LESSED JOHN PAUL II’s 1998 Ad Limina Address to the Bishops of the United States, On Active Participation in the Liturgy he spoke of how the liturgy must be both inculturated AND countercultural.
“In a culture which neither favors nor fosters meditative quiet, the art of interior listening is learned only with difficulty. Here we see how the liturgy, though it must always be properly inculturated, must also be counter-cultural.”
As such, our treasury of sacred music is more countercultural and more revolutionary now than ever.
Chant does certain things exceedingly well that modern culture eschews. It stops time. It simultaneously quiets the soul and directs our attention to God. It is an ideal vehicle for singing and meditating upon scripture. Its transcendence edifies both spirit and mind. It builds anticipation throughout the liturgy, pointing towards the liturgy’s redemptive power. All of this is abhorred by modern culture.
Chant is not interested in transient attractiveness, but in everlasting beauty. Chant is not interested in pacifying daily emotional needs, but in challenging the soul to lead Christ-like lives. Chant is not interested in creating a temporary “buzz,” but in leading us toward true and lasting happiness with God. These, in part, are reasons why chant is “specially suited to the Roman liturgy.” (Sacrosanctum Concilium, § 116)
Yet, “All time is God’s time.” (The Spirit of the Liturgy pg. 92, Pope Benedict XVI) In a culture that places great value on modern relevance, the liturgy itself—“through which the work of our redemption is accomplished” (SC §2), is by its very nature “the outstanding means whereby the faithful may express in their lives, and manifest to others, the mystery of Christ and the real nature of the true Church.” (Ibid). Therefore, the liturgy, in the words of Pope John Paul II, is both what we express within our culture — “inculturated” and is simultaneously in our modern world, necessarily “countercultural.” Chant and the Roman Liturgy grew and developed side by side. The liturgy—a sung mass—“embraces both heaven and earth” in what Pope Benedict XVI calls “a cosmic liturgy”. (The Spirit of the Liturgy, pg. 53) This intrinsic union of heaven and earth is why chant is so revolutionary. This is why the sung mass is so revolutionary.
N A MORE PRACTICAL LEVEL, singing chant goes against the grain of current common practice, while singing songs and hymns maintain the sleepy status quo. Hymns and songs are clearly the safe choice. Chant is daring and takes courage to sing, foster, and support.
A few days ago, Adam Wood wrote another extraordinarily thought provoking article “I like chant for all the wrong reasons.” It is an intriguing list of challenges, demonstrating the revolutionary power of Gregorian Chant—one that is both inculturated and countercultural.
But for most music directors and pastors, singing chant in their present setting is taking a risk—a most daring one. In his article, Adam Wood quite persuasively turns most any conventional thought on its head, perhaps encouraging us to forge ahead with such a risk for reasons we may not have previously considered. Yet, can we afford not to take that risk? What do you think?
Below is an excerpt from Adam Wood’s article (emphasis added):
People say we should sing chant because it is Traditional. I disagree. I think we should sing it because doing so is revolutionary.
People say that we shouldn’t sing chant because people need familiar music at Mass. And too many chant-supporters agree that chant is unfamiliar, but say this is a good thing, that people don’t need Mass to be “comfortable.“ I disagree. I think that the constant changing of musical styles to fit the trends is a constant source of unfamiliarity and discomfort, and that a stable repertoire of chants would provide the comfort and familiarity that all people long for.
People say we should sing chant because the texts are orthodox. I disagree. I think the scriptural message and the medieval poetry is more radical and liberating than any modernist manifesto.
People say that we shouldn’t sing chant because the texts are not understandable (being in Latin) and therefore the people cannot understand the liturgy. And too many chant-supporters agree that the Latin makes the liturgy impenetrable, but say that this is a good thing, that it acts “like a veil,” that the liturgy really is impenetrable, and that lay understanding of the Mass is neither possible nor particularly desirable. I disagree. I think that all the faithful should be encouraged to understand the liturgy as fully as possible and that the veil of mystery that separates the elite clerics and the general population should be torn down, as on the first Good Friday, and that only by providing the faithful with the real, actual texts and traditions of the Mass can this be accomplished. — Adam Wood