Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Chant is a truly missionary, evangelical song

Here is a speech by W. Pat Cunningham for the local Latin Rite group, a passionate call for the Sung Mass:

On the Feast of St. Cecilia, 1903, a hundred six years ago, Pope St. Pius X issued his famous motu proprio Tra le sollecitudini, the document on sacred music. In it, he said of sacred music that “its principal office is to clothe with suitable melody the liturgical text proposed for the understanding of the faithful, its proper aim is to add greater efficacy to the text, in order that through it the faithful may be the more easily moved to devotion and better disposed for the reception of the fruits of grace belonging to the celebration of the most holy mysteries.” (Par 1) He went on to say that sacred music should possess certain qualities proper to liturgy, and “in the highest degree,” (par 2) particularly “sanctity and goodness of form, which will spontaneously produce the final quality of universality.” Because it must be holy, it must exclude anything profane, whether in itself or in its performance. At that time he was referring to the tendency of performers to sing in church as they did on the stage of La Scala. Today Pius would certainly be thinking of the so-called “bands” that afflict the Church with rock, light and heavy, and rap, which can hardly be called music.

Pius also admonished us that everything we play and sing in Church must be true art, or it would not be efficacious in moving the faithful to devotion. He kept coming back to the issue of universality: while every nation is permitted to admit into its ecclesiastical compositions those special forms which may be said to constitute its native music, still these forms must be subordinated in such a manner to the general characteristics of sacred music that nobody of any nation may receive an impression other than good on hearing them.” The Church is one, holy, universal and apostolic, and our music must have those same characteristics.

After this brief introduction, Pius told the Church–and it’s so important that I quote him in full:

These qualities are to be found, in the highest degree, in Gregorian Chant, which is, consequently the Chant proper to the Roman Church, the only chant she has inherited from the ancient fathers, which she has jealously guarded for centuries in her liturgical codices, which she directly proposes to the faithful as her own, which she prescribes exclusively for some parts of the liturgy, and which the most recent studies have so happily restored to their integrity and purity.
On these grounds Gregorian Chant has always been regarded as the supreme model for sacred music, so that it is fully legitimate to lay down the following rule: the more closely a composition for church approaches in its movement, inspiration and savor the Gregorian form, the more sacred and liturgical it becomes; and the more out of harmony it is with that supreme model, the less worthy it is of the temple.
The ancient traditional Gregorian Chant must, therefore, in a large measure be restored to the functions of public worship, and the fact must be accepted by all that an ecclesiastical function loses none of its solemnity when accompanied by this music alone.
Special efforts are to be made to restore the use of the Gregorian Chant by the people, so that the faithful may again take a more active part in the ecclesiastical offices, as was the case in ancient times.

It is particularly important to note that when our Holy Father of blessed memory, John Paul II, who first restored the Traditional Mass to use in the Latin Church, wrote his chirograph on sacred music for the hundredth anniversary of Tra le sollecitudini, he quoted St. Pius in another context:

With regard to compositions of liturgical music, I make my own the "general rule" that St Pius X formulated in these words: "The more closely a composition for church approaches in its movement, inspiration and savour the Gregorian melodic form, the more sacred and liturgical it becomes; and the more out of harmony it is with that supreme model, the less worthy it is of the temple"

It is not, of course, a question of imitating Gregorian chant but rather of ensuring that new compositions are imbued with the same spirit that inspired and little by little came to shape it. Only an artist who is profoundly steeped in the sensus Ecclesiae can attempt to perceive and express in melody the truth of the Mystery that is celebrated in the Liturgy. In this perspective, in my Letter to Artists I wrote: "How many sacred works have been composed through the centuries by people deeply imbued with the sense of mystery! The faith of countless believers has been nourished by melodies flowing from the hearts of other believers, either introduced into the Liturgy or used as an aid to dignified worship. In song, faith is experienced as vibrant joy, love and confident expectation of the saving intervention of God"

Gregorian chant is a universal musical language. Why does the Church consistently, in every document on music, insist that Gregorian chant be studied, taught and used everywhere? Thomas Day, in his great book Why Catholic’s Can’t Sing, says “throughout the centuries, Roman Catholicism feared the Mass would merely become a specimen of the local ethnic folklore or pep-rally for nationalism. The church, in its collective wisdom, kept its eyes ever fixed on the job of fulfilling the commands of the Jewish Jesus. . .the Mass was not an occasion for ethnic and nationalistic boosterism.”

So why has the legend arisen that, before Vatican Council II, all we had in San Antonio were “low” Masses, and that choirs, when they sang, just sang at Mass instead of singing the Mass?

Thomas Day reminds us that the Church in America in the fifties was a church run by Irishmen, descendants of the folk who ran from English tyranny in the mid 1800s and flourished all over the east coast and Central U.S. in places like Philly and St. Louis. The Irish–unlike the continental Europeans– were Catholic but had no tradition either of choirs or of congregational singing. They couldn’t, because that would attract too much attention in a time when a favorite sport of the British was shooting Micks. So when they came to the U.S. they imported that same almost fear of singing in Church, and no tradition of chant at all.

You may say, “but this is San Antonio, far from Ireland.” We must remember that Archbishop Lucey, engaged in the forties and fifties and sixties in an unprecedented expansion of churches and schools, made annual trips to overflowing Irish seminaries to recruit poor Irish boys to serve in thermal South Texas. And he was successful, too. The names Flanagan, Garrett, Cronin, O’Donohue, are just a few of those that we have been blessed with over the years. But none of them had any experience with chant. So the new parishes of the diocese, particularly the explosively growing ones around Kelly AFB, have had no tradition of music as the universal Church desires. The contemporary result, I have to report from experience with the Archbishop, is that in parish liturgies, the music is indistinguishable from that performed in the tavern down the street, loud, fast and incoherent.

The older parishes, however, did have a musical tradition and in some cases still do. Consider St. Joseph downtown, the “German” parish. The Liederkranz has sung there since 1892, and still does on every 4th Sunday. And they sing a High Mass. The same can be said for St. Peter, Prince of the Apostles, where I sang a High Mass with the choir every Sunday during the early sixties. Oh, the chanted propers were sung to a psalm tone, and the Masses were out of the St. Gregory Hymnal or the sixteenth-century Missa de Angelis, but it was understood throughout the older parishes that the principal Sunday Mass would be what is now called a Missa Cantata, with both proper and Ordinary sung by the choir.

The Song of the Bride

What is the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass? It is, in the words of the Council, “the renewal in the Eucharist of the covenant between the Lord and man draws the faithful into the compelling love of Christ and sets them on fire. From the liturgy, therefore, and especially from the Eucharist, as from a font, grace is poured forth upon us; and the sanctification of men in Christ and the glorification of God, to which all other activities of the Church are directed as toward their end, is achieved in the most efficacious possible way.”

The covenant is a nuptial covenant. It is the covenant between Jesus Christ, the Bridegroom, and the New Israel, the Church, the Bride. The language of the Book of Revelation is descriptive of a wedding banquet: “Alleluia!. . .the marriage of the Lamb has come, and his Bride has made herself ready; it was granted her to be clothed with fine linin, bright and pure. . .the righteous deeds of the saints.” (Rv 19:6-8) “Blessed are those”–the angel said–“who are invited to the marriage supper of the Lamb.” (19:9) “I saw the holy city, new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband.” (21:2) The Mass is portrayed in Revelation as the earthly celebration of the heavenly reality. The altar, the relics, the Lamb of God, and particularly the singing, over and over again proclaims that what we do at the Lord’s Day Mass is on earth what is eternally going on in heaven. (SC art 8)

Thus we sing “a hymn to the Lord’s glory with all the warriors of the heavenly army.” And the Council decreed that even in vernacular Masses, “steps should be taken so that the faithful may also be able to say or to sing together in Latin those parts of the Ordinary of the Mass which pertain to them.”(SC art 54). That would be the Kyrie, Gloria, Credo, Sanctus, Pater Noster and Agnus Dei. There is no doubt that they meant that the people should be taught to chant these prayers in the universal language. This is the song of the Bride, singing to the Bridegroom: Lord, have mercy, Christ, have mercy, Lord, have mercy. The Bride glorifies God in the highest for sending Jesus Christ to save us, to make us the Bride. The Bride professes her faith in the Trinity, in the creative, redemptive, sanctifying work, and does so in the context of the One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church. The Bride sings with the saints and angels, Kadosh, kadosh, kadosh, the prayer of Isaiah and the cherubim and seraphim–Holy, Holy, Holy. The Bride sings together with all the sons and daughters of God the prayer Jesus taught us. The Bride sings to the Bridegroom just before communing with and in Him–Lamb of God, Bridegroom, You take away the sins of the world, have mercy. The prayer comes full circle. We sing to the One who has had mercy, to continue having mercy until our last breath is breathed out in His love.

The proper texts of the Mass, particularly the Sunday Mass, are specific to the Sundays of the year and the festivals of Christ, Mary and the other saints. These are prescribed by the Church to be sung at the Introit, Gradual and Alleluia, Offertory and Communion. The bishops in their latest document put the singing of these, by choir or choir and people, well ahead of hymns. Hymns, in fact, even the Gloria, are put in last place. The four-hymn Mass is not to be the norm for Sunday worship. That is singing at Mass, not singing the Mass.

So where are we as we begin again with the 1962 ritual? I think we have to listen to the 20th century popes, as well as our contemporary bishops. They are all saying the same thing: restore singing the Mass, not singing at Mass. Do it with Gregorian chant in first place. Do it well, and do it with both heart and mind.

Scene: a Catholic Church. Someone, faithful or not, opens the Church door. What do they see? It’s a cathedral, probably Gothic, with stained glass and stone walls, probably cruciform in shape. What do they hear? “Glory and Praise”? No. Nine times out of ten Hollywood and the Indies will portray Gregorian chant being sung by a men’s or boy’s schola.

I don’t know of any famous convert whose conversion story began with an excursion into a Novus Ordo Mass where they were bowled over by the sacredness of “On Eagle’s Wings.” But there are plenty of stories of that experience beginning with the singing of Gregorian chant, particularly St. Ambrose and St. Augustine. Chant is a truly missionary, evangelical song. It is very like the music sung by Jesus and the apostles. If Mary sang the Magnificat, she sang it to one of our psalm tones. It is our only direct cultural connection with the first century Church. It is not easy, but is there anything easy about the Lord’s service? Is there any price too high to pay to give true glory and praise to our God?

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