Young choristers sing age-old chant in Atlanta

I see Catholic News Service just picked up a piece on Gregorian chant and traditional music from the The Georgia Bulletin in which I’m quoted. I was happy to visit with author Andrew Nelson and give my perspective on the role of chant in worship.

My main point was that Gregorian chant is not an end in itself, something to be valued for its own sake (l’art pour l’art), but rather something that has its purpose only within the context of the structure and function of the liturgy. This idea is not mine; it’s the teachings of the Church in Sacrosanctum Concilium [SC] and Musicam sacram.

I’d like to be more confident that this point comes through in the article, but I fear the impression could be given that I’m simply advocating for chant, full stop. On the contrary, I believe that the beauty of chant best comes through within a larger context of active participation, sensitivity to local culture, participants having basic comprehension of the liturgy’s key texts, and pastoral sensitivity to the local community and its musical traditions. If those things are lacking, there is a danger that Latin chant can become distracting or divisive or less than prayerful.

Nelson did a great job capturing my comments. I’m struck by how much air time I got – it’s more normal in my experience that an hour-long conversation with a reporter results in a line or two that invariably aren’t the bits I would have chosen to represent my thoughts. A news story has to be pithy, but a blog post like this can be a bit more extended. And so, here is my own commentary on the things I’m quoted saying in the article.

  • “[Ruff] said Gregorian chant is valuable when it helps transform worshippers ‘more into the body of Christ’.” – I guess I said that. Different parts of the liturgy have different functions. The congregation becomes the body of Christ especially by praying and singing together, celebrating the Eucharistic Prayer together, and receiving Communion together There is a place for the congregation to sing in Latin; there is also a place within the norms for a choir or schola to render parts of the liturgy as a solo for the sake of the active listening of the other worshipers. In this latter case, chant is probably transforming the listeners into the body of Christ only indirectly by giving them a common experience that binds them together. The communal aspect comes through more directly when the congregation sings, mostly in its own language(s).
  • “’It’s not more worshipful if it’s more Latin and more mysterious. It’s more worshipful if it draws us into the mystery of the rite‘, he said.” I had in the back of my mind the statement in SC 112 that “sacred music is to be considered the more holy in proportion as it is more closely connected with the liturgical action.” Holiness (or worshipfulness) is not in the first place an aesthetic or emotional thing, though these have their place of course; it is about ritual function. Functional, in the mind of the Church, does not mean utilitarian or pedestrian or inartistic. It means spiritual in the sense that the community experiences God and Christ by doing the rite together.
  • “Bishops at the [Second Vatican] council understood Mass to be about ‘the entire community participating in a way that makes sense in their culture, because God is found in the local culture,’ he said.” There are still transcultural aspects of the liturgy that hold true in every local culture – e.g., bread and wine are employed at Masses everywhere. Latin chant is in some sense transcultural, and there is something powerful about Catholics around the world singing, e.g., the same simple Agnus Dei chant. But with the Second Vatican Council it is more clearly understood that many aspects of the liturgy are local to the culture – see SC  37-40. The Church is more Catholic when there is rich diversity in languages, musical genres, visual arts, and the like. It is within such diversity that one thinks about the use of Latin chant.
  • “Programs translating Latin into English is a simple way to help make chant complement the Mass, aiding people in prayer, Father Ruff said.” I meant leaflets and worship aids. I hope I didn’t say “complement the Mass,” but maybe did – chant is the Mass, it is part of the Mass, part of the rite, part of the communal action, not something extraneous added to the Mass.

Finally, here’s an interesting question. How would you translate “Concordi Laetitia”? Literally it’s “with harmonious joy” – laetitia is in the ablative case, not the nominative, and concordi is an adjective in the ablative, not the genitive of a noun. But the literal translation is not always the most faithful one, and grammatical cases sometimes have to shift around for a translation to be idiomatic. I suppose “the joy of harmony” rolls off the tongue a bit better than “harmonious joy.”

Hats off to the young singers in Atlanta! May their singing build up the church and help congregations celebrate the rites ever more communally.



One comment

  1. The subject of chant within the context of cultural diversity is one I have thought about greatly. We have a growing number of Spanish-speaking immigrants in our area, and these days they are not all from Mexico, but also Central America. Although there is a common language and some unity of culture throughout Latin America, there are also distinct regional differences. A Catholic from Peru will not necessarily know the same songs as a Catholic from Puebla. Then there’s the issue of to what extent immigrants should adapt to the culture of the United States (whatever that is, and if there is one at all, it is a synthesis of various cultures). Ideally, too, we want to avoid segregated communities and find ways to worship together. I certainly don’t have the answers to these vexing challenges, but we’ll be forging ahead anyhow with some chanted Latin Ordinaries and Propers at both English and Spanish Masses. Especially in the United States and Europe, our global culture is a bigger melting pot than it was in 1962. With that in mind, I wonder if it’s time not to ignore SC 37-40, but to look at it through our present lens. This could be a fascinating subject for a conference involving many ministries of the Church.

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