You are not unaware that the style of music you have chosen has no liturgical precedent in the history of the faith. It is not that you have overtly rejected tradition in favor of innovation. Many of you have written to me that you would greatly appreciate a parish setting in which Gregorian chant and polyphony (the only two musical forms explicitly cited at Vatican II as proper to the Roman Rite) were sung as part of Mass.
But this is not the parish setting you inherited and it doesn't seem like an option now. The historical context here is everything. You were the third generation raised after the major changes following the Second Vatican Council. When your parents were very young, the standard music was new and innovative, but by the time you heard it, it had grown old and tired.
And there didn't seem to be much of it: the same few Glorias and Holy Holys, and about twenty or so songs sung again and again, most of it suggestive of half-hearted attempts at folk music of some sort. This was what was considered "traditional Catholic music," and it didn't seem to mean much to young people by the time you were coming of age.
The music problem reflected a larger problem. In your childhood and early teen years, you were part of a parish structure that had settled into a kind of routine that you found to be uneventful and static, even faithless. The catechism materials used in your CCD classes, even for confirmation, were unchallenging and cliché. The adult teachers and leaders in your parish lacked enthusiasm.
Even Mass, as much as you tried to throw yourself into it, began to seem blasé. There were new and odd names for everything: confession behind a screen became face-to-face reconciliation, CCD became CFF, Mass became the "Eucharistic celebration," processionals were "gathering songs," and you knew nothing of traditional devotions like Holy Hours and novenas. The ghosts of the Catholic past were everywhere in movies and popular culture: people kneeling for communion, priests in black for Requiem Masses, Latin, elaborate vestments, stories of rigorous server training, incense, and tough nuns in schools – but you knew none of this. In many ways, the world in which you grew up had already been thoroughly de-Catholicized, and this was tragically true even of your own parish.
Gregorian chant was the same. It variously became popular on the radio and in bestselling CDs but it was sung by monks in far-off lands. It wasn't the music of the parish. Even such common tunes such as Pange Lingua and Adoro Te—the last remnants of a repertoire of tens of thousands of chants—were finally put to rest sometime in the 1980s. No one in the parish knew a thing about chant, and neither did there seem to be a way to find out more.
It was your misfortune that you inherited what can only be described as a desert, and you can vaguely recall being bored with the whole thing. At some point in your teen years, that changed with a retreat or a parish mission or possibly World Youth Day or some other occasion. There was a spiritual awakening in your life, and it centered on the realization of the powerful presence that Christ can have in your life. It brought you back to the confessional you had long neglected, and gave you a new appreciation of the Real Presence in the Eucharist, as well as the power of the Rosary and of features of Catholic life. This was a transforming event in your life.
This event was tied to the form of music called Praise and Worship, with its characteristic repeating phrases and dramatic beats and sounds. You could hear it on the radio. You bought the CDs. You followed the Catholic bands of the new generation. And yet in your own parish, the music was very different. It was then and still largely remains that "traditional Catholic music" from the 1970s that had made such a splash in the years immediately following the Council but didn't inspire you in the same way.
This was when you decided to apply your own musical skills to making a difference, usually for a Mass set aside as Life Teen or the Youth Mass. No one said that there was anything strange about this. Sure, some people objected to the style of music, that it was more like rock music than sacred music. But this really an argument about taste. Why should you be expected to adopt the tastes of your parents and their parents? Their music too was based on the style of their times, and it doesn't speak to your generation. This new Praise and Worship music connects with your time and your own religious revival. To sing it for Mass is only a matter of sharing your gift with others, in response to the call for evangelization.
What about Gregorian chant? You grant that there is an appeal here. You among many have the impression that choosing a chant rather than a Praise and Worship piece is merely a judgment call, a choice based on resources and timing. It is possible to sing Adoro Te instead of something else. In so doing, you are doing what Vatican II called for. All the better, perhaps, is to add some good chords and rhythm underneath it and sing it in a more familiar style.
What is truly tragic is that no one has alerted you to the real significance of chant. It goes far beyond using a chant as one of the four songs you can pick for Mass. The Gregorian chant grew up alongside the Mass itself, one step at a time. Some might date from the early Church, which sang the Psalms exclusively. The tradition developed as the liturgy developed over the next one thousand years as the parts of the Mass were organized and systemized into a liturgical year. There was music to go with the prayers. It was sung by martyrs and saints and heard in all times and all nations where the faith thrived.
The essential musical structure of the Mass as it emerged in the middle ages had an Entrance prayer that was set to chant. This is called the Introit. Sometimes you hear the first word of the chant used to describe the Mass of the day. This is where we get the terms "Gaudete Sunday," "Laetare Sunday," and "Requiem Mass." What is called the "gathering song" or the "processional hymn" is really a replacement for this Introit.
When Vatican II said that the chant should have primacy, what it means is that this Introit should be sung, and that when it is not possible to sing it, the preference for chant still remains.
It is true with other parts of the Mass too. The Offertory is not a musical intermission but the name of a real prayer that is set to music. The same is true of Communion. These are gorgeous chants. Even the Psalm has a melody in the chant books. The more you get to know these treasures, the more it strikes you just how unified the text and the music are. Their assignment is not at all random.
Often the melody clearly reflects the story of the text, so that the melody goes up when speaking of Heaven and down when speaking of humility. The complexity of them can be enrapturing the more you study them. You find beautiful presentations of Gospel narratives and parables. Each chant serves a particular musical function. The Introit and Offertory are processional chants, for example, so they have a forward motion with less elaborate musical expression on individual words. The Psalm chants are more for reflection, so they are long and elaborate.
The chant, then, is not just one choice among many. It is the music of the Mass itself, and the only form of music that truly qualifies by definition. The chants mentioned above are called "propers" and they change week to week. There are also chants for the "ordinary" of the Mass, so-called because their text remains the same. There are parts for the people: Kyrie, Gloria, Credo, Agnus Dei. You have heard a few of these, most likely the ones people have started to sing for Lent. But the Church has given us fully 18 sets of these pieces of music, and you can see from their structure that they are intended for everyone to sing.
In the experience of our parish, people can pick up these ordinary chants rather quickly. They love singing them. They don't need accompaniment. They use the human voice alone, the very instrument that God has given all of us. This way there is an absence of elitism in this music. It needs no specialists who know how to play piano and guitar and drums. Actually, you don't even need the music really. In fact, for the first thousand years of Christianity, the chant was sung without being written out in a way that could be widely distributed. It was learned and carried forward by frequency of use, the way people learn "Praise and Worship" music today.
There are other marks of chant that make it distinctive. It lacks a regular beat-style rhythm such as that we hear in rock, country, soul, blues, or any other style. It is what is called plainsong, so there is an underlying pulse but it doesn't cause you to want to tap your toe or dance. What it does do is draw the senses upward toward the Heavens. It assists in the goal of all liturgy, which is to take us out of time and help us pray and listen to eternal things. In contrast, music with a beat keeps us grounded and internal.
Another feature of chant is its humility. A major problem with Praise and Worship music is that it tends to focus everyone on the person doing the performing. The bands are featured in the front of the church. The band members are showered with complements. The singing style elicits a kind of egoism that probably makes you uncomfortable but is integral to popular styles. Chant is completely different because it does not seek to put the talent of the singer on exhibit. Instead, it is all about community prayer. The ego is buried. It doesn't unleash the self but rather requires a submission of self to holiness. In this way, it is like the faith: as St. John Baptist said, let me decrease and let him increase in me. This is what the chant does – what the chant requires.
You are right to suspect that chant requires a substantial change of pace. It is not just a matter of substituting one song for another. The chant leads the embrace of a completely different approach to liturgy itself. The music serves the liturgy and the liturgy serves God. Where does that leave the singers and the community? Precisely where we should be: not as consumers but as servants.
You are all too aware that you were cheated out of a robust form of Catholicism when growing up, not by design but merely because of the unfortunate timing. These were difficult days. In the same way that many aspects of the faith were not well presented to you, the music of the Church has not been presented to you either. But you were born into these times, as a musician, for a reason. Perhaps you are being called to make a difference.
The Pope has made the restoration of sacred music a centerpiece of his liturgical goals. He speaks about the issue often, and has written so much about it. Perhaps it is time to consider that he is onto something profoundly important here.
The Pope speaks of "two fundamental types of music." One he associates with Apollo, the ancient mythical god of light and reason. "This is the music that draws senses into spirit and so brings man to wholeness. It does not abolish the senses, but inserts them into the unity of this creature that is man. It elevates the spirit precisely by wedding it to the senses, and it elevates the senses by uniting them with the spirit. Thus this kind of music is an expression of man’s special place in the general structure of being."
The other type of music he says is Dionysian: "It drags man into the intoxication of the senses, crushes ra¬tionality, and subjects the spirit to the senses." Rock music may have merit outside of liturgy but in liturgy, the Pope writes that it is "in opposition to Christian worship" because its musical structure encourages people released from themselves by the experience of being part of a crowd and by the emotional shock of rhythm, noise, and special lighting effects. However, in the ecstasy of having all their defenses torn down, the participants sink, as it were, beneath the elemental force of the universe.
Where does Praise and Worship fit into this divide? Be honest with yourself and consider that it tends more toward Dionysius than Apollo. Every Pope since the earliest years has made a similar distinction between the sacred and the profane, and it was Pius X who stated so clearly that the standard by which all music at Catholic liturgy must be judged is the chant.
That doesn't mean that chant is the only music appropriate for Mass. Renaissance composers sought to elaborate on the chant with new forms that retained its spirit, and many modern composers are doing the same. There is also a place for English chant and for newly composed Psalms. What the chant provides in these cases is a standard to measure its suitability. It is essential that it remain the foundational song of the Catholic Church, for if we don't know or understand the foundation, it is impossible to make any judgment at all.
If the enterprise of learning something completely new sounds daunting, keep in mind that no one can become completely familiar with all chant. That would take several lifetimes. We are all in a state of relative ignorance on this subject as compared with the mind of the Church and the experience of tradition. It is the same with Catholic theology: no one can know it all. But that should not stop us from learning what we can, practicing what we can, and doing our part to hand on the tradition to the next generation.
We have a job to do, a job that we have been assigned. We are not the first to have been given this task. At other points in history, the chant was nearly completely lost, buried in the confusion over passing musical fashion. It returned again and against through the prayerful efforts of faithful musicians who were willing to give of themselves to bring the beauty back and make it live in our parishes in glorious ways.
The first step is to encounter the chant and consider is beauty. "The encounter with the beautiful," writes the Pope, "can become the wound of the arrow that strikes the heart and in this way opens our eyes, so that later, from this experience, we take the criteria for judgment and can correctly evaluate."
Perhaps the chant will touch you as it has touch me and millions upon millions of others since the earliest years of the faith, and will continue to touch people until the end of time. If it does, you too might enter into the stream of living persons who have sung the chant and played some role in bringing to the world the most beautiful music this side of heaven.