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CNP Feedback - One True Music?

Q. Dear CNP:

It is pretty arrogant to call chant the only true "Catholic" music; just like everything in life, including all of God's creation, evolution happens! We include Gregorian Chant in our liturgies, but also include everything in-between — there are centuries of liturgically correct music — almost too much to comprehend. When chant is done in Latin as a Mass response, the congregation is lost and chant requires much more practice for a talented group of cantors and choir members to deliver well. This push for more and more chant music during the Catholic liturgies is disheartening as our once 'singing' congregation is becoming silent and lost.

Doris Irae

A. Dear Ms. Irae:

With over 250 articles on the site, I'm not sure I know where you found the displeasing assertion that called chant "the only true 'Catholic' music." I did a search of the CNP site and could not find those words anywhere.

Perhaps you're referring to a reprinted article by Dr. Timothy McDonnell, called The West's One True Music. In it, the author cites, as a musicologist, Gregorian chant's fundamental role in the growth of Western music. This is history, not merely opinion. The fact that unison chant "morphed" into organum and into polyphony, and from there spawned the entirety of European (Western) musical culture, is well-documented, more fact than conjecture.

Aside from that, though, you seem to have a notion that we at CNP are somehow advocating an exclusive use of chant in liturgy. That couldn't be farther from reality. We understand that there are various genres of sacred music that are used in parishes, from hymns to Mass settings to Responsorial Psalms to organ music to handbell music to choir music. In fact, we publish in all these genres — see our catalog.

We do, however, promote the use of some Latin chant in every parish. And not out of personal preference. There is a clear mandate from the church, reaching 50 years back to Sacrosanctum concilium (the first document of Vatican II) and extending even to our current Pope Benedict XVI, for using Latin chant for the congregation. Vatican II says:

36. Particular law remaining in force, the use of the Latin language is to be preserved in the Latin rites.


54. [S]teps should be taken so that the faithful may also be able to say or to sing together in Latin those parts of the Ordinary of the Mass which pertain to them.

Pope Benedict has spoken on numerous occasions about the use of Latin and chant in liturgy. An example can be found in Sacramentum caritatis:

62 … the faithful can be taught to recite the more common prayers in Latin, and also to sing parts of the liturgy to Gregorian chant.

Yes, as you say, we should be using selections from the "centuries of liturgical music," but in no way should we be ignoring Latin Gregorian chant.

I'm afraid I must disagree with your generalization about the "impracticality" of congregational chant. My view stems from over 40 years of experience as a Roman Catholic music director. At every parish where I've worked, I've taught the congregation to sing at the very least an easy Latin chant Mass. Further, every one of my children's choirs, some with singers down through Kindergarten, have been able to sing these same chants easily. Many of these groups have also sung more complex chant Masses.

You find the congregation "lost" when they're asked to sing Latin chant. Is there any explanation and teaching offered to them by the music director? Is there any support from the clergy? As a music director, I've found repeatedly that if the music being taught, be it chant or Bach or a new Spanish hymn, is approached as something "difficult," it will be just so. The person teaching must know the music thoroughly and be able to present it simply, effectively and with much patience. Eventually the congregation, or the choir, will learn the music. I've used this technique innumerable times, particularly with a children's choir. We have in our repertoire numerous arias by Bach, Handel and Mozart, including the latter's famous Alleluia from Exsultate jubilate. Yes — our young singers [grades 3-8] did indeed sing this at Mass. I never told them it was "difficult," and we practiced slowly, with patience, bit by bit, until they knew the whole piece. If children can learn to sing this, it's not unreasonable to expect that a congregation can learn the music to a simple Sanctus.

Attitude, however, is another issue. The children learned what they did because they were receptive! If you, or your assembly, is pre-disposed against Latin and chant, it's much more difficult to teach and learn it. Such an unfortunate "tainting" of a assembly's view of Latin can come from various sources, not the least common of which is 1970s clergy antipathy toward Latin.

If congregations can be brought to a healthy "Catholic" understanding of Latin and Gregorian chant, then the Church is much better off. We need to grasp this portion of our musical heritage, this music that makes us eminently Catholic. In terms of "Catholic identity," even Hollywood, with its overtly secular bent, knows how to score the scene in a Catholic church — it's filmed with chant in the background, because chant says, "Catholic."

This process of teaching and learning chant is a long one, due in part to our having forsaken it for so many years. It's a valuable process, though, even while the congregation is "mastering" its singing of this "new" old repertoire. If only a quarter of the assembly sings the Sanctus, there is no dysfunction in this. The others, on their journey toward learning the music, may be permitted to respectfully listen to the music. While the ideal may be that 100% of the people sing everything, this never happens. "Fully conscious active participation" does not rule out attentive listening. I hope that in short time we may give up on the out-dated yardstick that measures the sanctity of a people by the volume of their singing.

Gary Penkala
CanticaNOVA Publications
Article written 27 January 2013

Also see: Index of other CNP articles on chant

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