For many of us, hearing Gregorian chant at the Mass is a relatively new experience. But in fact, the church teaches that liturgical music must be grounded in plainchant. The document from the Second Vatican Council on the liturgy, Sacrosanctum Concilium, teaches that “the Church acknowledges Gregorian chant as specially suited to the Roman Liturgy: therefore, other things being equal, it should be given pride of place in liturgical services.” (SC, no. 116). Following the council, to clear up questions about sacred music in the liturgy and give clear direction, the church issued the document Musicam Sacram, which repeated that “Gregorian chant, as proper to the Roman liturgy, should be given pride of place, other things being equal.” (MS, no. 50) The General Instruction of the Roman Missal, the document that tells us how to work out the details of Mass that was re-translated and published in 2011, reaffirms that “the main place should be given, all things being equal, to Gregorian chant, as being proper to the Roman Liturgy.” (GIRM, no. 41)
So we know the church teaches us that chant is backbone of sacred music for the liturgy. Why would that be? Here are some reasons. Chant was formed and developed as an art form within the liturgy. The genre and individual pieces developed and grew with the words of the Mass themselves, and so in a sense it’s inextricable from the Mass. There is no one “composer” of chant, but rather it’s been an anonymous, collective effort of Catholics over the centuries, forming the heart of the liturgy. As the heart of the liturgy, which is the center of our life, it is the heart of our musical tradition.
Chant is word-oriented, as its structure is dependent on and meant to serve the text. The music is written to accentuate the meaning of the text. The Mass is Word-oriented, as it is founded in the Incarnate Word, Jesus Christ. The Mass is about Jesus and brings us Jesus in the Eucharist and scripture, and most of the words spoken are the Word of God. It follows that the music should be word-oriented as well.
The way chant is written forces us to slow down and quiet ourselves. The rhythm is subtle and flowing, the phrases are long and connected. It requires us to enter its space, stretching us intellectually and emotionally. We must come out of ourselves and our day-to-day experience to encounter it. The Mass is the same way. Jesus comes down to us while we stretch out to him, participating in the meeting of heaven and earth.
Some of the chant we sing at Mass is absolutely meant to be sung by everyone, and that’s great. And some of the chant sung at Mass, for instance a second offertory or communion song or a meditative version of a proper text, can be meant for us to listen to the choir sing and internalize that way. Active participation is both internal and external. Here’s what Musicam Sacram says about participation:
“[It] should be above all internal, in the sense that by it the faithful join their mind to what they pronounce or hear, and cooperate with heavenly grace, [and it] must be, on the other hand, external also, that is to show internal participation by gesture and bodily attitudes, by the acclamations, responses and singing.” (MS no. 15)
So there is a place for both singing and listening at Mass, and they should both draw us deeper into the mystery happening there. Chant gives us a great way to experience both modes of participation, as it is built to draw us into the mystery and celebration of the Mass.
Thanks for reading! God bless you.