Monsignor Richard.J. Schuler on Art, Music & Beauty in the Liturgy

Photo: OC-Travel
The late great Msgr. Richard Schuler (1920 - 2007) was an old mentor and friend of mine from my native Minnesota.  Ordained in 1945, Msgr. Schuler was a proud priest of the Diocese of St. Paul (Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis).  Many of his fans, myself, included, fondly remember him as one of the greatest US-born Church musicians of the latter twentieth century.  Monsignor was a brilliant university professor and high school teacher who in 1954 spent a year of study on a Fulbright scholarship in Rome studying renaissance music manuscripts in the Vatican Library.  That was a formative time in his life when he met Pius XII and attended liturgies of the Papal Chapel in the Sistine Chapel and Vatican Basilica.  He earned his doctorate in musicology from the University of Minnesota in 1963 with his dissertation on The Life and Liturgical Works of Giovanni Maria Nanino (1545 - 1607).  That was the same year he attended the Coronation of newly elected Pope Paul VI in St. Peter's Square, what was to be the last papal coronation.  Monsignor was both an erudite musician and historian, a linguist and a scholar, a theologian, a Renaissance man of a great many talents.  In 1970 the pope appointed him an honorary prelate.  From 1969-2001 he was pastor of the church of St. Agnes in St. Paul, Minnesota where he conducted his own orchestra, the Twin Cities Catholic Chorale.  His joy was to introduce people of all faiths or no faith to the incomparable beauty of the Roman Rite.      

Back issues from the 1950's scholarly journal CAECILIA, a once popular review of Catholic church music, reveal through Monsignor's printed articles his keen genius.  Later, his articles in the scholarly journal SACRED MUSIC reveal the same.  Monsignor was an early prophet, the only priest I know of in those years warning people long before Vatican II of an impending attack on sacredness and beauty in the liturgy.  Innovative clergymen were already popping up who were increasingly eager to depart from the traditional liturgy in an effort to open up to the future, increasingly moving left in an effort to popularize the faith by making it more intelligible and simplified for all.

Monsignor was greatly influenced by the encyclical Musicae Sacrae Disciplina, which appeared at Christmas, 1955.  This document, with its clarity of teachings and clear warnings from Pius XII, became in some ways the magna carta of Monsignor Schuler's later priesthood, a warning for those with ears of the coming storm, a response to certain modernistic ideologies that were dangers to the Church and later entered it and ate away at the Church's life, first attacking her liturgy and liturgical music.

Below is an article entitled The Sacred by Monsignor Schuler, which was originally given as a lecture at the University of Wisconsin at Madison for the Church Music Conference, July 21-23, 1980.  This article also appeared in Divini Cultus Seplendori, a Festschrift prepared in honor of the eightieth birthday of Joseph Lennards, edited by H. P. M. Litjens and Gabriel M. Steinschulte, Rome, 1980.  Finally, it was printed in Sacred Music, Volume 107, Number 3, Fall 1980.  It is re-printed here with permission.  I think this is an excellent article that offers some important insight that is worth repeating and sharing. 

* * *

by Msgr. Richard J. Schuler

The union within man of the spiritual and the material is one of the mysteries of human nature.  The centuries are filled with philosophers and saints who by word and act have attempted to reconcile the dichotomy.  Manicheans, Iconoclasts and Puritans dot the records of Christian history in one-sided efforts to adjust the physical and the spiritual; just as, falsely, Hedonists, Materialists and Humanists have moved to an opposite pole.  Only the Incarnation of the Second Person of the Blessed Trinity can provide the solution.  Christ alone is the light that illumines every man who comes into this world.  In Him, the spiritual and the material, indeed the divine and the human, unite in perfect balance.

When God created man and all things, He saw that they were good.  Every creature reflects the Creator who is Goodness.  But man, through his gift of free will, brought disorder into creation, and his original sin continues to afflict not only himself but all the created universe, which "groans and travails in pain," as St. Paul says1.  The disharmony that man experiences within himself between the material and the spiritual extends to his relationship with the rest of earthly creation, which is material, and with his Creator, Who is a Spirit.  And even after the Resurrection, redeemed creation, rejoicing in the grace of Christ's victory over sin, bears the scars of Adam's fall.

Burdened with the effects of original sin and yet still destined for an eternity in heaven, redeemed man has found the material world around him and even within him to be both his greatest friend and his worst enemy, his tool for salvation and his means of perdition, the reflection of the Creator and the lure of Satan.  But since God made all things good, it can only be in man's misuse of these things that they become evil for him.

Man's noblest use of God's creation is art.  In a sense, he here shares in God's creative power, for as God made man to His own image, so man in turn makes his art in the image of his own being or the world that surrounds him.  Dante says that art is God's grandchild, the child of His child.

Unfortunately, human art shares in human weakness; original sin touched all of creation.  Art, like the artist, is subject to death and sin.  "Rapt of its own beauty, it can take itself for God,"2 just as Adam and Eve desired to do.  Nevertheless, God in His wisdom chose to use art in His relationship with man.  He spoke to man in poetry through the prophets of the Old Testament; He inspired the song of the psalmist; He prescribed the architectural details for the building of the Ark, the Tabernacle, and the Temple; and He endowed man with an artistic spirit in imitation of His own creativity.  Christ too came into close association with human art.  He loved the beauty of the Temple; He preached in the literary forms and with the imagery of Jewish literature; He sang the canticles and the psalms and the hymns; He knew the choral and instrumental music and the dance of the Temple.

Truly, art has been God's tool in dealing with man.  Through it, He has materialized the spiritual and spiritualized the material.  By art, the Infinite has been shown to the finite,  the Creator to the creature, the Timeless to the temporal.  In a word, God has been made known to man through the medium of matter in its noblest form.  The Word was made flesh and His glory was made known, full of grace and truth.  Indeed, the supreme art of the Father is the human nature of Christ.

But if art is God's tool in coming to man, so too must it be man's means of reaching God.  Creation exists for the glory of God, and true art has its fulfillment only when it corresponds to the general purpose of all creation - the glory of God.  (How right Joseph Haydn was to mark Ad majorem Dei gloriam at the top of his musical compositions).  Art, however, can fail in that purpose.  It may be crated only to give glory to man, or it may indeed be intended to give glory to Satan.  But as in all creation, evil lies in the perverse will of man, not in the creatures themselves.  When an artist is able to make his medium reflect the beauty of the Creator and become a sign of eternal Beauty, then art is capable of lifting man, through God's grace, even into the life of the Trinity itself.  Art thus participates in the sacramental activity of the Church, but even when its effects is supernatural, it remains always a natural tool of religion.  The harmony, truth and goodness of God seem to shine forth in it, and man is thereby attracted to the reality that is represented here in matter.

On the other hand, art may fail to bring man to God.  This results when the techniques and laws of the artistic discipline are absent or violated, or when the artist lacks the faith that sees in work the reflection of the creativity of God Himself.  In the first case, what is produced is not even true art, because nothing can substitute for a natural talent or for the training of that talent.  This is salient, and perhaps it can be more quickly appreciated with reference to the practical arts than with the fine arts.  Surely we are quick to detect the incompetency of a plumber or a TV repair man who does not have command of his craft.  Actually, much of what may attempt to pass as art today is lacking in the basic requirements of the very discipline involved, and thus it does not even fall into the category of art.  It cannot, therefore, bring man to God, since the false cannot achieve the True.

So often, today, what is inferior and even false parades as art under the guise of being "modern." Because it is new, it is difficult to evaluate.  If it lacks the fundamental discipline of the medium used, it is not true art, and thus it cannot succeed in its task of being the transcendental connection between God and man.  Perhaps this may explain some of the failure of the recent English translations for the liturgy, as well as many of the musical settings prepared for the new liturgical texts.  They are not true art; they lack the basic qualities and order proper to their particular artistic discipline.  Although they are promoted as "contemporary," they do not achieve their ends.  They fail to raise man beyond the material things of this world to the Creator.  They are rejected even by the untrained who sense the failure to achieve the desired end - God.

Pope Pius XII in his encyclical , Musicae sacrae disciplina, emphasized the need of these two basic requisites in an artist who will create true religious or sacred art: he must possess skill in the techniques of his discipline and he must have the faith in God which will give him the interior vision needed to perceive what God's majesty and worship demand.  When either is lacking, the result is not satisfactory.  The artist without faith cannot bring others to God, since no one can give what he does not himself possess.  It may be true, of course, that subjectively one might be greatly moved by a work of an artist lacking that faith in God and seem to find in it a transcendental quality that reflects the Creator, when in reality such is not present.  It is in this very fact that the danger of art for religion lies, and it is here that satan can use art as a lure for man.  On the other hand, a man who has great faith but lacks talent or skill or training in the techniques of his chosen medium can produce only a sham, since all the good will in the world will not make an artist.  The work of art that the Church seeks will come from the trained and talented craftsman who has a vision of faith, is humble before the creativity of God in which he shares, and who has conceived in the depths of his soul a concept that he expresses in the material, but in which shines forth the majesty of God.

Pius XII tells us that the true work of art, secular or sacred, must be judged by the ultimate purpose of all creation, the glory of God.  Theories of art or aesthetics do not determine the success of art.

"The right ordering and guidance of man to his final end, which is God, is determined by an absolute and unchangeable law which is founded on the nature and infinite perfection of God Himself in such a way that not even God can exempt anyone from it.  This eternal and immutable law commands that man and his actions both manifest the infinite divine perfection, thus giving praise and glory to the Creator, and also, conformably to his powers, imitate it.  Man, born to attain this ultimate end, must mould himself to the Divine Model, and in his actions, direct all powers of both soul and body, after they have been duly set in order within themselves and properly subordinated, to the end to be attained.  Even art and artistic works, therefore, must be judged according to their agreement, and even their harmony, with the final end of man; and art must be reckoned among the noblest exercises of man's ability, since it has in view the expression in human achievements of the divine infinite Beauty, and is, in some way, a mirrored copy of it.

If that is true of every work of art, whatever be its medium, it also clearly applies to sacred and religious art.  Rather, religious art is even more closely bound to God and directed to His praise and glory, because it has no purpose but that of helping reverentially to raise the minds of the faithful to God through its action on the eyes and ears.  Hence the artist who has no faith, or whose heart and conduct are far from God, should not in any way apply himself to religious art, for he lacks that interior vision needed to perceive what God's majesty and worship demand.  Nor can he hope that his works, empty of religious inspiration, will inspire that faith and devotion befitting the sacred house of God, and hence worthy of being admitted by the Church, guardian and judge of religious life, even though perhaps such works will reveal an artist is skillful and endowed with a superficial dexterity."3

Religion binds man to God; the very word, religion, comes from the Latin, religere, to bind.  Religion needs art as a means of bringing man to God; and man, in utilizing the whole of creation in his response to his Creator, needs to use the noblest of his handiwork for that end.  Objectively speaking, religion is the sum of all doctrine, institutions, customs and ceremonies through which the human community expresses and organizes its relationship with the Creator.  Subjectively, religion is an inclination of the whole man toward a super-human and transcendental Creator in whom he believes, to whom he feels obligated, on whom he depends, and with whom he tries to communicate.4. That need of communication outwardly both with God and with his fellows results in the use of art.  The artist must create something appropriate to the glory of God but at the same time capable of touching the soul of man.  Religious must express itself, so that the spiritual can be made manifest; the invisible, visible; the unheard, audible.  Thus religion needs art for teaching, for missionary purposes, for its very existence.  Is not the Word made flesh the perfect art of the Father, the most perfect revelation of God's glory and the center of all Christian religion?  Is He not the mediator which binds the material to the spiritual?  He, the handiwork of the Father, is the bridge-builder.  Human art in its way imitates and reflects Christ; it is also a bridge-builder between Creator and creature.

The early Church was wary of art because of its connections and associations with pagan worship.  There was always a degree of distrust of art in religion.  Art is a danger to religion when it attempts to replace religion or substitute for it.  Religion becomes a danger to art, when it attempts to regulate its inherent disciplines.  But each needs the other: religion to inspire art to its highest expression; art to be the means of externalizing the spirit and truth of religion.  Bishop Graber of Regensburg says:

"Art and religion meet when the creative act merges into an act of faith, when the artist's work breaks through the surface fo life and reaches the heights and the depths of absolute being.  This merger of artistic creativity and religion bursts the barrier of this world's appearances and penetrates the supernatural.  Indeed, it goes as deeply into the divine life as the grace of God allows.  Therefore, every really religious work of art, and particularly every truly Christian work of art, is always filled with emotion, with awe of Him whom we are allowed to resemble after all.  Such work will never be naturalistic, because it will never stay within the borders of the natural, but it will try to reach beyond into the supernatural.  Therefore, it must break the natural forms in order to open the road to God.  Every attempt of Christian art to be naturalistic or even true to nature has been a mistake, for even when it remained a great art, it led inevitably to complete worldliness."5.

Art can be secular or sacred, depending on its purpose.  Secular art exists to imitate nature, to entertain, to inspire, to create moods, to rouse passions, to engrandize man.  It may have a hundred different purposes.  Sacred art, on the other hand, as the Vatican Council has recalled, exists to glorify God and to edify the faithful.  Art is true to itself when it fulfills its purpose.  If its purpose is in accord with the eternal law of God, it is morally good; if it exists for an evil purpose, it is evil.  The work of art itself is not evil; its purpose may make it evil.  Such is Satanic art, or art intended to arouse the passions needlessly or promote eroticism.

Modern art has been almost totally secular.  Time alone will be its judge.  If it follows its own laws and nature, if it fulfills its purpose, one may affirm its value.  But modern religious art in general has not been successful.  In too many cases, contemporary attempts in nearly all the media have failed because the artist has lacked the techniques necessary for a proper handling of the materials to be dealt with - sound, paint, stone, wood, words.  In other cases, the very purpose of sacred art has been wanting; the artist, even when he is a trained craftsman, cannot bring man to God if he himself lacks the necessary faith.  The middle ages reached God through art; they have been called the ages of faith.  The music, architecture, paintings and sculpture of those centuries still call forth in men's souls an enormous response toward God, as anyone who has entered the cathedrals of Chartres or Cologne or Amiens will attest.  The same can be said of the baroque art of the counter-reformation period; it was the manifestation of faith executed with the skills of artistic genius.  Both these periods had great faith and both produced a lasting sacred art.  It has been said that since the end of the baroque era there has not been an authentic, truly Catholic, sacred art.  No doubt, one can point to exceptions, but the fact stands that through the nineteenth and twentieth centuries the faith of artists has been weak even if their artistic talents and training were strong.  What is lacking in so much of today's attempts for the renewed liturgy is unfortunately both faith and talent.

Is not this failure of modern sacred art to reach God reflected in the efforts of the young to find religious experience elsewhere?  Some even say that drugs become a means of spiritual elevation.  The young seem almost to be wildly and yet vainly striving to escape the material things that have surfeited them.  But the eroticism, drugs and restlessness of contemporary society only more deeply inure man in matter rather than freeing him from it, so that his spirit might soar toward his Creator.  The continuing cry of liberty can only be realized in the freedom of the spirit, and that is found by matter-bound man only in the proper use of matter.  It is through art, the highest and noblest utilization of matter, that man will free his spirit, reach God, and ultimately find union with Him.

In a practical way, the liturgical reform called for by the Fathers of the Vatican Council has so far failed because artists have failed.  Liturgy, more than any other religious experience, needs to use the material.  Its very purpose is to praise God by raising the minds and the hearts of the faithful through material things to the Creator.  But this is accomplished only by the trained artist whose faith inspires him to create.  When we survey the efforts of the past fifteen years, one can only conclude that one or the other or both of these requisites is missing.  Where is the sacred art in the translations into English?  Do they transcend the material and carry man with their beauty toward the Creator?  And the musical efforts, often produced by well-meaning amateurs who are totally unprepared to deal with the techniques of the art, fail to move the minds and the hearts of believing and worshiping men.  Where is the art that can serve to bring man to God in churches that have been whitewashed and made to resemble Puritan meeting halls?  What has become of the art of sculpture or painting as hand-maidens of worship?

As early as the preparations for the Fifth International Church Music Congress in 1965, one could see that there were those who would deny the existence of the sacred or the place of sacred music in the liturgy, despite the clear statement of the Vatican Council itself that sacred song forms  a necessary or integral part of the solemn liturgy.  Both the pope and the council frequently refer to "sacred" music, and the instruction of 1967 begins with the very words, Musica sacra.  The malady that afflicts the Church was first evident in the liturgy and in sacred music.  But it is apparent today that what afflicts music in the service of worship is only a ripple on the surface of the sea; beneath there is a churning, seething, boiling ferment of error and disbelief.  We will never have a renewal of sacred music without faith; we will never have sacred music at all until the place of man in relation to God is clearly established.  There will be no sacred music until the place of art in man's seeking God is defined and the affirmation of the sacred in art is maintained.

In 1968 the Music Advisory Board of the Bishops' Committee on the Liturgy issued a statement in which it was affirmed that "the primary goal of all Eucharistic celebration is to make a humanly attractive experience."  Just five years before, the Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy of the Second Vatican Council had repeated the centuries-old formula that the purpose of sacred music is "the glory of God and the sanctification of the faithful."  It declared that liturgical music formed and integral part of the solemn liturgy.  In effect, the American statement replaces God with man as the end of sacred music since the creating of a "humanly attractive experience" becomes the purpose for its being.  Humanism is at the root of much of the disorder we witness today.  Music that man makes for man is rightly and quite logically music for his entertainment, at whatever level of competency or sophistication it may exist.  But music created and performed for the glory of God and the sanctification of the faithful demands quite different standards for judgement.  Indeed, dignity, reverence and beauty are imperative for music directed to God, and when these are lacking in sacred art it has not fulfilled its purpose.

The denial of the sacred, or the substitution of the secular for the sacred, is the logical sequel that flows from humanism, the exaltation of man instead of God.  "Sacred" by definition means the setting aside of something for the exclusive use of the Deity, particularly in the worship of the Deity.  Something that is secular is what is employed for the daily use of man.  Both are good; both are created by God; both indeed share in the effects of the Incarnation; both have perfectly legitimate purposes in man's life and salvation.  But by common agreement, every society sets aside persons, places and things, including forms of art, that are pledged to the end of serving it in the endless effort of reaching God.  Obviously, these things are material for the most part, and they are closely connected with the senses of man, but through their sacralization, their sacramentalization and even their supernaturalization they are elevated to the highest possible level in man's relationship with God.  Reverence, dignity and beauty will characterize these material things selected for such use, because man must seek the highest forms of expression of which he is capable in turning toward his God; his art provides that excellence and that perfection.

But when man assumes the place of God in the liturgy by an exalted humanism, the need for the sacred ceases.  The need to dedicate material things to God by sacralizing them, even the need for the sacraments or the acknowledgement of the supernatural elevation of man through grace, ceases.  The secular fulfills the purposes of humanism as well, if not better, than the sacred.  Man has not then need of God, and we have come to a kind of "practical atheism" which will never solve the eternal quest that man has to reach his Creator.

The basic problems of sacred music today do not lie in selection of repertory or in the encouraging of congregational participation.  The disputes over Latin and the vernacular, the choir, the use of various instruments besides the organ, are not the essential points.  The problems are really not musical; musicians could solve them.  It is not a question of composers or performers or even of money to encourage them.  The problem lies in the theological concept of "sacred."  It is fundamentally a question of faith, and it touches every section of the Church - the clergy, the musicians, the congregation.

1. Romans 8:22.
2. Wisdom 13:3.
3. Encyclical, Musicae sacrae disciplina, Section II, par. 3-4. 
4. Cf. Bishop Rudolf Graber, "Art and Religion," in Sacred Music and Liturgy Reform after Vatican II (Rome: Consociatio Internationalis Musicae Sacrae, 1969.) P. 36-51. 
5. Op. cit., p. 46.

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