A moving moment occurred at Pope Benedict XVI's outdoor inaugural Mass last April. During the recessional, the Marian antiphon for the Easterseason, the "Regina Caeli," was sung byworshipers from around the world, includingthe pope himself. It was beautiful andinspiring but for one problem. MostAmerican Catholics under the age of 60can't conjure even the first notes or words ofthis once-popular hymn. Even the most basicof Catholic chants-"Ubi Caritas," "Ave Maria,""Ave Maris Stella"-are unknown by most U.S.Catholics.If the U.S. is going to participate in arevival of sacred music, particularly fromthe Gregorian repertoire-which is what the Vatican has now made it clear that the Benedict wants--something has gotto change to bring U.S. parish practice in line. Toachieve the musical goal of the SecondVatican Council-to elevate Gregorianchant to pride of place in the Mass-willrequire Herculean educational efforts andmassive dedication of musicians of all sorts.Not that a dictate or document fromRome is going to be enough to inspire everyparish to sing the Credo in Latin or lookaway from their missalettes and towardSolesmes, France, the center of Gregorian chant, for Psalms and Communionchants. What this pontificate can do isprovided liturgical and theologicalleadership by example. This will assistrefuting the primary misunderstanding aboutsacred music today: that the choice of musicalstyle at Mass is a matter of cultural andpersonal preference to be determined at theparish level, on the theory that any music that issuitably religious is appropriate for liturgy,so long as the people can participate (intheory) by singing along.This misunderstanding, which iscontradicted by two millennia ofauthoritative Church teaching, is widely held byCatholic musicians at the parish level. Thisis why parish music is so often reduced to avariety show, however well intended theperformers may be. These same musicians,however, can play an essential role in therevival of chant and truly sacred music,provided that they are called to a higherstandard and are willing to undertake theeffort to acquaint themselves with theastonishing richness of what our heritage hasto offer.Nor does Benedict XVI need to issuenew teachings. The Vatican's focus onGregorian chant as proper to the liturgy hasbeen consistent during the 40 years since the Second Vatican Council.There has been no letup in the insistencethat chant is Catholic music, from the council document "Sacrosanctum Concilium"'s explicit call forchant to displace popular hymnody as themusic of the people, through Paul VI'sissuance in 1974 of "Jubilate Deo" (abooklet of basic chants for every parish),to John Paul II's prayer in 2000 for thebeauty of sacred music to return to ourliturgies.
Gregorian chant received new emphasisin a series of documents that appeared in thelast years of John Paul II's pontificate. In2003, John Paul called for renewed attentionto "outward forms of mystery" that inspireeucharistic devotion. Among these forms,he wrote in "Ecclesia de Eucaristia," we findsacred music, particularly "the inspiredGregorian melodies and the many, oftengreat, composers who sought to do justice tothe liturgical texts of the Mass." In 2005 John Paul issued the apostolicletter "Mane Nobiscum Domine." Here he set forth his "seriousconcern that singing and liturgical music besuitably "sacred." Furthermore, the General Instruction of the Roman Missal, which came out in2000, stated plainly that "Gregorianchant holds pride of place because it isproper to the Roman Liturgy. Other types ofsacred music, in particular polyphony, are inno way excluded." Immediately following John Paul's apostolic letter, the Vatican'sCongregation for theDivine Worship issued its definitive document on the liturgy, "TheYear of the Eucharist: Suggestions andProposals." It is here where we find thewords of John Paul II more fully spelled outin what was the most explicit call forrestoring sacred music to be heard from theVatican in decades.The guidelines first addressed the core ofthe problem: Priests are not prepared to actas leaders in placing chant at the forefront ofthe musical life of the parish. The guidelinesdemanded that anyone in a position to do soshould "inculcate in the seminarians anunderstanding of the usefulness of a certainfluency in the Latin language and GregorianChant, so as to be able to pray and chant inLatin when the need arises, and so rootingthemselves in the tradition of the Church atprayer."
The Congregation further wrote that the simple settings of Gregoriansettings of the Credo and Lord's Prayer help"encourage the participation of variousgroups in the same Eucharistic celebrationof the Mass." And so here we see Latin and Gregorian chant being cited not as a source of division among Catholics(as many believe), but rather as a source ofunity in order to achieve themulticultural aims of Catholicism thateveryone agrees are centrally important.Parishes were asked to establishchoirs that "should dedicate singularattention to liturgical song, taking intoaccount the indications of John Paul II in hisrecent document on sacred music." Thus the Vatican's emphasis on chant did not begin withBenedict XVI. In his writings on liturgy before he became pope, he merely clarified existing post-Vatican II directives, famously saying, for example, thatrock (hard or soft) music has no place atliturgy. All serious musicians, regardless ofpersonal taste, know the suffering thatcomes with tackling new compositions andtraditions. Technique must be learned andpracticed and interpretive skills must behoned. Church organists struggling with theworks of Bach and singers attempting tomaster the intervals and nuance of Gregorianchant face very similar battles.It is notenough to stick with the standard fare.Musicians need to rethink their place inliturgy and begin to think of the sounds theycreate as part of the structure of the Mass and not purelyadditive. That means acquiring chant booksfrom Solesmes and spending time everyweek and every day on familiarizing oneselfwith Catholic tradition.
The demands of truly sacred music areuniquely challenging. Sacred music requireshumility and a willingness to gobeyond pleasing ourselves and ourimmediate audiences alone. Sacred musicrequires sacrifice and loving service to theGod the Father and his Church.And what are the rewards? From the earliest days of the Church, Catholics of all timeshave found in the chant a glimpse ofHeaven. That is what the liturgy can bringus, not just in Rome or in cathedrals but inevery parish and every heart. What awonderful rediscovery it will be.