the musical language is truly heterogeneous. We have to find a language for celebration that is comprehensible, and practical.”

Liberto, 61, is a native of Sicily who in 1997 was called to Rome to replace the legendary head of the Sistine Chapel Choir, Domenico Bartolucci, who had been named to the post by Pius XII in 1956. Many observers saw the switch as a choice in favor of a more modern, post-Vatican II musical style, driven in part by the pope’s top liturgist, Archbishop Piero Marini.

None of this, Liberto insisted, means that he is insensitive to traditional forms of music, or to the need for deep liturgical reverence. He too has been disappointed by some of the more banal music written after the council, the kind that inspired protests like the 1991 book Why Catholics Can’t Sing.  Liberto acknowledged that he too sometimes “has difficulties” with the more Broadway-esque features of papal liturgies.

“When I’m directing the choir, I’m also celebrating the Mass. I give communion to my singers. The aim is to live the mystery liturgically through all those gestures and other elements, but it’s not easy. It’s a very real problem.”

At the same time, Liberto said, it’s pointless to romanticize about the pre-conciliar period.

“The church doesn’t go backward,” he said. “Those who don’t want the council, have to realize that the battle has already been lost.”

* * *

In his recent document “Moved by a Lively Desire,” John Paul II asked the Congregation for Divine Worship to pay greater attention to sacred music. What role, I asked Liberto, might the congregation play?

“I don’t know if they can say, you can sing this, you can’t sing that,” he said. Perhaps, Liberto suggested, the congregation could help promote inter-disciplinary collaboration.

“We need a kind of symphony among Biblical scholars, linguists, theologians, liturgists, and musicians,” Liberto said. “We all have to put ourselves in communion to realize this extraordinary cultural project of Vatican II.”

In that same document, the pope also asked bishops’ conferences to review their hymnals and other books of liturgical music. What hope does Liberto have for this process?

“Let’s hope above all that each of the bishops’ conferences have on their staffs competent experts in sacred music who can evaluate what’s been produced, suggesting what works and what doesn’t. Beyond that, it’s up to the bishops.”

* * *

Given that I was sitting with the pope’s musical maestro, I couldn’t resist asking about rock ’n’ roll.

For some Christians, rock is pretty much synonymous with evil (think Marilyn Manson, Frank Zappa, and the culture wars). One especially pithy expression of the image came in an episode of the TV comedy “The Simpsons,” Bart is informed of a Christian rock concert, and he huffs, “Everybody knows that all the best bands are affiliated with Satan.”

Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, the pope’s doctrinal czar, gave this perception authoritative force in a 1986 article in L’Osservatore Romano. Ratzinger wrote that rock “has become the decisive vehicle of a counter-religion.  ... Rock music is completely antithetical to the Christian concept of redemption and freedom, indeed its exact opposite.”

So what’s Liberto’s take?

First of all, he said that he can’t see much scope for bringing rock ’n’ roll into the liturgy. The church is constantly in search of new forms of expression, he said, but there have to be limits.

His personal feelings about rock?

“I don’t listen to it,” he admitted, chuckling. “It disturbs me.”

When he’s relaxing, Liberto said, he’d rather hear some Vivaldi, or Stravinsky, or perhaps Bach. But he stressed that this is a question of personal taste, not a dogma of the faith.

“I don’t scandalize very easily, perhaps because of my typically Sicilian cultural formation,” he joked. “We Sicilians have welcomed many, many cultures over 3,000 years of history. It’s in our blood.”

* * *

When I lecture on Vatican affairs, inevitably one of the first questions to come up is, “What does the Vatican think about the priest shortage?” To many Catholics, especially Europeans and North Americans watching their pastors age and their parishes close or consolidate, the problem seems more urgent than ever, and they wonder how it looks in Rome.

On April 6, we got an answer.

Based on comments from Colombian Cardinal Darío Castrillón Hoyos, prefect of the Congregation for Clergy, and his deputy, Hungarian Archbishop Csaba Ternyák, the Vatican’s attitude boils down to: 1) things are not as bad as it might seem; and 2) to make them even better, get back to basics. The best way to generate vocations, the two men suggested, is to foster holiness among priests — happy, holy priests will naturally induce others to follow their path.

Further: At least under present management, you can forget about ordaining married men in response to shortages. In the clearest possible terms, Castrillón indicated that John Paul has taken the subject off the table.

 Castrillón and Ternyák were on hand for an April 6 press conference to present John Paul II’s annual Holy Thursday Letter to Priests, a custom the pope began 25 years ago. This year, John Paul called priests to a deeper Eucharistic spirituality, and to greater pastoral efforts to cultivate vocations.

In commenting on the letter, Ternyák argued that while some parts of the world are struggling with priest shortages, in other regions there is actually a “promising vocational spring.” He presented a statistical overview of the number of Catholic priests in the last 40 years to make the point, which I reproduce below:


Continent 1961 2001
Europe 250,859 206,761
Latin America 43,202 63,159
North America 71,725 57,988
Asia 25,535 44,446
Africa 16,541 27,988
TOTAL 404,082 405,067

The bottom line is that priestly vocations worldwide are up, though by a minuscule margin. More importantly, the overall total masks dramatic regional variations. Numbers in Asia and Africa have almost doubled, while the fall-off in Europe and North America is obvious.

Castrillón made clear that the ordination of the so-called viri probati, or tested married men, in areas of the world hard-hit by shortages is a non-starter.

“It’s a recurrent argument,” Castrillón acknowledged. “There are priests, even bishops, who have asked about it.”

Castrillón said he didn’t want to rely just on sociological rebuttals, but he observed that other Christian churches with a married clergy face the same problems of secularization, abandoning of the faith, closing of churches, and so on, as the Catholic church.

Beyond that, Castrillón said the central reason the Vatican has turned down these requests is because John Paul II says so.

“The Roman Curia has no reason for existence other than service to the primacy [of the pope],” Castrillón said. “We work, we collaborate, with the successor of Peter. … the Vicar of Christ believes it is not a good idea to change the historical understanding of the Latin church with regard to celibacy.”

Castrillón said that John Paul sees the issue from a “pneumatological point of view.”

“Without the Holy Spirit, one can’t understand how the Vicar of Christ gives us light, when from a purely sociological point of view his position might seem less valid,” Castrillón said.

“His view is that the strength and holiness of the church is assured, among other things, by priestly celibacy,” Castrillón said.

One journalist observed that while the number of priests has stayed basically the same over 40 years, the global Catholic population has gone up by more than a third. Castrillón, however, argued that one can’t say that therefore the church is under-staffed by just that amount.

As life expectancy has gone up in the West, he said, and as the capacity of people to remain productive longer has increased, “a priest of 70 or 75 today has the vitality that a priest of 60 might have had in the 1960s.” Hence, Castrillón said, the “pastoral capacity” of today’s Catholic clergy is greater — the church, in other words, can do more with fewer priests.

Ternyák asked Catholic families to support sons interested in a priestly vocation. He said that today the idea is not always greeted with a “joyous yes,” something he called a “very grave problem.”

Finally, both men insisted that while things might not be as bad as some reports suggest, there still is an urgent need to cultivate vocations. Both said the best strategy is to foster holiness among priests already in the field.

“The fidelity of priests is the first instrument,” Ternyák said. “A caring, enthusiastic priest in love with the Eucharist and with Christ will gather young people around him … there will always be results.”

* * *

Back to the pope’s letter.

In section six, John Paul calls for priests to be attentive to altar servers, who represent what he called “a kind of garden of priestly vocations.” The English translation uses the phrase altar servers, not altar boys, even though female servers aren’t eligible to pursue a priestly vocation.

Some observers wondered if the pope’s exhortation was an indirect way of taking sides on a debate that still rumbles in some quarters over whether female altar servers jeopardize vocational recruiting, or even end up calling the ban on female priests into question. Last summer, there were rumors in the Italian press that a forthcoming document on liturgical abuses intended to ban altar girls. Vatican sources later denied those rumors to NCR.

A March 1994 letter from the Congregation for Divine Worship to the presidents of bishops’ conferences expresses current discipline, pointing out that the Pontifical Council for the Interpretation of Legislative Texts ruled in 1992 that canon 230§2 allows for girls to assist at the altar. The council held, however, that the Latin term possunt in the code meant that while girls can assist, no priest can be forced to call them to this service against his will.

 I asked Castrillón if the pope’s letter signified any back-tracking on altar girls.

“The Holy Father in this case did not make any reference to liturgical forms of participation in the Mass,” Castrillón said. “There are already documents from the Congregation for Divine Worship on the matter. This is not an exclusion.”

* * *

One of the great Lenten traditions in Rome is the daily pilgrimage to the “Station Churches.” Each morning at 7:00 am, English-speakers gather in a different church for Mass. The custom reaches back to the early centuries of Christianity, when it was the pope’s practice to visit each Roman parish on a set day each year. Eventually the list of these “stational churches” grew to 94.

Though the pope no longer makes the rounds, various language groups still do during Lent, visiting 46 churches over seven weeks. The Mass in English each day is organized by priests and seminarians from the North American College. It’s a great way to discover the churches of Rome, in the process doing what John Paul II calls imparare Roma … meaning to learn the history and culture of the Catholic church through the physiognomy of its capital city.

At each station Mass the celebrant (or a deacon) gives a homily. For my money, however, the most impressive piece of oratory we heard this Lent came not from a cleric, but from a diminutive Italian Consolata nun.

Sr. Eugenia Bonetti spoke at the end of Mass at the Church of Santa Prisca on April 6, the last day of the station visits. Bonetti leads, on behalf of the Italian Conference of Women Religious, efforts to combat human trafficking, which has been called a 21st century form of human slavery.  This year the collections from the station Masses will go to support their efforts, and Bonetti rose to express thanks. She spoke for no more than five minutes, but expressed more passion and human concern than most speakers could over hours.

Bonetti first set the table with a few statistics. In Europe, there are some 50,000 to 70,000 women on the streets, mostly from Africa (above all Nigeria), Latin America and Eastern Europe. Some 40 percent are minors, between 14 and 18, and a high percentage are victims of cross-border trafficking of human beings for purposes of sexual expoitation.

Worldwide, the number of trafficked human beings is estimated to be somewhere between 700,000 to 2 million.

Bonetti then spoke from the heart about the exploitation and injustice these women suffer, something she has seen firsthand over her career as a missionary in Kenya, then as coordinator of anti-trafficking strategies in Turin and now in Rome. She said she recently traveled to Nigeria, for example, and visited the homes of the some of the young Nigerian women who had been repatriated with the help of her program. Seeing the desperate poverty many of them live in, Bonetti said candidly, it may just be a matter of time before some of them once again roll the dice in search of a better life, perhaps ending up in the clutches of traffickers.

Though Bonetti did not say so explicitly, it seemed clear that all our Lenten piety would be hollow if meditation on the Cross of Christ did not impel us to do something about this “scourge of the century.” Trafficking is not, Bonetti said, a “women’s issue” — it is an issue of human dignity that concerns anyone with a conscience.

Watching this elderly nun stand in front of a largely male assembly presided over that morning by Archbishop John Foley, with barely enough stature to peek out over the ambo, yet thundering away like a prophet, was quite a sight to see.

The sustained applause that followed suggests I was not the only one impressed.

Footnote: Bonetii was in Nigeria conducting a training program on trafficking for religious women. Development of curricula for the training program was funded by a $60,000 grant from the U.S. Department of State, arranged through U. S. Ambassador to the Holy See James Nicholson. The trafficking issue has been a front-burner concern for Nicholson throughout his tenure in Rome.

* * *

Relations between the Holy See and Israel are complicated on multiple fronts.

To begin with, the two parties have different visions of the peace process in the Middle East. The Holy See wants a special status for Jerusalem and the holy sites, and supports sending international observers to monitor an eventual case-fire. Israel regards both ideas as a violation of its sovereignty. More basically, some in Israel believe the Holy See’s foreign policy tilts in favor of the Palestinians, while Vatican diplomats sometimes lose patience with what they see as Israeli recalcitrance.

Relations are also strained by stalled negotiations on implementation of the 1993 fundamental agreement that established full diplomatic relations between the two parties. Unresolved issues include the tax status of the Catholic church, its property rights, and funding for its schools.

In recent days, another conflict has emerged: Israel’s refusal to grant visas and residence permits to Catholic clergy. Despite pledges from Israeli officials to resolve the problem, sources told NCR April 7 that the situation was unchanged.

“The Catholic church appears already not to have sufficient personnel legally present in Israel to carry out the Church’s functions at the Holy Places, the parishes, the schools, etc.,” Fr. David Jaeger, spokesperson for the Franciscans in the Holy Land, told NCR April 7.

 “If things have not yet shut down, it is only thanks to the personal courage of the priests, brothers and sisters who stay on in the country illegally, risking arrest, trial and deportation rather than desert their post. In several cases we know of, the sacrifice is even greater, when religious cannot travel to attend parents on their deathbed, since, without a current visa or residence permit, they would not be allowed in again to return to their duties.”

Jaeger voiced skepticism about government pledges to study the problem.

“This makes it sound as if there were some objective problem out there,” Jaeger said. “In fact, there is no problem to solve, except the one the government itself has created by ceasing to do what they had done for over half a century, i.e. issuing, and renewing, the required visas in a more or less timely fashion.”

Jaeger said this practice has been upheld by governments of both left and right, but has never been codified into law. This is one loophole the negotiations should close, he said, making it all the more urgent that Israel return to the table.

Since Israel announced on Aug. 23, 2003, that its delegation would not attend any of the eight scheduled meetings, Jaeger said, there has been no progress.

“The State of Israel increasingly risks being found in formal breach of its solemn treaty obligation ‘to negotiate’ and ‘to negotiate in good faith,’ in accordance with Article 12, and most especially, at this time, in accordance with Article 10, par.2, of the Fundamental Agreement. I trust and hope that this is not a risk the Government of Israel will choose to run,” he said.

“So much has been invested in this historic enterprise by so many others as well, both Catholics and Jews! It is simply not possible to contemplate with equanimity the danger of it all coming to naught.”

Oded Ben-Hur, Israeli Ambassador to the Holy See, told NCR April 7 that his government is working on the problem.

“In the last few weeks a special commission headed by the deputy director general of the Ministry of the Interior, ordered by Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, has been formed and met several times in order to examine ways to facilitate the issuing of visas.  [It reviewed] the criteria and time frameworks needed for security scrutinizing, as well as reorganizing the whole bureaucratic mechanism and the hold-ups that generated this unfortunate and damaging backlog.

 “Last Monday on the phone, I was personally reassured by the Israeli

Minister of Interior that in the coming weeks after Passover we should be able to see the good results of our efforts. The minister was well aware of the damage the whole issue is creating for Israel.

 “He also expressed his concern and commitment to personally get involved in order resolve the matter, emphasizing the importance he attached to the fostering of relations with the Christian world,” Ben-Hur said.

* * *

Aside from whatever the pope says over Easter, which will make headlines because it’s a slow news period and the Vatican always delivers gorgeous pictures, the next big story from Rome is likely to be a forthcoming document on liturgical abuses. In the works for more than a year, the document’s release is imminent, perhaps by the end of the month. (Though other sources say it will be May, and one Vatican official told me simply, “I’ll believe it when I see it.”)

John Paul II requested the document in his April 2003 encyclical, Ecclesia da Eucharistia. It is expected to offer a hard-nosed insistence on following the liturgical rules, cracking down on local “experimentation.”

On Friday, April 2, Cardinal Francis Arinze and Archbishop Domenico Sorrentino, the prefect and secretary of the Congregation for Divine Worship, took part in a Vatican news conference. The official topic was the presentation of a volume of essays from a December conference marking the 40th anniversary of Sacrosanctum Concilium, the Vatican II document on liturgy, but the forthcoming document on abuses formed part of the subtext.

In his remarks, Arinze said his congregation “wants to promote an examination of conscience and the assumption of initiatives for confronting abuses that have been introduced, in contrast with the hopes and the directives of the council and the magisterium in these 40 years.”

Arinze referred to the frustration these abuses sometimes cause in the faithful — a subject that his office probably knows better than anyone else, based on the mail they receive from people upset about this or that deviation.

“These reflections,” Arinze said, “should be of help to those who are tempted to lose faith in the church because of true or supposed abuses, as with those who either introduce their idiosyncrasies in the sacred liturgy, or who refuse as a matter of principle the directives of Vatican II.”

The latter comment seemed directed at Catholic traditionalists who have long insisted that the liturgical reforms of Vatican II amount to a betrayal of earlier discipline and teaching. Arinze left no space for such a view.

“Our faith in the church, which our beloved Lord and Savior Jesus Christ founded, tells us that the Holy Spirit has always accompanied the church, in the Council of Jerusalem (50) as in the Council of Trent (1545-1563) and in Vatican II, and will guide it to the end of time,” Arinze said.

Later, Arinze made a similar point.

“The church is alive,” he said. “When the church lives in every age, it’s not a part of the Vatican Museums, or an ecclesiastical refrigerator. You can’t say, ‘Don’t touch anything.’”

I asked Arinze about the document on abuses.

“The Holy Father says often that Vatican II led to some very good things, but also some shadows,” he said. “He asked us to go into the details.”

Arinze repeated that the document is a joint project of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith and his own Congregation for Divine Worship. He assured journalists that “you will not be forgotten,” and said there will be another press conference when the document appears.

The e-mail address for John L. Allen Jr. is

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