NLM: a good post on Gregorian chant in parishes and inevitable resistance

At NLM they are taking a breather from beautiful photos for some very useful observations about something I am sure many of you have experienced.

What to do when a move has been made in your parish, your community, wherever, to return to a more traditional expression of worship in keeping with our Roman tradition?

I don’t need to tell you that some people freak out, grumble, drag their feet, threaten to leave, to write to the bishops, etc.   Effectively, they often stonewall or impede or generally create problems.

This entry at NLM, therefore, is timely.

Mind you… it focuses on music and the Novus Ordo.   But it gets to something at the heart of the new dynamic created when a move is made toward traditional worship..

It happens often that when a musician upgrades his or her knowledge and competence in music, the liturgy committee [The Gospel of Z: "For God so loved the world that He did not send a committee.  Instead, their boometh a voice from the heavens, saying, "Say the Black.  Do the Red.  Whosoever sayeth black and doeth red, in him I am well-pleased."  Or words to that effect….  ] will suddenly emerge to "express its concerns" [read: "whine"]  about the growing "conservatism" or "traditionalism" of parish music, and call for more peppy hymns. They might even commission a parish poll on what people want. [Never let parishes vote.]

This sort of thing makes musicians [Remember: There is a perennial war between the Hatfields and McCoys, cats and dogs, Montegues and Capulets, musicians and liturgists.] crazy because it is a setting guaranteed to yield shabby liturgy and community chaos. It is the worst possible thing to happen to a parish music program, and not because the community shouldn’t have a voice. [Maybe a little pun there?  But… other than singing (or better yet, listening most of the time) to what is decided for them, must they "have a voice"?]  If the community has a point of unity, it concerns the faith itself and the tradition; otherwise, in terms of issues of taste and preference, there is no such thing as a community: there are only individuals with a multiplicity of conflicting desires. [Thus, underscoring my point.]  A method of liturgical planning [insert wretching sound effects here]  that exalts the "desires of the community" over the demands of the universal Church yields a very divided parish, with egos clashing against other egos, and to heck with what the liturgy is calling for.

It would be the same if we chose the texts or the vestments of the Mass with this method. Nothing good can come of it.

The most important thing for a musician to do in these cases in to remain calm and remember that those intervening are in deep need of catechesis. [In other words… they don’t know anything.] There is not much time to do this, since seminars are not exactly the way people want to go. What a parish like this needs is for the liturgy committee to quickly face a different reality.

Documents such as the GIRM are good, but they can be confusing. What these people lack is an understanding that the music of the Mass is a given. It is an embedded part of our tradition. I would suggest that the musician in question quickly get a copy of The Gregorian Missal, which has all the Sunday propers and the ordinary for Mass in Gregorian notation with English translations. [Novus Ordo] No book better illustrates the point that the music of the Mass is part of the structure of the Mass, not something that is chosen by a committee or by democratic methods.

Let everyone pass this book around, so that they can see for themselves what the music of the Roman Rite is in fact.  [Good idea.  Except that they won’t have a clue what it is.  That is at least a hands-on experience of something different, to expand their minds.  And some will want to know more.] This is the core repertoire, what the Church is asking us to sing and has asked us to sing since the earliest years of the Church. Gregorian chant was exalted at the Second Vatican Council as the music of the Roman Rite because it is holy, beautiful, and universal. The musician can explain that this is the liturgical ideal and that everything else that we sing or do is, in fact, a substitute for this ideal.

Once that is understood, [Good luck!]  everything changes. People begin to see that it is not about the community’s needs or the musician’s training or preferences. It is about the universal faith. [Right.  It is not just about music, because sacred liturgical music is not an add on.  It is prayer.]  The standards are different. Now, you can’t do all propers and ordinary in your Mass; it is not practical in most cases (though there are plenty of parishes that have achived this). But chant remains the standard by which all substitutes should be judged — a point made by every Pope dating back a thousand years, even back to early Church.

If [if] the musician can get people to see this, and the pastor too, the entire environment will change. It is absolutely urgent that musicians do what they can to help people understand this point. Any other path can lead to disaster.

A good entry.  These same principles can be used in introducing the TLM as well.  They need to be shown, also like show-and-tell what is involved, what they are missing, what belongs to them.

Gregorian chant can also be a good "glue" for a parish also thinking about the TLM.

About Fr. John Zuhlsdorf

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  1. Jenny says:

    I attended St John Neumann in Knoxville, TN. The music director was trying to implement more chant into the Mass. It was a little strange at first since no one knew the melodies. We had to move to Nashville, so I’m not sure how the implementation went. But they were preparing for a move into a stunning new church building.

    If anyone could comment on how things went with the change, I would be interested in knowing.

  2. let’s not even get started on the re-ordering of the Youth Mass ;)

  3. To those fighting the Liturgical Committee: stay the course, do not be discouraged if the plan comes to a screeching stop for a short period.

    I’ve discovered, that quoting from Rome gets you nowhere. However making the connection between belief and practice does work.

    I make the example of parents loving their kids. You say that you love your kids. These words must be backed up by actions. But do these actions always involve making the kids happy? of course not.

    Similarly, we do what is right in the Church because we love God and it is right.

  4. M.D. says:

    Fr. Z or anybody religious,

    How is a pastor to implement the use of the Gregorian Missal in his parish? For instance, what if the parish is long established in the liturgical haze of the OCP. What practical steps could he possible take in moving away from that, to the Greg.?

  5. RichR says:

    I am holding back a lot here. This post is a dream I’ve often had: “Give them the Gregorian Missal and the scales will fall from their eyes.” The reality is this: they will scratch their heads at the mention of the word “Introit” and will wonder why you’re not doing a Responsorial Psalm. It’s a whole different liturgical universe for the crowd that absolutizes the principle of participatio actuosa. Introit, Gradual, Offertory, and Communion antiphons are replaced by “Gathering Hymn”, Responsorial Psalm, etc….

    IMHO, the Propers are key to capturing the continuity that the Holy Father rightly desires. If the Propers were used and the old offertory prayers were made an option for the Novus Ordo, a lot of things could happen that would make the New Mass much more harmonious with liturgical evolution.

  6. Becka says:

    As a church musician, I have found that the biggest obstacle to implementing chant in the Mass is pastors’ and liturtists’ concerns that it is too hard and the congregation couldn’t handle it. Usually the discussion doesn’t even get far enough to talk about whether chant is too traditional or archaic.

    This weekend I happened to attend the Tridentine Mass at Holy Rosary Parish in Indianapolis and was amazed that not only was every single proper chanted as well as the Epistle and Gospel, but the choir was made up in no small part by children! If children are able to prepare music of such complexity for Mass every week, then there is absolutely no reason that Joe Catholic in a Novus Ordo parish can’t learn a plainchant version of the Kyrie, Sanctus, and Agnus Dei. For crying out loud, must we be shown up by little kids? We should be embarrassed to cite ineptitude as our reason not to sing the music of the Church when even children can learn! I’m picturing Jeff Foxworthy addressing a congregation saying, “I’m sorry, but you are not smarter than a sixth grader.” I know that sounds unkind, but really, it is basically what liturgists are implying when they say that chant is just too hard.

  7. RichR says:

    Also, the Gregorian Missal only has the biblical citations listed, not the text of the actual readings of the day. So people may miss reading the printed text (I personally think that listening to the Word is more effective than reading, but for the hearing-impaired, they would need a supplement).

    The GM is one of the most neglected resources in Catholicism today. I’d donate a TON of money from my dental practice to pay for a boat load of these if only a parish would just say “yes” to a Latin Novus Ordo…….No rubrical changes necessary, no liturgical accessories necessary, no different liturgical calendar, but……….

  8. RichR says:

    I had a great pastor at our church that was sent off to teach at seminary. I would always assist him at Benediction in my schola cassock and surplice (the altar girls and boys use plain albs, so this added a little more solemnity to the occasion).

    Just before he left to teach, he called me up and asked me to assist one last time at a First Friday Benediction. I got there and vested with Fr., and got everything ready. We had about 10 minutes left, and Fr. grabs a Misalette and says, “Now all we have to do is pick some songs. Do you have any suggestions?”

    Needless to say, I did.

    “How about Tantum Ergo and O Salutaris?”

    “Rich, I’m not sure the people will know those.”

    “Fr. If anyone will know these songs, it’s these people who will give up a Friday evening to come to Benediction.”

    He reluctantly agreed. We started the ritual. Fr. incensed the altar, came back to his place right beside me in front of the Monstrance with our backs to the people, and he grabbed his misalette and announced the song. Just before he intoned it, I heard a sigh of resignation. “O salutaris hostia….”

    And the whole congregation joined in full force to accompany him. There were no notes on the page. Everyone knew it by heart. There were probably 40 people there.

    I grinned from ear to ear and didn’t have to say a word.

    True story.

  9. Namewithheld says:

    If you are an organist of any description, go to the priest (good luck with the pastoral assistant, however) and ask permission to practice occasionally on the church organ (if they still have one). Practice often and play only beautiful, identifyably Catholic music (lots of Chant tones). Just filling the church with such sound will work wonders, especially when passers-by and parish workers stop to listen, lost in a moment of rapture. One brick at a time.

    [“Namewithheld” sets about as well with me as “Anonymous”. Use some sort of name or handle, please.]

  10. RichR: Excellent. And I can back this up. When I was at one place, the pastor – a very good fellow – was open to Benediction, but was all a flutter about … oooo…. Latin… oooo…. maybe toooooo haarrd.

    Well, as Benediction got under way most everyone of a certain age were fully able to sing the Latin and respond to the Panem de caelo. Afterward, the younger folks were intrigued.

    This isn’t rocket science, people.

  11. RichR says:

    You’re right, Fr. It’s not rocket science. In fact, our schola sang for a wedding back in April 2007 that included two men’s scholas, a mixed polyphonic choir, and pipe organ….and the average age of the musicians was about 20. It was the first ever Pontifical Solemn Nuptial Mass in the EF since the Council. They actually made a documentary about it. Here’s the website for those interested in getting a CD or DVD (the DVD is due out soon).

    I don’t make any money off of the sales. It’s just good music. Especially for on the drive to church.

  12. Henrici says:

    Our parish apparently is gradually introducing the Ordinary sung in Latin. Just the Sanctus and Agnus Dei so far, with the Gloria in Latin rumored to be coming soon. But as we sang the Gloria at Mass last Sunday, it struck me how much more difficult to sing — on almost any level — is the fairly elaborate English arrangement we’re using, than the simple chanted Latin Gloria of Mass VIII (with which I’m familiar from EF Mass).

  13. Lucia says:

    I know fourteen year olds with Pange Lingua memorized. Trust me, it’s not hard.

    And if you “drill” it into a parish enough, they will learn to love it (or leave, probably…but that’s not such a bad thing if THAT’S what they are focused on)…

  14. Jason Petty says:

    [27 years old]

    I am seconding–rather, n-thing–everyone here who suggests this stuff is easy to learn. My former parish did a few different Mass settings in Latin and everyone seemed to play along just fine. Even kids can do it. If anyone gives you crap about it, just ask them how they learned the Mass of Creation or the Mass of Angels that are so common in NO parishes. Most have NEVER seen a line of music to either of these and can sing them both just as well as any wide-vibratoed cantrix, myself after only having heard them at ONE parish for ONE year when I was a new Catholic and didn’t even know the WORDS.

    But it’s great when you just get to skip all this drama because your bishop won’t let you do Latin chant! HAHAHAHAHAH! Count yourself lucky you just have to convince a pastor or a few old idiots.

    I am sorry; recent diocesan setbacks on this score have left me with anger that is hot like a thousand suns,

  15. Lucia says:

    I don’t blame you. Like I said, I’m fourteen and get just as annoyed. :-)

  16. A true story from some one who was there.

    Back in the early ’70s a young choir director in Cambridge MA taught his children’s choir to sing a Gregorian Kyrie. As they were practicing the Sister, who was now what we call a DRE, happened by. She angrily corrected the director for teaching the children music they could not understand.

    To prove her point, she yanked a little girl out the choir and asked her “What does Kyrie eleison” mean? The terrified child looked up at her and and “Sister, it means ‘Domine miserere.'”

    It was the director’s last rehearsal, and the rest, as they say, was history . . .

  17. Luis says:

    “They might even commission a parish poll on what people want. [Never let parishes vote.]”
    That’s funny because that’s what the Archdioces of Miami Radio Station, Radio Peace did back in Apriol of this year. “What kind of music do you prefer when you go to Mass?” Only, they didn’t list Gregorian Chant or polyphony as a choice.
    “Very contemporary praise & worship.”
    “More conservative, traditional Catholic hymns.”
    “I’d rather not have any music at Mass.”
    Hmmm, I wonder why that was? Anyhow, Father Z was gracious enough to mention it back in April

  18. Luis says:

    Oh, and another thing. Why is “contemporary praise and worship” called “praise and worship” Is that because Gregorian chant and polyphony are not praise and worship? Is it me or is there something Orwellian about the whole thing. How do you get people to try chant when they are singing Amy Grant (and other protestant)songs?

  19. Jordanes says:

    Luis asked: Why is “contemporary praise and worship” called “praise and worship” Is that because Gregorian chant and polyphony are not praise and worship?

    Because “praise and worship” music is a Protestant genre, and the Protestants who invented it not that many years ago apparently didn’t know what else to call it. It arose as a resul tof the decay of the Protestant hymn tradition and the development of modern music styles exemplified by the pop power ballad. Some people got lazy and didn’t like singing all three or four or five verses plus the choruses — they preferred the choruses, so they started truncating the old hymns to focus on their favorites parts, and started writing shallow anthems in the style of a traditional hymn’s chorus or refrain. Calling it not just “praise,” but “praise and worship,” comes from the evangelical, low church Protestant, impoverished notion of worship: with no idea of “liturgy,” by making the homily the focus of the Sunday gathering and diminishing or eliminating corporate prayer and the Eucharist, they were left with just their singing as “worship.” The idea that the entire service from beginning to end could be worship and one comprehensive prayer of the Body of Christ has been lost to them.

  20. Luis says:

    That is a concise history of “praise and worship” but when brought into our liturgy it has the effect of excluding traditional forms of music are “praise” or part of “worship” That is the mentality we are dealing with in part of the country (Miami)… People are now addicted to the “emotional high” they get from singing these protestant songs in our Catholic Church while slowly waving their hands in the air. For them that IS the rich and powerful liturgical experience and Gregrian Chant and polyphony just don’t seem that interesting.
    What does one do to get Chant and polyphony back on the radar for these people? Just wondering if anyone has any ideas.

  21. RichR says:

    As my appreciation for Catholic doctrinal tradition grew, so did my openness to liturgical tradition. As I grew to find peace in how the Church believed throughout the centuries, I was less threatened by how the Church worshiped throughout the centuries.

    I seriously think that this liturgical renewal that we are seeing stems, in some part, from the New Evangelization. You saw a surge of apologetics, and that got people learning and discovering what the Church actually says about things. For many, this hunger for authentic sacramental and dogmatic Catholicism has never ceased, and they continue to explore the riches of the faith – including the liturgy.

    Learning, however, is not enough. Solemnity can only be studied so much. At some point, it has to simply be experienced. Then people will feel at home in worship because they know the faith, they know the saints who have gone before them and have cherished the faith, and they know that solemn liturgy has nourished the faith of all these saints. They will see the connection and feel at home.

    Right now, people have no sense of what Catholic worship should look like because they have no sense of what Catholic belief should be like. Without a Catholic identity, what can you expect?

    My suggestion, start an apologetics and catechetical program.

  22. Charles says:

    I wonder whether the alleged preference of Catholics for banal and sappy church music is not greatly exaggerated. How many people in the pews do you know who actually love this stuff? Or is it that “Catholics don’t sing” if it’s not worth singing?

    My own observation in a couple of seemingly typical mainstream parishes is that when more traditional hymns and at least a bit of chant are introduced, the silent majority of ordinary folks are grateful, and the parish as a whole is happier than they were before. Of course, there will be the expected handful of vocal complaints from the usual tiny minority — (self-appointed) liturgy committee types and maybe a few older choir members, etc. — that is accustomed to disportionate influence in these matters. But likely things will go well if no one (e.g., the pastor) overreacts to this initial belly-aching, and just takes it for its obvious worth, realizing that it will pass because people as a whole appreciate more worthy worship.

  23. Tina in Ashburn says:

    The intended recipients of the Ward method of chant instruction are children. This is a teaching method enjoying a resurgence right now. Those that learned it back in the 50s and 60s today can sight read and have well-trained ears. AND they know how to read and chant. Even if they are “Glory and Praise” folks today.

    My great-aunt [actually a cousin] Odette Hertz dedicated her life to this method, as a student of Justine Ward. Overnight she was out of a job as Gregorian got wiped off the face the earth after Vatican II. She was relegated to French folks songs as an instructor at L’Institute Catholique in Paris.

    Odette said anyone can learn to sing and observe rhythm if taught this method. And we know children are little sponges and can parrot back anything.

  24. RichR: I completely agree with you, as the old saying goes, How can you expect someone else to be Catholic, if you don’t know what it means to be Catholic yourself?

    I’ve found myself going through the same experiences. The deeper I learn the Catholic Faith, the more open I am to the Liturgical tradition of the Roman Rite.

    doxis and praxis; teaching and practice. They are both interrelated. The more we can connect the two, the better off we’ll be.

  25. Andrew Plasom-Scott says:

    My four kids (aged from 10 – 18) now have a large chant repertoire as we sing in a schola at a monthly Mass in Lancaster Cathedral. They know Missa De Angelis, the Requiem Mass, Orbis Factor, Credos 1 and 3, and the shape and feel of may introits, graduals, alleluias and communions (as we sing a different one every month, of course). This is part of their heritage and it is a joy to me to pass it on, and to them to receive it. Due to travel times, the schola only meets for a coupe of hours before each mass: so I circulate the sheet music and a home-recorded CD of all the chant a month in advance for people to learn on their own: then when we get together, we can sing everything through, practice the tricky bits and polish the lot. It works quite well – and more and more people are joining the Schola. When exposed to it, people love this stuff!

  26. Luis says:

    “As my appreciation for Catholic doctrinal tradition grew, so did my openness to liturgical tradition. ” and no doubt that works in the inverse as well. The Holy Father’s book “Spirit of the Liturgy” set out the thesis in the first chapter. The Israelites, before entering into the Promised Land, are given the Law, Morality and the Liturgy. The three are inter-related and as Father Z has indicated on more than one occassion the Liturgy is the “tip of the spear.” But how do you solve the problem when both lack of observance of the Law and Liturgical disorder are the order of the day! Father Z perhaps you could take some time to appear on the Radio Peace Morning Show “Religion, Politics and the Culture” and ‘splain His Holiness’ Marshall Plan. I know the host of the Morning program would be very delighted. He recently had Father Fessio on to speak about the document by the USCCB on Faithful Citizenship.

  27. RichR says:


    Consider having a parish mission or a speaker come to talk. Suggestions off the top of my head…… Fr. Bill Casey, CPM; Tim Staples; Just to name a couple.

  28. Luis says:

    Thanks, Those are great suggestions! Do you have contact information for any of the above? I beleive ther is a focus on the election until after same… but Dennis O’Donovan, the host of the morning show, indicated he would be switching to religion and culture after election day. I’ll e mail you off list as I don’t want the thread to go WAAAAY off topic : ) I assume you are the webmaster at Brazos Valley Schola….

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