A couple weeks ago I wrote about why we should sing the Mass. And I showed you two paragraphs from the General Instruction of the Roman Missal to emphasize the need to sing the ordinary parts of the Mass, especially on Sundays feastdays. Next follows the Church’s recommendation even for what style of music best fits the Mass.
Here’s an important line from the Vatican II Constitution on the Liturgy to which I already referred: “The Church acknowledges Gregorian chant as specially suited to the Roman liturgy: therefore, other things being equal, it should be given first place in liturgical services.” (Section 116, the Second Vatican Council, in its Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy) The Instruction in the front of the Roman Missal you see me use for Mass reads: “The main place should be given, all things being equal, to Gregorian chant, as being proper to the Roman Liturgy. Other kinds of sacred music, in particular polyphony, are in no way excluded, provided that they correspond to the spirit of the liturgical action and that they foster the participation of all the faithful.” (“Sacred music” here does not mean what’s in our current hymn books. Sacred music in our Tradition is pretty narrowly defined as “Scripture with supporting melody”.) Furthermore, just before he retired in 2006, Pope Benedict XVI pointed out the necessity of keeping in touch with Gregorian chant: “An authentic renewal of sacred music can only happen in the wake of the great tradition of the past, of Gregorian chant and sacred polyphony”.
What’s so great about Gregorian chant? The words take precedence! The melodies, in second place, are built to support the meaning of the words. In the Mass the Church gives us the words to sing (God’s holy words in Scripture!), and it is in the soul’s best interest to sing those words with the greatest depth of meaning possible. It is different from when we are speaking out on the street to somebody, and we come up with the words ourselves. In the Mass we are given the words, and we are asked to sing them as wholeheartedly as possible, to “make them our own”, so to speak.
Our music seminar with Adam Bartlett a month ago, and our ongoing discussion as a music visioning team (our parish music ministers and myself) have focussed on the need to realize the importance of singing as much of the Mass as possible; but then also the importance of using Gregorian chant – that style of music that is innate to the Mass, which the Church herself continues to recommend. The Mass and Gregorian Chant developed together. We now have resources to sing all the parts of the Mass, including the proper chants/antiphons at the entrance, the offertory and communion – in English Gregorian chant. We have God’s words from Scripture, in English, with a melody specifically created to underline and support those words. [Truth be told, what we are often singing for our responsorial psalm is very close to the chant I am talking about. This is not so new to us.]
Although nobody is saying we are going to eliminate the singing of hymns, it has to be acknowledged that the singing of the antiphons proper to each Mass is far superior. We are singing God’s own words, not mere human words. And we are singing them with a melody that exists precisely for those words. (In much modern church music the music is primary, and words are forced into a catchy tune. People actually get hooked on sweet melodies, but the words sometimes can be quite misleading, from a Faith perspective.) I am recommending that we at least start trying to sing the offertory and communion antiphons that are given to us for each Mass. Then there is room still to sing some devotional hymns as well. What I don’t want us to continuing ignoring are the proper antiphons for each Mass.
At Paulding especially, you have heard us start singing the antiphons (after the entrance hymn, right after petitions, and at the beginning of Communion). It is my intention to help us get used to them. I am convinced that over the years, praying these antiphons will be better for our souls. Why else would the Church be recommending them constantly?
If the style of Gregorian chant does not immediately appeal to you, no surprise! Be patient. It could take a little time for it to grow on you. Unfortunately, in the wake of Vatican II chant was mistakenly dropped in most places in the United States; otherwise we would have grown up accustomed to it. We would not have the problem of getting used to this music, which the Church holds up as most appropriate for the Mass. Isn’t it a bit sad that we even have to discuss getting re-accustomed as a Church to the musical tradition that was primary – and was best for the soul? I am pretty convinced that Gregorian chant (in English even!) will be great for your soul in the longrun, if only because you are hearing the words written by God Himself in Scripture.
I had very little exposure to Gregorian chant before I was asked to take a parish assignment about eight years ago where chant was common. Gregorian chant has grown on me, and I can even “feel” its appropriateness in the Mass, and its ability to transport me into the mystery of Calvary far more effectively than the songs written in the last decades – with catchy modern melodies and meters, and even rhyming words. I “get the aesthetic” now. If our ears are only used to modern melodies, no wonder it can take a little growing to get used to the style of music that has matched the Mass for almost a millenia and a half. Even though it takes some work, shouldn’t we sincerely attempt to do what is quite clearly recommended by the Church in the instructions I quote above?
The other reason for patience with learning to pray the Gregorian chant antiphons is that we all have to learn how to do them accurately and beautifully. They are new for all of us, priest and musicians included. The ancient “modes”, which parallel our modern “keys” in music, don’t strike us immediately as beautiful. Even the musicians will have a learning curve. The more we get used to how the chants work, the better musicians will be at leading them in Mass. Again, I was in that place eight years ago – having little exposure to chant, except on occasion in my seminary years. Give us a couple years, and you will be amazed at how comfortable you feel with singing and hearing simple Gregorian chant in the Mass.
In the not-too-distant future I will have sample packets of the Lumen Christi Pew Missal and the Lumen Christi Hymnal that I am recommending for our parish. During a couple homily times we will actually look through those packets, and I will sing some sample antiphons so you can see exactly what I am talking about. With these bulletin letters on music, it is been my intention to give some background, before putting such packets in your hand. Because music in the Mass shapes your souls so significantly, I am pretty determined to choose the very best stuff, and to follow the Church’s recommendations.
Have a Blessed week!
In cordibus Iesu et Mariae,