Opinion

Launching the Missal: Chant-anxiety

byJaymie Stuart Wolfe
8/12/2011

Implementing the new English translation of the Roman Missal is beginning to cause -- and will continue to cause -- a bit of a stir. That's understandable. After all, reasonable people would expect that not every change will be received enthusiastically. And, that when it comes to the prayers we pray, change itself is likely to be a hard sell. For most of us, praying from the heart also means praying by heart. The prospect of being missal-bound, even for a brief period, is probably not something your average Catholic is looking forward to.

But by far the biggest concern I've heard voiced is much more an anxiety than a complaint. At the core, it is this: to some very sincere practicing Catholics, it seems like the new words of the Mass are a move "backward," a withdrawal to some pre-Vatican II way of being Church that is no longer capable of holding a conversation with the culture in which we now live.

Aside from language that can be characterized as "poetic" (if you like it) or "antiquated" (if you don't), the single largest reason for this concern is the first-ever inclusion of official chanted liturgical responses. It appears that providing for the use of Gregorian chant in English-speaking Roman Catholic parishes is intimidating in some way.

In the 28 years since I came into the Church, I've witnessed chant-a-phobia many times and in many venues. I've seen music ministers, pastors, deacons, choir members, and parishioners all suffer from various forms of chant anxiety. But I've also seen all the above get over their reticence once they learn the secret of the centuries: Gregorian chant is for dummies. Anyone can chant.

I know that everyone can chant because I have heard our own two-year-olds do it. I also know that only a very strange mother would teach her kids Gregorian chant. Maybe so; but chant has been part of our admittedly too-brief family prayers for years. Our kids learned how to chant because they heard it. I used to sing the Gregorian "Ave Maria" to them as a lullaby. (It makes a very good one, by the way.) Over the years, we've expanded our repertoire. Lately, we've been practicing the chants of the new Roman Missal together at home.

If you think about it, chant makes pastoral sense. It rose from the need for all kinds of people to worship God together: literate and illiterate, young and old, professional musicians and those with little or no musical training. It is repetitive, easy to follow, and doesn't rely much on mastering the one skill that is the greatest downfall of parish choirs: counting. The rhythms are dictated not by the tune, but by the words. The notes are rarely too long or too high for a standard issue set of vocal cords. On the contrary, many of the Mass music settings we commonly use now are quite difficult. Many people find the more contemporary music rhythmically difficult, outside their vocal range, and often with unpredictable melodies or odd-sounding harmonies and accompaniments. Sure, these elements can make the music more interesting, but they often make it less singable as well.

Beyond any practical concerns, though, lies the art of finding the right balance between being able to dialogue with the surrounding culture, and bringing the fullness of Catholic identity and culture into our worship of God. Of course there is, and should be, room for contemporary music at Mass. But we have come to a point where we ought to be asking if there is room for Gregorian chant at Mass as well.

I am grateful that Rome and the 11 English-speaking bishops' conferences who all opted to include the official chants in their version of the Roman Missal have chosen to reaffirm the value of Gregorian chant in the life of the Church. It's easy to see why. Certainly chant would have to be placed on a top-ten list of the hallmarks of Catholicism. If we were to ask the question, "What does being Catholic sound like?" it would difficult to come up with a more appropriate answer than Gregorian chant. The funny thing is that while many Catholics would consider the chant traditions of other religious too beautiful and mystical to lose, few seem to consider our own tradition worth the work it takes to keep it alive and hand it on.

To sum it up, Gregorian chant can be done in parishes, and there are plenty of reasons it should be done. In the decisions we'll all be making as we implement the new Roman Missal, we ought to be open to the possibility that the overall good of the Church may not be best served by holding on to the Mass music we have been using by default for years in its new and improved, updated form. Our archdiocese is not alone in recommending that every parish try the official chant responses long enough for their people to learn them. In Boston, we will be permitted to introduce the official chants of the Gloria, Sanctus, Memorial Acclamations, and Agnus Dei in September. There are all kinds of resources available to inform and assist in that endeavor.

-- General information and texts with commentary: www.usccb.org/romanmissal.

-- Archdiocese of Boston information and materials: www.bostoncatholic.org/newromanmissal.aspx.

-- Sheet music for the chants: www.icelweb.org/musicfolder/openmusic.php.

-- Link to keyboard and guitar accompaniments through: www.basicchant.com/.

-- Materials for teaching chant to children, choirs, and parishes: www.basicchant.com/.

-- MP3 recordings of the Roman Missal chants: www.npm.org/Chants/order.html.

-- Video tutorials for various Roman Missal chants: www.chantcafe.com/2010/09/tutorial-videos-on-new-missal-chants.html.

Email Jaymie: jsw@loavesandfishesministry.net.

I am willing to help any parish implement the new translation of the Roman Missal as their pastoral team deems best, or assist a parish in considering how to implement the new translations of the Roman Missal.

Jaymie Stuart Wolfe is a wife and mother of eight children, and a disciple of the spirituality of St. Francis de Sales. She is an inspirational author, speaker, musician and serves as an Associate Children's Editor at Pauline Books and Media.