Music at Mass: Finding the Harmony of God and Man in Chant

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Way back when, before political correctness seized control of schools, I had a high-school choir director who was red-haired, strong-minded and a dedicated atheist.

This did not deter her from preparing a Christmas-concert (yes, we called it that back then – the horror, the horror!) program that included several stately sacred-music pieces, all in Latin. She might throw in a couple of secular holiday songs or common carols to quiet grumpy parents, but she did it unwillingly, thinking such songs beneath the business of a choir.

She loved traditional choral music, written by masters of the genre; while the crowd just wanted, at most, “Silent Night,” with a lot of “Frosty” and “White Christmas” thrown in.

So, who was right?

As they say in the law, it goes to the question of intent. If the choir director intended to entertain the crowd – and not make it too hard on herself and us – then the best choices would be “Frosty” and familiar, easy-to-sing songs of that type, or just Christmas carols.

If her intent was – and it was – to teach us musicology, discipline, and what goes into the making of a piece of classical choral art, than the complex, challenging works in Latin were just the ticket.

To her, this was not just a musical performance, it was a teaching opportunity and an homage to great music – her love for which was as close as she came to religious worship.

As for us? We hated learning this stuff, but we loved how we sounded when we got it right.

With this in mind, what is intent of the Church in including music in the Mass?

In 2007, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops (a group not generally reputed as sticklers for liturgical tradition) published a paper called “Sing to the Lord: Music in Divine Worship” (click here to download the document as a PDF).

Paragraph 125 says, regarding the role of music in corporate worship (worship as a group):

The role of music is to serve the needs of the Liturgy and not to dominate it, seek to entertain, or draw attention to itself or the musicians. However, there are instances when the praise and adoration of God leads to music taking on a far greater dimension. At other times, simplicity is the most appropriate response. The primary role of music in the Liturgy is to help the gathered assembly to join themselves with the action of Christ and to give voice to the gift of faith.

How should this music be chosen? Says Paragraph 126:

In judging the appropriateness of music for the Liturgy, one will examine its liturgical, pastoral, and musical qualities. Ultimately, however, these three judgments are but aspects of one evaluation, which answers the question, “Is this particular piece of music for this use in the particular liturgy?” All three judgments must be considered together, and no individual judgment can be applied in isolation from the other two. This evaluation requires cooperation, consultation, collaboration, and mutual respect among those who are skilled in any of the three judgments, be they pastors, musicians, liturgists or planners.

Basically, if the music doesn’t serve the Liturgy, it shouldn’t be used. That, however, has proven no impediment to frequently questionable liturgical-music choices.

But it’s not like the Vatican hasn’t had something to say on the subject.

In 1963, Pope Paul IV released Sacrosanctum Concilium (Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy). It emphasizes training for both religious and laity in sacred music (not to be confused with simple choir practice).

It also affirms the Church’s preference – but not absolute requirement – for Gregorian chant, a tradition of Western plainchant. Sung a cappella, it developed mainly in Europe starting in the 9th and 10th centuries. Scripture and prayer are set to music designed to offer worship and praise to God in a way that enhances the spiritual experience of both the singer and the listener.

Paragraph 116 says:

The Church acknowledges Gregorian chant as specially suited to the Roman liturgy; therefore, other things being equal, it should be given pride of place in liturgical services. But other kinds of sacred music, especially polyphony, are by no means excluded from liturgical celebrations, so long as they are in accord with the spirit of the liturgical action.

(“Polyphony” refers to music with harmonies, counterpoint, etc., that came in the centuries after chant was developed. As I’m no musicologist, read this if you want to know more about how this relates to Catholic sacred music.)

As with several documents that came out around Vatican II, many used the lack of an absolute requirement as a license to run as far away from Gregorian chant and traditional Catholic hymns (learn about those here) as they possibly could, to the point where, in some parishes, this music is seldom if ever heard.

This flies in the face of the popularity of chant in the world at large. In 1994, the CD “Chant,” by the Benedictine monks of Santo Domingo de Silos, was a popular hit. In 2010, HBO2 aired “Top Ten Monks,” a documentary profile of the Cistercian monks of Stift Heiligenkreuz Abbey in Austria, whose CD, called “Chant: Music for the Soul,” was in the top 10 for two months in the U.K. pop charts.

Here’s a taste:

In my other life, as an entertainment journalist, I wrote about this documentary (click here for the whole story). I did an email Q&A with Father Karl Wallner of the Abbey, in which he answered a question about chant’s popularity, even with nonbelievers:

Because they are somehow empty in their hearts. Gregorian chant is like a dialogue between God and man; we sing the texts of the Bible, which are given by the Lord, back to him. So you can say there is God “in it,” and people seem to feel this instinctively. They are certainly touched by the spirit of the music.

As for the future of chant, Father Wallner wrote:

Chant is music for everybody. Because God is a God who loves every human being, Christian and non-Christian, believer and nonbeliever, we think our music and our prayers can bring peace to everybody’s heart. Gregorian chant is pure harmony, the harmony between man and God, and this harmony between all of us.

The reality in the pews, though, is often somewhat less than harmonious.

Since reverting to the Faith and moving to Los Angeles, I’ve attended Mass at several different parishes with sometimes wildly divergent liturgical styles.

At a couple, the music ministers have apparently gone to the “kumbaya” school of church music, favoring contemporary compositions (including the praise-and-worship-style Christian pop songs heard in late-night cable-TV ads); the simplest, sing-song hymns; plenty of selections by Lutheran Marty Haugen; and little that would seem out of place at a megachurch service (but there would probably be a better band).

(A note on Haugen – as you’re singing his songs at a Catholic Mass, recall that he has said he is not Catholic because of the Church’s failure “to commission, ordain and welcome all humans as Jesus did – male and female, married and unmarried, saints and sinners I believe that the Church, God’s people and all of creation have suffered from this omission.”)

On the other hand, I’ve been to an urban parish which offers a Novus Ordo Mass (today’s Ordinary Mass), but in Latin, sung in the Gregorian chant style. It’s reverent and done correctly, but the quality isn’t such that it’s unlikely to ever draw more than locals and the odd chant enthusiast (who have few options in the area to hear it).

Contrasting to that is a suburban parish where I occasionally attend the Tridentine Mass (a k a the Extraordinary Form, the EF or the “Latin Mass”). The whole Mass is sung by an outstanding choir (and the usual celebrant fortunately also has an excellent voice), and the melodies would be familiar to anyone watching Mass from the Vatican. There is occasionally a song in English, but most of the selections are chant, or medieval or Renaissance hymns in Latin.

I lose my place a lot in the liturgy (despite having a hymnal in English and Latin), but the music is so transcendently glorious that I feel the presence of the divine even if I don’t always understand every word.

While, true to her name, the Catholic Church has room for many modes of expression, running toward the new or the easy or the sentimental at the cost of music born of generations of faithful religious immersed in prayer, is not only unfortunate, it’s probably contributing to the erosion of the Faith.

Now, music can’t save a church – as the Anglican/Episcopalian Communion, with its beautiful traditional music and hollowed-out theology, can attest.

And I can personally attest that singing is Latin is often HARD. But when you marry deep Catholic theology to deep prayer in beautiful song, Heaven can touch Earth.

I love this story from a blogger who was listening one day to a track from “Angels and Saints at Ephesus,” the chart-topping CD from the Benedictines of Mary, Queen of the Apostles, released at Advent 2012, with the a cappella voices of the sisters singing Gregorian chant in Latin.

The man’s rambunctious two-year-old son – who had never heard this sort of thing – stopped banging on Tupperware, stared at the speakers and said, “Dada…that’s Jesus music.” Enraptured, he listened to it again and again, and now, according to his father, falls asleep to his “Jesus music” every night.

I don’t know if this is the specific track, but enjoy nonetheless:

The views expressed here are those of the author, and do not necessarily represent the views of CatholicVote.org

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About Author

A native of the Adirondacks and Saratoga Springs in northern New York State, journalist and fiction writer Kate O'Hare now lives in Los Angeles, where she's on a neverending quest to find a parish in the L.A. Archdiocese with orthodox preaching, excellent traditional music and parking.

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