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May 02, 2013
How the Church built western sacred music: part three
By Sr. Joan L. Roccasalvo, C.S.J. *

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

The music of Western civilization was born in the Catholic Church. Adapted from mid-eastern chants, it began with Pope St. Sylvester I (4th century), who founded a school of choristers. It was then supervised by Pope St. Damasus (d 384) and Leo the Great (d 461). Pope St. Gregory (d 604), after whom plainchant was named, collected, adapted, and codified the many chants for liturgy. Benedictine monks and nuns taught the laity to sing plainchant. Today, hundreds of chant manuscripts are preserved in monasteries for scholarly study.

Enriching the World with 3,000 Melodies

Gregorian chant may well be the Roman Church’s single most contribution to world culture. Its soaring exuberance can evoke rapture. The present-day Gregorian chant repertory consists of almost 3,000 melodies – all monophonic and without instrumental accompaniment, sung with measured but rhythmically free lines.

The Roman Rite became more or less fixed in the eleventh and twelfth centuries, and with it, the basic outline of plainsong, cantus planus, as Gregorian chant came to be called. By the thirteenth century, ornate chants accompanied equally elaborate liturgies. When the chants became too difficult and linguistically remote for general use, the laity fell passively silent at liturgy, unfortunately for the next several centuries.

In the nineteenth century, a renewal was initiated, but the definitive restoration of the chant came about with Dom Prosper Guéranger, O.S.B. during the pontificate of Pius IX. From the pontificate of Pius X (1903-14 ) to the present day, major seminaries and houses of formation have been singled out to promote the teaching and study of Gregorian chant, it is that important to the Church’s liturgical life.

With the renewed ecclesiology of Vatican II, full, active, and conscious participation of the Assembly was pursued as the expected outcome in liturgical worship. Vatican II’s “Sacrosanctum Concilium” did not banish the chant from the Eucharistic liturgy (#115 ff). Other suitable music was welcomed, but chant, holding “pride of place,” still remained the official music of the Roman Church. Other music was not to overshadow or displace it.

Some pastors resorted to a four-hymn Mass structure using good, solid Protestant hymns to urge singing among the faithful. Soon, an altogether foreign style pushed its way into the liturgical service, thereby sweeping away fifteen hundred years of pure, crystalline chant. Happily, it continued to flourish in monasteries and in isolated parish churches.

Gregorian Chant Banished

A stunned scholarly world looked on, appalled at the sudden appearance of poorly-composed tunes played by strummed guitars with anything that could be banged. These instruments accompanied texts, at first, non-biblical and secular. Eventually, scripture prevailed.

This seismic shock was presented as a measure to jump-start participation in the liturgy, in addition to Protestant hymns. No longer heard was the dictum, “the home of Gregorian chant is wherever there are Roman Catholics.” Was this new rage, so-called folk music, a temporary phenomenon? Or would it permanently displace Gregorian chant?

Over the years, musicologists still agree that the most consequential result of Vatican II has been the exiling of Gregorian chant from the Roman Church. It was a boorish act.

The Vatican Letter to Bishops. What If . . .

In 1975, a letter was sent to all bishops regarding the minimum repertoire of singing Gregorian chant in the parishes. Because that year was the Holy Year, large international gatherings of pilgrims were expected in Rome, and it was urged, among other reasons, that Gregorian chant be sung because “it is a sign of unity among diverse ethnic Catholic groups who gather either internationally or in the local parish churches” (“Letter to Bishops on the Minimum Repertoire of Plain Chant”). In 2007, the same directive was issued by the USCCB.

Today our parishes are already international communities, and the letter has assumed a new urgency. By realizing the musical unity of plainchant, the parish church can pass on the treasury of sacred music to the next generation of Catholics. The regular practice of singing a few Mass settings should take priority over all other composed Mass settings. The easiest chants of the Ordinary are: Mass XVII (“Deus Genitor Alme”), Mass XI (“Orbis factor”), VIII (“De Angelis”), IX (“Cum Jubilo”), and XVIII (For Advent and Lent).

Pause for a moment and imagine the effect on the universal Church if these Mass settings were sung in all Roman churches throughout the world. Their profound beauty would lift up the Church and light up the world. Having stood the test of centuries, the melodies are easy to sing and easily memorized. This inestimable treasure is our musical inheritance. It beckons us to learn how to cherish them and hand them on to the next generation. It is not the responsibility of other faith traditions to carry on the tradition, but ours, for the sake of our Church and the world.

Training in Seminaries and Houses of Formation


The distinguished Catholic architect, Duncan Stroik, has urged major seminaries to include instruction on sacred architecture. Similarly, with painting and statuary. Most of all, knowledge and understanding of Gregorian chant should be taught to seminarians by trained instructors with a profound respect for plainchant. These seminarians are our future priests and pastors, some of whom will be appointed Ordinaries of dioceses. Proper musical training will sharpen and elevate their decisions regarding liturgical music.

Liturgical documents have directed that plainchant be part of the singing repertoire of the faithful who should be taught the basic chants under the aegis of trained directors, attuned to the mind of the Church. But seminaries and houses of formation must take the lead.

Despite fifty years of opposition to rediscovering our musical heritage, there are vital signs of renewal, thanks largely to renewal of the chant in monasteries, to periodicals and online agencies whose sole purpose is to revitalize the Church through sacred music.

In “Catholicism,” the series produced by Fr. Robert Barron, the viewer is drawn into its beauty as the context for each segment. Listen carefully, and you will hear Gregorian chants in the background. We first experience our faith as beautiful. Or, we should. This beauty expresses its truth and goodness, all of which culminate in love.

Walking Out

American Catholics seek to encounter God at the Eucharistic liturgy. Why should they be forced to sing unsuitable music? Or, if they do like it, their taste may be called into question. People will travel long distances to churches with beautiful liturgies that nourish their lives. Too many have already changed parishes on this account. Worse, people are walking out.

The market is flooded with music for church use. Their quality varies from poorly-composed to sublime. Music directors also vary in quality from the untrained to the consummate professional.  Still, the norm seems to be that there is no norm. To each director, his or her own musical pope!

Several years ago, when I would visit Eastern Christian parish churches, parishioners would frequently ask: “How do you like our chant?” Or, “how did you like our singing?” It was obvious that their chant heritage occupied “pride of place.” They took pride in their heritage which, for them, meant encountering God in worship and praise.  

(To be continued.)

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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