STEUBENVILLE, Ohio — According to three notable college professors, a comeback for sacred music is well under way on many Catholic campuses. While incoming students are usually not well-versed in sacred music or the theology behind it, they are generally open to learning both. Once this knowledge is imparted, they are well-equipped to bring its beauty into parishes.
“Students enter with varying degrees of exposure to the Church’s musical patrimony,” observed Nicholas Will, first-year professor of sacred music at Franciscan University in Steubenville, Ohio. “Yet I’ve found that almost all of them, regardless of their current knowledge level, are receptive to the Church’s treasury of sacred music and her teaching on the subject.”
Will attributes this receptivity largely to the influence of Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI, whose knowledge of and love for sacred music have sparked a genuine reform in the Church. “Pope Emeritus Benedict has a refined taste for good music, especially sacred music. He was able to clearly identify worthy sacred music, and he was also able to clearly convey that message to the world through his writings, but also, and more especially, in his example as pope.”
The highest form of song, as expressed in Sacrosanctum Concilium, the Second Vatican Council’s dogmatic constitution on the sacred liturgy, is Gregorian chant. The form, history and performance style of this centuries-old liturgical practice are taught by Will to Franciscan music majors. Despite most of them not having prior experience with the subject, they have been comfortable with learning it.
“The students with the greatest exposure levels enjoy learning even more about the art, and those with lesser exposure quickly recognize the timeless beauty and universality of Gregorian chant, as well as its relevance today,” Will explained. “Not only do students accept Gregorian chant as a legitimate expression of liturgical music, but they appreciate why the Church values it above all other musical forms. This mindset is remarkable when one considers the state of liturgical music even 10 years ago.”
Now, Will deeply appreciates the fact that he can lead others in the exercise of this art form: “While the beauty of our art is witnessed anywhere it is performed, its most fitting place is in the liturgy itself. It’s so significant that we are teaching students about sacred music, not just from the standpoint of a hobby, but as an integral part of their lives in the Church. The Church’s musical patrimony is an essential part of the liturgy, and the liturgy is a living, breathing entity.”
Will takes this to heart while leading the Schola Cantorum Franciscana and serving as director of music at St. Elizabeth Ann Seton parish in Carnegie, Pa. He is able to live out, in close connection with other worshippers, the reality that liturgical music is not simply a matter of singing our favorite hymns: “The liturgy itself is musical, and by singing it excellently, we glorify God. Participating in beautifully sung liturgy is both a foretaste of the eternal heavenly liturgy and the principal means of nurturing our faith in the heart of the Church.”