Fine Arts Column: Be Not Afraid (of Gregorian Chant)


In the liturgy of the Church, art has always played an important role in elevating the minds and hearts of the congregation to the contemplation of the divine, of Christ’s real and true presence in the liturgy itself.

There is a simple demonstration of this you can conduct in less than two minutes in any of the residence halls on campus. Pause what you’re doing and walk to the hall chapel. It doesn’t take more than a quick glance inside to note that this room, among all the other rooms in that dorm, is unlike any other. Whether the first thing that catches your eye is the Stations of the Cross, a painting of the Blessed Mother or the crucifix on the wall, it is quickly apparent that the artwork in the chapel is specifically oriented to foster devotion to Christ.

The Church has always treasured certain kinds of art as particularly suited for this purpose. Think of the stunning works of stained glass in cathedrals throughout the world (or even at St. Peter’s downtown), statues of the Holy Family, even the architecture of churches themselves.

When it comes to music, she has done no differently. Even in the documents of Vatican II, Gregorian chant is described as “specially suited to the Roman liturgy” and should have “pride of place in liturgical services” (Sacrosanctum Concilium 116).

The general attitude toward Gregorian chant in the United States is not one of disapproval, but it is one of trepidation. Chant is often viewed as foreign to the liturgy, too difficult or just not necessary, but even at Vatican II, the Church has affirmed the teaching of previous papal encyclicals that the precise opposite of this is true.

It would be fitting to consider practical ways that we can strive to better preserve the place of chant in the liturgy, for though it has not faded from the repertoire of the traditional Latin Mass, its stature in the Novus Ordo has been sorely and sadly diminished.

Far be it for me to argue that chant alone should be used at Mass, but to say that it is difficult to implement is simply not true. The key is to take it slowly.

For those of us unfamiliar with chant, it can take time to acquaint ourselves with the style. A great starting point would be the offertory and communion chants. Not only are these the normative music selections for those parts of the Mass, but the text of each one is specifically chosen to harmonize with the readings for that Sunday.

These need not even be sung in Latin – an excellent resource for English chant propers is Simple English Propers by Adam Bartlett. If you attend the Sunday 8:30 a.m. Mass on campus, you’ve no doubt heard these before. Not only are these chants easy to learn, but they hearken to the form of the compositions in the official chant collections of the Church.

There are also several chant settings of the Mass parts that are not difficult to learn. These can easily be found online or in various hymnals from different publishers. For those interested in delving deeper into the repertoire of chant the Church has preserved from antiquity, a vast library of resources on chant and its interpretation are easily available thanks to the magic of the internet.

While making use of chant in the liturgy may seem a daunting task to those of us who have grown up without it (myself included), it is a task that the Church in her writings has affirmed as necessary and good. Undertaking such a project can only have the effect of enriching our worship and accentuating the beauty that already exists in the way we worship through the liturgy.

May our voices ever harmonize with those of the saints of old in that music which the Church can truly and uniquely call her own.