N OCTOBER OF 2007, I had opportunity to meet Father Pierre Paul, OMV, Maestro di Capella of the choir at St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome. He conducted a concert in Boston at St. Clement Eucharistic Shrine, run by the Oblates of Mary, the order to which Fr. Pierre Paul belongs. St. Clement Eucharistic Shrine has also been a place of perpetual adoration since 2009. Furthermore, for many years, Music Director, Elisabeth Pifer has beautifully and faithfully cultivated the singing of Gregorian Chant among a very young congregation filled college students. (She is soon moving on to St. Charles Borromeo Parish in Waltham, Massachusetts, and she will be greatly missed in Boston!)
When I spoke to Father Pierre Paul after the concert, most pressing on my mind was defending against a common problem: the onslaught of challenges placed upon the rightful place of Gregorian Chant in liturgy. This challenge usually comes in the form that Chant be entirely excluded from liturgy – even despite years of fruitful cultivation of a receptive congregation. In some cases even in the simplest and most commonly known chants must not be allowed.
This exclusion is frequently based on ideology, an ideology often affirmed by misinformation grounded in ignorance: ignorance that the Word and the Roman Rite are intrinsically linked in their evolution – that chanting prayer and scripture is not at all unique to the Western Church or even to Christianity, but is ancient in its roots, most fundamentally in the Psalms of David. Ignorance abounds most of all that deeply embedded in the reforms of Vatican II is the call for the renewal of Gregorian Chant—a renewal instilled by Pope St. Pius X, but incontrovertibly brought to prominence by Vatican II: 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. (Sacrosanctum Concilium No. 116)
But, more profoundly, Vatican II gave a direction that perhaps in hindsight can be seen as a warning to us all:
The treasure of sacred music is to be preserved and fostered with great care. (Ibid. No 114)
What on earth happened? I was born in 1969 during the infancy of the Post-conciliar era. I had no idea what our traditions of sacred music were. As a child who loved and studied music, whose sisters and parents loved music, I knew something was terribly wrong at mass, but I didn’t have any frame of reference. This was a generation of lost tradition for many. The words “great care” clearly were lost.
NE CAN EXHAUST all arguments theological, historical, spiritual and musical. Only faith can reach higher and find wisdom.
So, when I spoke to Fr. Pierre Paul about the wholesale abandonment of Gregorian Chant, he said something I’ll never forget – not just the words, but how he said it: gently, perhaps with knowing sadness, but most importantly, with resolute irrefutability:
“It belongs to the people.”
Nothing else needed to be said — nothing. I remember this like a video I can play in my head over and over. “It belongs to the people.”
This didn’t resonate because he said something I agree with. In fact, this idea was new and revolutionary to me: Chant is ours. (!) It belongs to the people just as the mass belongs to the people, just as the scriptures belong to all of us. Furthermore, Chant is not just a pretty relic reserved for elitists to indulge in their personal self-satisfaction, but for all people who sing praises to God. (E.g., Adam Wood’s article: Chant Is for Radicals )
Nor do I do not propose that we sing chant to the exclusion of all other music. In fact, I propose that we embrace all sacred music and allow it to stand up to the test of time and see how it measures up to the standard of what is truly Sacred, Beautiful, and Universal.
Chant needs careful cultivation and badly needed attention after generations of neglect:
Many parishes will do well do follow the US Bishops’ guidelines in “Sing to the Lord: Music in Divine Worship” that states the following:
75. Each worshiping community in the United States, including all age groups and all ethnic groups, should, at a minimum, learn Kyrie XVI, Sanctus XVIII, and Agnus Dei XVIII, all of which are typically included in congregational worship aids. More difficult chants, such as Gloria VIII and settings of the Credo and Pater Noster, might be learned after the easier chants have been mastered.
Furthermore, STTL describes Vatican II’s call for such cultivation with pastoral sensitivity and with “reasonable time for progress”:
The Second Vatican Council directed that the faithful be able to sing parts of the Ordinary of the Mass together in Latin. In many worshiping communities in the United States, fulfilling this directive will mean introducing Latin chant to worshipers who perhaps have not sung it before. While prudence, pastoral sensitivity, and reasonable time for progress are encouraged to achieve this end, every effort in this regard is laudable and highly encouraged. (No. 74, Ibid.)
Finally, STTL describes chant as uniquely ours. Chant is our birthright:
Gregorian chant is uniquely the Church’s own music.
Chant is a living connection with our forebears in the faith, the traditional music of the Roman rite, a sign of communion with the universal Church, a bond of unity across cultures, a means for diverse communities to participate together in song, and a summons to contemplative participation in the Liturgy. (No. 72, Ibid.) Why is chant uniquely ours? Chant evolved because it was wedded to the Word. “Gregorian chant draws its life from the sacred text it expresses…” (no. 78, Ibid.) In all sacred music, the Word is preeminent. Christ is made present not only in the bread and wine, but also in the Word. What better reason must there be on this earth to sing the scriptures, and of our love for God? Chant does this exceedingly well, but more importantly, it fosters our tradition that reminds us of who we are and where we come from. With this knowledge, we are propelled to live out the Gospel today and in the future. (Lex Orandi, Lex Credendi Lex Vivendi!)
Singing is prayer, and we sing because we love God. God’s love belongs to his people. While on this earth, we may never know just how true that is. God will surprise us with reminders from time to time. Meanwhile, many of us can witness and attest of our own sinfulness, that truly we lost our way. But we often must lose our way in order to find it – to give up our lives in order to gain it in Christ. He will help us find our way.