I saw on Sandro Magister’s site today a piece about Gregorian chant making a come back, a come back promoted by Benedict XVI himself through the Congregation for Divine Worship – whose brief he modified – and through his own ars celebrandi.
This got me thinking about several things which have been obvious over the years and a few which have been obscured.
First, the Council said that Gregorian chant was the characteristic music of the Roman liturgy. That fact has been entirely ignored. Also, the very purpose of liturgical music has been obscured. It is not simply ornamentation or accompaniment. Sacred music for liturgy is prayer, it is liturgy. Therefore, the idiom of the music must be appropriate for liturgical action and the texts must be liturgical texts and sacred texts. This has been widely ignored for a long time, with the result that there is great confusion and shoddy music everywhere.
It could be useful to pull apart that paragraph from the Council’s Sacrosanctum Concilium and have a closer look.
The Second Vatican Council’s Constitution on the Liturgy, Sacrosanctum Concilium, states this about Gregorian chant:
116. Ecclesia cantum gregorianum agnoscit ut liturgiae romanae proprium: qui ideo in actionibus liturgicis, ceteris paribus, principem locum obtineat.
The Latin of SC 116 is often rendered as
The 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.
This isn’t a bad translation, but it is weak. To my ear it doesn’t convey the force of the vocabulary which sounds like legal language having to do with property, possession, heredity. This is a powerful declaration about something being a prized possession, even the most prized of all, since it is in the “princeps locus” the “first/chief/most distinguished place”.
Latin agnosco means a range of things, having to do with “knowledge” and “recognition”. Thus, as the esteemed Lewis & Short Dictionary (everyone should have their own hard copy of this, by the way, for use even when the power goes out) informs us, it is either a simple recognition of something that we have known before, and then logically it means “as a result of this knowledge or recognition, to declare, announce, allow, or admit a thing to be one’s own, to acknowledge, own”. Think of, for example, a father acknowledging the legitimacy of a child and thus making that child an heir, or troops obeying a general, or a person admitting that an object or deed is his.
Something that is proprius is “not common with others, one’s own, special, particular, proper”. It has to do with one’s own property. It can have an overtone of permanency and peculiarity, in the sense of being special or characteristic, not in the sense of being strange.
Obtineo is a compound of teneo, “to hold, keep, have in the hand, etc.”. Thus, obtineo is “to take hold of” in the sense of take possession of, but also in the sense of “demonstrate” or “prove”
A locus is “a place, seat” a “lodging”, “a place, locality” and then, “a topic of discussion or thought”, “the grounds of proof”, a “passage in a book”, an “opportunity, cause, occasion, place, time”. You get the idea.
That qui - referring back to cantus - with the subjunctive down the line gives us a characteristic result clause. In other words, the nature of the thing referred to in the pronoun leads to a conclusion down the line. Chant is of such a nature that X results. In this text the conclusion is strengthened enormously by ideo, “therefore”. The Council Fathers weren’t fooling around. They wanted to make this forceful and clear by using a construction that emphasizes the character, the nature of chant, and then producing a conclusion, all using juridical language.
That phrase “ceteris paribus” is juridical and philosophical language. It is an ablative absolute which provides a statement of conditions contemporary with the time of the verb. It means, “other things being equal”, which is to say, “in normal circumstances” or ”leaving aside the special situations”. For example, we might say that every four years, ceteris paribus, we have a leap-year and add an extra day to February. However, every 400 years we have to omit leap days. Thus, we say that, ceteris paribus, every four years there is a leap year, with a nod to those rare (from our perspective) times when there won’t be.
More on that point of rarity. When we read SC 116 “latinly”, it says that, barring something out of the ordinary, Gregorian chant is the first type of sacred music that is to be used in the Roman liturgy, because the Church claims and acknolwedges and declares Gregorian chant to have the “first place” among all legitimate types of sacred music. Just as when a father recognized a first-born son that son became the principle heir, to be preferred over even all other legitimate children, so to the Church places Gregorian chant in the first place over all other types of sacred liturgical music. At the same time, there are rare occasions when something other than Gregorian chant can be used.
Let’s pry open SC 116 with a literal rendering:
The Church acknowledges Gregorian chant as characteristically belonging to the Roman liturgy, with the result that, therefore, other things being equal, in liturgical actions it (Gregorian chant) takes possession of the first place.
If you aren’t praying with Gregorian chant, 50 years after the Council, then you are 50 years out of step with the Council mandated in the strongest terms.
The Council Fathers in Sacrosanctum Concilium go on to talk about the use of other kinds of music and they provide a welcome flexibility. But none of those other provisions eliminates or supersede or mitigate what SC 116 says. In other words, we shouldn’t justify the use of Gregorian chant. The Church has done that for us. We have to justify the use of something other than Gregorian chant.
It is time to start asking what we are going to do about that. The upcoming Year of Faith seems like an auspicious moment to take stock of this and do something about it. Gregorian chant will foster greater continuity with how Catholic have worshiped over the centuries, it will bring us into harmony with a serious mandate of the Council Fathers, and it will bring a greater sense of the transcendent to our liturgical worship. The way we pray has a reciprocal relationship with what we believe. Gregorian chant is liturgy, not decoration. Using Gregorian chant will do something to our Catholic identity. This is an appropriate goal for the upcoming Year of Faith.