The Italian Almanac

singing bishop

Holy Music

Italian conductor Riccardo Muti is backing Pope Benedict XVI's drive to discourage guitar ''sing-songs'' from Catholic masses. The traditionalist German pontiff has called for an end to the use of pop-inspired religious music that many Catholic churches have used in different parts of the world to attract the faithful.

''It is possible to modernize holy music,'' he once said at a concert at the Sistine Chapel. ''But this cannot happen outside the great traditional path of the past, of Gregorian chants and sacred polyphonic choral music. (The Church supports) new expressive means (in music, as in art and architecture) without denying the past, the history of the human spirit, which is also the story of its dialogue with God''.

Critics have said the use of modern music helps the Catholic faith remain relevant and vibrant for young people and that it is better to have guitars and tambourines during mass than empty churches. But those objections have been rejected by world-famous conductor Muti.

''The pope is right when he says it is necessary to bring our great musical heritage back into churches,'' said Muti, a former director of Milan's La Scala who is now in charge of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. ''The history of great music was determined by what the Church did. When I go to church and I hear four strums of a guitar or choruses of senseless, insipid words, I think it's an insult."

Benedict's line on modern music is part of his bid to take the Church back to its roots. This has also led to him reviving the use of the Latin Mass, which had been abandoned after the 1962-1965 Vatican Council introduced masses in local languages. Many Catholics are uncomfortable about the resurrection of the Latin Mass as they see it as a partial reversal of the reforms of the Second Vatican Council, which is widely viewed as having brought the church into modern times. photo: Italian conductor Riccardo Muti.