Mar 15, 2007

Chicago Children’s Choir & the Question of Catholic Heritage

Online Edition – March 2007, Vol. XIII, No. 1

"To Give Glory to God"

Chicago Children’s Choir & the Question of Catholic Heritage

by The Rev. Brother Scott Haynes

The query, “How should we approach the question of heritage?” was posed by the Subcommittee on Music and the Liturgy of the US Conference of Catholic Bishops to participants at a consultation on Music in Catholic Worship held in Chicago last October. “Music in Catholic Worship” is the title of a 1972 statement of the Bishops’ Committee on the Liturgy that has greatly influenced the development of Catholic liturgical music in the United States, and a revision is now being planned. Clearly, the response to this question of our heritage is important to all Catholics, not just to liturgists and professional church musicians.

Last June, Pope Benedict XVI stated that “[a]n authentic updating of sacred music can take place only in the lineage of the great tradition of the past, of Gregorian chant and sacred polyphony”. In this address the pope reaffirmed the prerogatives of the bishops, who during the Synod on the Eucharist had stated: “The faithful need to know the standard Gregorian chants, which have been composed to meet the needs of people of all times and places, in virtue of their simplicity, refinement and agility in form and rhythm”.1 Consonant with the authentic interpretation of Vatican II’s Constitution on the Liturgy, Sacrosanctum Concilium, Pope Benedict has set a clear standard for the liturgical music of the Catholic Church.

Everyone involved in liturgical music, but especially pastors, who are preeminently entrusted with the preparation of liturgy in the parish, now have a special opportunity to collaborate with the Holy Father by joining in a new liturgical renewal to restore the heritage of sacred liturgical music.

A Musical Metanoia Needed

In our country, a metanoia (“conversion”) is called for concerning liturgical music. To continue down the course of recent decades would be to stray from the “lineage of the great tradition of the past”, because the liturgical music in most parishes falls terribly short of the “simplicity, refinement and agility in form and rhythm” so characteristic of the chant and polyphony that the Church so highly lauds.

But those restoring the heritage of Catholic music will encounter obstacles in the relativism and skepticism that are entrenched in the modern mindset.

The relativist wants to know why we would even want to bring back chant and polyphony when a new American liturgical music has now become the new tradition. The relativist has redefined the heritage of sacred liturgical music to suit his tastes, with little regard for the “the standard Gregorian chants, which have been composed to meet the needs of people of all times and places”. The relativist blurs the line between what is sacred and profane, obliterating what is actually sacred in his attempt to redefine it. To hold that all music is inherently sacred is a brand of pantheism: if everything is sacred, nothing is. Pope Paul VI said, “all is not valid; all is not licit; all is not good.” The inartistic and the inferior, the cheap and the secular, “are not meant to cross the threshold of God’s temple.”2

The skeptic doubts that any restoration of sacred music can succeed in our parishes today. No one is competent to promote it, and no one is interested in learning it. The skeptic believes that Catholic Americans no longer even have the capacity to sing chant or appreciate it. The skeptic fails to appreciate our ecclesiastical tradition of sacred music, and so he seeks to promote music that is simply not in continuity with “the great tradition of the past”. Perhaps the skeptic believes that Gregorian chant and polyphony belong only to the expert or the musicologist, to one given to historical reflection, or to the museum, where dusty books find a grave.

But the heritage of chant and polyphony is neither a rigid mountain nor a stagnant pond. The liturgical music that has formed the “lineage of the great tradition of the past”, is, rather, an untapped fountain of beauty. And this sacred liturgical music, which is integral to Catholic liturgy, must be reclaimed by the people, not for artistic display or nostalgia, but as an act of prayerful worship. The treasury of sacred music is their rightful heritage.

Our Heritage Can be Reclaimed

That this can be done has been shown at St. John Cantius Parish in Chicago. This parish was at the point of closing its doors in 1988, when Father C. Frank Phillips was appointed its new pastor. At its peak, 23,000 attended Sunday Mass; but by the 1980s, attendance had dwindled to about 40 people. Rather than watch the parish disintegrate, Father Phillips gathered his parishioners around him to start the prayerful work that would effect its resurrection. With the noble desire to see the sense of the sacred restored, the parish began to integrate chant in its liturgies. The parishioners asked, “How should we approach the question of heritage?” Their answer could be summed up in one word: “Fiat!” — “Let it be done”.

With the pastoral support of the Archbishop of Chicago, the parish restored not only the current Mass (or Missa Normativa) celebrated in Latin, but also the so-called “Tridentine” Mass — along with all of the rich musical traditions of the Latin rite. As God blessed these humble efforts to celebrate the liturgy with love, reverence, solemnity and devotion, new parishioners arrived in droves, among whom were some very talented musicians.

The inspiration and example of Monsignor Martin B. Hellriegel of St. Louis, and of Monsignor Richard Schuler of Minneapolis-St. Paul provided superb models for the restoration of the sacred in American parochial life. Perpetuating their work, the St. John Cantius parish music program began by integrating the simple chanting of the faithful. With the collaboration of numerous talented volunteers and some of Chicago’s finest choral and orchestral musicians, the parish is now blessed to have seven choirs, two orchestras, four organists, and six conductors. Abandon despair, all who enter here!

After a decade of restoring the sacred in celebrating the liturgy — and now, perhaps with a keener vision — the parish again asked itself, “How should we approach the question of heritage?” In order to foster the work of restoring the sacred, a number of men emerged from the parish community who wanted to commit themselves more deeply to this effort. When Father Phillips arrived on August 15, 1988, he had not even the slightest notion of establishing a new men’s religious community that would have as its goal Instaurare Sacra (“Restoration of the Sacred”). Yet, on August 15, 1998, exactly ten years after he arrived at the parish, he co-founded the Society of St. John Cantius in cooperation with Francis Cardinal George, the Archbishop of Chicago.

The parish offered its “fiat” to God, with a deep desire to celebrate the Roman liturgy in the “beauty of holiness”, and God has showered down abundant blessings. Intent on restoring the splendor of the liturgical rites and re-opening the treasury of sacred liturgical music, St. John Cantius proves that the Catholic faithful can and must transform secular culture by the power and beauty of the Catholic liturgical rites.

Yet when we seek to introduce sacred Catholic music into the worship of the average parishioner, one must first face the fact that our heritage of liturgical music and our use of Latin as a liturgical language have all but evaporated. This was our experience at St. John Cantius.

In the past, Catholics shared some knowledge of liturgical chant, but, sadly, Saint Thomas’s great hymn “Tantum Ergo” and the once-familiar music of the “Missa de Angelis” have now become foreign to most worshippers. Catholics who attend Mass in the typical American parish are now most familiar with pop “praise songs” and Mass settings that are divorced from historic Catholic music and Gregorian chant.

Pope John Paul II, in his 2003 Chirograph on Sacred Music, reminded Catholics of the exhortation of Pope Saint Pius X: “A composition for the Church is all the more sacred and liturgical the more its development, inspiration, and flavor approaches the Gregorian melody, and the less worthy it is the more it distinguishes itself from that supreme model”.3

Redirecting Our Energy

Couldn’t we redirect the great amount of energy put into creating contemporary “praise songs” toward forming and training a schola cantorum and polyphonic choir to sing the music that fits the liturgy as naturally as a glove fits over one’s hand? If we restore chant and polyphony to the sacred liturgy, we not only approach the “supreme model” for Catholic worship, but we also avoid imposing the views of a committee or a single liturgist upon the faithful. Furthermore, with Vatican II’s renewed focus on Sacred Scripture, how can we sacrifice chanting the liturgical Propers that are overwhelmingly taken verbatim from the Bible, singing instead a text composed last week?

In his Chirograph, Pope John Paul II stressed the importance of choirs. He wrote, “The conciliar norms regarding the reform of the Liturgy have given the choir’s function greater prominence and importance. The choir is responsible for the correct performance of its part, according to the differing types of song, to help the faithful to take an active part in the singing”.4 As the Constitution on the Liturgy, Sacrosanctum Concilium, decreed: “Therefore … choirs are to be developed with great care, especially in cathedrals and other major churches, in seminaries and in religious houses of study”.5

In our parish life, we have learned that when the choir takes up the prominent and important role the Church has given it, the faithful are better enabled to participate in the sacred rites of the Church. John Paul II identified, most eloquently, that a liturgical environment enriched by “… the good coordination of all — the celebrating priest and the deacon, the acolytes, ministers, lectors, psalmist, ‘schola cantorum’, musicians, cantor, and assembly” will give birth to “… the right spiritual atmosphere”, which, in its turn, cannot fail to intensify a “participatory and fruitful” liturgy.6

Chorus Innocentium Sanctorum — “Let the children lead us”

In 1998, when the Society of St. John Cantius was formed, the members asked, “How should we approach the question of heritage?” In a mere ten years, the parish had already begun a schola cantorum, as well as other choirs.

Realizing that the future of the Church rests with our children, the parish decided it was of supreme importance to form a choir for children and youth. The Chorus Innocentium Sanctorum (Choir of Holy Innocents), from its inception, has sought to teach the children of the parish the Church’s heritage of liturgical music. The choir includes youth from ages six to eighteen. Each Saturday morning the children and youth meet for two hours to learn the heritage of sacred music in both Latin and English.

The primary purpose of the choir is not to receive praise, but to give glory to God, and to catechize and edify the faithful. Children who have sung with the choir over the years are convinced of the importance of this. They develop a good understanding of sacred music, as well as its proper function in the liturgy. They learn the leadership skills necessary to advance the future of sacred music in the Catholic Church.

The children are excited to sing the chant and polyphony, as it involves them in the parish as leaders. The forty parishioners with whom Father Phillips met in 1988, including but one child, have now persevered to see this Choir of Holy Innocents grow to more than 100 active members.

Within the choir there are three groups. Michelle Vezzoli, a talented singer and a graduate student in Roosevelt University’s School of Music, works with 30 children from age six to eleven, in order to teach the principles and fundamentals of reading music, as well as the basics of vocal production, reading music and singing Gregorian chant.

Previous musical training is not a requirement. Once in the choir, children receive expert training from our talented volunteer directors. The only requirement is that the children have a love for the Lord and a willingness to sing. Vezzoli’s graduates pass a singing exam to advance to the core group of the Holy Innocents Choir.

Brother Chad, 26, is now in his fifth year of directing the choir of children and youth. This choir sings regularly not only for Masses in Latin and English at the parish, but also for special events around the Archdiocese of Chicago, and has been privileged to sing for Cardinal George many times. Recently the choir sang for an English Mass at Quigley Preparatory Seminary for the Catholic Physicians’ Guild, celebrated by Bishop Thomas J. Paprocki, auxiliary bishop of Chicago, returning to the parish an hour later to sing for Tridentine Latin High Mass. Brother Chad reports, “The children want a challenge. They respond to that!”

Those who have learned music in the Holy Innocents choir are now volunteering to lead music in various Catholic retreat centers and parishes. This formation in liturgical music has even permeated the parish’s summer camps for boys. At the camps, the boys often sing from the Divine Office, both in Latin and in English.

“How should we approach the question of heritage?” Let the children lead us! The children of the Holy Innocents Choir have made the positions of both the relativist and skeptic untenable. These young Catholics enthusiastically responded to the “question of heritage” with a bold example. Ad multos annos!


1 Instrumentum Laboris for the Synod on the Eucharist, held October 2005, 61 (Emphasis added.)

2 Sacred Music, Vol. 98, No. 2 (Summer 1971), p. 3-5.

3 Pope John Paul II, Chirograph for the Centenary of the Motu Proprio, “Tra le Sollecitudini” On Sacred Music, 12.

4 Ibid., n. 8.

5 Sacrosanctum Concilium, 19 (AAS 59 [1967], 306).

6 Chirograph, 8.



Father Scott Haynes, SJC

Father Scott Haynes composes choral music for St. John Cantius Church in Chicago, where he is associate pastor. He was ordained in 2007 for the Archdiocese of Chicago as a member of the Canons Regular of St. John Cantius.