In spite of its ritual complexity, a solemn Mass in the usus antiquior comes across as a seamless and flowing single action that carries the worshiper along from start to finish, without awkward caesuras or transitions. At the same time, some of the most impressively beautiful traditional liturgies I have assisted at moved along with a surprising fleetness by the hand of the clock, yet without the slightest appearance of haste or hurry. Both of these aspects—the sense of a natural ebb and flow, and the “Roman efficiency,” which complements “noble simplicity” rightly understood—are the result of centuries of gradual perfection in prayers and chant, ceremonial and rubrics. Everything “clicks” the way it’s supposed to, and one is caught up in the wonderful momentum of it all. And regardless of how much time it takes, it helps you forget about time by its power to pass beyond time.
A major cause of this sense of “passing beyond time” is bestowed on the liturgy by the ancient chant, sung in modes that surpass our restricted melodic conventions and with a free-floating rhythm that baffles our expectation of beat (and therefore “keeping time”). Anthropologists of religion tell us that every ancient religion has a sacred chant all its own because of a deep human instinct for distinguishing what is sacred from what is profane, setting apart certain signs, be they linguistic, musical, or ceremonial, from all others that belong to the workaday human world. The Jews and the Moslems have ancient tones to which they chant their holy writings, the Buddhists and the Hindus likewise. Alice von Hildebrand observed: “Not only is the quality of sacredness a mark of all religions, but it is so essential to religion that the very moment sacredness disappears religion vanishes with it.” This innate human awareness, woven into our soul by God the Creator, is brought to completion by the same God when he revealed to us how best to worship him, as he did first for the chosen people of Israel, and, in the fullness of time, as he did for the Church when he gave her the sacrifice of the Body and Blood of Jesus Christ.
The sacred chant of the Latin Church was born out of a confluence of Jewish cantillation and Greco-Roman song, the same diverse cultural milieu that shaped our liturgy and our theological language. As a result, there developed in the first millennium a music proper to the Roman Rite, a music that grew up with it from the beginning and was never left aside. No matter how many subsequent musical developments there were, no matter how elaborate became the Masses of Palestrina or Mozart, Gregorian chant always remained a vital component of the liturgy; it was never discarded as a primitive historical form, one destined to be supplanted by the progress of art. Indeed, later polyphonic and homophonic music makes continual reference to this immense treasury of chant—even the music of Protestant composers such as Johann Sebastian Bach (one need only think of the cantus firmus in the marvelous Credo of the Mass in B Minor)—so much was it the common language of all church musicians. One does not simply leave behind tradition, for it preserves the origin and makes it ever present. Tradition is the gift that each generation must give intact to the next.
The most fundamental problem, then, with the postconciliar “popular” church music is that it is quite simply fabricated, altogether new. It has no organic connection with the tradition of the Church and with the music that has never ceased to grace the worship of the Church in every generation (even if not every congregation was privileged to hear it in its fullness). It is religious music ex nihilo: in no way a development of the tradition, it is rather a rejection of it, a break, a totally new direction. Its direction is from the world and to the world, not from the church and to the church. It is meant to be “relevant,” to “appeal,” to “speak to people where they are.” This has never been the purpose of sacred music or even of the liturgy itself. The purpose of divine worship is to worship the divine, not to entertain or even to catechize people. When we adore God in the manner handed down to us by tradition, we are the ones who are made relevant to the divine (so to speak), we are the ones re-formed. We are taken to a place where we are not, but where we should be and must go.
This, then, could be our battle cry: “Don’t change the sign, change yourself.” An artist who sets about producing a work of art for the Catholic Church should conform himself to the prevenient sign, the historic symbol, the given sacrament, rather than bending or even jettisoning these in order to pursue his own tastes and agendas. In his great motu proprio on sacred music, St. Pius X wrote: “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.”
So good is the heritage we have received that nothing, nothing needs to be added to it in order to have the fullest and most fitting solemnity of divine worship. Certainly, an abundance of beauty has been added century by century to the musical treasury of the Church. Who would question for a moment the artistic splendor and liturgical suitability of the polyphonic masterpieces of the Renaissance, not to mention countless other compositions down to our own times? Still, in his admirably principled way, Pope Pius X reminds us of a truth we should never lose sight of: a Mass sung exclusively in chant is not deficient or defective in any way, for it is clothed with the resplendent vesture of the King—the musical raiment with which Tradition, inspired by the Holy Spirit, has covered the Western liturgy, a glory of pure melody like nothing else in the history of the world.
Given these royal robes—hand-made, custom-fitted, bequeathed to each generation, held out to the People of God by one Vicar of Christ after another—can we seriously look elsewhere for the music of the liturgy? Can we ever be forgiven if we persistently ignore, demote, or denigrate this patrimony? If the universal Magisterium of the Church teaches the truth of Christ by the power of the Holy Spirit, and if this Magisterium has been absolutely clear and utterly consistent about the primacy of Gregorian chant in the liturgy (limiting ourselves to the past century alone, we can see an unbroken chain from St. Pius X to Vatican II to Benedict XVI), then the rejection of the chant risks being a sin against the Holy Spirit.
Let there be an end to excuses and a beginning, at last, to the renewal that the Council actually called for. This renewal will include Gregorian chant at its heart, or it will fail. The New Evangelization must thrive on obedience to the Magisterium or it will be stillborn from the womb.