Sunday, March 29, 2009

Why Latin Hymns?

Part of our ambition as a schola is to bring popular chant hymns from all ages back into the life of Catholic people. So this year, we made an effort to sing the Marian antiphon for Lent—Ave Regina Caelorum—following communion every single week. We put it in the program each week and we have sung it without fail. Today, on the fifth week, the people joined the singing as if they owned it. It is now part of their experience of the faith.

Some might have carried the lovely song with them to brunch or while playing sports later in the afternoon. Perhaps it will be sung quietly in their heads before drifting off to sleep tonight, and perhaps it will be recall tomorrow morning as well.

This was not true only weeks ago, when hardly anyone in the parish knew this song. Now it is a living reality in their lives, and they have added it to their intellectual and aesthetic store of understanding of what comprises the marks of the Catholic faith. This song is added to a thousand other signs, from holy water to rosary beads, of what it means to be a Catholic.

This is very satisfying to me personally. Of course it is only one song. The Parish Book of Chant includes 70 of them. There are hundreds more that might qualify as people’s music. Would that we all knew them by heart.

I began to think about why in particular. After all, this is not “ritual music” in the sense that it is the text of the Mass. These hymns are neither propers nor part of the ordinary chants of the Mass. They are hymns, and have a life outside the liturgical books. They are used during the times of Mass when the ritual has stopped and we are experiencing a period of contemplation.

Today, we tend to regard them as somehow high-brow music characteristic of “high-Church celebration,” but this is not really correct historically. This music might be regarded as true Catholic folk music. It has pious origins, rooted in the popular expression of our faith, sung by all Catholic people in all times, and their continued presence for one-thousand plus years, some of the dating to the Patristic period, speaks to their quality as music and as true expression of the sense of faith.

These small tunes have a special quality to unite people in a song, a point which might sound like a cliché until we consider precisely what Catholics mean by the term unite. It is a unity of the trivial sort that pertains only to those present in the room at that moment. That sort of unity is rarely achieved in a parish environment in any case, given the characteristic nature of Catholics to avoid being cajoled into group-based activities. There will also be a solid quarter of the congregation that will resist singing no matter how compelling the cantor or familiar the song.

By unity, then, we mean unified across geographic and national lines, and across time, stretching back generations and generations. Our voices are united with people we do not know and could not know. This is a mystical form of unity that leaves the physical space we experience with our sense alone. We can only imagine people one thousand years ago singing the same tunes with the same words at the same Mass during the same season. We do not know and cannot imagine what their lives were like, what they wore, what they ate, how they thought and spoke, their trials and troubles, their joys and fears, but we can, after all, sing the same songs as they did. So our unity with them in song is a magnificent expression of what it means to be Catholic, to broaden our thinking and living outside the boundaries of time and space.

Thus can we understand the importance of Latin here. The tunes are written to accommodate the language and express it as beautifully as possible. To adapt them to another language is possible but it sheds an importance aspect of unity, and the song becomes a different one, reminiscent of the original but not the real thing. Plus, music is a great way for postconciliar Catholics to get over their Latin-phobias.

But we might further ask why it should matter that one particular group of Catholics comes to know one particular group of chant hymns. They might teach their children and the song will live and spread and then we make a contribution to historial continuity. Or perhaps they will not teach them to others. They might move to another town, or forget the song after Lent, and eventually of course we will all die and our capacity for rendering these songs will die with us.

So why do it? It is a matter of the obligation we all have to assist in making the faith as beautiful as we can, in our own space and time, insofar as we can. We sing these songs for the same reason that we plant flowers in our front yards and window boxes. The flowers, like the song, live for only a short time. They will die and, if not tended to, the ground will revert to its natural state without blooms and beauty.

Why, then, do we plant? Because the beauty elicits from us a certain idealism that improves the world in which we live and gives us as glimpse of something glorious and eternal. We learn from flowers that we can make a contribution to improving our world and the flowers make a contribution to improving us as people, giving us a brighter outlook and imaging that what may seem impossible is indeed possible. Planting them is a way of entering into a continuous effort, made by every generation, to bring color and brightness to the vale of tears in which we live.

I also like to think of the job of a Church musician as comparable to entering into a stream of living water that began to flow at the beginning of life of Christ. This stream grows and grows through time, and sometime falls back, but it continues to exist and move only in a forward direction. We have so few years on this earth, but we have the opportunity to become part of this stream of music and make a contribution to carrying from the past into the future.

When we sing these songs, our voices become part of the water and its continuous movement. Doing this as musicians gives our lives meaning beyond our time. We partake in the great effort of color the world with Christian art, an art that points to the great truth that we seek and that gives our lives meaning.