In Memoriam, Dom Columba Kelly, OSB
Every summer for decades, Father Columba Kelly, OSB, offered two week-long seminars on Gregorian chant at his monastic home of St. Meinrad Archabbey entitled “Bringing to Life the Word of God in Song.” This brief dictum sufficiently summarizes the life and mission of a monk and a man dedicated to cultivating within the liturgical life of the Church what Ratzinger has called the “musification of faith”—“a part of the process of the incarnation of the Word.” Father Columba not only scientifically studied this sacramental phenomenon through the lens of Gregorian chant, made manifest through the singing of sacred song in the context of the solemn liturgy—but he also understood it and encountered it daily in his sung prayer as a faithful Benedictine monk.
Father Columba Kelly, a monk and priest of St. Meinrad Archabbey, died on June 9, 2018 at the age of 87. Born in Williamsburg, IA, on October 30, 1930, he was invested as a novice monk on July 30, 1952, and he professed simple vows on July 31, 1953, and solemn vows on August 6, 1956. He became internationally influential for his work in Gregorian musicology, English chant composition, and for the workshops he offered to parish musicians and religious communities.
Following his passing, some of his students posted pictures of notes written to them by the master, all of which concluded with a valediction similar to “May the Holy Spirit help you turn faith to song.” Such was the seemingly singular goal of his vocation, as well as his invitation to the Church in our day and to future generations.
Dom Columba’s life and work—masterful and timely, though not without misunderstanding by many—was carried out with constant joy, dedication, and unwavering enthusiasm up through the very last days of his 87-year life. His insights into the inner life and meaning of Gregorian chant will undoubtedly endure well beyond his time—through his theoretical writing and musical composition, and through the work of his dedicated disciples. His contributions to Church music also will echo into eternity through the very celebration of the sung liturgy which he fostered, where the logos, the Eternal Word of God, sings through his Mystical Body on earth, uniting it to the eternal song of the liturgy in heaven.
Father Columba Kelly was born and raised on a farm in rural Iowa in the 1930’s. An only child, he came of age during and in the years immediately following the Second World War. He began his college years studying music at St. Ambrose College before transferring to St. Meinrad College. During this time he took an interest in the monastic community at St. Meinrad Archabbey.
Almost immediately following his full reception into the monastery, the young monk was sent to Rome to study theology and Gregorian musicology. After receiving a licentiate in sacred theology from the Pontifical Athenaeum Sant’ Anselmo in 1958, the 28-year-old monk began doctoral studies at the Pontifical Institute of Sacred Music in Rome, which would inspire and invigorate his work for the remainder of his life.
Upon arriving at the Pontifical Institute, he undertook the mentorship of his principal teacher and dissertation director Dom Eugène Cardine, OSB, a monk of the Abbey of Solesmes and the father of Gregorian Semiology. Cardine, during his time directing the Gregorian chant program in Rome, employed his students as researchers in the task of completing the project of the restoration of Gregorian chant, commissioned and begun by Dom Prosper Guéranger a century earlier. Over the course of the next five years, Father Columba undertook an exhaustive study of the cursive torculus neume design as found in the 10th c. codex St. Gall 359, just as his classmates and colleagues were doing for the other neume forms which constitute the earliest elements of musical notation in the Western tradition. Under the hermeneutical and methodological guidance of Cardine, they were soon to cover comprehensively and synthesize all of the neumatic data found in the principal and most ancient chant manuscripts.
Solesmes’ multigenerational project of Gregorian chant restoration, in which Dom Columba became immersed in its final stages, is a storied one. The story received by his students (I, being one of them) as told at the beginning of each of his seminars, is as he received it from Cardine, who received it from predecessors Doms André Mocquereau and Joseph Gajard.
It is worth retelling here in order to demonstrate the significance of the contribution made by Father Columba and his colleagues in the Cardine school.
Fifty vs. Five
When Guéranger—the father of the modern Liturgical Movement—decided to undertake the work of restoring Gregorian chant to its original purity after centuries of decay and mutilation, he sent his monks across Europe to collect images of the oldest chant manuscripts that could be found. His method was to study the contents of these manuscripts systematically and compare them line by line and neume by neume, in order to discern and determine the most authentic melodic restitution of the Gregorian tradition prior to the injurious influence of the development of polyphony and the early-Modern melodic revisions made around the Council of Trent. At this time, around the 1850’s and 60’s, Guéranger estimated that the project of restoration—including the task of decoding and understanding the meaning of the neumes in the oldest manuscripts—would take one hundred years to complete.
Approximately fifty years later, a former chorister who had sung from early chant editions produced by Solesmes ascended to the chair of Peter. Within months of his election to the papacy, Pope St. Pius X became determined to issue a motu proprio on sacred music, calling for a universal return to Gregorian chant as the foundational song of the liturgy.
Prior to releasing Tra le sollecitudini, the Pope called Dom Mocquereau into his chamber. He asked the monk and leader of the Solesmes restoration at the time a simple question: “How long will it take to complete the restored editions of Gregorian chant?” The pope stressed that he intended to call the universal Church back to Gregorian chant and needed practical editions for them to sing from.
Mocquereau responded: “Surely, your Holiness, it will take fifty more years.”
The Pope paused for a moment, contemplating his response, and then raised his index finger to Mocquereau, shaking it. “No, no,” he declared, “it will take you five!”
And so it happened that the motu proprio on sacred music was issued in 1903 and the Vatican Edition of the Graduale Romanum followed five years later, in 1908. Out of necessity, practical methods of singing were devised in haste in order to help the choirs of the world begin to sing the chants of the revised editions with some degree of beauty and success. Guéranger’s uncompleted work, however, continued and was brought to fruition in Rome in the 1950’s and 60’s—100 years following the project’s inception—by Dom Cardine and his students, including the bright young American, Dom Columba Kelly.
In service of the Word
The fundamental insight that Father Columba and the Cardine school arrived at after the completion of their exhaustive study is that Gregorian chant is a musical form that is in complete service of and subservience to the text, of the liturgical word—that is, of the logos, the living and acting Word of God that becomes enfleshed in musical form in the sacred liturgy. Gregorian chant (as Father Columba certainly would have had inscribed as the epitaph on his tombstone if he could) is “sung speech.”
This conclusion, and the practical consequences that flow from it, in many ways contrasted with theories of Gregorian rhythm that had previously developed in the early decades of the 20th century—especially the theory of musical rhythm devised by Dom André Mocquereau. The young and optimistic Columba, however, did not appear to be determined to ignite a revolution against devotees of previous, if not fully informed, chant praxis methods. Unfortunately, this is precisely how he was received by many of his American peers at his homecoming.
And besides, another revolutionary moment in the Church was already brewing. During Father Columba’s time in Rome, Pope John XXIII called the Second Vatican Council. The young musicologist soon became surrounded by the very players who were drafting and debating the Council’s liturgy constitution, Sacrosanctum Concilium. A hotly debated subject on the Council floor, not surprisingly, was the introduction of vernacular languages into the liturgy. While Kelly and the Cardine school remained fully devoted to the Latin Gregorian chant to which they had dedicated their lives, they also recognized that the vernacular was coming whether they liked it or not.
Father Columba successfully defended his dissertation in November of 1963, and immediately returned to St. Meinrad Archabbey and the rolling hills of southern Indiana. Weeks later, Sacrosanctum Concilium was promulgated and released to the Church universal. The newly minted monastic choirmaster quickly began to see the work that was coming before him.
Without needing to comment further on the complexities of the ecclesiastical climate of the 1960’s, it suffices to say that the use of the vernacular in the liturgy became widespread virtually everywhere, and almost instantly. This phenomenon undoubtedly discouraged Dom Columba, the young and idealistic Gregorianist. Working carefully through the dynamic as it presented itself, however, Father Columba discerned a faithful path forward.
Upholding the primacy of Gregorian chant as the supreme model of sacred music, as Pope Pius X taught and the Council affirmed, and realizing that “any new forms adopted [such as vernacular liturgical music] should in some way grow organically from forms already existing,” he realized that his principal vocation was to apply his newly gained insights about the Gregorian musical language to the idiom of the English language. And thus, he began composing English chant.
Because of his penetrating understanding of the innate sacramentality found in Gregorian chant’s musical form, he realized that its musical language—its very genius—can inform the development of vernacular chant repertoires that do not merely mimic, but that actually achieve the goals of Gregorian chant itself. By composing and adapting chant melodies for English liturgical texts, he was decisively avoiding the mere retrofitting of English texts into existing melodies written for Latin texts—this would be virtually impossible, and produce lackluster results at best. Instead, he saw the need to get into the minds of the Gregorian composers, and to approach English texts as they approached the Latin texts, armed with a penetrating insight into their musical vocabulary and creative impulse.
The result was a decades-long effort of crafting an entire corpus of English chant which, though sung daily by the monks, unfortunately was almost never heard outside the walls of the St. Meinrad Archabbey church.
In spite of the apparent disinterest in vernacular chant on the part of most parishes and liturgical publishers in the decades following the Council, the tide began to change rather dramatically around the year 2000. At precisely that time, then Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger—Dom Columba’s liturgical-theological kindred spirit—published The Spirit of the Liturgy and called for a new liturgical movement in the Church’s life. Just as the hunger for beauty, tradition, and a faithful re-reading of the Council documents began to emerge, Dom Columba was equipped and prepared to shed his wisdom on the leaders of the next generation, and to pass on to them the treasures that he had continually amassed even when they were judged by most to be obsolete. During this time he began to publish English chant settings online and also with GIA Publications and Oregon Catholic Press.
Despite his genius, Father Columba was known by his pupils to be not the most prodigious pedagogue. To harvest the bounty of his wisdom required some special skills and advanced machinery, but for those who were able to share in the banquet, a lavish feast was set before them. His students often said of his courses and seminars: “The syllabus never changes but the content is always different.” And because of this fact, they returned to sit at the feet of the master time and again. The source of Father Columba’s singular genius is the wonder that he experienced as he faced the mystery of the sung liturgy—a mystery which he knew he was only just beginning to grasp.
He also loved digital technology and did his best to keep up with its development. Within the past year, as he sat marvelling at the pedagogical possibilities presented by the iPad Pro, he gave his characteristic sigh and click of the tongue, repeating with his childlike grin the quip of Pope John XXIII after he had called the Council: “Well, I’m at the top of my heap and at the end of my rope!” His sense of perpetual youthfulness and untiring enthusiasm at the end of his life, despite his chronic pain and ailing frame, was a witness to all of the power of a vocation dedicated to truth, beauty, and goodness, and to the life-giving power of liturgical prayer which constantly restores the joy of youth.
Body and Soul
In 2015, Dom Columba was given the Spritus Liturgiae award by the Liturgical Institute of the University of St. Mary of the Lake, Mundelein, IL, for his penetrating insight and tireless contributions to the liturgical apostolate. He passed away peacefully in his sleep on June 9, 2018, just before Vespers on his patronal feast day of St. Columba of Iona.
Father Columba Kelly will be dearly missed by the fortunate few who had his friendship in this life and who truly knew and understood his mind. In many ways, he lived well ahead of his time, and it seems certain that the impact of his life and work has only just begun. The younger and future generations who will continue to hunger for a liturgical beauty that is ever-ancient ever-new will discover the insights of Dom Columba and will come to share in the wonder of encountering the living Word of God in the sung prayer of the Church.
May the Lord now grant him full entry into the ranks of the heavenly choir where the musification of faith on earth becomes the song of eternal glory.
 See Ratzinger, Address to the Eighth International Church Music Congress, Rome, November 17, 1985, https://adoremus.org/2008/04/15/Liturgy-and-Sacred-Music/
 See Pierre Combe, The Restoration of Gregorian Chant: Solesmes and the Vatican Edition, 2003, Catholic University of America Press.
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