The role of Gregorian chant in ministry and religious education

A March 10-11 conference hosted by St. Joseph’s Seminary (Dunwoodie) in Yonkers, NY, will focus on the “restoration of the singing of chant as a means to help people participate in the liturgy.” / Only Fabrizio

There are many perspectives and positions regarding the propriety of different styles of music in a liturgical context. One point that is beyond debate is that the Church has a vast treasury and rich tradition of sacred music. The question remains: what role does this treasury and tradition play in contemporary pastoral ministry and religious education? An upcoming conference in New York will explore this very question.

Hosted by St. Joseph’s Seminary (Dunwoodie) in Yonkers, New York, the conference will be held on March 10-11, 2017, focusing on the theme “Gregorian Chant in Pastoral Ministry and Religious Education”.

The goal of the conference, according to organizer Dr. Jennifer Donelson, DMA, who is Associate Professor and Director of Sacred Music at Dunwoodie, is “to inspire attendees with ideas for starting or continuing to develop sacred music programs of excellence in Catholic parishes and schools.” Organizers also hope “to encourage discussion about the vitality and necessity of beauty and sacred music in the catechesis and formation of Catholics, as well as in the evangelization of non-Catholics and non-practicing Catholics.”

The conference features several speakers, and will include addresses by Msgr. Robert Skeris on “The Theology of Worship and Its Music”, Fr. Christopher Smith on liturgical formation in Catholic schools, and Mark Langley on the central role a choir has in the intellectual and spiritual formation of students in a Catholic school.

In addition to these keynote addresses, nearly forty presenters will give workshops, papers, and recitals covering topics such as sacred music in Spanish-speaking communities, chant camp for parishes, vernacular chant, the new forthcoming English translations of the Liturgy of the Hours, and much more.

The deadline for registration has been extended to February 24, 2017. More information and registration are available on the Conference’s webpage.

Dr. Donelson recently corresponded with CWR about the upcoming conference and the role of sacred music today.

CWR: Why do you think that a conference about Gregorian Chant would be of interest? Have you seen a resurgence in such interest?

Dr. Jennifer Donelson: We’re seeing an interest in Gregorian chant beyond the Catholic sphere. For the last few years, albums of Gregorian chant have at various times held steady at the top of the Billboard classical charts. When conflict and despair surround us, beautiful music which reflects the Gospel is a real solace, even for people who aren’t Christians. People hear something in Gregorian chant that is beautiful and that helps them transcend their everyday lives and hear echoes of God’s voice in their hearts; it’s captivating and inviting. In a world which has become numb to truth and goodness because of relativism and secularism, beautiful music can be a still-effective tool for the Gospel to reach through the cracks into people’s hearts, allowing God to make His way in when perhaps other methods of preaching fall short.

The authentic beauty of Gregorian chant makes the reality of God’s existence and love for us easier to perceive and understand. This is because beauty, as a reflection of the perfection of God, is captivating and pleasing—it draws the heart outside of itself to focus on what is larger than one’s own limited experience. In this way, the beauty of chant serves as a sort of spiritual antidote to other music and artistic offerings of the world that are ugly, farcical, absurd, violent, or depressing.

Moreover, there’s a rising interest in Gregorian chant because more and more people are discovering the Church’s teachings on sacred music, especially those of Pope St. Pius X and of Vatican II. More than any conciliar documents in Church history, Vatican II’s Sacrosanctum Concilium clearly outlines the central role of Gregorian chant in the sacred liturgies of the Roman rite, and calls church musicians and pastors to place it at the heart of their parish and school music programs. The Church’s teaching is clear that there is a need for the restoration of the singing of chant as a means to help people participate in the liturgy. The Church is also clear that the purpose of sacred music is to glorify God firstly, and then secondarily to sanctify and edify those who hear it; Gregorian chant is held up as the model of how music fulfills these high purposes because it is holy, truly beautiful, and able to transcend cultural boundaries, drawing any heart who hears it to God.

If someone wants to respond to the call of the Church to encourage the singing of Gregorian chant in his parish or school, it can be overwhelming to think of how one might go about doing that. This conference wants to fill that gap between the desire to do what the Church asks and the effective implementation and building of a sacred music program of excellence. How does someone start something in a rural parish? How might one teach children to sing chant? How can a parish or school finance a program of musical excellence? How can one meet the challenges of implementing Church teaching in a parish with different language groups and lots of ethnic diversity? How can sacred music help us evangelize and catechize? These are all questions that presenters will be tackling. There are about forty presentations planned during the conference, including three plenary sessions. Other topics include chant camps for children, the pastoral care of musicians, chant in English and Spanish, liturgical formation in Catholic schools, and the Ward Method of music instruction.

The structure of the conference days is also marked by prayer. We’ll sing morning and evening prayer, and assist at Mass. The musicians and music heard at these liturgies will be beautiful and model various ways of implementing the Church’s teaching on sacred music, whether it’s through being formed by singing or listening to Gregorian chant; the adaptation of chant into English and Spanish; the use of sacred polyphony (choral music) as an organic, creative extension of chant; or the inclusion of good hymnody at points in the Mass which have room for it alongside the chant.

There will also be plenty of time for discussions, so that people can meet others interested in building programs of excellence, sharing ideas and offering support as they work to implement the Church’s teachings.

CWR: What value do you see in ancient musical traditions like Gregorian Chant?

Dr. Donelson: Gregorian chant is something that’s authentically Catholic because it grew up with the sacred liturgy. It’s like the native musical language of the Roman rite, of our worship of God. It’s a treasury of music which rightly belongs to every Catholic in the world as a sort of prayerful, liturgical, cultural, and artistic inheritance. In a fractious society, everyone seems to be looking for a place where they can belong. Offering something that is authentically Catholic, whether it’s in the devotional life, the sacred liturgy, Church teaching, or sacred music—all these give people a sense of identity as a child of God who has a home in the Catholic Church. Learning the same melodies that Catholics have sung for centuries helps one identify and connect with the communion of saints that extends beyond the limits of time and geography.

Moreover, singing and listening to chant opens one’s mind and ears up to a rich array of scriptures that mark the ebb and flow of time throughout the day and the liturgical year as a whole. We think of, for example, the “Gaudete” chant at the beginning of the Mass for the third Sunday of Advent. This chant employs a scripture verse which calls us to take heart and rejoice, even when we grow weary of waiting for something to get better or the answer to a prayer, and when we hear the same tune year in and year out on that day, the memorable melody gets stuck in our minds as a way of remembering this call to wait with hope in the darkness of the winter months.  This sense of the meaningful passing of time, of seeing meaning and purpose day in and day out is something that every human heart desires; it’s something tangible the Church has to offer to those looking to understand the world and their lives.

Gregorian chant also helps the faith find deep roots in the human heart, roots that will help it endure even when times get tough or prayer feels dry. It gives voice to prayer. It provides an avenue for the expression for a wide range of emotions, all precisely because it is ancient and uses the profoundly meaningful texts of scripture—especially the Psalms—to express the aspects of human life and longing that don’t change.

CWR: Is there new music being written in this ancient tradition, or is anything authentic confined to previous centuries?

Dr. Donelson: While the documents of Vatican II ask that all Catholics “be able to say or to sing together in Latin those parts of the Ordinary of the Mass which pertain to them,” it also made room for more use of the vernacular in the sacred liturgy, and encouraged pastors to see the “native genius” of the indigenous music of mission territories. What happened in response to this call in many cases, though, was that vernacular, often Protestant, hymnody was just added to a mostly-spoken Mass. While this has a precedent from before Vatican II, it doesn’t represent the higher call of the council’s teachings on sacred music. Vatican II holds out to us as a model a liturgy which is fully sung by the priest, people, and choir, and which uses music that is integral to the Mass. Hymns, while they do play a role in cultivating devotion, are not actually integral to the Mass; they are songs at Mass, instead of the sung Mass itself. Instead, the Gregorian chants of the Church clothe every moment of the Mass with music, from what the priest sings to what is sung at the entrance, Alleluia, or the offertory, employing texts that have been assigned by the Church in those precise spots of the Mass for centuries.

Recognizing the value that may be found in the use of vernacular languages in the sacred liturgy, the Church issued a sort of challenge to composers following Vatican II to adapt the Gregorian chant, the integral texts and music of the Mass, into the vernacular.  More and more, composers are responding to the call of the Church, composing chant-like settings of the texts of the Mass in English, Spanish, etc. Beyond this, there are also composers who are writing truly beautiful choral music and hymns which are fitting for the worship of God. Participants in the conference will experience all these types of music in addition to Gregorian chant.

CWR: Several of the presentations scheduled for the conference have to do with educating school-aged children in sacred music. Why is this important?

Dr. Donelson: Children are just as important to the life of the Church and the celebration of the Mass as adults are. Teaching children to sing gives them a voice with which to praise God, as well as a sense of belonging and active participation in the sacred liturgy. What’s more, teaching children to sing forms them in the life of faith, and gives hope and inspiration to the adults who hear them singing to join in praising God. Chant can easily be sung by children—it has a limited vocal range (not too high, not too low), it has a simplicity which makes it approachable (we all sing together, one note at a time), and it has an authentic beauty which forms a child’s heart to love what is noble, true, and good.

CWR: Attendees and speakers will also be discussing the topic of Gregorian Chant in small, rural parishes. It can be difficult for rural parishes to meet modern musical expectations, with vast instrumentation and massive choirs. Is this a way that Gregorian Chant can be particularly suited to small communities?

Dr. Donelson: Absolutely. Chant has an approachable simplicity that doesn’t resort to being simplistic. It allows even small choirs to do something that is beautiful. Of course it is challenging and might feel intimidating at first, but it’s been my experience that if you have even one person in a parish who enthusiastically pursues singing chant with excellence, the enthusiasm and excellence become contagious, inspiring others to rise to the challenge of offering our best to God, and the overall musical capabilities of the parishioners and the music program follow suit.

CWR: Why is it important for sacred music to be beautiful?

Dr. Donelson: Because beauty is a reflection of God. Beauty bespeaks God in an authentic way. If we use music that is cheesy or badly sung, we’re not communicating who God is with accuracy, perhaps leading people to believe that God isn’t real, or isn’t worth devoting one’s life to. Music which lacks beauty lacks the power to draw people to God, and is a missed opportunity to preach the Gospel.

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About Paul Senz 132 Articles
Paul Senz has an undergraduate degree from the University of Portland in music and theology and earned a Master of Arts in Pastoral Ministry from the same university. He has contributed to Catholic World Report, Our Sunday Visitor Newsweekly, The Priest Magazine, National Catholic Register, Catholic Herald, and other outlets. Paul lives in Elk City, OK, with his wife and their four children.

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