Memo to Catholics: Gregorian Chant Belongs to You

Last evening I had the pleasure of attending First Vespers for the First Sunday of Advent at St. Peter’s Basilica. The choir was amazing, strong in all aspects, and particularly rich in the lowest voices.

What struck me most about the music, however, was the amount of plainchant which the congregation was expected to sing off the written page. It was like being a member of a religious house where Vespers is sung every day. The clear expectation was that Catholics can read and sing our common music.

Mostly Psalm tones, the music was ordinarily not melismatic or difficult. However, the antiphons, which were marked “for the assembly” on the second iteration, were somewhat challenging. Among the people near me, few joined in until a few verses of each tone had been sung. One of the sisters behind me could obviously read, but overall the singing was a matter of following, rather than of leading.

At the head of the congregation sat the students of the Roman and Pontifical Universities, future leaders of our Church. This is a universal congregation, from every part of the world. Let us pray that the experience of chanting the office in common will become normative for them and for all.