Converts Save Catholic Music

At a chant workshop that I co-conducted last week, I found myself intrigued by the demographics. Most attendees were in the 30s, 40s, and early 50s. In these busy times, it takes a special spark of something to attract a person to a two-day workshop in which you spend your time learning to read Gregorian notation and providing an ideal form of music for the Mass. Not many among the attendees had extensive music education, and this is fine. Chant is sometimes taught most easily to people who are not translating from one form of music to another but rather learning this unique kind of music on its own terms.

What draws the participants to such workshops? All the participants have that special something that causes them to define themselves as singers – a class of people that have been essential to the performance of the Christian ritual since the earliest years of the Church. Their art grew up alongside and integral with the ritual itself. This generation joins countless others from the past to take up this serious and sacred vocation of daring to improve on the beauty of silence with the glorious.

But why these people and why now? I spoke to a substantial number of them, perhaps more than half of the 75, who turn out to be converts to Catholicism, some of them recently and some of them from 10 or 15 years before. Most have come through the Episcopal faith, but that might have been a short stop from a more fundamental starting place in the Baptist or Presbyterian faith. From my conversations with these people, I began to put together an archetype of the convert who gets involved in the Gregorian chant movement.

These people did not convert because they preferred the music in the Catholic church to what they had in their own house of worship. It would be closer to the truth that they converted despite the music that is typical in most Catholic parishes. What attracted them to Catholicism was a different kind of beauty, one embodied in history, theological, doctrine, and spirituality.

Their conversion was inspired by the conviction of truth. Here we find the usual personal revelations taking place. Just to mention a few: The Bible was formed by the Church but the Church came first; the Apostolic succession is real and crucial; the Eucharist is in the body of Christ; the Papacy is a legitimate historical institution that has guarded the faith; the long history of saints and martyrs were faithful to scripture and tradition; the liturgy has been organically grown from the earliest times; it has been Catholic theology that has spawned the greatest developments in human history; grace comes from the sacraments offered by the Church.

To have these truths and a thousand other dawn on your is a transforming experience. And then to follow that intellectual change with access to the confessional and to a new form of intense spirituality is a glorious thing, the greatest event of a lifetime. St. John of the Cross writes that these new Catholics are carefully cradled in the Church’s bosom like children by their mothers. They feel secure and are fed what they need.

However, there comes a time when they begin to grow and begin to develop a critical mind toward their experience in their parishes. Here is where they begin to evaluate the practice of Catholicism against the ideal into which they converted. What stands out here are certain problems in the liturgy – and the music is the most conspicuous among them.

Converts tend to be historically and theologically minded, and so they notice the absence of deep tradition and robust spirituality in the music, much of which has been written in the last several decades. They style reflects popular culture, not theological culture. Indeed, so much of it is rather silly and not serious. There seems to be this disjuncture between Catholic teaching on the Eucharist and the aesthetic being created by the music we hear at Mass.

Then they begin to wonder what the Church actually teaches about music. Here is where their historical and literary skills come into play. They know to read the documents from the Second Vatican Council. They know that they can read the writings of the Popes, and so they do. The central truths that stand out from even a casual look is that the music of the Mass is organic to the Mass, that Gregorian chant is the foundation, that all musical development in all times is supposed to extent outwards from the sensibility inspired by chant.

They might stop at these revelations and try to put the subject out of their minds. After all, these people aren’t really singers. The musicians currently in power surely know what they are doing. And surely if there were something fundamentally wrong here, the pastor of the parish would put a stop to it. And so the converts wait it out.

And yet, the problems are inescapable. They come back every Sunday. The new convert then discovers that he or she actually has a more profound appreciation of quiet and spoken daily Mass than the Sunday Mass, and the music is really the only consideration that seems to be the defining issue.

After some time, the nagging feeling that something is fundamentally wrong begins to take over. The nagging sense is rooted in a great truth: the Catholic faith is the most beautiful thing this side of Heaven, and yet the music of most parishes is not beautiful. It is not even very holy. It seems timebound, popular, derivative of secular and not spiritual things. They begin to make inquiries only to discover than no one on the music staff knows anything at all about Gregorian chant. They fear Latin. Indeed, they seem to be confused about the ritual and theological demands that the Church is making of her musicians.

At this point, the convert can choose to do nothing or take the initiative to end the discord between theory and practice. The people who come to these workshops are those who have decided to make a gift of their time and their talent to making difference right in their own parishes, in whatever way they can. The goal is not to recreate the musical cultures of their past faith communities within the Catholic context. It is simply to help bring the music of Catholic parishes into compliance with the beauty of the faith more generally.

At the workshop, we encourage people to get involved in their parish music programs, not as agitators for chant but just as servants. Get to know the musicians. Get to know the organists and other instrumentalists. Help with liturgy and come to rehearsal. Then they can best apply what they have learned about reading the Gregorian staff and reading chant. Under these conditions, they are less likely to be seen as interlopers but rather as helpers and servants. It might take time, but eventually scholas can be formed out of this framework.

Every parish situation is different, and the musical scene within each parish tends to be its own world with its own features that have to be discovered from the inside. To make a difference requires wisdom, good will, and patience. If they follow this path, we might find that ten years from now we can look back and see that it was the converts who were most responsible for bringing beauty and tradition into our liturgical services.

Gregorian Chant Wins the Trial and Error

Everyone knows that there are musical choices to be made within the ordinary form of the Roman Rite. You can do the normative thing, you can do a substitute for the normative thing, you can do a translation of the substitute of the normative thing, or…you can do something else deemed appropriate.

Who is to decide what is appropriate? Well, there some degree of fighting about this in every parish environment. Every parishioner with a voice has a view about what is appropriate. Sometimes the pastor prevails. Sometimes the music director or pianist prevails. Most of the time, the process of deciding works a lot like democracy: the most well-organized pressure groups prevail. Needless to say, this is not a good framework for the fulfilment of liturgical ideals.

The U.S. Bishops have added what is considered a reliable guide: a three-fold judgement. The music must meet the criteria of being good music, pastoral music, and liturgical music. This famous test was heavily emphasized in the now-defunct document called Music in Catholic Worship; it is much downplayed in its replacement document Sing To the Lord. In any case, I’ve never really been convinced that this three-fold judgement puts much in the way of limits on anything, since all three of criteria can be easily rationalized by whomever is selecting the music in question.

The provision that the music must be “pastoral,” while not technically prejudicing the choice against Gregorian chant, seems to indicate, in American parlance, something that meets the community’s immediate need for some kind of gratification. It doesn’t have to mean that kind of prejudice but the hint is embedded in the long use of the word “pastoral” in the American context. This test, moreover, puts excessive focus on the people who are present at the liturgy without regard to the millions of people who have been driven from the Catholic faith by bad music. What about the pastoral needs of those who have been long alienated by others’ choices of what constitutes an appropriate substitute for the normative ideal?

In any case, one aspect of the process of picking music for the ordinary form is interesting. It leads to a relentless trial and error of various musical approaches, which in turn allows us to compare the merits of many approaches. In this process, I’ve strengthen my own conviction that Gregorian chant (yes, in Latin) is the ideal. Actually of course it is not my conviction but rather the conviction of the Church, which is why it has been legislated at the right music for liturgy in every bit of Papal legislation on record. I only mean that I’ve experienced the wisdom of this teaching in real time through many different attempts to discover some suitable substitute.

In the ordinary form, every music director who has worked for some years ends up trying many different approaches. The usual approach to the entrance for example, prevailing in probably 95% of parish environments, is to sing a hymn in English. The hymn can be a traditional classic, a traditional contemporary (thinking 1970s here), or a praise and worship chorus designed to give the Mass a blasting start that gets everyone into some sort of frenzy. Whatever style you choose, the hymn is the conventional choice, even though it has never been the first choice in the whole of Catholic history. .

The trouble here is that the hymn follows a four-square beat that is not all that different from that offered by the secular world. It has a singable tune. It has a certain familiarity that enables people to sing along with it. There might not seem to be anything objectionable about any of this until you consider the rarefied environment offered by liturgy and liturgy alone. This is not just a time for the community to gather and not just a time to study the Bible and pray together. The liturgy makes dramatic and mystical claims in its forms and language and actions; it seeks the suspension of time and an intimate contact of God and the human soul.

Doesn’t it makes sense that the music should strongly signal the reality of liturgy at the entrance, and the entrance more than any other point in the Mass? This is when the general comportment of the Mass is established. It is the time when people prepare for a long prayer. It is the period when everyone needs to be reminded that this is a special place and a special time, not just for joining or gathering or socializing but for the extraordinary act of liturgy. And yes that might mean just a shade of discomfort, something that picks us up out of the world we’ve been living in all week and plants us in a new place so that we can prepare for the mysteries that will unfold before us.

At the very least, then, the text we sing ought not to be some text composed by someone else but rather than appointed text for the entrance at Mass. Is that really too much to ask, too much to ask that the choir sing the actual text of the Mass called the entrance antiphon? It strikes me that Laszlo Dobszay is correct that single weakest part of the rubrics of the ordinary form is that it permits replacing this text with some other text that could, conceivably, be made up right there on the spot.

Once we have the priority of the propers straight in our heads, there are many other options still, all of them better than a hymn. We could sing the Gregorian melodies to an English text. We could sing the English text with a new chant-like melody. We could sing a polyphonic piece with the English text. We could sing the Latin text with a Psalm tone. We could sing the English text with a Psalm tone. There are editions out there of all of these choices, and all of them have their merits.

Our own schola does not always have time to work up the Gregorian chant for the entrance, so these other options are highly useful for us. And yet when we do have time to sing the real chant that belongs to the Mass of the time, it really strikes me: this is what is perfect. It conveys the right message, has the right sound, make for the perfectly dignified entrance, suggests stillness but upward motion into another realm, and instills a quiet sense of prayer. It is quite something, and doesn’t really have a full explanation. I don’t mean just one introit in particular but rather all of them, each one carefully crafted for the needs of the day. I can only say with full confidence that the best introit in our own experience is precisely the one that the Church recommends: the Gregorian chant.

I wish we could do this every week but it just isn’t possible given time constraints and other musical demands. But when we can do it, we have a strong sense that we did precisely what the liturgy calls for. And after singing this, everything else we sing seems to go better than it otherwise would. The Mass already has that opening lift and is easily carried the rest of the way. The schola itself seems more relaxed, and the atmosphere of the Church more prayerful, patient, and attentive.

There is also something meritorious about leaving our judgement aside for once during the week and deferring to the judgement of our tradition. The tradition is most often more correct than we are. It embodies more experience, more wisdom, a broader outlook, and is less prone to mistakes than a single generation or a single person. In fact, I would suggest that if someone’s judgment about what is appropriate time again excludes the Gregorian chant, there is something very wrong with the method by which the judgement is being made.

Sometimes pop philosophers like to ask why God allows bad things to happen to good people. We might similarly ask why God allowed pop music to takeover the ordinary form of the Mass. One answer might be to instill in all of us a more profound appreciation for the music that the Church has given us to last the ages. As we work through another round of Gregorian restoration, may we never forget this lesson and cling to its beautiful words and melodies, world without end.

The Guido We Never Knew

The most influential musician of the last one thousand years was Guido d’Arezzo who lived in the first half of the 11th century and gave us the lined musical staff, surely the greatest musical innovation of all time. His four treatises on music were studied in great detail throughout the middle ages. If music had its own “industrial revolution,” its own period of enlightenment, Guido is surely the instigator and guide. Christopher Page’s treatise The Christian West and Its Singers: The First One Thousand Years rightly offers a massive and complete chapter on his life and influence – beautifully written and inspiring on every page.

But there is also what struck me as a blockbuster revelation buried here. I’ll just quote Page directly: “Guido is commonly regarded today as the author of four works all of them musical tracts, whereas his legacy almost certainly runs to five treatises, the last being devoted a sharply different matter, or so modern habits of thought make it seem. To be fair, the abundant transmission of Guido’s musical works gives no clue to the existence of this extra item, which is a trenchant letter on the subject of simony (the sale or purchase of ecclesiastical offices) addressed to one of the most exalted ecclesiastics in Italy…”

This was complete news to me. Guido, it turns out, was not just a musical innovator. He was a passionate advocate of purifying the life of the monastery and the Church in general. In fact, this is precisely was motivated his effort to make it possible to transmit the chant from place to place and time to time without the need of a teacher. He wanted to free the monks from endless studies of music, under the control of a single master, in order that they could have more time to purify their spiritual lives. It was the same motivation behind his campaign to end the trafficking in the Holy Spirit: the free the Church of contact with the bribes and fees associated with the offices and rituals of the pagan temples.


The book is called Epistola Widonis. In it, Guido says that simony “pollutes the chastity of Holy Church with a disgusting contagion.” He notes how Jesus threw the money changers out of the temple, how Dathan and Abiron were swallowed up by the ground for soliciting the governance of the priesthood, and how St. Peter put Simon Magus under perpetual anathema.

Guido writes:

It is excessively shameful that the Church should now, in its fullest vigour, succumb to such a bestial enemy that it had the power to conquer it its infancy with such strength…. who cannot see that the Masses and prayers of such prelates or priests [guilty of simony] will bring the wrath of Gold up on the people and not placate him in the way we believe such observances can do? For it is written: ‘Whatsoever is not of faith is sin’ … When, therefore, do we shuns such bishops, abbots, clerics, and others if we hear the Masses of those, and pray with those, with whom we take excommunication upon ourselves? Just to believe such men to be priests is to go entirely astray, as Peter said to Simon Magus: “Thy money perish with thee, because thou has thought that the gift of God may be purchased with money.”


Apparently, his treatise was highly influential and led to and was certainly central to major reforms that permitted the lowliest person to hold the powerful accountable for the sin of simony, which Guido believed to be pervasive in his time. The Catholic Church had to take a stand that the graces of its sacraments, the offices and rites of its holy spaces, were not to be subject to bribes and payments. And certainly there can be no question that Guido was very serious about this subject. He had already shown himself to be made of strong character, having endured exile from his own monastery, apparently over the innovations in music that led to his fame, and having finally gained an audience with the Pope to seek vindication (which he finally received).

Just how “sharply different” were the matters of music and simony in his time? It is hard to say. There was no printing, so no opportunity for anyone to claim private ownership over the text of the Mass, the Psalms, or the chant. No one would have done so. The institution we call copyright – that government-granted privilege to a single author and its contracted publisher – was unknown in his time. Yes, there was private ownership over the chant books themselves, and they were highly guarded and protected as nearly priceless. But the contents, the melodies, the words? It would have been unthinkable for anyone to claim to own those and seek payment for permission to pray or sing their contents.

But let us imagine that someone had, in Guido’s time, done so. In light of his views of how simony is the despoiler of the chastity of the Church, what might he have said? He stood up in his time against very powerful interests, even offering the sweeping judgement that many bishops and priests of his time were tainted with the sin of simony. He would surely have had strong words for those who would attempt to privatize the liturgy and proceed to profiteer from a restrictive legal status.  

Today, the institutions of copyright and royalties, exclusive use and fees, payments and contracts with authors and publishers, war chests of “intellectual propersy rights” held by favored publishers, are all the norm. Musicians are highly dependent on these systems. Parishes believe that they cannot participate in the life of the faith without subscribing to “rights management” software sold by private companies. Parishes are even told to destroy last year’s readings booklets because their rights to use them have expired. This system, which is not a purely private system but one that makes use of government regulations, was first used by Christians little more than a century ago. Today it is taken for granted and these “rights” are bought and sold as if this is merely part of the professionalization of publishing and the legitimization of Catholic musical life.

And yet: there is another way. There is publishing into the commons, precisely as Guido’s own books were published. This does not mean the end of property. All things that are real physical things remain property. But what is infinitely reproducable belongs to everyone. Nor does it mean the end of commerce. There are still legitimate profits to be made by selling goods and books and liturgical items. What needs to come to an end is the selling of what should belong to all, those things of the Holy Spirit such as the texts of Mass, the text of the Psalms, the music of worship, the words that make up the liturgy. What need to be subjected to commercial restriction should not be restricted.

It is strange and fascinating to me to discover this side of  Guido. A musician friend of mine suggests that we ask for his intercession to lead us out of the problems of our own time with the buying and selling of that which ought to be free gifts to all the faithful.