Apr 15, 2014

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Online Edition
April 2014
Vol. XX, No. 2

Sacred Music and the Liturgy — Signs of Hope for the Future

Musica Sacra St. Louis Conference Report

by Brian Abel Ragen

What is the state of liturgical music today?  As I travel I keep changing my mind. I visit my childhood parish in California in the hope of avoiding the musical hokum they inflicted on me as a teenager, and I find a church full of people singing, with musicians supporting them from the choir loft instead of performing from a platform beside the altar.  Another Sunday I go to Mass at a Benedictine parish, knowing that in the morning a choir sang in the main sanctuary, and that the monks chant the office in choir every day; but I find myself at a “youth Mass” in a rec room — a perfect historical artifact, complete with the kind of songs that made us shudder 30 years ago. At the cathedral I usually attend, the music at Mass keeps improving, and the new translation of the Missal is by now second nature.

American Catholics who came of age after Vatican II never had any introduction to chant, other than some recorded “monk music” we heard in secular contexts.  Many of us have come to feel cheated of part of our heritage, since we were given instead music that, whether it was good or bad, was designed to appeal to the changing tastes of the “young people,” and thus was by nature ephemeral.  (The folk Mass songs sung at my childhood parish now sound as dated as the Kingston Trio and Peter, Paul, and Mary, while chant remains timeless.)  We could have been given a musical vocabulary that would have bound us to previous generations and to fellow Catholics across the world.  But good resources for music are not always easy to find; some older priests still seem suspicious of any suggestion that art or ritual is actually important to worship; and too many Catholics remain convinced that singing is best left to professionals — and Protestants.

The Musica Sacra St. Louis Conference I recently attended showed that we can recover that heritage — and do it not as if undergoing a penance, but as if getting a treat.

“Chant in the Liturgy” was the theme of the Musica Sacra conference, held February 13-15 at the Manresa Center of St. Louis University and sponsored by the St. Louis Archdiocesan Office of Music and the Church Music Association of America (CMAA). It was organized by Adam Wright, assisted by local members of the CMAA and the Office of Music, and attended by people from eight states.

This event reassured me that the revival of liturgical music that so many have hoped and worked for is actually underway. It was the group’s fourth annual gathering, and all participants — veterans and neophytes — seemed eager for another.  At its heart was something many are clearly hoping for: the chance to study and practice Gregorian Chant.

The conference covered many topics, addressed in both lectures and discussions by knowledgeable experts. Chant classes were led by Scott Turkington, director of Sacred Music at Holy Family Church and Holy Family academy in Minneapolis; and by Dr. Horst Buchholz, director of Sacred Music for the Archdiocese of Saint Louis and the Cathedral Basilica of Saint Louis (both are officers of CMAA.)  Father Jason Shumer, assistant professor of sacramental and liturgical theology at St. Louis’s Kenrick-Glennon Seminary, presented “The Necessity of Ritual in our Lives and Worship,” and Mr. Turkington spoke on “The Importance of Instructing Children in Music.” A panel discussion featuring Dr. Buchholz, Mr. Turkington, and Mr. Wright focused on resources available for the singing of chant, and methods for incorporating chant into parish music programs. Participants also spent time in prayerful singing of the Hours of Terce, Vespers, and Morning Prayer.

Dr. Buchholz and Mr. Turkington were dynamic and engaging leaders. They did not so much meet the common objections to introducing chant to American parishes as blast right through them. I hear people say that modern congregations cannot understand traditional chant notation. They may, indeed, be baffled by the lines and squares of Gregorian notation, but they are just as baffled by the lines and blobs of modern notation. The instructors demonstrated how quickly even a complete beginner can learn to sing simple tunes from traditional Gregorian notation. The complications of chironomy — the use of hand signals to indicate pitch and rhythm — and such things were not ignored; but learning a bit about the scale and a bit about solfège and pitch (do-re-mi-fa-sol-la-ti-do) was all that was needed get people singing confidently.

Everyone participated in singing the Liturgy of the Hours. It certainly helped that many attending the conference were already members of scholas and experienced in chant; but everyone, even complete beginners, could take part.  That, I think, was the lesson for parish musicians: chant is not too hard for the congregation.

The chapel at St. Louis University’s Manresa Conference Center was a lovely setting for unaccompanied singing. One hopes that part of this former convent is often filled with voices chanting the office, as its builders planned for it to be.

The talks at the conference were as stimulating as the music. Father Schumer’s talk on the liturgy clarified many things, but also focused on what might be the central problem facing the Church today. That problem is ignorance. Whatever their successes in other areas, neither Catholic schools, nor the religious education programs for students in secular schools, nor the efforts to educate adults — whether catechumens or cradle Catholics — are imparting the fund of knowledge that the Church needs its members to have.  It is ignorance that leads to many liturgical abuses. 

People do things that detract from the liturgy because they misunderstand its purpose. (I would add that people also reject or ignore the teachings of the Church because they think of them as arbitrary fiats rather than as parts of the coherent proclamation of the Gospel. Too many emerge from the Church’s education programs unable to intelligently discuss either the Church’s doctrines or her liturgy, since the appeal has too often been to the feelings instead of the understanding.)

The music of the Church has suffered because of the reluctance to teach people things instead of just making them feel good.  Perhaps few people are excited by the idea of decoding a page of music — of lines and squares or blobs. But once they have done it, and reading the musical code becomes second nature, they love being able to join their voices with others. It requires that initial effort and then some practice for a silent audience to become active participants in singing. (It takes some knowledge to actively participate by listening, as well.) 

Sadly, all American schools — not just Catholic ones — have been skipping that essential teach-ing step. A singalong may be more immediate fun than talking about scales, just as listening to a song on headphones is initially more fun than practicing an instrument, but in the long run the activity that gives knowledge and skill yields greater joy.

Many of the participants at the Musica Sacra conference were experienced music educators, and they had many interesting ideas. I can now at least consider the various advantages of the Ward and Kodaly methods of indicating pitch by hand signals — or whether such methods are a good idea at all. 

What does seem absolutely clear is that for schoolchildren, occasional visits from the music teacher are not enough. They should be practicing chant and its notation every day — and the same is true for modern music and modern notation. This need not be the job of a music educator in all cases. Elementary school teachers should be able to master the basics of the scale and lead their charges in daily practice, so that they learn pieces that will then be employed (in Catholic schools) in daily worship. The truth is that, when it comes to chant sung in unison, it is just not that hard, once you try it.

How to get adult parishioners to chant is a harder question. Many have received little musical training, and have become so accustomed to soloists as cantors providing the music that there may seem to be little hope of change.  My own hope — which many thought completely unrealistic — is that parishes might host occasional musical evenings: a couple of rousing hymns, a little practice in reading square notes, a simple canon to suggest that people might even be able to sing parts, a final prayer, and then some coffee or sherry and back home early. The results would quickly show up on Sunday.  Others said you only have Sunday to work with, but if you start with simple chant and leave the congregation’s parts to the congregation, they will pick it up.  I suppose trying either method is better than not trying to help the people truly take their part in the music of the liturgy.

Most conference participants were, admittedly, not great fans of much of the music that is now sung in Catholic parishes, although some were.  It turned out that others actually like some modern religious music, but think it is inappropriate for the liturgy.  This position is not a new one, of course. Anyone versed in classical music can think of Mass settings so operatic that they belong only in the concert hall and are always inappropriate for the liturgy itself.  Here again, a parish might benefit by offering non-liturgical music gatherings. Besides chant instruction, sing “On Eagles’ Wings” and other emotional tunes redolent of Broadway.  Sing gospel songs that are not appropriate for the liturgy, which is focused on God through Christ. There is another time for the “Let me tell you about Jesus and me” songs.

One of the abuses that the liturgical reforms of Vatican II were supposed to address was impingement of popular devotions on the liturgy.  People saying the Rosary during Mass were clearly not truly assisting or actively participating in this central act of Christian life.  In suggesting that they put away their rosaries during Mass and pay attention, the Church was not rejecting the Rosary or the piety that surrounds it.  It was saying that private devotions, like other good things, are appropriate at some times, but not at others.
The message we should give to those who like the self-focused songs of religious experience should not be, “Those are bad.  Don’t sing them anymore.” It should be, “That’s not right for liturgy, but let’s get together and have a good sing another time.”  While I myself enjoy singing a sentimental gospel song now and then, I would be most happy if opportunities to practice chant were more plentiful. 

One of the conference speakers mentioned that the Church missed a great chance to recapture its tradition of chant when the chant CD by the Benedictine Monks of Santo Domingo de Silos appeared in 1994. That cultural phenomenon left American parishes largely unchanged. (The Church does seem reluctant to seize opportunities. While we can only be saddened by the woes of another Christian denomination, I wonder why, in the light of turmoil in the Episcopal Church, more Catholic bishops do not seek to establish Anglican Use or Anglican Ordinariate Catholic parishes, thus capturing part of a musical and liturgical tradition many of us admire — as well as giving a Church home to those longing for orthodox teaching and communion with the universal Church.) 

Chances to seize a cultural moment keep coming up, however. The recent popularity of a number of chant CDs and YouTube clips is an encouraging sign — notably the recordings by the contemplative Benedictines of Mary Queen of the Apostles, Advent at Ephesus and Angels and Saints at Ephesus, both of which have reached Number 1 on Billboard’s classical chart. This shows that chant still moves people. If ordinary Catholic parishioners were given a chance to sing, as well as to listen, I am sure they would come to wonder why the Church in America ever gave it up.


Brian Abel Ragen is professor emeritus of English at Southern Illinois University Edwardsville, where he taught Introduction to the Bible and courses on English, American, and world literature. He is the author of A Wreck on the Road to Damascus, a study of Flannery O’Connor; Tom Wolfe: A Critical Companion; and essays and articles on many topics.

Adoremus, Society for the Renewal of the Sacred Liturgy


Brian Abel Ragen