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.