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September 26, 2012
Rebuilding Catholic culture: sing to the Lord
By Sr. Joan L. Roccasalvo, C.S.J. *

By Sr. Joan L. Roccasalvo, C.S.J. *

“What have they done to our music!” A passionate cry from many American Catholics. The rampant impoverishment of Catholic Church music elicits this insightful conclusion from The Harvard Dictionary of Music “Western church music continues to struggle with fundamental difficulties whose defiance of final resolution may be the hallmark of the vitality of the church and culture, or merely a sign of intractability.  In secular terms, such difficulties may be considered as aesthetic, political, sociological, or even purely technical matters, but they have theological meaning as well” (Emphasis added, 179).

Power of the Sacred Arts

This week’s essay is the last of four dealing with the Church’s sacred arts. Music and the other arts have been a reason for returning Catholics to the faith, or a reason for their leaving it. The French writer Paul Claudel was moved to conversion when he heard the Magnificat sung during Vespers on Christmas Eve at the cathedral Notre-Dame de Paris:
“In an instant, my heart was touched and I believed. I believed with such force, with such relief of all my being, a conviction so powerful, so certain and without any room for doubt, that ever since, all the books, all the arguments, all the hazards of my agitated life have never shaken my faith, nor to tell the truth have they even touched it” (Paul Claudel, “Ma conversion” in “Contacts et circonstances,” Gallimard, 1940, p. 11ss; cf. also in “Ecclesia, Lectures chrétiennes,” Paris, No 1, avril 1949, p. 53-58, quoted as note 34 in “The Via Pulchritudinis, Privileged Pathway for Evangelisation and Dialogue” (2006), III 3C).

The great European cathedrals are Bibles enshrined in stone and stained glass, and compositions like the Bach St. Matthew Passion and the soaring chant wafting from monasteries are monumental expressions of faith that awaken the soul to God. Of sacred music, one student blurts out: “It’s so beautiful, I could faint!”

A Visual Image

Imagine that you are relaxing at the seashore on a calm day. All you want to do, for an hour or so, is set aside your preoccupations. You enjoy the gentle rise and fall of the waves. This repetition is like a melody of graceful, deliberate, steady, flexible, predictable movement, majestic to behold. Far from boring the spirit, the undulation puts it at ease. We ‘go with the flow.’ After a while, what happens? The rise and fall of the waves mesmerize us. Nature works its magic on the spirit, and this respite does free the spirit to put aside daily concerns. This visual image of rise and fall describes the essence of sacred music.

At its best, sacred music conveys a beauty that takes us out of street time giving us a foretaste of God’s time. It passes through the senses but speaks not to them but to the intellect, will, and ultimately, to the heart. Such music prompts the spirit to make that leap toward infinity so that the spirit is drawn beyond the form and oneself into communion with God.

The Church has not always assimilated beautiful sacred music but has allowed entry of the mediocre, especially from the nineteenth century to the present.

A Matter of Theology

History has acknowledged the central role of the Church in the arts. For centuries, Sancta Mater Ecclesia has not only promoted beauty in literature, painting, sculpture, architecture, and music; she has stood as their foremost patron as well. Despite this rich legacy, church leadership in fostering beauty has declined. This essay springs from the troubling realization that beauty is on the verge of being banished from Catholic theology. Not just minimized, trivialized, or ignored, beauty is also being dismissed as critical to liturgical celebration, for it is seen as ornamental or even elitist.

Christian discipleship is fundamentally a dynamic movement from self to the beauty of Christ. Were not the disciples first transported by what they heard, and touched in his very person? A lively faith consists not just in creedal words bolstered by the intellect and then believed. Without beauty, faith remains a bundle of truths that are formalistic, dry, and without spiritual unction. Nor is faith simply a matter of performing good deeds. Without beauty, one questions why such charitable works should be done. In fact, their intent may be so utilitarian that there is no transcendent overreach. Joined to truth and goodness, beauty is essential to the Catholic faith.

Gregorian Chant

Today, no one would advocate that Gregorian chant be the only music sung in parishes. Let us hope that cloistered monasteries allow its 3,000 or more melodies to flourish for the sake of their visitors and for the ages.

Sung prayer with universal appeal is more important than the style chosen. Still, plainchant is the melodic foundation and structure of all Western church music. Since the fourth century, it has developed as part of the Church’s culture, and well-formed chant melodies appear as early as the fifth century. It provides the orientation for all sacred music. It is the church’s very own music, a fact taught in all Music 101 courses. As a former student remarked: “It’s so out of it, it’s with it!”

Gregorian chant is an unsurpassed treasure of purely melodic music, and its complex flowing rhythms are far superior to the tyranny of the bar line. It is “predictably singable because its melodies have a limited range and makes them accessible to any voice, trained or untrained” (The Harvard Dictionary of Music, 179).

All church music – polyphony, motets, Protestant Psalter and hymn-tunes have found ways of adapting their own styles to plainchant’s melodies and rhythms. Quite obviously, plainchant is out of place at secular activities – sports events, parties, at the beach, and camp fires. Its home is the parish or monastery church in the service of the liturgy. Neither conservative nor liberal, Gregorian chant is simply Catholic.

“Music of the liturgy,” writes Benedict XVI, “must be different from music that is supposed to lead to rhythmic ecstasy, stupefying anesthetization, sensual excitement or dissolution of the ego in Nirvana” (Feast of Faith, 176). Plainchant is “silent music,”  “sounding silence” (St. John of the Cross, “The Spiritual Canticle,” 46). This silence emits its own inner power. But listening to these melodies “disturbs [people’s] inmost beings rousing them to meditation and prayer on the transcendent. They would rather not enter into the realm of solitude. At its core, plainsong suggests a world of aloneness, ineluctably insisting on one’s attuning oneself to one’s self” (Cott, “The Musical ysteries of Liturgical Chant,” 34).

“Pride of Place”

Like previous official documents on sacred music, Sing to the Lord dutifully mentions the “pride of place” of Gregorian chant. However, the phrase “other things being equal” immediate overtakes the traditional phrase: “The pride of place given to Gregorian chant by the Second Vatican Council is modified by the important phrase other things being equal. These other things are the important liturgical and pastoral concerns facing every bishop, pastor, and liturgical musician. In considering the use of the treasures of chant, pastors and liturgical musicians should take care that the congregation is able to participate in the Liturgy with song. They should be sensitive to the cultural and spiritual milieu of their communities, in order to build up the Church in unity and peace (#73).”

“All things being equal” or mutatis mutandis or omnibus rebus aequis, introduces the Latin ablative absolute. The translations are meant to be ambiguous: (a) since all things are equal, or (b) although all things are equal, or (c) while all things are equal.

All things are never equal.

Mutatis mutandis is a generalized assumption that allows one to assert simply and simplistically, I'm off the hook. “All things being equal” permits a person to avoid discerning the pros and cons of Gregorian chant, in this case, which has traditionally occupied “pride of place.” Accordingly, one need not offer evidence for the truth of its position before the bar of history and reason. Gregorian chant is viewed with caution and anticipated as a potential obstacle to full participation of the faithful. In short, “other things being equal” is a dodge. Colloquially, we would say, a cop-out.

Despite strong opposition to Gregorian chant and simple polyphony, there are vital signs that these forms, together with suitable, new music, are coming to some parishes.

Continuity of the Church’s Tradition

Before Vatican II, much of the chant and polyphony in use was too ornate, too remote and inaccessible for worshipers to sing. They may have participated quietly at Mass, but with few exceptions, they did not sing at the Sunday liturgy. A renewed postconciliar ecclesiology rightly called for corrective measures to remedy this non-participation. Music was to be prepared in such a way that the faithful would participate in the Eucharistic sacrifice of the Whole Christ.

Plainchant and simple polyphony were never officially banished. Nor was the Latin language. In practice however, the Church’s pure, fresh water suddenly disappeared underground. There, beneath the surface, this crystalline water continued to flourish in some, but not all monasteries.

Until the advent of ‘folk’-popular style, the vernacular hymnody of Protestant Reformed churches filled the void in parishes. Masses were referred to as “the four-hymn Mass;” this hymnody supplanted the singing of the Ordinary of the Mass and more simple Latin pieces. Still popular in our services, these hymns are easy to sing, beautiful, and theologically precise. The Catholic faithful sing them with gusto. The Christmas carol, “Hark, the Herald Angels Sing” is one famous example. It has a strong theology of the Incarnation.

The continuity of the Church’s musical treasury does not merely reclaim the past without also welcoming other music that, as in previous times, bears the imprint of holiness and beauty. Ours is a living tradition as it was at the time of Pope St. Gregory, Palestrina, and that of the Elizabethan and Anglican School. Ukrainian and Russian sacred music, and their contemporary composers have also been assimilated into the Church’s broadened treasury.

Gregorian chant has influenced many composers. Claude Debussy, for example, discovered the free rhythm of chant and used it with great success. Some of our senior composers are Joseph Gelineau, S.J., whose settings have a purity of style, Lucien Deiss, Leo Sowerby, Noël Goemanne, Flor Peters. JohnTavener and Arvo Pärt have based their compositions on plainchant.

Today there are more composers of beautiful sacred choral music than there are those who write in the ‘folk’ – and popular style. The web sites of the New Liturgical Movement and the Chant Café list other groups and composers who can be found there.

Listening As Participation


Does active participation exclude listening to great music? Silence is another mode of active participation, a fact verified by throngs who nightly fill the concert halls. “Is it not active participation,” writes Benedict XVI, “at being moved by a piece of music, sung or played? Are we to compel people to sing when they cannot, and, by doing so, silence not only their hearts but the hearts of others too?” (The Feast of Faith, 123-4)

Inculturation, Briefly Noted

Our parish communities are blessed with diverse cultures, and the choice of sacred music for any given parish should have universal appeal. Some sacred music is superior to others. If we did not make value judgments, parishes would still be singing “Whatsoever You Do to the Least of My Brethren” and “This Little Light of Mine.” This is not elitism but fact. The prevailing ideological view that European church music should take a back seat to music of other cultures is flawed thinking. Every European culture can boast of mature indigenous church music that springs from the heart of the Church. To recognize non-western cultures is not to ignore others.  (Benedict XVI, Feast of Faith, 125-26.)

A strong musical unity must be found in our parish liturgies. This unity is Gregorian chant. The 2007 General Instruction of the Roman Missal declares that certain parts of the Ordinary ought to be sung at international gatherings as a sign of musical unity, but today our parishes do have that distinctly international character. This practice should become the norm, and the faithful should be taught the easiest chants of the Ordinary without delay (#41). Then, at the other parts of the liturgy, the parish staff may decide how best to deal with musical options provided they comport with the dignity and sacredness of the liturgy. Once the easiest chants have been learned, the congregation may advance to the less easy. In this way, parishes express Christian unity and pass on the treasury of sacred music to the next generation. I have attended Sunday liturgies in Europe where the Ordinary chants and the indigenous music of the locale are sung at the same Mass. The musical symbol of the Church’s universality is Gregorian chant whose home is wherever there are Roman Catholics.

One Hour a Week

Whether or not we admit it, “the world is too much with us.” Faithful Catholics attend Sunday Mass to be lifted up from the culture’s assault on their sensibilities. Just one hour a week, away from the din of daily life! A reverently-celebrated liturgy can be powerful enough for them to face the cares of the coming week. They want to be drawn into the ritual, the homily, and the music. The faithful deserve prayerful liturgy and music. Every parish is unique with its own needs, limitations, and talent. Sunday liturgy need not be elaborate, just celebrated with care.

What to Do?

This past week’s influx of mail brought strong reactions about the fad of ‘folk’ – and popular music. For many, this music is the reason for going to Sunday Mass. Other responders have offered various solutions. I share only a few comments. (1) Transfer to another parish where one’s spiritual needs can be met. Apparently, one pastor pressured his congregants into singing more “upbeat music” from a new OCP. An angry family left that parish. (2)  Replace cantors who “botch the liturgy” with voices that sing off pitch, with voices that warble, scoop, and croon as in a cocktail lounge. (3) Request a meeting with the parish staff to plead for  better music. (4) Write to the local Ordinary and ask for a response. Many feel helpless to remedy the situation. In all this correspondence, the feeling is one of common wisdom: Do what you must do.

Apologia for Sacred Music

As members of one Body, we are called to reflect on the powerful and formative influence the sacred arts have on the daily lives of the faithful and those not of the Catholic faith. Inferior art forms exercise an equally powerful influence to deform the faith. Are we consigned to the fate of “having nothing to look backward with pride and nothing to look forward to with hope,” to quote Robert Frost?

Finally, every parish is called to proclaim nothing but a beautiful faith: the majesty and glory of the Lord found everywhere. Can we bring a visitor into our Sunday liturgies and proudly proclaim: See, this is our Catholic music, our heritage, our pride. Here is our faith!

Sr. Joan L. Roccasalvo, a member of the Congregation of St. Joseph, Brentwood, NY, holds degrees in philosophy (Ph.L), musicology (Ph.D.), theology (M.A.), and liturgical studies (Ph.D). She has taught at all levels of Catholic education and writes with a particular focus on a theology of beauty and the sacred arts. Her e-mail address is [email protected].
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