Monday, August 15, 2011

'Keep your sung Latin Office, or lose vocations': Paul VI's prophetic declaration of 1966

2009 09 30_4504
Rievaulx Abbey, Yorkshire. (More photos.)

Forty five years ago today Pope Paul VI issued an Apostolic Letter, Sacrificium Laudis, addressed to religious superiors. As a service to the Church the Latin Mass Society is making available an English translation on the World Wide Web for the first time (as far as I can see), a translation prepared by Fr Thomas Crean OP, our Midlands Regional Chaplain. Not only has this document never been published in English on-line, but it was never included in the the Acta Apostolicae Sedis, the official record of Papal acts, though it was published in the official journal of the Congregation of Rites (Divine Worship) Notitiae, and is on the Vatican website in Latin and Italian. It deserves a wider audience.

It is a short document, in which Pope Paul VI does not implore but commands with all his authority religious orders to retain the singing of their offices in Latin, to the authentic Gregorian Chant settings. He forsees the disaster which was to follow the abandonment of this tradition. Here is a key passage.

What is in question here is not only the retention within the choral office of the Latin language, though it is of course right that this should be eagerly guarded and should certainly not be lightly esteemed. For this language is, within the Latin Church, an abundant well-spring of Christian civilisation and a very rich treasure-trove of devotion. But it is also the seemliness, the beauty and the native strength of these prayers and canticles which is at stake: the choral office itself, ‘the lovely voice of the Church in song’ (Cf. St Augustine’s Confessions, Bk 9, 6). Your founders and teachers, the holy ones who are as it were so many lights within your religious families, have transmitted this to you. The traditions of the elders, your glory throughout long ages, must not be belittled. Indeed, your manner of celebrating the choral office has been one of the chief reasons why these families of yours have lasted so long, and happily increased. It is thus most surprising that under the influence of a sudden agitation, some now think that it should be given up.
2009 10 01_4412
Mount Grace Priory, Yorkshire. (More photos.)

In present conditions, what words or melodies could replace the forms of Catholic devotion which you have used until now? You should reflect and carefully consider whether things would not be worse, should this fine inheritance be discarded. It is to be feared that the choral office would turn into a mere bland recitation, suffering from poverty and begetting weariness, as you yourselves would perhaps be the first to experience. One can also wonder whether men would come in such numbers to your churches in quest of the sacred prayer, if its ancient and native tongue, joined to a chant full of grave beauty, resounded no more within your walls. We therefore ask all those to whom it pertains, to ponder what they wish to give up, and not to let that spring run dry from which, until the present, they have themselves drunk deep.

As in a number of things, Pope Paul VI has been proved to be prophetic. And alas, in this as on other issues his initial resistance against bad things was overwhelmed. Religious orders continued to petition him to abandon their customs in the singing of the Office, and he gave in. The consequences have happened, however, exactly as he predicted. Already a visitor to many of the once-great monasteries and religious houses of Europe and North American sees what Shakespeare saw in 16th Century England:

Bare ruined choirs,
Where late the sweet birds sang.

2009 10 01_4452
Byland Abbey, Yorkshire. (More photos.)


  1. Jacques12:14 pm

    Thank you Joseph, this text is an eye-opener.
    Always good to give credit to a Pope.

  2. It's truly remarkable how spot-on his prediction was. It's quite a shame that it came to fruition. I wonder why the permissions were ultimately granted?

  3. A question: if the Apostolic letter was never published in the Acta Apostolicae Sedis, can it technically be said to have been promulgated in accordance with Canon 8?