Fine Arts Column: Minority report: A pointed musical question


The pointed question to which I refer is this: why not? Allow me to explain.

First, some context. I find that a surprisingly small contingent of my compatriots are aware that the Latin Rite of the Catholic Church has what one might call its own official hymnal. This wouldn’t be surprising to some Protestant denominations, many of whom maintain official repositories of liturgical music. But in the Catholic Church, variety is the word of the era. From “Gather” to “Worship,” what one finds in the pews of any given parish is a toss-up.

This isn’t necessarily a bad thing. New liturgical music is always being composed and it should be collected. However, it becomes problematic when the one official collection of liturgical music compiled and recommended by the Vatican goes largely overlooked or even unheard of by the vast majority of choirs. That collection is published today as the “Graduale Romanum” or Roman Gradual.

I sketch this dichotomy to illustrate a significant point: the Church’s efforts to promote and preserve her sacred music are, whether intentionally or otherwise, widely ignored. Sacred music is “a treasure of inestimable value, greater even than that of any other art” which is “to be preserved and fostered with great care” (Sacrosanctum Concilium 112, 114). So, what must we remember to achieve this? I would like to recommend a few points:

1) “The Church acknowledges Gregorian chant as specially suited to the Roman liturgy: therefore, other things being equal, it should be given pride of place in liturgical services” (SC 116). Recently on campus there was a debate on whether praise and worship music has a place in the liturgy. Regardless of which side one takes on the issue, praise and worship music must NOT be used at the exclusion of chant. To do so would be to disregard the Church’s thorough recommendation.

Let us return momentarily to the “Graduale Romanum,” the Church’s collection of liturgical chants. Not only is this collection freely available online, but also a simplified version called the “Graduale Simplex.” Resources for learning chant are abundant, yet at Franciscan and in many parishes, that which the Church has asked us to preserve remains forgotten except in limited circumstances, despite the fact that it has recently become more accessible through the internet.

So I ask: why not? Why not follow the Church’s wishes when she directs us in our worship, just as we trust her in matters of faith and morals? We, the lay faithful, can start small by learning the common chants so many of our favorite saints would have known and grown up with. We could start with the Marian antiphons, the Pater Noster, the Ave Maria, etc. This is a powerful way of connecting ourselves with our rich Catholic heritage.

2) “(T)here are four options for the Entrance Chant: (1) the antiphon from the Missal or the antiphon with its Psalm from the Graduale Romanum … (2) the antiphon and Psalm of the Graduale Simplex … (3) a chant from another collection of Psalms and antiphons … (4) another liturgical chant … approved by the Conference of Bishops or the Diocesan Bishop” (General Instruction of the Roman Missal 48).

The chants from Graduale are here listed as the first options for liturgical music. This is because the texts of these chants (called “propers”) are specifically chosen to accord with the readings of the day.

I will say that some music directors make a concerted effort to harmonize their song choices with the liturgical propers, and I commend them. But again, I say to everyone else: why not? Why not use the text which the Church provides and which more fully expresses the harmony of the whole of Scripture?

3) One must also consider the style and nature of the music itself — as Benedict XVI writes, “It is not the individual person or group which is celebrating the liturgy, but is first and foremost God’s action through the Church which has her own history, her rich tradition and her creativity” (“Letter to the Grand Chancellor of the Pontifical Institute of Sacred Music,” 2011).

Liturgical music should have a specifically liturgical character. The Church’s guidelines are important because, first and foremost, the liturgy is not about us. It isn’t even primarily about what we do. It is, most essentially, God’s action in time and the re-presentation of Christ’s sacrifice in sacramental form. There may be a cultural argument for using praise and worship music, but it does not justify a lack of care for the musical treasures of the Church’s past. That would simply be liturgical abuse.

The alternative, of course, is to put our efforts into better understanding the Church’s teaching on sacred music. Then the question we must ask ourselves is: why not?

To all my readers, I wish you successful finals and a restful summer. Peace and blessings.