2016-06-30
A moving moment occurred at Pope Benedict XVI's outdoor inaugural Mass last April. During the recessional, the Marian antiphon for the Easter season, the "Regina Caeli," was sung by worshipers from around the world, including the pope himself. It was beautiful and inspiring but for one problem. Most American Catholics under the age of 60 can't conjure even the first notes or words of this once-popular hymn. Even the most basic of 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 a revival of sacred music, particularly from the Gregorian repertoire-which is what the Vatican has now made it clear that the Benedict wants--something has got to change to bring U.S. parish practice in line. To achieve the musical goal of the Second Vatican Council-to elevate Gregorian chant to pride of place in the Mass-will require Herculean educational efforts and massive dedication of musicians of all sorts. Not that a dictate or document from Rome is going to be enough to inspire every parish to sing the Credo in Latin or look away from their missalettes and toward Solesmes, France, the center of Gregorian chant, for Psalms and Communion chants. What this pontificate can do is provided liturgical and theological leadership by example. This will assist refuting the primary misunderstanding about sacred music today: that the choice of musical style at Mass is a matter of cultural and
personal preference to be determined at the parish level, on the theory that any music that is suitably religious is appropriate for liturgy, so long as the people can participate (in theory) by singing along. This misunderstanding, which is contradicted by two millennia of authoritative Church teaching, is widely held by Catholic musicians at the parish level. This is why parish music is so often reduced to a variety show, however well intended the performers may be. These same musicians, however, can play an essential role in the revival of chant and truly sacred music, provided that they are called to a higher standard and are willing to undertake the effort to acquaint themselves with the astonishing richness of what our heritage has to offer. Nor does Benedict XVI need to issue new teachings. The Vatican's focus on Gregorian chant as proper to the liturgy has been consistent during the 40 years since the Second Vatican Council. There has been no letup in the insistence that chant is Catholic music, from the council document "Sacrosanctum Concilium"'s explicit call for chant to displace popular hymnody as the music of the people, through Paul VI's issuance in 1974 of "Jubilate Deo" (a booklet of basic chants for every parish), to John Paul II's prayer in 2000 for the beauty of sacred music to return to our liturgies. Gregorian chant received new emphasis in a series of documents that appeared in the last years of John Paul II's pontificate. In
2003, John Paul called for renewed attention to "outward forms of mystery" that inspire eucharistic devotion. Among these forms, he wrote in "Ecclesia de Eucaristia," we find sacred music, particularly "the inspired Gregorian melodies and the many, often great, composers who sought to do justice to the liturgical texts of the Mass." In 2005 John Paul issued the apostolic letter "Mane Nobiscum Domine." Here he set forth his "serious concern that singing and liturgical music be suitably "sacred." Furthermore, the General Instruction of the Roman Missal, which came out in 2000, stated plainly that "Gregorian chant holds pride of place because it is proper to the Roman Liturgy. Other types of sacred music, in particular polyphony, are in no way excluded." Immediately following John Paul's apostolic letter, the Vatican's Congregation for the Divine Worship issued its definitive document on the liturgy, "The Year of the Eucharist: Suggestions and Proposals." It is here where we find the words of John Paul II more fully spelled out in what was the most explicit call for restoring sacred music to be heard from the Vatican in decades. The guidelines first addressed the core of the problem: Priests are not prepared to act as leaders in placing chant at the forefront of the musical life of the parish. The guidelines demanded that anyone in a position to do so should "inculcate in the seminarians an understanding of the usefulness of a certain fluency in the Latin language and Gregorian
Chant, so as to be able to pray and chant in Latin when the need arises, and so rooting themselves in the tradition of the Church at prayer." The Congregation further wrote that the simple settings of Gregorian settings of the Credo and Lord's Prayer help "encourage the participation of various groups in the same Eucharistic celebration of 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 of unity in order to achieve the multicultural aims of Catholicism that everyone agrees are centrally important. Parishes were asked to establish choirs that "should dedicate singular attention to liturgical song, taking into account the indications of John Paul II in his recent document on sacred music." Thus the Vatican's emphasis on chant did not begin with Benedict XVI. In his writings on liturgy before he became pope, he merely clarified existing post-Vatican II directives, famously saying, for example, that rock (hard or soft) music has no place at liturgy. All serious musicians, regardless of personal taste, know the suffering that comes with tackling new compositions and traditions. Technique must be learned and practiced and interpretive skills must be honed. Church organists struggling with the works of Bach and singers attempting to master the intervals and nuance of Gregorian chant face very similar battles.
It is not enough to stick with the standard fare. Musicians need to rethink their place in liturgy and begin to think of the sounds they create as part of the structure of the Mass and not purely additive. That means acquiring chant books from Solesmes and spending time every week and every day on familiarizing oneself with Catholic tradition.

The demands of truly sacred music are uniquely challenging. Sacred music requires humility and a willingness to go beyond pleasing ourselves and our immediate audiences alone. Sacred music requires sacrifice and loving service to the God the Father and his Church. And what are the rewards? From the earliest days of the Church, Catholics of all times have found in the chant a glimpse of Heaven. That is what the liturgy can bring us, not just in Rome or in cathedrals but in every parish and every heart. What a wonderful rediscovery it will be.

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