Mar 15, 2001

Buried Treasure Part I

Online Edition – Vol. VII, No. 1: March 2001

Buried Treasure

Can the Church recover her musical heritage?

Part I, Part II, Part III, Part IV, Part V 

Download: PDF version of all 5 parts

by Susan Benofy

Editor’s Note:

It is an undisputed fact that nearly every twentieth-century pope — and an ecumenical council — have called for the revival of Gregorian Chant in the Church’s living liturgy. Yet, after nearly a hundred years, we seem no closer to achieving this goal than when Pope Pius X urged that this buried treasure be recovered.

Why didn’t it happen? Although the secular world has recently shown renewed interest in and appreciation for classic Catholic music, can Catholics today hope to recover and "re-inculturate" the Church’s heritage of sacred music?

Susan Benofy, research editor of the Adoremus Bulletin, offers insight into the history of this long effort in a series of essays that begins in this issue.


Part I

Sacred Music in the Twentieth Century Reform of the Liturgy

In the beginning – Pope Pius X – Tra le Sollicitudini | Pope Pius XI – Divini Cultus | Pope Pius XII – Mediator Dei and Musicae Sacrae Disciplina | Further Instruction –Sacred Music and the Liturgy | Pioneers in the revival of chant | Enter GIA and Dorothy Day | Hellriegel and Holy Cross | Other early achievements


"The musical tradition of the universal Church is a treasure of inestimable value, greater even than that of any other art. The main reason for this pre-eminence is that, as a combination of sacred music and words, it forms a necessary or integral part of the solemn liturgy".

— Second Vatican Council,
Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy,
Sacrosanctum Concilium §112


As the twentieth century began, the music proper to the Roman Rite, Gregorian chant and the classical polyphony that is based on it, a "treasure of inestimable value", was for all practical purposes buried.

Musical settings of the Mass in chant or classical polyphony were rarely performed in parishes. Much of the music was in manuscript form in libraries or museums, written in ancient notation, although serious attempts to understand the notation and edit the manuscripts had begun in the nineteenth century.

All of the twentieth century popes wrote on the subject of sacred music, and encouraged the revival of the chant, its publication in new editions, and the widespread teaching of chant so that Catholics could actually sing it.

Further progress was made on the revival of chant during the first half of the century. Institutes and schools trained teachers and promoted chant, and chant was introduced into religious houses, colleges and schools, and some parishes. Yet, despite the extensive liturgical reform after Vatican II, the "inestimable treasure" is almost never experienced as "an integral part" of the liturgy.

It is rare to hear chant in Catholic churches, and it is rarely taught in Catholic institutions. Catholics who are familiar with the chant and polyphonic repertoire are more likely to have gained this familiarity from listening to recordings than to have experienced this music as "an integral part of the solemn liturgy".

Parishioners or choir directors who express an interest in introducing such music into Sunday liturgies are often told it is inappropriate for the "post-Vatican II Church".

But is the sort of music heard at the average American parish what the Second Vatican Council intended? How is "sacred music" different from any other kind? What does music intend to accomplish in worship? Is it, after all, just a matter of taste? What does it really matter what we sing at Mass?

The liturgical reform that led to the Second Vatican Council’s first published document, the Constitution on the Liturgy, Sacrosanctum Concilium, can provide historical perspective on the matter of Church music.

The story really begins nearly a century ago.

In the beginning – Pope Pius X – Tra le Sollicitudini

Pope St. Pius X initiated the twentieth-century reform of the liturgy with his decree, Tra le Sollicitudini ("among the cares")1 in 1903.

The pope was concerned with engaging the people’s true and full participation in the Church’s worship; and to this end he issued this legislation for sacred music in the liturgy.

He states his objective right at the beginning:

Among the cares of the pastoral office … a leading one is without question that of maintaining and promoting the decorum of the House of God in which the august mysteries of religion are celebrated…we do not touch separately on the abuses in this matter which may arise. Today our attention is directed to one of the most common of them, one of the most difficult to eradicate, and the existence of which is sometimes to be deplored in places where everything else is deserving of the highest praise…Such is the abuse affecting sacred chant and music.

Filled as we are with a most ardent desire to see the true Christian spirit flourish in every respect and be preserved by all the faithful, we deem it necessary to provide before anything else for the sanctity and dignity of the temple, in which the faithful assemble for no other object than that of acquiring this spirit from its foremost and indispensable font, which is the active participation in the most holy mysteries and in the public and solemn prayer of the Church. And it is vain to hope that the blessing of heaven will descend abundantly upon us, when our homage to the Most High, instead of ascending in the odor of sweetness, puts into the hand of the Lord the scourges wherewith of old the Divine Redeemer drove the unworthy profaners from the Temple.

Tra le Sollicitudini, Introduction
(emphasis added)

In this document, the pope detailed principles that constituted a "juridical code of sacred music" with the force of law.

Sacred music, said Pope St. Pius X, is to have "the qualities proper to liturgy, and in particular sanctity and goodness of form, which will spontaneously produce the final quality of universality". It must, therefore be "holy" with nothing profane (non-sacred) in its content or presentation:

It must be true art, for otherwise it will be impossible for it to exercise on the minds of those who listen to it that efficacy which the Church aims at obtaining in admitting into her liturgy the art of musical sounds. (TLS, §2)

Tra le Sollicitudini holds up Gregorian chant as the supreme model of sacred music, that which the Church "directly proposes to the faithful as her own":

Special efforts are to be made to restore the use of the Gregorian Chant by the people, so that the faithful may again take a more active part in the ecclesiastical offices, as was the case in ancient times. (TLS, §3)

The pope said that polyphony, especially that of Palestrina and others of the sixteenth century, agreed "admirably with Gregorian chant" and, therefore, had a rightful place in the liturgy. More modern music was also permitted, provided it avoided all suggestions of the profane.

Thus, in the earliest document of the liturgical reform, sacred music, especially Gregorian chant, is presented as a fundamental element in the "active participation" of the people in the liturgy.

This emphasis on revitalization of liturgical chant for the purpose of invigorating and deepening people’s worship continued in other documents of Pope Pius X and of later popes.

Pope Pius XI – Divini Cultus

Pope Pius XI issued Divini Cultus (DC), an Apostolic Constitution on Divine Worship, in December 1928. Like his predecessor, he emphasized the connection between re-invigorated Catholic worship and sacred music:

In order that the faithful may more actively participate in divine worship, let them be made once more to sing the Gregorian Chant, so far as it belongs to them to take part in it. It is most important that when the faithful assist at the sacred ceremonies … they should not be merely detached and silent spectators, but filled with a deep sense of the beauty of the liturgy, they should sing alternately with the clergy or choir, as it is prescribed. (DC, §155)

Pope Pius XII – Mediator Dei and Musicae Sacrae Disciplina

Pope Pius XII issued two encyclicals dealing with the liturgy and participation by the people. The first, Mediator Dei (MD, November 1947), clearly continues the program of liturgical reform set out by his predecessors. The pope stresses that the liturgy is external worship but is also, and primarily, interior worship.

The pope devoted an entire section to the "participation of the faithful in the Eucharistic sacrifice", and explained that the people offer the sacrifice with the priest, though they do not have priestly power. They do this, he makes clear, by joining their prayer to that of the celebrant, and by offering themselves. (§§85-99)

In the section on music, the pope exhorts the bishops to see that the norms regarding music are observed. He reiterates the statements of his predecessors that Gregorian chant is the music "the Roman Church considers as her own", and says that it is "proposed to the faithful as belonging to them also". (§191) He recommends that the people sing the chants of the Mass, and quotes directly from Divini Cultus (§155).

Pope Pius XII gave additional directives on sacred music in his encyclical, Musicae Sacrae Disciplina (MSD), issued in 1955. MSD encouraged the restoration of chant and studies on polyphony, and repeated the remarks of Pope Pius X on the need for holiness and true art in sacred music.

He took note of popular religious singing and permitted hymns in the vernacular to be sung at "low Masses"2. Vernacular musical texts, however, were not permitted at the sung "high Mass" because of a requirement that all liturgical texts be sung in Latin.

Nevertheless at Masses that are not sung solemnly these hymns can be a powerful aid in keeping the faithful from attending the Holy Sacrifice like dumb and idle spectators. They can help to make the faithful accompany the sacred services both mentally and vocally and to join their own piety to the prayers of the priest. (MSD §64)

Further Instruction – Sacred Music and the Liturgy

Sacred Music and the Liturgy, a 1958 Instruction issued by the Congregation of Rites (now the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments, CDW), summarizes and systematizes these papal teachings.

The Instruction is a legislative document that gives detailed regulations for the use of music in the liturgy.

It included the teaching of Mediator Dei on participation of the people, and recommended various "stages" through which the people’s participation should advance in both sung and read Masses.

In the first stage, people would sing the simple responses such as Amen and et cum spiritu tuo. In the second stage, all would chant parts of the Ordinary of the Mass3, or at least the simpler parts such as the Kyrie, Sanctus, and Agnus Dei. Ideally, the people would also sing the Gloria and Credo, but if they found it too difficult these could be chanted by the choir.

In reference to both of these stages, the Instruction said that the faithful throughout the world should be taught to chant the simpler responses and a simple setting of the ordinary chants. The Instruction specified that:

care must be taken that the following easier Gregorian melodies be learned by all the faithful throughout the world: the Kyrie Eleison, Sanctus-Benedictus and Agnus Dei according to no. 16 of the Roman Gradual; the Gloria in excelsis Deo together with the Ite missa est-Deo gratias according to no. 15; and the Credo according to nos. 1 and 3. (§25b)

In a third stage, the entire congregation would chant the Proper of the Mass 4. This was urged particularly in seminaries and religious communities, but apparently was not considered practical for ordinary parish congregations.

Monsignor Richard Schuler, who was active in liturgical reform both before and after the Council, discussed the 1958 Instruction in his series of articles on the recent history of Church music, "Chronicles of Reform". He says this document remains the basis for most postconciliar legislation on music:

and just as truly, many of the abuses afflicting the Church today were condemned and prohibited by the Instruction which preceded the Vatican Council. … What the Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy of the Second Vatican Council as well as the various instructions that followed after the council had to say on sacred music could be found almost in detail in the 1958 Instruction.5

Pioneers in the revival of chant

The planned reform of the liturgy was complex, and progress in the revival of chant was slow.

Since the early work of Dom Prosper Gueranger in the 1840s, the Benedictine monks of Solesmes in France had been working to restore original melodies to the music for Mass. Manuscripts of polyphonic music were also being edited. Musicians, of course, had to learn the music in order to teach it. This was demanding work.

Considering that the first half of the twentieth century saw two World Wars and the Depression, it is not altogether surprising that liturgical music was not given high priority in the allocation of available resources.

In spite of all the difficulties, however, significant progress was made in the introduction of Gregorian Chant. Societies and schools were established to make it happen.6 Choir directors and pastors sometimes had a great effect on their parishes.

One of the best known institutions for teaching chant was the Pius X School of Liturgical Music, founded in 1916 by Mrs. Justine Ward and Mother Georgia Stevens, RSCJ, at the College of the Sacred Heart in Manhattanville, New York.

Mrs. Ward, a convert to Catholicism who had studied the techniques of the monks of Solesmes, developed a method for teaching chant, and incorporated it in a series of textbooks for children. These books taught sight reading of both modern musical notation and neumes in which chant is written.

Mother Stevens, also a convert, was a musician interested in improving the music at the Manhattanville. Impressed by a demonstration of Ward’s method, she joined with Ward to begin a summer school for liturgical music at Manhattanville, eventually called the Pius X School of Liturgical Music.

Andre Mocquereau, OSB, the choirmaster at Solesmes, served at times as faculty at the School. By 1925, more than thirteen thousand teachers had studied Mrs. Ward’s method of teaching chant.7 Other programs grew out of this.

Enter GIA and Dorothy Day

With Mother Steven’s encouragement, Clifford Bennett began the Catholic Choirmasters Correspondence Course and offered courses in chant in various regions of the country.8 Later this became the Gregorian Institute of America (now known as GIA). The Gregorian Institute also developed a popular series of children’s textbooks, To God through Music.

Groups whose primary emphasis was on social action also promoted liturgical reform and Gregorian chant. Dorothy Day, of the Catholic Worker Community in New York wanted to form a chant choir to help poor parishes learn to sing Gregorian chant, and enlisted the help of Mother Stevens. The Catholic Worker asked for a teacher or student from the Pius X School to train the group in chant:

That may seem a rather far cry from the work of the Catholic Worker, at first glance; but I’m sure I don’t need to point out to you the fact that the entire Catholic social teaching is based, fundamentally, on liturgical doctrine. The group wishes to be able to open their evening meetings … with sung Compline. And they are especially anxious to learn a few of the simpler Gregorian Masses, in order to be able to offer their services free to poor parishes.9

Hellriegel and Holy Cross

Congregations in a few ordinary parishes began to sing the Mass in Gregorian chant. One of the best known was Holy Cross in Saint Louis. Its pastor, Monsignor Martin B. Hellriegel, was a leader in the liturgical movement in the United States and one of the founders of the liturgical journal Orate Frates (later called Worship).

Monsignor Hellriegel arrived as a new pastor at Holy Cross in June 1940, finding little music and practically no chant sung at its Masses. He began by teaching the parishioners hymns in English to be sung at non-liturgical services and before and after Mass.

For his first Easter in the parish, Monsignor Hellriegel hoped to have the chant Mass I, Lux et Origo, sung by the people, a setting designated "For Paschal Time" in the Kyriale.10

At the beginning of Lent, he organized a special Easter preparation for the school children. They met with the pastor in the Church for a half-hour three days a week during Lent. Monsignor Hellriegel explained to them: "The Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays of Lent are the greater Lenten days when the people of old fasted more strictly". The children, who did not fast, would use these days to learn the Easter Mass.

Monsignor Hellriegel had recordings of the monks of Solemnes chanting this Mass, which he played for the children. He writes,

They were quite enthusiastic. We supplied them with Kyriales. During the first week of Lent they merely listened to the monks, following the music in their booklets. During the second week I permitted them to hum along, but very quietly. During the third they hummed again, but with more rhythm. During the fourth they sang, but lightly. During the fifth they sang with more expression, and during the sixth they did it "without the monks." Easter morning they sang the Lux et Origo Mass without books.11

The adults were impressed, and many of them wanted to learn to sing the Mass. By Pentecost that year, the Mass was chanted by children and adults together.

Within a few years, parishioners at Holy Cross were chanting half-a-dozen Masses, and several choirs were formed. Monsignor Hellriegel stressed that the choir and director must be exemplary Christians, that the services must be well prepared, and that the music must be for the glory of God:

The best we can give to our God is not good enough. Sancta sancte! Holy things must be done in a holy way!12

Although Holy Cross was not the only example of such a program, parishes that regularly sung chant were definitely a minority. In most parishes where chant was sung it was sung by the choir at the Sunday High Mass.

Other early achievements

Though music was the primary focus of Pope Pius X’s foundational document on the reform of the liturgy and of the other papal documents cited here, the liturgical reform of first half of the twentieth century was not confined to music.

By the 1950s, personal Missals containing vernacular translations with the Latin text of the Mass were used by many lay people. By mid-century, also, the so-called "dialogue Mass", where the entire congregation recited the responses to the priest instead of just the altar server, was coming into use.

Much scholarly work on the history and theology of the liturgy had been accomplished during this period. Although much of this activity took place in Europe, there were scholars and centers of liturgical study in America. The Benedictine Abbey of St. John in Collegeville, Minnesota, was among the most active. Dom Virgil Michel, of St. John’s was a major leader in the liturgical movement and the first editor of Oratre Fratres, an influential liturgical journal still published at St. John’s, though its name was changed to Worship in the early fifties. The Abbey’s Liturgical Press issued a series called the Popular Liturgical Library to educate people about the liturgy, and published a short version of the Breviary in English for lay people.

Much was being done to educate people about the liturgy. But the early liturgical reform was not free from problems. Pope Pius XII’s warnings in Mediator Dei against erroneous practices have a familiar ring today.

For example, he says that there are those who "assert that the people are possessed of a true priestly power, while the priest only acts in virtue of an office committed to him by the community. Wherefore they look on the Eucharistic Sacrifice as a ‘concelebration’". (MD §83)

He observes that there are even those who "go so far as to hold that the people must confirm and ratify the Sacrifice if it is to have its proper force and value". (MD §95)

The pope cautioned against those "who are bent on the restoration of all the ancient rites and ceremonies indiscriminately … The more recent liturgical rites likewise deserve reverence and respect. They too owe their inspiration to the Holy Spirit". (MD §61) He saw an "exaggerated and senseless antiquarianism" in those who "wish the altar restored to its primitive table-form; want black excluded as a color for the liturgical vestments; forbid the use of sacred images and statues in Churches; order the crucifix so designed that the Divine Redeemer’s Body shows no trace of His cruel sufferings; [or] disdain and reject polyphonic music or singing in parts, even where it conforms to the regulations issued by the Holy See". (MD §62)

Pope Pius XII had by no means rejected the idea of liturgical reform, however. As early as 1946 he had asked the Prefect of the Sacred Congregation of Rites to begin a study of the general reform of the liturgy. In May 1948 the pope appointed a commission for liturgical reform to be headed by the Prefect of the Congregation of Rites.

Though it was in existence for only twelve years, the commission’s accomplishments were considerable. Its first major achievement was the restoration of the Easter Vigil in 1951. This was followed in 1955 by the reform of the rest of the Holy Week ceremonies by Maxima Redemptionis, a decree of the Sacred Congregation of Rites. The liturgical commission also published new editions of the Breviary and the Roman Pontifical and a new simplified Code of Rubrics.

On both the popular and official levels, a reform of the liturgy was already in progress on that famous day in January 1959 when Pope John XXIII announced that there would be a second Ecumenical Council at the Vatican.

Thus the liturgical commission appointed by Pius XII was dissolved and a new one formed – the preparatory commission on liturgy for the Council.

The reform of the sacred liturgy was about to enter a new phase.

Part II, Part III, Part IV, Part V


Notes – Part I

1 Issued November 22, 1903 as a motu proprio, which means literally "own accord." It is a simple decree of the Pope.

2 In the terminology common before Vatican II, Low Mass referred to one in which all liturgical texts were spoken, in contrast to a High Mass in which specified liturgical texts including the Proper, the Ordinary, the Preface and dialogues between priest and people were all sung.

3 "Ordinary" means the parts of the Mass that do not change.

4 "Propers" are the parts of the Mass that change daily: for example, the prayers for feasts.

5 Monsignor Richard Schuler "A Chronicle of the Reform" in Cum Angelis Canere (Saint Paul, MN: Catholic Church Music Associates, 1990), pp. 362-363. "Chronicles of Reform" originally appeared as a series of articles in six consecutive issues of Sacred Music: Parts I – IV in the four issues of 1982 (vol. 109) and Parts V and VI in the first two issues of 1983 (vol. 110).

6 See Schuler "A Chronicle of the Reform" for a detailed discussion of the papal documents and the role of various musical societies and schools in the reform of liturgical music in the twentieth century.

7 See Keith F. Pecklers, The Unread Vision: The Liturgical Movement in the United States of America: 1926-1955 (Collegeville, MN: The Liturgical Press, 1998), pp. 269-273.

8 The Gregorian Institute of America is now known simply as GIA. GIA currently publishes hymnals, including Worship, Gather, and Ritual Songs.

9 Letter of June 5, 1935, Dorothy Day, Catholic Worker Collection (W-6), Marquette University Archives, Milwaukee, WI. Quoted in Pecklers, p. 276, footnote #195.

10 The Kyriale is a book of chants for the Ordinary of the Mass, or the unchangeable parts; the Graduale is the chants for the Proper, or changeable parts, of the Mass.

11 Monsignor Martin B. Hellriegel, "Monsignor Hellriegel’s Music Program" in Cecelia 83 (January-February, 1956) pp. 73-74. Quoted passages on p. 73. Italics in original. [See also Adoremus Bulletin, Nov. 2000, p. 3, "Active Participation in Chant", a reprint of Msgr. Hellriegel’s article in Cecelia.]

12 Hellriegel, p. 74.



Susan Benofy

Susan Benofy received her doctorate in physics from Saint Louis University. She was formerly Research Editor of Adoremus Bulletin.