Sr. Roccasalvo on Gregorian Chant – Out of the park!

I have in the past – and with sincere approval – posted items about liturgy and music written by Sr. Joan L. Roccasalvo, C.S.J. Don’t let that CSJ scare you! Sister’s got game when it comes to liturgy.

An alert reader send a link to this piece at CNA. Read the whole thing there, but here as a few excerpts to prompt and to whet your appetites…

How the Church built western sacred music: part three
By Sr. Joan L. Roccasalvo, C.S.J.


With the renewed ecclesiology of Vatican II, full, active, and conscious participation of the Assembly was pursued as the expected outcome in liturgical worship. Vatican II’s “Sacrosanctum Concilium” did not banish the chant from the Eucharistic liturgy (#115 ff). Other suitable music was welcomed, but chant, holding “pride of place,” still remained the official music of the Roman Church. Other music was not to overshadow or displace it.

Some pastors resorted to a four-hymn Mass structure using good, solid Protestant hymns to urge singing among the faithful. Soon, an altogether foreign style pushed its way into the liturgical service, thereby sweeping away fifteen hundred years of pure, crystalline chant. Happily, it continued to flourish in monasteries and in isolated parish churches.

Gregorian Chant Banished

A stunned scholarly world looked on, appalled at the sudden appearance of poorly-composed tunes played by strummed guitars with anything that could be banged. These instruments accompanied texts, at first, non-biblical and secular. Eventually, scripture prevailed.

This seismic shock was presented as a measure to jump-start participation in the liturgy, in addition to Protestant hymns. No longer heard was the dictum, “the home of Gregorian chant is wherever there are Roman Catholics.” Was this new rage, so-called folk music, a temporary phenomenon? Or would it permanently displace Gregorian chant?

Over the years, musicologists still agree that the most consequential result of Vatican II has been the exiling of Gregorian chant from the Roman Church. It was a boorish act.  [OORAH!]


Pause for a moment and imagine the effect on the universal Church if these Mass settings were sung in all Roman churches throughout the world. Their profound beauty would lift up the Church and light up the world. Having stood the test of centuries, the melodies are easy to sing and easily memorized. This inestimable treasure is our musical inheritance. It beckons us to learn how to cherish them and hand them on to the next generation. It is not the responsibility of other faith traditions to carry on the tradition, but ours, for the sake of our Church and the world.

Training in Seminaries and Houses of Formation

The distinguished Catholic architect, Duncan Stroik, has urged major seminaries to include instruction on sacred architecture. Similarly, with painting and statuary. Most of all, knowledge and understanding of Gregorian chant should be taught to seminarians by trained instructors with a profound respect for plainchant. These seminarians are our future priests and pastors, some of whom will be appointed Ordinaries of dioceses. Proper musical training will sharpen and elevate their decisions regarding liturgical music.


Fr. Z kudos to Sr. R.

This is part of a series.  Hunt up the rest.  Fathers!  Consider posting her pieces in some serial form on your parish bulletins.  Editors!  Consider reprinting in diocesan newspapers!

We need liturgical catechesis that goes beyond a vague urging for prayer to a fuzzy notion and syrupy self-congratulatory participation.   Let’s reclaim our heritage.

About Fr. John Zuhlsdorf

Fr. Z is the guy who runs this blog. o{]:¬)
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  1. Lucas Whittaker says:


  2. Legisperitus says:

    Sister has a way with a phrase! :)

  3. Cathy says:

    What bothers me most about the songs at Mass is that they seem to be the slippery slope by which Catholic doctrine and prayer are most effectively subverted and diverted. Far from the proud proclamation of building “the City of God”, what is subtly presented seems to be a Tower of Babel. I am torn at Mass, as far as participation in singing the hymns goes. I know that to sing well, is to pray twice, and the expectation is to set a good example for others, but some and sometimes all of what is sung in the four hymns seems not to be appropriate as prayer.

  4. The Masked Chicken says:

    “Over the years, musicologists still agree that the most consequential result of Vatican II has been the exiling of Gregorian chant from the Roman Church. It was a boorish act. ”

    I would go so far as to say not merely boorish, but an act of sheer usurpation. The major problem, sad to say, which Sr. Roccasalvo does not mention is that, until very recently (and even then, without much teeth), there was no centralized authoritative office within the Vatican that over saw the use of music. This is the primary reason why the early rejectionists were able to get away with introducing changes. If the bishops had been subject to Vatican oversight, none of this would have happened.

    The Chicken

  5. Cafea Fruor says:

    Gregorian chant is just simply beautiful and can raise the mind and heart to God, which is exactly what music should do. So much of what’s out there today, like the drivel produced by Haas, Haugen, and the St. Louis Jesuits, tries to drag God down to our level, and is well, flat out ugly and distorts the beauty of the Lord in the musical version of what Picasso did to painting. How on earth could one think that the Beautiful could be glorified by anything so ugly? To attempt it is comparable to holding a coronation ceremony in the J. Edgar Hoover building while wearing flannel pajamas or something.

  6. Cathy: “I know that to sing well, is to pray twice”

    But perhaps singing, however well, during Mass a song that’s unworthy of the liturgy, is not really praying even once, let alone twice.

  7. wmeyer says:

    Over the years, musicologists still agree that the most consequential result of Vatican II has been the exiling of Gregorian chant from the Roman Church. It was a boorish act.

    Agreed. But of course, this was not done by Vatican II, but by boorish people in the spirit of Vatican II, moved by the father of lies.

  8. Jim R says:

    What’s been a head-shaker to me for years is that since Vatican II all the other rites within the Catholic Church have sought to claim their heritage in language, music, art, etc., while the Latin Church largely jettisoned and denigrated its heritage. Growing up in the 60’s and 70’s, I imbibed in the embarrassment with all things connected to the heritage of the Roman Church that was dished out at that time to all of us taught by CSJs and CFCs.

    Oddly, it was my then new mother-in-law in the early 80’s who snapped my out of that self-hatred. I will never forget her comment – she a devout Presbyterian – when I disparaged traditional Catholic Church music, “It seems to me that the fact that the most glorious liturgical music ever written was written for the Catholic Mass is the surest sign that God lives and works in the Catholic Church.”

    If only I had heard something like that from a nun or brother…then or even now. Sigh!

  9. maryh says:

    @Jim R
    Ain’t it the truth. It was a Methodist minister leading a study group (I was a member of a Methodist congregation at the time) who got me to go back to the Catholic Church by reminding me of the liturgy as something some people liked about the Catholic Church. It reminded me, after exposure to various Protestant liturgies, how much I did like the Catholic liturgy. No matter how protestantized, it’s still Catholic.

    Sometimes I think Catholics are too apologetic about our tradition, as if it were something to be embarrassed of, instead of something that might actually attract people.

  10. tcreek says:

    Rocc – a – salvo! Pen name?
    Nah, surely not, but should be. That’s what we need – more salvos and damn the torpedoes from port side catholics.

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