Doc. František Kunetka, Th.D. /Olomouc University – CZ/

Even nowadays, in the society of the beginning of the 21st century, maybe to our surprise, we can encounter such terms as ‘sacredness‘, ‘demythologisation‘, or ‘secularisation‘. We can still hear about the crisis of the sacral; simultaneously we can notice undeniable interest in this domain. We can say in general that Christian theology assents to secularisation and supports the autonomy of created objects, demythologisation of the biblical message meaning inquiring after its essence. Nevertheless, at the same time, along with the entire tradition of apophatic theology, it draws attention to the necessity of the presence of mysterium; for we are being confronted with something or by somebody completely Other (Lévinas) and our words and symbols transcend to silence and ineffability. Karl Rahner formulates: „Das Geheimnis ist in seiner Unumgreiflichkeit das Selbstverständliche“.

Liturgical theology speaks about celebration of mystery. The right comprehension of this notion can help us to interpret ‘sacredness’; for we are speaking about the sacred liturgy, about the sacrality of church, we use the term ‘musica sacra’.

In the biblical-theological tradition the term mysterium (mystérion in Greek) designates the eternal Divine economy with the world and man, the economy of their salvation
and redemption. This intent has been from eternity hidden in God, it is being unwound through history and is being fulfilled in Christ. It constitutes the Divine act, the Divine aim for man, God’s sharing of Himself, which is being manifested in concrete historical events. Their anamnetical-celebrative representation occurs in liturgy. Man’s action in a liturgical action is thus already a response – a response to God’s activity. For all creation is involved in Christ’s work of redemption, liturgy uses also material elements – thus it has a cosmo-theandrical dimension. All sacredness interrelated with liturgical action arises from this mystérion; so it is a mysterial sacrality, not a mysterious one.

Let us apply this basic assertion to two realities related to liturgy: on liturgical music and on liturgical space.

Musica sacra

In our context we understand, by these terms, liturgical music, not spiritual music in general. But what does this expression sacer signify? In what does the sacrality of the music used in liturgy consist?

During the 20th century the category of ‘musical sacredness’ underwent a revolutionary development. We find the first official statement pronounced in connection with the liturgical movement of the 20th century in the Motu proprio of Pius X Tra le sollecitudini of 22th November 1903, influenced by the spirit of Cecilianism. Here, the sacrality of music is measured by its own style, quite in the spirit of the mentioned movement. It is Gregorian choral chant which is considered to be liturgical chant, the closest to it is classical polyphony. Other music styles are only tolerated. One speaks about sanctitas formae: music is sacral because of the fact that nothing in this music itself nor in its performance, is profane.

Nevertheless the Constitution on The Sacred Liturgy of Vatican II formulates it this way: ‘…sacred music is to be considered the more holy in proportion as it is more closely connected with the liturgical action’(art. 112). It should enable an intensified experience of Divine-human dialogue taking place here, it should amplify prayer and strengthen the unity of participants. For what concerns the styles of liturgical music, Gregorian chant and polyphony are mentioned (art. 116) but it is said as well that all forms of true art are accepted (formae verae artis) (art. 112).

The other step of development is represented by a document published one hundred years after the above mentioned papal statement. This document is a text of the international society for liturgical music Universa laus issued from its general assembly in Gazzada in August 2003. Its title is ‘Music in Christian liturgies’. The notion of sacrality is here ‘personalised’, as it moves from the form and liturgical action towards the participants themselves. ‘In liturgy, no type of singing or instrumental music is in itself sacred. In Christian worship, it is not music which is sacred but the live voices of the baptized singing in and with Christ’. (art. 2, 7) The beauty of singing is related to the internal beauty of those who are singing (2, 8). ‘The new chant (cf. Ps 33, 3; 96, 1; 98, 1) is the song of the new humanity’ (2, 6). We don’t sing only with our voice but with our whole being, our life. The sacredness of liturgical music is related to the experience of meeting the One, who ‘alone is holy’.

During one century a desacralisation of the form occurs while a new mystic emerges, this one springing from the baptismal existence.

The sacral space

Unlikely in the above described domain, in the problematic of the sacredness of liturgical space there has existed, since the beginning of Christianity, an unambiguous comprehension and interpretation: the church space is sacral because of the fact that saints (= Christians) assemble there for the celebration of liturgy. This unity is linguistically expressed in many languages that use the same term for the Church and church: ecclesia, Église, Church, Kirche, cerkov, Kościół. For the first Christians the decisive fact is that (and not where) they have to assemble. For liturgical celebrations – especially for the Sunday Eucharist – they used their houses, later, after the conversion of the Emperor Constantine, also public halls – basilicas. The places for assembly – thus also the later churches – are not in continuity with pagan temples (templum), neither with the Temple of the Jews. The Christian church is not a sacral space where only the high priest could enter while people should stay assembled outside. No ‘Temple curtain’ (Mt 27, 51) exists any more. For the Christians a church is a relative quantity, they can have it but it is not necessarily. For the proper church of the Christians is Christ. His person is now the most peculiar place of cult. He himself speaks about the ‘temple of his body’ (J 2, 21). That is also why Christians broke with the ancient notion of priesthood and sacrifice. The only priest of the New covenant is Jesus Christ and it is for the connection with him that Christians can become a ‘holy priesthood’ (1 Pt 2, 5). The Church doesn’t have a number of sacrifices but has a unique sacrifice – Christ himself (Ef 5, 2). For their radical break with the tradition of temples, sacrifices and priesthood, the first Christians were, paradoxically, taken by their contemporaries for atheists.

The sacredness of the Christian liturgical space is being relativised also by the understanding according to which the assembly of Christians itself – the Church – is the temple. In the New Testament, Christians are designed as ‘the holy temple in Lord’, ‘God’s dwelling in the Spirit’ (Ef 2, 11-22), as ‘living stones’ (1 Pt 2, 4) of the temple built on Christ. The Christian church is in the very sense sanctified not by the act of dedication (dedicatio), but by the celebration of the Eucharist.

The sacrality of the space is thus derived from the action occurring in it: the believers assembled to celebrate mystérion, God’s inclination to man in Jesus Christ, to which they respond by prayer and songs of praise.


Sacrum, das Heilige, le sacré does exist. It is a ‘necessity’ for it corresponds to the transcendental nature of the human person. However, the Christian mystérion brings and offers a specific, incommutable shape of sacral dimension of reality, it signifies a certain desacralisation but also a resacralisation. For the fact of the incarnation of the eternal Logos which constitutes the basic element pulls down frontiers between the sacral and the profane and thus founds a new sacrality and new mystics. Wherever Christians assemble to re-present, in liturgical action, Christ’s paschal (= Easter) mystery, there rises a new space, a church. That is there where sacred words and sacral music sound. This conception is in a certain sense liberating; in the problematic of forms of liturgical music as well as in evaluating the possible use of churches for other than liturgical purposes. The Christian message about mystérion – about God’s self-giving in Christ – is equipped with such internal intensity and uniqueness, that it is able to transcend common schemes and transform categories of sacredness to new, often unforeseen, dimensions. /Translation: Mgr. Hana Šlechtová/

Doc. František Kunetka, Th.D.
theologian / Olomouc University – CZ /

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