Oct 15, 2007

Teens and Chant in the Mass

Online Edition: October 2007
Vol. XIII, No. 7

Teens and Chant in the Mass

by W. Patrick Cunningham

I had two chant teachers in my youth. The first was Sister Gerard, a Sacred Heart sister who taught our little grade school boys’ choir the Mass VIII (Missa de Angelis), and the Introit and Communion for Christmas Midnight Mass. We learned it all without written scores, and sang it by heart Christmas after Christmas.

The second was Father Charles Dreisoener, a Marianist priest who attempted, in the wake of the Second Vatican Council (1965-66), to teach us Marianist scholastics to sing authentic Gregorian melodies each Sunday to the transitional English translations. We — temporarily professed religious in our late teens — conducted a not-so-surreptitious revolution in favor of “modern” music, and managed to have the long-suffering priest replaced by a more “with-it” music director. Within a few months we were using guitars and self-composed music for our community Masses. By the fall of 1966, our “folk” group (really a light rock combo without drums) called the New Prophets were recruited by St. Mary’s University campus ministry to lead the opening Mass for the school year 1966-1967.

What came next is largely forgotten. The chairman of the music commission of the Archdiocese of San Antonio, Monsignor Beck (reputedly a fine classical musician) demanded of Archbishop Robert Lucey that the “folk-rock” Masses be stopped. In retrospect, Monsignor Beck was almost certainly right. We “New Prophets” had no idea what we were doing. We didn’t understand how poor the quality of our music was, and we were oblivious to the ultimate consequences of our actions. But the archbishop listened to more “modern” advisors, and the light-rock phenomenon springing up all over the United States spread like smallpox in an unimmunized community.

The guitar was never intended — and cannot be effectively used — to lead congregational singing. The use we made of it in a religious formation community of seventy people was about the limit of the instrument’s ability to accompany singing. When transferred to a congregation of several hundred, spiced up with harmony and syncopation, guitar music becomes a self-centered performance, not an experience of communal worship.

Fifteen years later, after intense study (and significant repentance), and with the encouragement of Lt. Col. Roger Darley and others, I undertook to complete Father Dreisoener’s unpublished work and brought out Chants for the Church Year, a collection of English Propers for the Mass — with authentic Gregorian settings for the most part — for the three-year liturgical cycle. It won a modest following. I dedicated it to Father Charles and considered it an ongoing act of penance, and an incremental contribution to the true renewal of Liturgy. As circumstances permit, I introduce the chant in the places I minister as deacon, including our own parish, where we sing Lauds every Saturday and Sunday to authentic Gregorian melodies, in English.

In the school year 2000-2001, I took the position of principal at Central Catholic High School in San Antonio — a Marianist school for boys. The music at school Masses was inept, led by non-musicians using the standard rock repertoire from the seventies. So far, despite a number of attempts at improvement, nothing has brought true beauty to our school worship, because we don’t (yet) have a choir and choir director, and no trained liturgical musician to plan and lead it. Moreover, there is no popular demand for any of that.

We do have a four-year Latin program, however, and a school commitment to cultural diversity, exhibited, for example, by the Mass of Our Lady of Guadalupe. During the school year 2006-2007, I arranged with our Latin teacher to prepare two of our sophomore Latin classes to sing at two different Masses.

The first Mass was for the Feast of the Immaculate Conception. It was ideally positioned at the end of the first semester. I chose the beautiful and straightforward antiphon Gloriosa, which is the Communion antiphon for the feast, and alerted the liturgy coordinator that we wanted to sing it. I also trained one of our junior students to sing two verses of the Magnificat, in Latin, between repetitions of the antiphon. The sophomore students hadn’t sung in public since graduating from grade school (if they sang at all), but they took up the task with enthusiasm.

Teaching the antiphon, I find, is best done in steps. First, we reviewed the meaning of the Latin words, and their proper pronunciation. Then we practiced choral recitation of the words without music. Most of the students do not read music. I taught the words and music together by lining out each phrase and inviting the students to repeat after me, several times. Then we would do the same with the next phrase, until we had reviewed the entire antiphon. Finally, we would sing the entire antiphon together, two times. That took up about fifteen minutes, every Wednesday, for five weeks. We then rehearsed during another fifteen-minute period in our school gym, to accustom them to the acoustics.

The liturgy coordinator had her own ideas — good ones, as it turned out. We did not use the antiphon at Communion. Instead, it became a choral meditation after my homily for the Immaculate Conception. The students sang the antiphon; the cantor sang two verses. Then one of the student’s mothers read the translation of the two lines of the Magnificat. The choir sang the antiphon; the cantor sang two verses; another mom translated. That went on until the entire Magnificat was sung. At the end, five hundred teenage boys sat transfixed. They had experienced true beauty in worship.

By the time we prepared the April Mass, an Easter celebration, both sophomore Latin classes wanted to participate. I gave them the choice between two Easter Week Communion antiphons; they chose the shorter one. In this case, the result was a bit rougher because we had too many boys singing at once. We also used the psalm verses in English. In this case, the chant was used as an entrance chant. We prepared the school for the experience by a series of school bulletin announcements.

Before we tried to introduce chant into the school Mass, a religion teacher told me “the boys hate chant”.

“How do they hate something they have never heard?” I responded. In the end, most of the students believed that they had received something good from the use of chant at Mass. By incorporating young students who had never participated in sung worship before, and by using authentic Gregorian melodies and the Latin language, we introduced half a thousand adults and young men to the heritage of beauty shared by the universal Church, Latin rite.

Only God knows what can happen next, but we are not finished with this experiment. This year, I will introduce Latin chant through all the Latin classes and the Humanities class. Some experimental liturgy, the kind that is tightly connected to our heritage of art in worship, is very much in line with the authentic renewal of our liturgy.


W. Patrick Cunningham is a deacon who serves as Master of Ceremonies for San Antonio’s Archbishop José Gomez, and since 2001 has been principal of Central Catholic High School, from which he graduated in 1964. He and his wife have been married 36 years, and have three daughters and eight grandchildren.



W. Patrick Cunningham