Benedict XVI’s honorary doctorate speech: first full English translation

On 4 July 2015, Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI received two honorary doctorates honoris causa from the Pontifical University John Paul II and from the Krakow Academy of Music, in recognition of his lifelong, resolute dedication to sacred liturgy and sacred music. This was first announced in mid-June, with Benedict making a stunning exception to his policy of not receiving public honors; in a letter to the rector of the aforementioned Pontifical University, he wrote that he could not refuse such recognition from two institutions closely linked to Krakow and to his old friend, St. John Paul II.

At Castel Gandolfo, where Pope Francis invited him to spend two weeks of rest, Papa Ratzinger formally accepted the two honorary doctorates from Cardinal Dziwisz (Grand Chancellor of the aforesaid Pontifical University) and the respective rectors of the two academies; since music was the central theme of the event, a small orchestra and choir were also on hand to perform some exemplary pieces from the western canon. While it is usual for the honored person to hold an extended discourse upon receiving an honorary degree, Benedict instead delivered a brief message of thanks, in the Italian language, with a few thoughts on the nature and purpose of sacred music.

Let not its brevity fool anyone; although his body is frail, his mind is as sharp as ever. We are treated to a classic Ratzingerian exposition, nuanced and eloquent, wise and refined— a perfect reminder of why, I am certain, that he shall one day be numbered among the Doctors of the Church.

English-language outlets have translated bits and pieces of the short speech, but not yet in full. Even the Vatican has only posted the text in Italian, German, and Polish. (It seems that Pope Francis’ recent trip to Latin America has taken most of the Catholic media’s attention). My own English translation of the entire address is below. As far as I can tell, this is indeed the first English translation of the full speech. Please cite it as you wish; I only ask that VMNT be given due attribution.

The text speaks for itself and I have no desire to encumber it with superfluous commentary. I have sparingly added [in brackets] some clarifications where necessary. Without further ado, what follows are the Pope’s remarks.



Benedict XVI’s words of thanks
(VMNT’s full English translation)

[original Italian source: Holy See Press Office]

Eminence [Card. Dziwisz]! Excellencies! Magnificent rectors! Illustrious professors! Ladies and gentlemen!

In this moment, I cannot but express my greatest and most cordial thanks for the honor which you have reserved for me by conferring the doctoratus honoris causa. I thank the Grand Chancellor, the dear eminent Cardinal Stanislaw Dziwisz and the academic authorities of both Academies. Above all, I am overjoyed by the fact that in this manner, my bond with Poland, with Krakow, with the homeland of our great saint John Paul II has become all the deeper. For without him, my spiritual and theological journey is unimaginable. With his living example, he has shown us how the joy of great sacred music and the task of common participation, how solemn joy and the simplicity of faith’s humble celebration, can go hand in hand.

In the post-conciliar years, on this point, a most ancient contrast has arisen with renewed passion. I myself grew up in the Salisburghese [the area around Salzburg, Austria] which was marked by the great tradition of that city. Here, it so happened that festive Masses accompanied by the choir and orchestra were an integral part of our faith experience in the celebration of the liturgy. It remains indelibly stamped in my mind how, for example, at the intonation of Mozart’s Coronation Mass, the heavens seemed to open and we very deeply experienced the presence of the Lord. And also thanks to you all [the orchestra present at the ceremony], who have allowed me to hear Mozart, and also to the choir— some great songs! Beside this, in any case, the new reality of the Liturgical Movement was already present, above all through one of our chaplains who later became vice-regent and then rector of Freising’s major seminary. During my studies in Munich, and then, very concretely I entered even more into the liturgical movement through the lectures of professor [Joseph] Pascher, one of the most significant experts of the Council on liturgical matters, and above all through a liturgical life in the community of the seminary. In this way, little by little, the tension between participatio actuosa in harmony with the liturgy and the solemn music which adorned the sacred action became perceptible, even if I didn’t yet feel it strongly.

In the Constitution on the Liturgy of the Second Vatican Council it is written clearly: “The treasure of sacred music is to be preserved and fostered with great care” [Thesaurus Musicae sacrae summa cura servetur et foveatur] (SC 114). On the other hand, the text underscores, as a fundamental liturgical category, the participatio actuosa of all the faithful in the sacred action. Those things which in the constitution remained peacefully together would later, during the reception of the council, fall into a relationship of frequent, dramatic tension. Important circles of the Liturgical Movement held that there would only be space for the great choral works and scores for orchestral Masses in a concert hall, not in the liturgy. Here there would be space for only for chant and the common prayer of the faithful. On the other side, there was dismay for the cultural impoverishment of the Church which necessarily arose from this. In what way can these two be reconciled? How do we implement the council in its entirety? These were the questions which were posed to me and to many of the faithful, to simple people as well as to people with a theological formation.

At this point it is perhaps right to pose the underlying question: what is music really? Whence does it come and to what does it point?

I think we can identify three “places” from which music arises.

The first source is the experience of love. When men are arrested by love, it reveals to them another dimension of being, a new greatness and fullness of reality. It drives man to also express himself in a new way. Poetry, chant, and music are born of this experience of being struck, by this revelation of a new dimension of life.

A second origin of music is the experience of sadness, being touched by death, being touched by pain and by the abyss of existence. Even in this case, new dimensions of reality which run in the opposite direction [toward death], and which can no longer find a response in mere speeches, also reveal themselves.

Finally, the third place of music’s origin is the encounter with the divine, which from the beginning is part of that which defines the human. A greater reason is that, here, we find present the wholly other and wholly great one who incites in man new ways of expressing himself. Perhaps it is possible to confirm that in reality, in the other two spheres— love and death— the divine mystery touches us and, in this sense, being touched by God constitutes the overall origin of music. I find it moving to observe how, for example, in the Psalms, chant no longer suffices for man, and so he appeals with all the instruments: the hidden music of creation, its mysterious language, is awakened. With the Psalter, in which the two motives of love and death also operate, we find ourselves directly at the origin of the sacred music of the Church of God. One can say that the quality of music depends on the purity and greatness of the encounter with the divine, with the experience of love and pain. The more pure and true this experience is, the purer and greater shall be the music which is born and developed out of it.

At this point I wish to express a thought which in recent times has taken hold of me, that is, how the diverse cultures and religions enter more in relation between themselves. In the realm of diverse cultures and religions, a great literature is present, a great architecture, great paintings, and great sculptures. And in each there is also music. However, in no other cultural sphere is there a music of equal greatness than of that born in the realm of the Christian faith: from Palestrina to Bach, to Händel, all the way to Mozart, Beethoven, and Bruckner. Western music is something unique, having no equal in other cultures. And this— it seems to me— should make us think.

Certainly, western music greatly surpasses the religious and ecclesial sphere. However, she she finds her deepest origin in the liturgy, in the encounter with God. In Bach, for whom the glory of God represents the end of all music, this is totally evident. The great and pure response of western music came about in the encounter with the God who, in the liturgy, makes himself present among us in Christ Jesus. This music, for me, demonstrates the truth of Christianity. Wherever such a response takes place, an encounter with the truth occurs, an encounter with the true Creator of the world. For this, great sacred music is a reality of theological import and of permanent significance for the faith of all Christianity, even if it is not completely necessary that it be always and everywhere executed. On the other hand, it is clear, however, that it cannot disappear from the liturgy, and that its presence can be a very special way of participating in the sacred celebration, in the mystery of the faith.

If we think of the liturgy celebrated by St. John Paul II in every continent, we see the fullness of the faith’s expressive possibilities in the liturgical event; and we also see how the great music of the western tradition is not extraneous to the liturgy, but is born and has developed from her, and in this way it always contributes to once again give form to the liturgy. We know not the future of our culture and of sacred music. But one thing seems clear to me: where an encounter with the living God who comes to us in Christ truly occurs, there is born and grown again that response whose beauty comes from the truth itself.

The activity of the two universities who confer upon me— who have conferred upon me— this doctorate honoris causa— for which I again give thanks from my heart— represents an essential contribution that the great gift of music of the Christian faith tradition remain living, and that it be of help so that the creative force of the faith shall not be extinguished in the future. For this I heartily thank all of you, not only for the honor you have reserved for me, but also for all your work in the service of the beauty of the faith. May the Lord bless you all!

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