The Agony and the Ecstasy: The Fundamental Importance of Liturgical Chant in the Roman Missal and Our Celebration of the Eucharistic Mystery

A plenary lecture to the Church Music Association of America
by Msgr. Andrew Wadsworth
Executive Director of ICEL at Duquesne University,
Pittsburgh, June 14, 2011

You will be familiar, no doubt, with the old adage that the eye is the gateway to the soul. I have always found this a particularly persuasive idea, for it recognizes the fundamental fact that there is something deep within each of us that responds to beauty. Whether it is wonder at creation or a response to art which captivates us, there can be very few of us who are not susceptible to perfection of form and the many things which delight us visually.

Less popular is the idea that the eye is the gateway to hell. Immediately we tend to feel a resistance to this notion, not only because it is seemingly such a negation of the former principle, but perhaps also because it so easily suggests that appearances can in some senses be deceptive and that what we see may not be the whole story. As troubling as this concept may be, it does however, acknowledge the complex and omnipresent reality that most of us are very easily beguiled by what we see.

When we transpose these ideas into the arena of liturgy, the philosophical dilemma is noticeably exacerbated, for the liturgy is not solely visual, but rather engages all the senses, and in the same way it is not only corporeal but it also has an irreducible spiritual element. The liturgy therefore heightens in us an awareness of the intrinsic relationship between beauty and truth, just as it is, of its nature, constituted of these elements and should clearly become a vehicle for them when we celebrate it.

Central to the Christian revelation is the teaching that ‘faith comes from hearing, and hearing through the word of Christ’ (Romans 10,17). In that sense, it is not only the eye which is the gateway to heaven, but in a very real way, the ear too. As musicians, we need no convincing of this tenet, for it expresses our deep-seated conviction that what we hear cannot only engender faith, but over a life time, can nourish and bring it to maturity.

Nowhere is this more evident than in our liturgical chant which enables the word of truth to be expressed in the beauty of song in a way which is not adequately described by the comparatively sterile designation of the individual elements of words and music. In our Catholic tradition, liturgical chant is first and foremost cantillation, a song which arises from the text, a song which is essentially a heightened proclamation of a verbal message and which takes its emphases from the natural accentuation of the text and finds its melodic rhythm from the cadence which is already within the words.

As it often sings of the glory of God, the wonder of creation, the richness of salvation in Christ, the mystery of the Church and our continual need of God’s mercy and grace, it is often an ecstatic song which has rather more in common with the song of lovers than it does with the song of colleagues; it should have the familiarity of the song of those who are clearly of the same family, or those who are united as fellow citizens of the same territory. It is likewise never a song of violence, protest or dissent and it is overwhelmingly a song which is more about God than it is about us.

So far, I have outlined what I believe to be the characteristics of the liturgical song of the Catholic Church. It is, I would hold, not merely a subjective formulation on my part, but an accurate description of the character and function of liturgical song as inherited by the Church from the People of Israel, in an unbroken tradition and set before the Church by the Magisterium in every age up to and including our own. The challenge I wish to make is to ask if this is how you and most members of the Latin Rite experience liturgical song, and if not, why not?

If I were asking for individual responses to that question – which I’m not, I would imagine rather than an immediate plethora of answers, that there would be something of a thoughtful silence. For isn’t true to say that while we all recognize the elephant in the room, nobody particularly wants to be the first to address it? Given who we are and why we are here and overcoming my natural British sense of discretion, I would like to make a tentative start in answering what is a rather thorny question.

I would suggest that at the present time, liturgical song, as I have described it, is only consistently experienced by a relatively small percentage of Latin Rite Catholics, even if it is also true that there are some individuals and communities who do experience it in this way on a regular or even continuous basis.

The first reason why this is the case, is that many of our people remain essentially reticent when it comes to singing at Mass. A number of years ago, there was an insightful study by an American academic, Thomas Day, entitled “Why Catholics Can’t Sing”. I would imagine that most of you will have read it as it has rapidly become established as something of a classic in this field. Day, a music lecturer at Salve Regina University in Rhode Island, accurately and scathingly takes a very considerable side swipe at the “Irish-American” repertoire of songs that currently comprise Catholic liturgical music, not only in the USA but also for the most part wherever Mass is celebrated in English.

He goes on to identify a “liturgical post-modernism” which he suggests has resulted in noisy and forced participation from the laity, and encourages a kind of church-wide narcissism that can represent a serious threat both to individuals and the institution of the Church. Lest you should think that he is exclusively a prophet of doom, Day also makes some very positive suggestions for nurturing the latent vitality he perceives in the Catholic community, talent which as those most intimately engaged with the liturgy at parish level, you will all readily acknowledge. If you have read Thomas Day’s book, you may well agree that it is an informative and often entertaining critique of a situation we recognize all too well.

Although Dr Day was writing over twenty years ago, many of his observations are still valid for the present time, just as much of his advice has gone unheeded in a liturgical culture which is too easily driven by the exigencies of publishers who for the most part are the architects of our liturgical repertoire, influencing choices of the liturgical music of which they are so often the sole purveyors. Let me be clear at this point, while I would want to register my appreciation for those publishers who are at the service of the Church’s liturgy, I would also wish to identify a serious lacuna in our direction of a liturgical culture which has latterly been shaped by a repertoire of liturgical music principally determined by publishers.

At this point it is important to make a few historical observations which shed further light on this undesirable scenario. It would be a mistake to characterize this dilemma purely in terms of what has happened since Vatican II. Advocates of chant in particular have an annoying tendency to rewrite history in relation to what was common praxis in our parishes until the late sixties, thereby contextualizing the debate in an unreliable ‘nostalgia’ for something which was never the case.

For English-speaking Catholics, I think it is fair to say that a pre-dominantly ‘Low Mass’ culture in which music is essentially an addition to the liturgy rather than intrinsic to it, was already a centuries-old tradition at the time of Vatican II. In this respect, the current enthusiasm for chant, and a growing competence in its performance, particularly in celebrations of the Extraordinary Form of the Roman Rite, is not so much the recovery of a recently lost tradition, but rather the realization of the authentic principles of the Liturgical Movement as canonized by Pope St Pius X in his motu proprio of 1903, Tra le sollecitudini, underlining the centrality of Gregorian Chant, guidelines which were largely unimplemented both at the time of the Council and in its wake.

Some sixty years later, the Pastoral Liturgical Movement, as it had become, had largely abandoned the principles which motivated Dom Guéranger and the renewal he initiated, in favor of influences which are more broadly ecumenical and introduce into the Roman Liturgy elements which are more commonly found outside the Catholic Church. Nowhere was this influence more keenly felt than in the realm of liturgical music, for the principle that a repertoire of liturgical chant which had been proper to the Mass, at least in its most solemn celebrations, was largely and almost universally set aside in preference for music which might be most accurately described as ‘non-liturgical’ in character, given its frequent lack of dependence on liturgical or biblical texts and its introduction into our liturgical celebrations of a voice which is in many ways alien to the spirit of the liturgy.

It is vital to grasp that this is not only true of much music which is contemporary in style but it is also evident in hymnody which is so often of a devotional rather than liturgical character and which was transplanted into the Mass from non-catholic forms of worship which are constructed on entirely different principles. This is the modern-day inheritance of the ‘Low-Mass’ culture which envisages a largely spoken liturgy punctuated at key moments by congregational singing.

For many Catholics, their core repertory of liturgical music will currently be mostly of this type. It is then supplemented by a range of responsorial music which need not be known as it relies on repetition. The notion of a form of liturgical music which is intrinsically related to the action of the Mass and which is in perfect concord with the nature of the liturgy expressed in a repertory which both links us to the past and yet roots us in the present still remains beyond the experience of most of our parishes and communities.

Furthermore, there has grown up in our communities an expectation that liturgical song will frequently entail the assembly singing about itself. I had a powerful demonstration of this expectation last year in Atlanta while addressing a group of liturgical musicians about the musical implications of the forthcoming English translation of the Missal. I had used the opportunity to encourage initiatives among composers and musicians to look at creative ways of responding to the challenge of singing the proper of the Mass. In the questions following my address, one young musician responsible for the music in his parish said: “I hear what you’re saying, but where are the ‘we’ songs?”. He had a point – the texts of the Roman Missal (including the Lectionary and the Graduale Romanum) are generally light-weight when it comes to the community celebrating itself!

If it is true that the past forty years have established something of a hermeneutic of discontinuity with regard to liturgical chant, to the extent that our authentic and most ancient tradition is widely seen as alien and unfamiliar and musical genres previously unthinkable in a liturgical context are commonly considered acceptable and even desirable, then we have truly lived through the most extraordinary revolution which has impoverished our understanding of the mystery we celebrate to the same extent as it has decimated the number of our people who regularly participate in the celebration of the Mass.

Another example may serve to illustrate how far we have deviated from the path: I have deliberately removed any details which will enable you to identify where this Mass took place. Suffice to say, that it could reasonably have been witnessed in just about any large city in the English-speaking world. The occasion was a youth Mass involving a large number of young people of school and college age. The nature of the occasion meant that it would be reasonable to assume that the majority of those present were what could be described as practicing Catholics, at least in relation to the frequency of their liturgical life.

As the entrance procession began, so did the entrance song. It was sung by a male singer who accompanied himself on the guitar and he was joined by a female singer with a very nice voice. I did not know the song (something I have come to expect) but neither, it would seem, did anyone else and despite the text of the song being reproduced in the participation aid, the only ones singing were the two singers I have already described. The song was certainly religious in content without being noticeably liturgical or scriptural in its text. Musically it was entirely secular in character but skillfully sung and played in genuinely affecting manner. As this beginning to the liturgy unfolded, it became more and more obvious that this was a performance and we were cast in the role of the audience. This intimation was further confirmed as the song ended and it was greeted with enthusiastic and prolonged applause, curtailed only by the celebrant beginning the Sign of the Cross.

This experience was repeated at several subsequent moments in the Mass and notably during the Liturgy of the Word, at the Preparation of the Gifts and during the distribution of Holy Communion. Each time, the dynamics were those of performance and the liturgical assembly slid perceptibly into another mode but one clearly familiar to these young Catholics, that of the concert. At each subsequent moment, the pattern was repeated and the performance was recognized by applause. Am I the only person who is profoundly ill at ease with this, or can we identify that style, content and delivery all determine whether our music is truly liturgical or not? Once again, it would be a mistake to identify this difficulty with purely contemporary musical styles, I have witnessed much the same phenomenon with traditional liturgical music in some of our great churches and cathedrals.

In an attempt to balance up, I would like to cite another example, once again shorn of any identifying references, let us assume that it is a Sunday Mass in an average size parish. The focus of my interest in this second example is also a procession, but this time the Communion Procession. In this case, there is a cantor who introduces a simple antiphon which the congregation easily takes up. The cantor supplies the psalm verses and the singing of this Communion Chant continues throughout the distribution of Holy Communion with everyone joining in, regardless of whether they are on the move or not. The result is very powerful and underlines the liturgical action effectively. The cantor directs the congregational singing in an unobtrusive manner and the chant eventually subsides into quiet organ playing and then silence.

The implementation of the English translation of the third typical edition of the Roman Missal later this year will be the biggest single moment of change for Catholics who worship in English in the forty years since the revisions of the liturgy which followed Vatican II. It is a moment of unparalleled significance, not least because it represents a natural opportunity to reassess all that we do when we celebrate the Mass. The new edition of the Missal contains more music than any of its predecessors and includes a complete set of chants for the principal parts of the Order of Mass. All the chants of the Latin original have been adapted to the English text.

You will know that a guiding principle in the preparation of this translation has been the desire to render the fullest content of the original Latin in English which is fit for liturgical use. Greater attention to the scriptural resonances in these texts acknowledges Scripture as the largest single source of our liturgy. The elevated register of the language, the euphony of its phrases and the cadence of its orations have all been prepared with the thought that most of these texts are by nature sung. For that reason, and without wishing to exclude the use of other genres where appropriate, the musical language of the Missal is Gregorian Chant.

The General Instruction of the Roman Missal echoes both Sacrasanctum concilium and Musica sacram in proclaiming that ‘All other things being equal, Gregorian chant holds first place because it is proper to the Roman Liturgy. Other types of sacred music, in particular polyphony, are in no way excluded, provided that they correspond to the spirit of the liturgical action and that they foster the participation of all the faithful.’ [SC, 41]. Attention to this latter quality in response to the implementation of the new translation should in due course bring about a general change in the culture of our liturgical music. If that is the case, then it is long overdue and will be greatly welcomed.

In her pioneering work in promoting knowledge, understanding and expertise in the Chant, the founder of the Schola Gregoriana of Cambridge, the late Dr Mary Berry, always took the opportunity to state her sincerely held scholarly view that chant was in fact part of the primitive kerygma or deposit communicated to the Apostolic Church of the first years. She held that the process whereby the Church identified certain Scriptural texts with the celebration of particular aspects of the Christian mystery included the wedding of those same texts to music. In the case of the Old Testament, this would mean that we share a common musical patrimony with Judaism in a tradition that leads back to the Temple and the chant sung by Our Lord himself. She often said that this was most discernible in the liturgy of Holy Week and had even supported this view by making recordings among Jews in the Middle East showing such an origin for our prophecy tone and chants for the Lamentations.

Whether Mary Berry was right or whether it was an educated guess, we cannot know, but her instinct certainly expresses a truth about our chant which every generation has to discover for itself – this precious song which has traveled continents and centuries in coming to us, this precious gift which has embedded itself even in the fabric of Western music is unique in its service to the spoken word which it embellishes without obscuring and explains without exhausting. This song of the saints, ever ancient, and yet ever new; beautiful in its simple sophistication, accessible to all and yet slow in yielding up its secrets, has its singers and advocates in every generation but is seeking new voices who will take it up in our time and ensure that the song of beauty and truth is heard even in this generation as the song of salvation and an instrument of God’s grace.

12 Replies to “The Agony and the Ecstasy: The Fundamental Importance of Liturgical Chant in the Roman Missal and Our Celebration of the Eucharistic Mystery”

  1. An excellent address! Msgr. Wadsworth makes a point that can be seen with greater clarity every passing day: the "liturgical music" of the past century, codified by nothing more than popular assent in the past 45 years, is quickly being seen for what it is, and more importantly perhaps for what it isn't.

    Though not within the scope of his talk, another important facet of this issue is the great effort that has been made for the past 50 years to keep the Church's authentic liturgical music shut out of the discussion altogether. This effort was immensely successful throughout the 1970's, 1980's, most of the 1990's and only began to fracture in the past 10 years or so…not coincidentally with the advent of the internet and the free access to information it provides. In the past two, maybe three years there has been a sudden "mainstreaming" of the discussion about chant and sacred music, largely in the context of the discussion of the new translation of the Missal, but also as a distinct issue in its own right. The past year has seen articles on "Incorporating Chant in your Parish Liturgies"…"Is it time to revisit the Propers of the Mass?"…"Adapting Liturgical Chant in the Guitar Mass" and numerous other such articles in publications which previously seemed loathe to even mention the word "chant"…publications like GIA Quarterly and Liturgical Music Today. It's difficult to discern yet what is the reason for this sudden interest in chant, and I remain suspicious about the motivations of commercial publishers in this regard. However, if the momentum continues in this direction and at this pace the landscape will change dramatically over the next 10 years or so…maybe in less time than that even.

  2. I like chant and "contemporary" music – they both move me closer in my relationship through prayer to our Creator. We need to be respectful of each other that some like chant, some not. I belong to a parish that uses use mostly contemporary music, but we also use chant as well, not because we "should", but because it provides the community a rich repertoire
    of all music. To push contemporary or chant music does not respect the differences of each of us.

  3. "The implementation of the English translation of the third typical edition of the Roman Missal later this year will be the biggest single moment of change for Catholics who worship in English in the forty years since the revisions of the liturgy which followed Vatican II."
    What a pity a far better missal wasn't produced after all those years. Just read some of the tortuous prefaces , collects and other parts of the Propers. Something much closer to the 2008 version the bishops had authorized would have been a huge improvement.

  4. Hello Anon 12:12.

    Whether "some like chant, some not" is irrelevant. The critical question is: Is it worthy of use in the temple of the Almighty God?

    My operational rule in this matter is: Virtually all music products in English, composed since 1965, purportedly for liturgical use, are intrinsically unworthy of any liturgical use whatsoever, because the music is based on entertainment values.

    If those products had been worthy of such use, there would have been no need, as Mr. Herbert cited above, for the publishers of those products to mount a "great effort … for the past 50 years to keep the Church's authentic liturgical music shut out of the discussion altogether."

  5. HV Observer wrote: "Virtually all music products in English, composed since 1965, purportedly for liturgical use, are intrinsically unworthy of any liturgical use whatsoever. . ." Whilst this is true to a large extent, particularly of the wares promoted by certain "Catholic publishers", it is not completely true. The Trinitas Series published by, yes, Oregon Catholic Press contains a wide array of "worthy" music and worthy text (much of of it Biblical). Looking further afield to composers such as John Rutter, William Mathias, James McMillan (a Scottish catholic), sifting through the catalogs of GIA, WLP, and OCP (as already mentioned) can reveal some delights. Corpus Christi Watershed makes available at no charge a delightfully rich garden of resources that can be learned by any parish. They are free! There is no excuse not to learn at least one item from this rich resource. When it comes to the church's hymnody, the search requires more effort but the gems are there, albeit hidden and not promoted by the marketers for the Catholic publishing houses. Now, it must be admitted that much of this hymnody is not written by Roman Catholic poets or musicians. However, it does not mean that it is inappropriate or heretical. As I have written before, the problem is lack of education by so many making the decisions and choices regarding music at the parish level. More opportunities need to be made available to parish musicians so that informed decisions regarding quality music for parishes can be made. In addition to the opportunities, parishes, dioceses and clergy need to commit financial resources to music and musicians so that they can attend excellent learning experiences such as the Chant Colloquium currently taking place in Pittsburgh. Good liturgical music doesn't mean excruciatingly difficult music. For example, teaching a parish to sing certain chants, as the USCCB have mandated, presents simple, but not simplistic, music that can easily be learned. In fact, this is real "folk music"; that is to say, music of the people.

  6. The point is that most Catholics in most places are deprived of more than half of the assigned chant "readings" for the Mass, as well as the entirety of the assigned chant tunes.

    During the 60's and 70's in some places, and even now occasionally in weird places, people also commonly thought that you could replace Bible readings with suitable selections from various devotional and secular sources. But (partly by Catholic outrage, partly by response to evangelicals and "Jesus freaks") that wasn't allowed to continue very long. It got slapped down and is mostly forgotten.

    The Church has been by contrast pretty lenient about replacing chants and psalms with the same words to different tunes or in set different styles. It was pretty lenient about letting people add random devotional songs to certain bits of de-tuned and silent Low Mass, as a sweetener (though most of the assigned chants were still included, albeit quietly or without tunes).

    But the current state of allowing all chants to be never used, and all parishioners to never hear these "readings" in any form, much less in the default intended ways, is the exact parallel of replacing the week's reading from Galatians with a reading from Kahlil Gibran or Dr. Seuss.

    I have nothing against Dr. Seuss, but at Mass I need to hear the wisdom and commands of God through Paul's inspired words, not a nice story through Dr. Seuss' Seussian words. If the Church has a resource coming down from time immemorial both for the worship of God and the feeding of their souls, and nobody in the Church is allowed to access it ever (except through secular albums), it's just the same as if you were never allowed to use the Bible for readings or the homily, and you had to try your best to grope through it at home with the help of liner notes and essays by music professors.

    It's not that we should be negative about contemporary non-Mass music being used at Mass. It's just not part of the business of Mass, that's all, and is (unfairly to the music) being used in places that it never should have been used, trying to make it be something it isn't and bear a burden no normal music could bear.

    It's like trying to run a car on a couple of AA's, and then blaming battery manufacturers and mechanics for making your driving experience unhappy, while continually hooking up more AA's in more elaborate concatenations instead of just getting a real car battery. By this point, people have forgotten car batteries or don't know what they're for, but the AA's are never going to do the job right. It's not what they, or the car, were made to do.

  7. I wouldn't go as far as to say that nothing published since 1965 is worthy…. there has been good music written during that time, sadly very little of it ever reaches parish use, and virtually none of it appears in the published hymnals and worship books. You have to scour the catalogs of GIA and OCP octavos and worship resources to find some gems. But as I said before, they don't promote this music…they promote songs over which they have copyright control.

    On a different subject…is anybody looking to take a Music Director position in beautiful SW Florida (#1 beach in the US a mere 15 minutes away!). I need to place someone in a position here ASAP… Organ, piano and vocal a must. Good salary, full benefits and pension. 4 Mass weekend schedule in season…3 Mass per weekend off season. If anybody at the colloquium reads this, could you maybe ask around? You can contact me at

  8. I agree with Mr. Patterson. This is why framed my point as "virtually all."

    And let's not forget Kevin Allen (via CCW, of course).

  9. Respect each other? Like they are doing in Boston? I would like to know how our Holy Father expects two churches to worship along side each other in unity? ( And, also, at the same parish?) The Church I worship at,on Sunday,one can worship with the Traditional EF Latin Mass but if you want to receive Jesus daily,the faithful have the "new mass" which as you know, has a different Gospel,different Saints and if you see this post from Fr.Z:
    a different schedual….so,it seems to me that this has created MORE work for Pastors and priests who have all these different "churches":
    A Spanish Mass,A Latin Mass,a NO "new mass",a Polish mass, etc etc.ALL AT THE SAME PARISH!
    I am following TWO DIFFERENT readings and to me this is ridiculous.Certainly,not the unity Jesus spoke of but something more in tune to the confusion of the evil one.

  10. "The past year has seen articles on "Incorporating Chant in your Parish Liturgies"…"Is it time to revisit the Propers of the Mass?"…"Adapting Liturgical Chant in the Guitar Mass" and numerous other such articles in publications which previously seemed loathe to even mention the word "chant"…publications like GIA Quarterly and Liturgical Music Today."
    Jeffrey, as you might have imagined, that article (Petrunak) was woefully lacking in depth and a fundamental knowledge of many aspects and attributes of "chant."
    To this observer the invitation to attract the millenial generation, particularly guitarists, to the richness of the chant was almost condescending and tepid at best; metered "Veni, Veni" is neither new nor technically the best pathway to study how to successfully integrate the nature of the classical or other types to properly accompany free flowing chant.
    I leave it to others to discern why the article was published as edited.

  11. Charles;

    Yes… I know. My question was also why they even felt that they had to have something like this in the magazine. That's what I'm interested in here… that train has left the station and now even the mainstream publishers are having to jump on board…whether they want to or, as you have pointed out, are able to. Perhaps you could offer them a more capable article that addresses the real issues. I did like the fact that he (Petrunak) laid it out on the table that the reason most guitarists avoid chant is because they simply don't like it, but will give all kinds of feigned musical excuses.

    The other articles on Chant, one by Fr. Ruff, and the other by my good friend Fr. John Mark Klaus were also written with an intended audience of those untrained in chant, and so while they were rather simplistic, they laid out the fundamental arguments and basic plans for incorporating chant into Masses in the Ordinary Form. But again, it was the very fact that the publishers contacted these two individuals to write articles on chant…quickly…and get them out in the mainstream "liturgy planning" guide publications that interests me. Wouldn't have ever seen such a thing even 3 or 4 years ago.

  12. A grounding principle of the talk strikes me as very true: the transcendentals, beauty and truth, are convertible, and form a unity in liturgical music. I take it that Msgr. Wadsworth is developing the idea that the Scriptural text, which is true, is made more accessible to us by music, which is beautiful, particularly when the music is carefully made to suit the text. Both truth and beauty are inherently attractive, but beauty, as "the good" under the specific modality of attraction, is perhaps more immediately accessible, and draws one into the word.

Comments are closed.