History

Can we be a Chanting Church Again?

By: Bradley Vanden Branden

Having been involved in various types of music ministry for over ten years, it was only recently that I fell in love with the treasure of the Church’s chant tradition. For me, the proper and ordinary chants of the Roman rite add something inherently beautiful to any Eucharistic celebration. Whenever I hear or sing these chants, I cannot help but feel instantly connected to the men and women who have worked hard to compose and promote these pearls of our liturgical tradition. No doubt anyone who has read or studied the Second Vatican Council’s document, Sacrosanctum Concilium (SC), the Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy, has noticed the Council Fathers’ teachings on chant: “[t]he Church acknowledges Gregorian chant as specially suited to the Roman liturgy: therefore, other things being equal, it should be given pride of place in liturgical services” (SC 116). This single article has given both liturgists and church musicians much to debate. In this short piece, I hope to outline a few reasons why to study and use chant, and suggest some resources that may help introduce chant into our liturgies in a more seamless way.

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After a few years of pondering for myself this debate on liturgical music, I have found two sources that have been helpful in forming my own opinions regarding the value of Gregorian chant in the Roman rite. One is the document on sacred music from the bishops of the United States titled “Sing to the Lord” (STL). The other is a blog post written by the popular traditionalist blogger, Mr. Jeffrey Tucker, on his blog The Chant Café. The blog-post is titled “Why we must Chant.” I appreciate these two compositions for two reasons. First, STL suggests that Gregorian chant in the liturgy points to a living connection to tradition and, at the same time, it encourages contemporary Catholics to participate in this tradition. Second, Jeffrey Tucker’s piece points to the notion of Gregorian chant as a means to promote inter-religious dialogue. This latter contribution to the debate was something I had never considered. However, I find that his position may be helpful in the future especially as religious discrimination between Christians and Muslims continues to grow.

Chant as a Living Connection

In 2007 the bishops of the United States  approved the release of the document “Sing to the Lord.” This work provided music ministers across the country with guidelines to enhance liturgical music in their parishes. Among the many aspects of music ministry discussed in the document, the bishops make special note of Gregorian chant, echoing the directive from SC. In addition, the bishops add:

“Gregorian chant is uniquely the Church’s own music. Chant is a living connection with our forebears in the faith, the traditional music of the Roman rite, a sign of communion with the universal Church, a bond of unity across cultures, a means for diverse communities to participate together in song, and a summons to contemplative participation in the Liturgy.” (STL 72)

One can easily see that the bishops encourage the use of chant within the liturgical action. As a matter of fact, the bishops even suggest that every Catholic should, at minimum, be able to “learn [the] Kyrie XVI, Sanctus XVIII, and Agnus Dei XVIII” (STL 75).

As “pro-chant” as this document may sound, the larger context of these guidelines are actually more balanced. As Anthony Ruff, O.S.B. comments, one should recognize that STL presents liturgical musicians with both “encouragement and necessary caution”[1] when it comes to using chant in the Liturgy. For as much as the bishops encourage parishes to use Gregorian chant, STL also encourages other forms of liturgical music, especially those musical works that are “sensitive to the cultural and spiritual milieu[s]” (STL 73) of each community. In his commentary, Ruff also notes that chant is never to be used as a “weapon in any divisive way.”[2] I agree wholeheartedly. In today’s liturgical culture, it is too easily assumed that chant is a way of returning to the ‘pre-Vatican II church.’ I would hope not. However, I do agree with STL in suggesting that we try and make greater attempts to reintroduce our musical heritage into our liturgical celebrations as a means of uniting with our ancestors in the faith. This can be done either through the use of Latin chant or vernacular chant in the style of Gregorian chant.

Chant as a Means of Inter-Religious Dialogue

During a trip to Bodrum, Turkey in 2012, Mr. Jeffrey Tucker was awoken early in the morning by “something strange and mysterious, a voice of some sort, a song.” Ignoring it, he was surprised to hear the same thing at the same time the next morning. Upon listening more closely, Mr. Tucker realized that this was some sort of religious chant. Eventually, Tucker discovered there was a mosque near his hotel and that this chant was being broadcast over the loudspeakers of the worship space to alert the local faithful of the first hour of prayer. Now that he knew what was being sung, Tucker made it a point to rise early the next day to listen. He made a connection between this chant and the chant that is inherent to the Catholic tradition. He blogged, “[a]t first, the sound puzzled me. Too foreign. I couldn’t understand the words. But then I became curious and heard melodic and textual similarities to the Gregorian chant. Surely there is a common ancestor between Quranic chant and the Gregorian tradition. They both use scripture. They both proclaim the word. They both date from the first millennium. They are both unmistakably religious.”

For Tucker, this commonality between the two chant traditions is a means of opening the doors to inter-religious dialogue and perhaps even a shared mode of prayer. However, in his mind, Catholic Christians are grossly unprepared to share in this liturgical expression of dialogue. What is Tucker’s solution? I’ll let him speak for himself:

“Let’s shore up Christian tradition – particularly our public prayer. Let’s rediscover our own native chant, the sung prayer that built civilization. It’s right there waiting for us. We too can make a joyful noise when we pray. We too can chant to praise God. It can become part of our lives. It can make us more faithful. And it can attract more people to the faith.”

How do we start to chant?

Given these two positions on the positive elements of chant, perhaps one can wonder, is it too late to begin to chant? It seems as though chant has been one of those practices that is too hard to reestablish. Are there any resources available to help us? Indeed. Especially since the pontificate of Benedict XVI, many musicians have sought to reestablish some kind of chanting tradition in their parishes and/or religious communities. This newer tradition involves both Latin chant as well as vernacular chant. Groups like the Church Music Association of America sponsors various types of chant reading symposiums throughout the year in a variety of locations. Likewise, Corpus Christi Watershed is a website that makes available many settings of Gregorian chant masses, including the settings mentioned in STL.

Individual composers are setting vernacular texts of the liturgical year into collections that are available for purchase. Some of these authors include Arlene Oost-Zinner who authored Parish Book of Psalms a collection of English Responsorial Psalms in the Gregorian Tradition. Another is Adam Bartlett, who arranged the Propers of the Mass into a simplified, vernacular edition called Simple English PropersMr. Bartlett is also working on compiling a collection of Gregorian chant set in the Spanish vernacular. A release date on that volume is pending. Another newer publication is from Anthony Ruff, O.S.B. who published Canticum novum: Gregorian Chant for Today’s Choirs. This volume published by GIA contains 100 hymns and antiphons for all occasions throughout the liturgical year.

In addition, various religious groups are releasing audio recordings of chanted melodies. First, Anthony Ruff has two CDs of Gregorian chant. The first CD is in conjunction with book of chants, Canticum novum, and the second called Singing with Mary & The Saints, sung by the Schola of Saint John out of St. John’s Abbey, Collegeville, MN. Also, the Dominican Sisters of Mary the Mother of the Eucharist from Ann Arbor, MI, released an album last year called Mater Eucharistiae. Some local Chicago parishes are also regularly using chanted Propers (either in Latin or the vernacular) in their own celebrations of the Eucharist. Some of these parishes are St. John Cantius, Our Lady of Mount Carmel, St. Clement and St. Vincent de Paul, just to name a few.

Of course, there are many other recordings of chant available as well as many other books promoting the use of chant in the Church. I would encourage all to examine these resources, as it seems that the chant movement is becoming more and more prevalent in the American church.

Indeed, Let’s be a Chanting Church

By “shoring up” our tradition, as Mr. Tucker suggests, we may be more able to speak a similar liturgical language with our Muslim brothers and sisters. Perhaps the same could be true with our Jewish neighbors as well as many Orthodox traditions. By chanting our prayers, especially in the context of our Eucharistic celebrations, we are connected in a unique way to our past while being open to new possibilities with brothers and sisters of other faith traditions. The more I learn about the role of chant in our liturgical tradition, the more it makes sense to me. The Second Vatican Council pointed towards it, the United States bishops suggest it, and a blogger found chant to be a point of similarity in the middle of a foreign place. So, perhaps it is time to again rediscover our chanting tradition. Various groups on both sides of the chant debate are already producing volumes of chant to incorporate into the Roman rite. Perhaps its time to sing to the Lord in a way that is ever ancient and ever new!


[1] Anthony Ruff, “Sing to the Lord: Music in Divine Worship,” Liturgical Music Today, 17 (2008): 82.

[2] Ibid.