FALL RIVER, Mass. — On February 26 at 7 p.m., Father Andrew Johnson, pastor of St. Stanislaus and Good Shepherd parishes in Fall River, will launch a four-night retreat at St. Stanislaus Church with reflections based on the Gregorian Chants of Lent entitled, “Songs of Love for the Year of Faith: A Gregorian Retreat.”
“It is a passion of mine, it’s the most beautiful Church music ever written,” said Father Johnson who was a Trappist monk in Spencer, Mass. for 37 years before joining the Fall River Diocese, and sang Gregorian chants while in the monastery. “It immediately has a contemplative effect on people when they hear it, whether it’s in English or in Latin. My concern was to let people know about some of the riches of Gregorian chant in text and music accompanying the texts.”
Gregorian chants have origins dating back to the period of Pope Gregory I; the sacred music was named after the pope. Manuscripts dating from the ninth century used a system of modes, specific patterns of whole and half steps. This single line of melody characterized music until about 1,000 A.D.
Father Johnson had wanted to do a parish retreat for Lent, so the four-night retreat will be based upon the texts of the Lenten Gregorian Chants. Father Johnson plans to talk about his experience of singing and hearing chant all of his life and said he will “try to pass on some of the things I’ve gained from it.”
After an introduction to “explain the whys and the wherefores,” Father Johnson will then pick four or five different texts from a hymn, an antiphon, and Lenten preface from the Mass, “and talk about the words and the music, the theology and spirituality that is conveyed by these things.”
“The main thing about the Lenten text is that it isn’t about wrath and judgment, it’s about healing and mercy,” he said. “The vespers hymn, especially, is a beautiful example of that. The Lenten preface is the theology of fasting — why do we fast? Why do we give alms? Why do we pray more during Lent? It expresses very well.”
Father Johnson suggested looking at the entrance antiphon for Laetare Sunday. The antiphon gives the day its name, since it begins, “Laetare Jerusalem” (Oh be joyful, Jerusalem), and the antiphon itself is sung in a beautiful and joyful manner.
“Almost always, except for the hymns, the text is from sacred Scripture,” said Father Johnson. “The sheer antiquity of this stuff; by 900 [A.D.], all this music was already in place. The Church has been singing this music for more than 1,000 years.”
While growing up, Father Johnson recalled how chant was such an important part of his music studies that he would learn modern music one week and then Gregorian Chant the following week.
“I was in a very good parish that had this; I remember it well,” he said.
Another interesting thing people may enjoy learning is that the music is designed differently from traditional music.
“It’s a four-line scale instead of a five-line scale,” said Father Johnson. “They’re not called notes, they’re called neumes and are shaped very differently.”
The retreat is designed not just for those who have never experienced Gregorian Chant but also for those who want to learn more about the history, theology and text of the chants.
“The level of spirituality and theology that is put into such a small package, some of the melodies are quite short, but it’s amazing how the music interprets the text and the text is elaborated by the music,” said Father Johnson, who will play recordings during the retreat.
When you immerse yourself in the music, he said, “It’s a very subtle thing; it does change your spirituality. I think that it really elicits and supports faith. I always make the point of saying with Gregorian Chant, you’re singing the Liturgy rather than just singing songs at Liturgy. That’s what we have today; we have beautiful hymns but it’s kind of extraneous to the Liturgy.”
People understand it’s a music that calls them to be silent and to open their hearts to contemplation after Mass.
“When you sing Gregorian Chant in church, there is an immediate profound silence,” said Father Johnson. “People listen. The music is soothing, even if you don’t know what the words are saying; it’s pure melody. It really puts itself across as mysterious, beautiful and reverent — what’s not to like?”
The retreat starts February 26 at 7 p.m. and will continue through March 1. The Sacrament of Reconciliation will be available from 6 to 7 p.m. For more information, contact St. Stanislaus Parish at 508-672-0423.
Retreat at Fall River!