Gregorian Chant in Parishes

I’m teaching Gregorian chant online this summer. Enrollment is good – over 20 students! Each week I offer an online discussion forum for any questions that come up. A student posed the question below about Vatican II and chant in parishes. My response is longish but it might interest some of you. I’m especially interested in filling in holes and correcting some of my impressions which are based on things I have heard anecdotally. I welcome your additions and suggestions.   – awr

Can you elaborate on what positive (or negative) role the Second Vatican Council had in the use or renewal of chant in Catholic parishes?

Great question. It is mixed. It’s important not to overstate how much Gregorian Chant was being done in parishes before Vatican II. Many, many parishes wanted High Mass (ie sung Mass) but couldn’t do the propers so they sang all the proper texts to a psalm tone. (Tozer published all the propers to psalm tones.) Many a Catholic must have thought Gregorian chant is great and it has two melodies in all … the psalm tones in modes 5 and 8!

Many parishes in the U.S. were singing the Ordinary, but many never did. According to Thomas Day (Why Catholics Can’t Sing), big parishes on the East Coast would have 5 Masses on Sunday. Four of these would be recited Low Mass, done in 40-45 minutes with no music. Only the last one was High Mass with chant (or polyphony), and the late morning High Mass had low attendance because it took longer.

There were many monasteries before Vatican II that were real centers of Gregorian chant, every liturgy, every day. At St. John’s Abbey all the priests went out to parishes on Sunday, so the young monks in seminary were the Sunday community. They generally sang the Introit and Communio, but depending on practice time they did the gradual and/or offertory to a psalm tone. The monks sang the Ordinary of course, but the congregation apparently didn’t really  join in. Daily Mass during the week was very early in the morning, all recited with no music. Daily Vespers was sung in Gregorian chant, but all the other daily offices were chanted all on one pitch with no chant melodies.

In the early 1960s (during Vatican II) St. John’s moved from sung High Mass done entirely by the monks to recited “dialogue Mass” so the people could participate by reciting the Latin Mass parts. It earned us an editorial in a church music journal, “Murder in the Abbey.” I admit to some sadness that something beautiful was lost – monasteries all across the Catholic church which were islands singing the liturgy in Latin chant. I give that to God and pray for detachment.

There were parish congregations in Germany or the low countries that knew up to 5 or 6 Mass Ordinaries, if you can imagine. There were many parish choirs singing the propers. And because the Sunday propers were done every day in the following week before Vatican II, I’ve heard of Dutch parishes where enough choir members went to early daily Mass all week that they had daily High Mass with sung propers. Amazing.

A monk in Germany, Fr. Gregor Schwake OSB, who was the apostle of congregational Latin chant, said that by the 1940s and especially the 1950s it was all in decline, compared to the 1930s. Note that this is well before Vatican II and the 1960s upheavals. People in the pews were busier, he reported, more jaded, more cynical, not as able anymore to come to the parish every night for a week-long “chant mission” (they really did that), and distracted by a fast-moving modern world of radio and, for many, television. In 1943 Rome ruled that in Germany and Austria they could replace some Latin propers with vernacular hymns and still consider it High Mass – bishops said that their massive efforts at promoting congregational Latin chant since 1903 was having some success, but it was too difficult for many and not working that well.

Then after Vatican II it all blew up – pressures that were pent up for so long exploded with a bang. Some nonsense happened, some misunderstandings – but, and this is important, not because everything was wrong about the 1960s, not because Vatican II got hijacked by bad people, but because what they inherited from the 1950s (and the previous thousand years) was so inadequate that nobody could know immediately what to do with the challenges. What emerged was not a “responsible middle” doing (like Luther was able to do in the 16th century) some Latin chant, preservation of the best from the past, careful and gradual use of the best of vernacular music, promotion of quality new repertoire, etc. I’m just old enough to remember grade school CCD Masses where we played records of our favorite songs (“All You Need Is Love”) when we planned Mass. And within about 5 minutes of Vatican II vernacular took over everything, all the time – for understandable reasons. This marginalized Latin chant.

My impression is that use of Latin chant in parishes has been increasing steadily for at least 20 years now. When I chant a Latin Agnus Dei to undergrads (studying the Order of Mass), over half will say they are familiar with that.

Semiology has led to increased interest and excitement since the 1980s – more in Europe than the U.S. Semiologists point out that in the Middle Ages, it was mostly only in exceptional centers (monasteries, cathedrals) where propers were sung regularly. Medieval parishes were doing who knows what – some of it probably pretty simple and rudimentary.

The goal (officially) from 1903 to 1963 of getting congregations and parish choirs to sing the liturgy in Latin chant was, in many ways, a historical anomaly.  So if there are now various islands here and there promoting chant (and doing semiological interpretation, I hope), it’s not so different from the Middle Ages – although it’s much smaller in proportion of course.

My take-away – and this is just my opinion, and I’m pretty robustly pro-Vatican II – is that there’s no better time to do Latin chant in Catholic worship than now. It is appreciated, it is part of participative, vernacular worship, it enhances and enriches worship. I grant that most parishes don’t do a syllable of Latin chant, and that in many or most parishes there would be strong opposition if you did some. I’m not going to worry too much about that. As we get further in time from the upheavals of the 1960s, some of those old battles are happily fading into the past and it’s becoming less contentious. At least that’s my impression. There are more than a few places where one can promote Latin chant in the reformed liturgy – wisely, lovingly, gently – and I’m grateful for that.

Fr. Anthony


  1. Did you neglect to mention that that the abandonment of Latin and chant was something enforced by the Roman authorities? (Just like the reformation it was not really a popular movement. Actually I suspect that most people were happy with the solution of the missal of 1964.) This barbarous attitude still prevailed as of seven years ago.

    Several years ago a now dear departed friend asked me if I would contact a newly ordained priest in a New England diocese who wanted help in Latin. The poor fellow was very anxious about emailing me although he really wanted to understand the meaning of the Latin missal he recited privately on his day off. (I must say that I was equally shocked but edified.) He told me that his bishop would have his head if he found out that he was spending time on Latin. He was so nervous that he ceased contacting me after one lesson. I often wonder what happened to that poor wretch.

    ++Bartolucci had interesting comments about how the chant was a lively experience in the Italy of his youth; and the folks participated with zeal in the Latin.

    Oh, yes! On the return from visiting the restaurant near the Abbey of Fossanova Reggie Foster led us in chants on the trek to the train station. On arrival at the station he had begun the Pange lingua. Can you imagine our surprise when a dozen or so Italian ladies & gentlemen waiting for their trains joined in! They knew every blessed verse, and afterwards we were drenched in kisses because they were so happy that Americans and others were singing Latin hymns.

    1. I do not understand your first paragraph. What ‘Roman authorities’, what did they do to chant, and when? I was 25 in 1963, I saw and welcomed changes to hearing the Mass in a language I undestood, and in the encouragement to singing by the congregation, but that was not at the expense of choirs singing Latin, either chant or polyphony (in my experience in England). What was displaced was Low Mass on Sundays.

  2. Hmmm. Let me “stretch” for an answer. Since Pope Paul VI really made the ultimate decision in terms of the liturgy to largely “sacrifice” Latin (see his allocution of March 7 1965) that didn’t exactly do anything positive for Latin Chant. Of course English Plain Chant could have come into the UK, US and other English speaking countries but lets leave that missed opportunity aside. Lets circle back to Paul VI and Latin Chant. Vatican II wasn’t really over in terms of the Liturgy or Latin Chant in 1969. Paul VI, after a number of years, I assume had some misgivings and even a bit of remorse. And in a wonderful move published the Jubilate Deo booklet in the mid seventies with relatively simple Latin Chants which he apparently believed to be the basic foundation which all Latin Catholics should be familiar with. This was roundly ignored for many years, but made its way into a number of Catholic Hymnals as the Latin Chant Mass – where it was still largely ignored But slowly not so much. And since the ordinary was the same, those who heard it or pieces of it became familiar. So yes, no surprise to me that the simple Agnus Dei is fairly familiar to many now (and it helps that it almost sings itself). So, if in fact, pre Vatican 2, most parishes didn’t chant the ordinary in Latin, now there is finally the possibility that many could (perhaps a growing trend). It just isn’t that hard – at least the Kyrie, Sanctus, and Agnus Dei. And if you do all those, you might as well go for it and learn the singable Gloria (Missa Angelis). This happened to me in a Parish in 2011 which didn’t want to buy a new hymnal etc and just went with the Latin (in its old Worship hymnal). I admit I was curious/optimistic with it but thought foisting the Gloria on us was obnoxious due to its length (how can I ever learn this?). One year later I dearly loved that Gloria as well as the entire ordinary. I was like “please don’t ever take it away”. 3 years later – parish merger and it disappeared just like that.

  3. There was an NPM convention in the 80s in which the presenter, as it was related to me, lamented the loss of institutional memory on chant. He began singing Pange Lingua Gloriosi and affirmed the crowd when they joined with him in singing the first verse from memory. They astonished him by completing the entire hymn, in Latin, as many of them had and continued to experience it every Holy Thursday.

    I think there are many reasons why chant fell into disuse long before the Council. I suspect there is also waiting fertile ground for its “rehabilitation” today. But if people insist on misdiagnosing why people resist it, their efforts to encourage it may well fall flat. It seems simple enough, but it is difficult music to get right. There are reasons why monasteries were able to find fruit in it when many parishes found it boring and lifeless.

    For being a “traditional” musical form, it seems to require a freedom from dogmatism in the singers I’ve seen struggle with it. Most musicians want the structure of a regular time signature. Some don’t know what to do when they don’t get it.

    Mr Voss’ commentary on “one year later” is most apt. When I get that kind of response to a repertoire choice of any kind, I know I’ve planned well.

    1. “There was an NPM convention in the 80s in which the presenter, as it was related to me, lamented the loss of institutional memory on chant. He began singing Pange Lingua Gloriosi and affirmed the crowd when they joined with him in singing the first verse from memory. They astonished him by completing the entire hymn, in Latin, as many of them had and continued to experience it every Holy Thursday.”

      Happened in a community I was involved with music programming a generation ago, when the music director and liturgy committee were at best fearful of trying out Pange Lingua at the Evening Mass of the Lord’s Supper, stoutly insisting it would at best be tepidly received, and surprised by the full-throated participation (a cappella no less, and in procession, more the wonder for the skeptics). This was not a congregation full of gray hair. It stayed in the programs in ensuing years (I was skeptical about that likelihood whether practice would overcome theory, as it were, and was happily wrong in my skepticism).

      1. In my eastern city of origin, chant and Latin were associated with disloyalty to the Church and Vatican II. That certainly colored the political landscape in the area during the 1970-88 era. But like any art form, chant as a genre is but a means to an end. It is a tool for good liturgy and the handoff to discipleship. It can still accomplish that, but other musical forms do it also, and often with a higher level of skill and a deeper receptivity depending on the parish and its musical leadership. Over the years, I find singers of all ages struggle with it. It’s worth the struggle, certainly. But I could say that about any musical skill or genre.

  4. quoted from above:
    “and the late morning High Mass had low attendance because it took longer”

    I suggest that if the “late morning High Mass had low attendance” it might at least partly have been because those who wanted to receive communion after fasting since midnight had good reason to participate at an earlier Mass.

    I forget when the fast was reduced to three hours, but I know I grew up with midnight as the rule.

    1. We had several early Low Masses, a Solemn Mass at 10:30 and a Low Mass with sermon at 12 noon, which was a standard pattern in large parishes in England. The 12 was always packed out, from the age of twelve (1950) I and most men would stand because of a lack of seats. The 10:30 was full but not packed. The same picture in the neighbouring parish, where the crowd overflowed the church and we stood in the forecourt. No one took Communion.
      The Eucharistic Fast was relaxed in 1955, unsurprisingly this was soon followed with afternoon Masses..

    2. “I forget when the fast was reduced to three hours, but I know I grew up with midnight as the rule.”

      I’m thinking 1958??

  5. Please also remember Msgr Martin Hellreigel of St Louis, MO who was convinced that parishes could do Gregorian Chant well; I forget the parish(es) he worked in to prove his point. Along the way, he also coached the O’Fallon, MO Sisters of the Most Precious Blood of Christ (C.PP.S). He is buried there. I have a Sister friend there who still misses him, treasures his memory.

  6. Someone asked me what the monks at St. John’s did musically at daily Mass before Vatican II, so I put the question to the community list serve. Here is the response of an older monk:

    “It was REALLY low key. No one was allowed to receive communion. Rarely, if ever, was there singing. MAYBE, I can’t remember for sure, there was singing when a black Mass was celebrated with the fake coffin, as for an anniversary Mass for a deceased monk. After the conventual Mass, there was a communion Mass for the clerics (i.e. seminarians), and the priests and (lay) brothers would go downstairs for private Masses, and the brothers would serve these and receive communion at these.”


    1. I am of a similar vintage and was at junior seminary pre Vat II. Parish was all De Angelis and Tozer rendered by a group of singers (I refuse to call them a choir, and singers is stretching the definition) in the organ loft. Junior seminary was all chant. We each had a copy of the Liber Usualis and a practise every Friday afternoon led by an ancient priest (Desmond Coffey for the record) who had studied at Solesmes. Sunday Mass straight from the Liber, even the Tracts and big Alleluias. Undiluted. Sunday Vespers similarly. I still have my copy to this day.
      Firstly it gave me a huge love of chant. Secondly it convinced me that 99% of it has no place in parish worship unless there is a choir of exceptional ability. It needs to be done really well (we never did) if it is to be done at all. Then what about the congregation?
      About Masses and communion etc. We had a multiplicity of masses at side altars being celebrated simultaneously. It was always a source of entertainment to see which would finish first – usually the same one every day.

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