If Francis wants a leaner, humble liturgy… then we need sacred music to match. We already have it!

Some extol the new “humble” liturgical style of Pope Francis in the wrong way.  They oppose his style to a grand or solemn style, as if the one excludes the other.

The humble does NOT cancel out the grand.  Nor vice versa.  Both are needed for each to be complete.  See my more extensive explanation HERE.

In this vein, I found this article in the present print issue of The Catholic Herald in the UK to be spot on.  (Subscribe to the online print edition of the entire weekly paper HERE.  It’s worth your time.)

The writer is the distinguished Catholic composer James MacMillan.

A ‘poor Church’ doesn’t have to have poor music

James MacMillan says chant is the perfect musical expression of Pope Francis’s vision of humility

The new papacy of Francis has brought great joy and renewal to the Church and a huge wave of good will from non-Catholics. What will this new Pope bring to our sacred liturgies, which are the beating heart of the Church’s philosophy of love?
Baroness Warsi, the Minister for Faith and Communities, attended the papal inauguration Mass in Rome and spoke of the way that Pope Francis’s simplicity resonates with people and singled out “his concept of humility, simplicity and going back to values”.
What does a “poor and simple Church” need in its divine praises? Is there humility in the Americanised, over-the-top, sub-Broadway pop music, dripping with sentimentality, that now infests so much of our liturgy? [No.] Is there simplicity in the here-am-I-Lord egotism of so many of our dreadful modern hymns? [No.] How does the upholstered, fatuous and banal secularity of so much of Catholic contemporary “praise music” succeed in “going back to values”? [It doesn’t.]
The dawning of a more austere period in the Church’s mission requires liturgical music of a more austere and simple design: a music that humbly deflects attention from “the music ministry”, a music that is based in Catholic heritage and values, and a music that sounds both Catholic and sacred. The good news is that we have this already, and it is the music that Pope Benedict has been urging us to rediscover over the last decade: chant.  [Singing Francis Through Benedict.]
Music for a sacred ritual needs to project sacredness. In the liturgy “sacred” means “the glorification of God and the sanctification of the faithful”. Gregorian chant gives an elevated tone of voice to the texts of our sacred praises, conveying the special character of the words and of the specific holy nature of what is being enacted and undertaken.
The chanting of the holy texts raises them up from the mundane and presents them “as on a platter of gold”, in the words of the Jesuit liturgist Fr Josef Jungmann. Gregorian chant is unlike anything from the everyday world but conveys the clear impression that there is something uniquely holy in the actions of the liturgy. Gregorian chant is holy. [As I picked up from the late Msgr. Schuler, sacred music must be sacred and it must be art.  It must be artistically written and performed, but it must have both a sacred text and a sacred idiom. Gregorian chant is perfect in those criteria.]
Gregorian chant is universal as it is supra-national and thus accessible to those of any and every culture equally. It rises above those musics which are either associated only with localised cultural experience, on the one hand, and operates separately from those other musics which are associated with high, artistic, classical derivation and aspiration, on the other. Therefore, it is essentially anti-elitist and simultaneously pure. Gregorian chant is for all.
The beauty of music is a crucial element in the “edification and sanctification of the faithful”. Beauty is the glue which binds together Truth and Goodness. To paraphrase the Swiss theologian Hans Urs von Balthasar, without beauty, truth does not persuade and goodness does not compel. The general function of music in the liturgy is to draw together a diverse succession of actions into a coherent whole. [Not just draw them together, but draw them together in prayer raised to God. Enough of “Gather Us In”!] That is what makes Gregorian chant beautiful.
The Gregorian sound, and the practice of chanting, whether by specialist or non-specialist, gives the most perfect context for the hearing of the words of the Sacred Scripture. It provides an elevated tone of voice that takes the texts out of the everyday and confirms them as sacred.
It provides a goodness of form, which is in itself beautiful, which in turn adds a sense of delight to prayer. It takes our divine praises into the realm of the transcendent and the eternal, and it is the music’s sacred character which enables this.
There is a melodic and rhythmic freedom in chant which is hard to find in any other music. Chant not only enhances the text, but it also breaks free from the restraints of metre. It is the antithesis of rock and pop with its incessant and insistently mind-numbing beat. It embodies the ethereal and spiritual aspects of the liturgy. It is the freest form of music.

The Church would stop being the Church without its liturgy. The liturgy is the pinnacle and summit of our entire Christian life. It has to be of our highest and best, whatever the circumstances. Our liturgical music has to be more than mere utility music. Before he was Pope, Joseph Ratzinger said: “A Church which only makes use of ‘utility’ music has fallen for what is, in fact, useless … for her mission is a far higher one. As the Old Testament speaks of the Temple, the Church is to be the place of ‘glory’, and as such, too, the place where mankind’s cry of distress is brought to the ear of God. The Church must not settle down with what is merely comfortable and serviceable at the parish level. She must arouse the voice of the cosmos and, by glorifying the Creator, elicit the glory of the cosmos itself, making it also glorious, beautiful, habitable, and beloved.”
He went on to say: “The other arts, architecture, painting, vestments, and the arts of movement each contribute to and support the beauty of the liturgy, but still the art of music is greater even than that of any other art, because it forms a necessary or integral part of the solemn liturgy, because it is so intimately bound to the sacred action, defining and differentiating the various parts in character, motion, and importance.”
The new papacy is a welcome opportunity for us to renew and revitalise our attempts at maintaining and continuing the sacred dimension of our liturgical celebrations. Let us follow Pope Francis’s example in being humble, in being simple, and in rediscovering our basic core Catholic values.

James MacMillan is a leading composer. Musica Sacra Scotland, a new national advisory group for music and the liturgy in Scotland, is planning a one-day conference with helpful, practical workshops in November. Full details will be released nearer the time

Fr Z kudos to Mr. MacMillan

PS: The cartoon at the top features Michael Voris.  More on that elsewhere.

About Fr. John Zuhlsdorf

Fr. Z is the guy who runs this blog. o{]:¬)
This entry was posted in "How To..." - Practical Notes, Benedict XVI, Francis, Liturgy Science Theatre 3000, New Evangelization, Our Catholic Identity, Reading Francis Through Benedict, The future and our choices and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.


  1. Legisperitus says:

    Ah, good old “Gather a Sin.” In the very first issue of Latin Mass magazine, a nun wrote an article mentioning that one specifically and maintaining she didn’t enter the religious life to sing “cornfield ditties”!

  2. cregduff says:

    Have been think of this for a few weeks now. Not sure if anyone had previously posted this.
    C.S. Lewis had a relevant quote on this topic, which is broader, but includes the musical:
    “The modern habit of doing ceremonial things unceremoniously is no proof of humility; rather it proves the offender’s inability to forget himself in the rite, and his readiness to spoil for everyone else the proper pleasure of ritual.”
    Best wishes for a fruitful Friday all,

  3. Johnno says:

    The Mass is also a Wedding Feast. Even the poorest of the poor in the slums throw an extravaganza with song and expense to the best of their ability when a wedding’s involved. In fact for them, weddings are more serious and precious and necessary for the family’s benefit; than it is to us with our climate where wedding nuptials can be taken at any Wal Mart, and even returned opened and used if it didn’t fit in with your lifestyle.

    The people who are wishing for a demolished liturgy don’t care about appealing to people or the poor. It’s secretly to make it as bland as possible so that the local Democrat/Liberal/Heretics Ball looks much more appealing and lively to attend so that the poor may freely eat of their body and drink of their cup. Maybe next year’s super bowl and its Satanic music interludes can be toned down and the money spent on the poor? Ha! Fat Chance! Let the Church destroy itself to save the poor. Let us make excess merriment at our non-religious activities, and ethnically cleanse the poor from existence that the Church is destroying itself to save. Two birds, one stone.

  4. PA mom says:

    Is there chant in English? It seems to me that would lower resistance towards chant if it were not also foreign language.

  5. To my ear, Gregorian chant with English texts just doesn’t work.

  6. rtjl says:

    ” in the words of the Jesuit liturgist Fr Josef Jungmann. ”

    Jesuit liturgist? Isn’t that an oxymoron? :-)

    You know the old joke. A Jesuit defines a successful liturgy as one where no one gets injured.

  7. Traductora says:

    Very good article. Simple does not mean ugly, stark and charmless – nor does it mean faux-naif and childish. A lot of modern church architecture falls in the first category, and a lot of modern church music falls in the second.

    Every age has its problem: the original attempt to revive or promulgate chant at a parish level came in the late 19th-early 20th century because churches were fond of embellishing their masses with operatic arias and hymn or service music written in operatic style. I don’t think everything has to be pure Gregorian chant, but I think it’s a good starting point and that possibly, if we start from a good point, we’ll also develop new, good forms of vernacular congregational chant or music based on it (such as MacMillan’s).

    So I don’t think the move towards simplicity in this case is a rejection of a grand tradition, but a rejection of the tacky, sentimental (and sometimes very complicated, performance-wise) drivel that has been inflicted on us for decades. BTW, even before Vatican II, there were hymns that would make you go into diabetic shock and had trite, whiny melodies, and which were usually sung to “fill in” parts of the mass.

  8. rtjl says:

    PA mom

    Yes! There is! There has been a tremendous amount of work developing chant in English in recent years. Please google the following.

    Chant Cafe
    Simple English Propers
    Simple English Psalm Tones
    Parish Book of Psalms
    The Office of Compline (by Samuel Weber)
    The Mundelein Psalter
    By Flowing Waters

    Not only is this a stunning collection of chant in English, almost all of it is absolutely, totally free!

  9. PA mom says:

    Understood. I guess I was thinking of it in terms of widening of audience and stages of musical maturity. Maybe if it were packaged in Spanish? So much ‘new’ in the Church stretches in that direction.
    We were singing in Latin in an audition-only choir in public (ironic, right?) high school, so I know it can be done by fairly ordinary people and is VERY beautiful. Our diocese had a chant seminar last year but I couldn’t go. Will have to see whether they offer it again.

  10. PA mom says:

    Thanks, rtjl, I will check it out.

  11. Nathan says:

    To summarize:

    What music has the truly poor given the Church? Gregorian chant, traditional devotional hymns, music passed on from generation to generation

    What music has the rich elite given the Church? Marty Haugen, symphonies set to Mass texts, atonal Mass Ordinaries, farcing, pseudo-broadway ditties mis-characterized as”hymns”

    What architecture has the truly poor given the Church? Notre-Dame de Chartres, the old basilica of Our Lady of Guadalupe, “new” St Peter’s Basilica, the Portiuncula of St Francis

    What architecture has the rich elite given the Church? 19th Century “pseudo-gothic,” Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels, LA, most US and European suburban 20th-century piles

    And which liturgical form is most in line with a “church of the poor?”

    In Christ,

  12. Marcello says:

    I came across an interesting online article that echoes G.K. Chesterton’s quote. The author emphasizes that humility and splendor are not incompatible. Here’s the link, if I am posting it right, not sure:
    I never heard of the writer but he makes some good points.
    Maybe someone in the curia will see this and get a Spanish translation to the Holy Father? I hope so.

  13. The Masked Chicken says:

    “Is there chant in English? It seems to me that would lower resistance towards chant if it were not also foreign language.”

    One could make a , “good,” argument that, “Send in the Clowns,” is a type of lament in chant-like form. It was written for Glinys Johns, who had no sustaining power to her voice. It features a small ambitus (range), variable metrical organization (varying between 12/8 and 9/8), fluid melody, and short phrases with a bridge.

    Please, note: this song should never be sung at a Novus Ordo Mass, for obvious reasons.

    The Chicken

  14. Marcello says:

    Sorry, I meant C.S. Lewis. Getting my Brits mixed up!

  15. Nathan says:

    Chicken: “Please, note: this song [Send in the Clowns] should never be sung at a Novus Ordo Mass, for obvious reasons.”

    I’m not sure what you mean:
    Isn’t it rich?
    Isn’t it queer?
    Losing my timing this late in my career.
    And where are the clowns?
    There ought to be clowns.
    Well, maybe next year.

    Or, perhaps, the song pertains to a certain, hmm, religious education conference? Bad attempts at humor aside, my children still don’t quite believe that some folks used “Mrs. Robinson” as an “entrance hymn” in the heydays of the 60s and 70s.

    In Christ,

  16. The Masked Chicken says:

    “What music has the truly poor given the Church? Gregorian chant, traditional devotional hymns, music passed on from generation to generation”

    That is at least, partially, wrong. Chant was composed according to a modal structure which could only be known by the educated in the Third-century Latin tradition. The original Apostolic-era Chant possibly followed Hebrew pitch formulae (since the original Chant was the same as the Hebrew Psalm chant), but it was re-interpreted with Greek/Turkish influence early on. Chant developed, independently, for a while between 100 – 300 A. D. between the Roman Church or city tradition and the monastic or desert tradition, from which we get the major and minor hours of the Divine Office, respectively. These two traditions were conflated in the early Fourth-century. Most of the pagan libraries had been burned by the Early Christians, but the music theory was, partially, preserved by Ptolomy (1st-century), who wrote the Harmonics which was supposed to be a compilation of Greek music theory (although greatly simplified and full of speculation). A nice commentary can be found, here:


    Porphyry made a commentary on it the Harmonics in the Third-century.

    Mostly, from the Sixth-century on, Chant was written, exclusively, by skilled eccelsiatics, who, while taking vows of poverty, were, nevertheless, often highly educated.

    Traditional devotional hymns is a relatively new phenomena. There are some folk song elements that go back to at least the 11th-century (most of those have been lost or absorbed into later developments), but, the only hymns I know of that were written by poor people were the Negro Spirituals. The large collections of present-day hymns were written by preachers, such a Charles Wesley, or professional composers (with earlier German examples). Both groups were highly educated and do not deserve the title of, “poor,” even if they often were short on cash.

    Chant is pure and humble. It is not poor.

    I must disagree with one point James MacMillan makes when he writes,

    “Gregorian chant is universal as it is supra-national and thus accessible to those of any and every culture equally. It rises above those musics which are either associated only with localised cultural experience, on the one hand, and operates separately from those other musics which are associated with high, artistic, classical derivation and aspiration, on the other. Therefore, it is essentially anti-elitist and simultaneously pure. Gregorian chant is for all.”

    Has he never heard of Ambrosian Chant? Sarum Chant? Mozarabic Chant? Does he not know about the virtual competition for composing things like Sequences, popular in the late Seventh and early Ninth-Century? There was, virtually no recorded music except chant before the 12th-Century (as in written down), so the only way to be remembered was though ecclesial music. The folk music of the era is virtually unknown (little research has been done on it). The reason Chant is isolated is because it developed in the isolated culture of the Church. If vibrato had been known in the 11th-Century, I strongly suspect that Chant would contain vibrato. Chant is pure vocalization because no other vocal techniques existed when it was composed. That fact is an accident of history.

    The Chicken

  17. Nathan says:

    Chicken, I gladly accept your correction. Attempting to be pithy, I did not clarify, and you do a beautiful job of providing clarity.

    How about, chant and devotional hymns have been largely the gift of those who have made a vow of poverty and those who lived outside of the world of the rich elite? While preachers/devotional hymn writers like Charles Wesley and Fr. Frederick Faber were well educated, it seems a stretch to put them into the elites of their day.

    Does that make more sense?

    In Christ,

  18. PA mom, you might also google

    chants roman missal 3rd edition

    Apparently the whole OF Mass is ideally chanted–in English as well as in Latin–and chants are indicated throughout altar editions of the new English translation of the Roman missal.

  19. New Sister says:

    @Nathan – I’m glad your children are incredulous; I am too, despite all the evidence. After telling my non-religious boss my plans for last Friday (she had asked), she recounted, “oh I remember hearing about liturgy when I attended a Catholic high school…everytime we went into the chapel they were playing ‘Dust in the Wind'”

  20. So many of the hymns used in England make me cringe… they are cheap, happy-clappy and banal. :( And to add insult to injury they often come from a CD, despite the Vatican having said in two separate documents (I think) that recorded music is not permissible during Mass. I often wish we had no music on Sundays rather than what happens at the church I go to… And then there are the weird, random tunes assigned to the ordinary of the Mass, resulting in two people trying to struggle through it with the help of a CD, 10 more enthusiastically trying and singing absolute randomly and the rest of the people listening in silence, discouraged.

  21. PA mom says:

    Dear Chicken,
    Regarding Send in the Clowns….. Never. Think. It. We did sing Eagles wings many times, and even That’s What Friends Are For, but I remember learning an Ave Maria in Regional Choir in Slavic which was so beautiful my heart could have stopped. It was what religious music should be. The thing is, I did not encounter the beautiful music of the Church until I reached public high school, and there is something wrong with that.

  22. BLB Oregon says:

    If, given some time, Archbishop Sample does not change the OCP and the music it makes available from his position as chairman of the OCP board of directors, I’m going to start thinking it cannot be done. (Let us just say “Gather Us In” and “Eagle’s Wings” were not selected for his installation Mass!) Pray for him, and for Oregon Catholic Press.

  23. fizzwizz says:

    What I find really vexing is that in the area where I live the church’s liturgical year is not reflected in the hymns sung at Mass. The same naff hymns are constantly sung….. Colours of day……. Gods spirit is in my heart…… No matter what time of the year it is. Choice of suitable hymns is limited due to PC hymn books that change any words that suggest masculinity into gender neutral. ……I know I am now ranting but most of the time at communion the hymn is nothing to do with the body and blood of Christ it is usually some happy clappy nonsense with lyrics suitable for a 3 year old.
    Dreadful damage has been done to the liturgy. Unfortunately awful liturgies is all I have ever known. How dare they deprive us of beautiful liturgy. Rant over!!!

  24. Carrolju says:

    BLB-even if someone had tried to select one of those pieces, the CC director would have refused to do it.

    Unfortunately-that stuff is their biggest sellers–and where there’s a demand . . .

  25. Marcello says:

    OCP: dreadful drivel and bile! After reading so many comments here, I now realize how fortunate I am to worship where I do. Deo gratia!!!

  26. anna 6 says:

    Mr. MacMillan is absolutely correct about the pure and simple beauty of Gregorian Chant. But if one is willing to go for something a tad “less simple”, his Mass which was composed for Benedict’s trip to Scotland is lovely.

    MacMillan’s “Tu es Petrus” performed during Benedict’s entrance into Westminster Cathedral, London might be one of the most powerfully artistic liturgical moments I have ever experienced, despite only watching it live on my computer. Simple, no. Extraordinary, YES!

    Benedict seemed pretty happy too!


  27. Carrolju says:

    The Trinitas series from OCP has some lovely choral pieces.

  28. Marcello says:

    @anna 6,

    Thank you for posting that link. It sends shivers down my spine. I forgot how powerful that was, ditto for the Gospel fanfare. I taped all of Benedict’s UK visit off the TV and you have now prompted me to hunt around for the those tapes which are here some place. That was a phenomenal visit that confounded the “experts” who predicted a ho-hum reception by the populace.

  29. Fabula Rasa says:

    Fr. Z, I don’t know what your experiences with chant in English have been, but chant in English has a 450 year tradition of awesome beauty and spiritual power. English plainsong is as supple and dignified as English itself, and perfectly suited to the rhythms of English poetic speech. Your nearest Ordinariate parish can demonstrate it beautifully (and for that matter, so can any Episcopal church with a decent choir) at a sung Evensong. This tradition is there for the taking, and let’s pray it’s one the Ordinariate can teach to the rest of the English-speaking Church.

  30. CharlesG says:

    Amen and amen to Mr. McMillan’s article. And I would agree that the Latin chants of the Graduale are the best (I sing in an EF schola for a Missa Cantata every Sunday so I can attest). However, notwithstanding Fr. Z’s negative comment about chanting in English, I think English chant propers can be beautiful and reverent and can help to introduce the whole idea of chant and sung propers in our current parish music scene in the OF. English chant can be combined with hymns and provide an easier adjustment to a better musical place than most parishes are at right now. If anyone is involved in parish music, there are lots of free online resources for chants of the propers (and the ordinary) for the OF mass in both Latin and English. The following is a website that has links to a lot of these resources:


  31. anna 6 says:

    Just in case you can’t find those tapes, you can watch most of here again here:

    It was an extraordinary visit…possibly even B16’s finest hour (in my humble opinion).

  32. ajemiand says:

    I agree whole-heatedly that much of contemporary church music is maudlin drivel. Some of the songs that come to mind– “Eagles Wings”, “Here I am Lord”, “One Bread, One Body”, “Let us build the City of God” etc. etc. Not to mention that Shaker hymn about dancing!
    Rome should issue an edict making Gregorian Chant mandatory…

  33. The Masked Chicken says:

    Dear ajemiand,

    I would like to see some of that English Chant from the Henry VIII era. It is not known, much, in musicological circles (okay, at least by me).

    Just found the Wikipedia article that does a good job of explaining Anglican chant:


    Here are a list of public domain Anglican chants, many of which could be adopted for Catholic English Masses:


    Here, for instance, is the Nunc Dimmitis:


    The Chicken

  34. The Masked Chicken says:

    I found a huge number of English language (Anglican) chant examples. I put too many links in the comment, so, it’s in moderation. Google, Anglican chant.

  35. persyn says:

    Latin is the language of the Church. Chant is the music of the Church. The odds of finding a Parish where Latin Chant is being used are approximately the same as the odds of holding a winning Powerball ticket, and my joy of either would be approximately equal.

  36. JaneC says:

    A poor Church for the poor should include us poor musicians, too! We make a lot of sacrifices in order to use our talents for the good of the Church.

  37. asperges says:

    It is misleading to credit Henry VIII with liturgical change. Paradoxically, he was stern on religion and traditional liturgy – although he allowed the Bible to be read in church – which he later regretted – and the Pope’s name to be effaced in the missal. He certainly never considered himself a Protestant, and burnt several people for heresy, despite his break with Rome.

    The new music for the new liturgy (or rather, ‘services’) came with Edward and Elizabeth, not Henry. He nevertheless protected Cranmer who openly reformed and experimented. Henry was fighting a losing battle on all sides, since once the break was made with the Pope, the rest, destruction of true religion and its consequences, followed as inevitable and unstoppable. The rest we know.

    Elizabeth on the other hand, liked the trimmings, music and colour of Catholicism but hated all it stood for. Hence the oddities of the Church of England which to this day, in some ways is neither fish nor fowl.

    One thing to their credit however is the development of choral music and metrical psalmody, which deals far better with English than bogus plainsong-in-English, which does not work without considerable compromise (excepting possibly office hymns). The latter is mainly a 19th century high church adaptation. It was never widely done in small churches.

    How history repeats itself in so many ways.

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