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Jesuita non Cantat

Above: Feb. 2, 2023: Pope Francis in South Sudan. Vatican Media. 

One of the greatest saints in Catholic history is considered to be Saint Ignatius of Loyola, whom the Catholic Church celebrates today, on July 31st. This is rightly said, not only for the greatness of Saint Ignatius and his testimony of Christian virtues, but also for the religious congregation he started, the Society of Jesus which we all know under the name of “Jesuits.”

The Jesuits have truly given glory to the Catholic Church, as missionaries, theologians, confessors of the faith, educators and so on. It would be very unfair not to recognize this outstanding contribution that the Society of Jesus has made to Christianity. Some seem to forget this when confronted with a certain modern ideological drift within the Society itself, or in a large part of it, which certainly must concern all those who have Catholic doctrine and faith at heart.

But here we want to talk about another aspect that concerns the Jesuits, what is described by a very popular saying in the ecclesiastical environment: “Jesuita non cantat” (a Jesuit does not sing).

Now, to understand this saying we must distance ourselves from the contingency of current events. The present Jesuit Pope, in reality, does not sing. It almost seems like a confirmation of the previously mentioned saying. Some say this is due to some health problems of the Pontiff. All of this stands out to us because we think of the recent Popes who, in one way or another, have always sung.

Paul VI had a very hoarse voice and it seems he wasn’t exactly intoning, but nevertheless one can hear on some occasions intoning the parts relevant to the celebrant in the liturgy. John Paul II had a masculine and vigorous voice, he was in tune and loved to sing. I remember what the Franciscan Fr. Emidio Papinutti, organist of papal celebrations under John Paul II, told when he described the singing of the Preface on the occasion of the canonization of Maximilian Kolbe (if I am not mistaken) and in which the Pope, taken enthusiasm, he sang on C, which is a fairly high note.

Then we had Benedict XVI, a great lover of music, who sang with his thin and sharp voice but very in tune; finally Francis, and the singing died down. The Italian journalist Luigi Accattoli in 2013 offered this explanation for the specific case of Pope Francis:

The first days after the election of Francis, the spokesman Lombardi when asked about the fact that the new Pope did not sing and paid little attention to ceremonies and rituals had to answer that this is typical of the Jesuit, who – according to an aulic saying – “nec rubricat nec cantat”. Since then I have been looking for the author of this maxim which I find compelling.

We have here a slightly modified version of the saying that is the subject of this article.

Also in 2013 Italian journalist Matteo Matzuzzi in the newspaper Il Foglio gave an account of Pope Francis’ choice not to sing:

The Jesuits are solitary, they pray alone in their rooms, they give shape to a spirituality rooted in the Exercises. Always in favor of the practice of general confession as a synthesis of a path of introspection and self-discovery, it is no coincidence that among Francis’ first homilies the theme of confession found a prominent place – which for a Jesuit must be frequent, so as to gain consolation and inner strength. The Jesuits are autonomous, and Bergoglio fully reflects the characteristics of the Ignatian cleric: he talks to everyone, takes notes and then decides without asking anyone for their opinion, they say with some apprehension in the Vatican. And he does it in his suite, number 201 of the Santa Marta residence. His style is austere, in keeping with the “military” vocation of the order. A style that already in the 16th century perplexed more than one cardinal: “But what kind of religious are you if you don’t even have singing and choral prayer?” snapped Cardinal Gian Pietro Carafa, founder of the Theatine clerics.

But let us try to understand the reason for this saying about the Jesuits. In fact Jesuits place more emphasis on other things than other Congregations which focus on communal life. In their Constitutions it is written that the choir would not be used for the recitation (i.e. singing) of the canonical hours and that it was not convenient to keep objects that recall worldliness, such as musical instruments, at home (and this provision would only be repealed in 1995). So the Jesuita non cantat saying can probably be ascribed to this difference in communal life, when singing was synonymous with fulfilling the divine office in choir.

Yet we must not think that historically the Jesuits paid no attention to singing and music:

In Rome, the Collegio Romano developed a musical tradition second only to that of the Collegio Germanico and its students, as early as 1587, sang two motets a day even during ordinary masses.[1]

We recall that a few years earlier Matteo Ricci had been at the Collegio Romano (the Jesuits university) and studied music there and that then also through music he tried to conquer the Chinese imperial court and to evangelize it. He also composed songs in the Chinese language.

The life of the Jesuits was indeed always full of musical activities and many examples could be cited in this sense. Let us think of Domenico Massenzio (see Antonella Nigro, Domenico Massenzio da Ronciglione: Il sublime discreto), a musician active in Rome in the seventeenth century. He was very active at the Gesù (that very important Jesuit church in Rome where there is the tomb of Saint Ignatius), at that Congregation of Nobles still existing today, born at the end of the 16th century on the initiative of the Jesuits and with a special devotion to the Virgin Mary. For this congregation Massenzio composed and conducted “chosen music,” such as his beautiful Ave Regina Coelorum which can also be heard on YouTube. Antonella Nigro mentions in the book cited above how the congregation incurred huge expenses to give splendor to the liturgy. But still in those years and in relation to the church of the Gesù in Rome how can we forget the virtuoso of the organ Domenico Zipoli, who was organist of this church and who was part of the Society of Jesus for which he went to Paraguay and other parts of America Latina to help local people develop a peculiar musical tradition, among other things. But many other examples in this sense could be given.

So why today does the Jesuita non cantat saying seem very consistent with today’s reality of the Jesuits? Because according to some people the Jesuits, with few exceptions, have little interest in singing and liturgy. As mentioned, this prejudice, in the light of historical evidence, should at least be revised, given that in reality the Jesuits had a rich cultural life in which music played an important role.

Unfortunately, the problem is not so much with the Jesuits alone, who are a bit of a scapegoat in this matter. In reality, interest in the dignity of the liturgy and sacred music has been lost in recent decades in many other religious congregations which were once known for the splendor of their ceremonies and the beauty of the sacred music performed in them. Today it would not be accurate to say that the Jesuits do not sing, it would be better to say that the Church does not sing or, worse, sings very badly.


[1] Antonino di Nardo, La musica come linguaggio interculturale: l’esempio dei gesuiti.

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