The music you hear in a family’s household says a great deal about that family. For instance, if all they ever play is the shallow, repetitive stuff that gets churned out of the modern pop music machine then they deprive themselves of the richness and depth that God intended when he gave us the gift of music. Or, if family members are forever splitting up and going into separate rooms to listen only to the music they individually prefer then the family suffers from disunity—by never sharing music or singing as one they never get to be drawn together in that way which, again, is such a powerful gift from our heavenly Father.
These are problems which affect our earthly, human families, yet to a greater degree they affect God’s family, as well. When we, the members of Christ’s body and of God’s family, gather together in God’s house at Mass, the music does not often serve the purposes of fully drawing us together in unity and deepening our relationship with the Almighty. It has the opposite effect, in some cases.
A New Kind of Hymnal
This is not another article about bad liturgical music. It is more of a clarion call to embrace a better way of performing and participating in the music of Mass. The recently released Vatican II Hymnal, published by the Texas-based non-profit organization Corpus Christi Watershed, is the pièce de résistance of this “better way.”
There are, of course, other hymnals available already from other publishers. Catholics use them at Mass every Sunday. The quality of the songs therein is debatable, and there is no dearth of opinions on the subject. Song preferences aside, the Vatican II Hymnal responds to a more pervasive problem that is rarely recognized at the parish level: every Sunday music directors “spin the dial,” as CCW President Jeffrey Ostrowski puts it. Songs for Mass are very often chosen, if not outright randomly, then with little regard for the liturgical season or for the themes of the Mass that day.
The Church put specific prayers and chants in place for every Mass many centuries ago, with the intention that we should sing them regularly and ritually: an Introit at the beginning, a Gradual and an Alleluia after the readings, an Offertory and a Communion.
Each is an exquisite gem that inspires everyone who hears. Each bears an aura of antiquity that is astounding: many of them would have been heard and sung by St. Thomas Aquinas, St. Francis of Assisi, and St. Albert the Great.
The Church prefers that we use these chants today, and yet most of us have never heard them before. The Catholic Church does allow for some latitude in the music planned for Mass, but what was intended as an extraordinary exception has become a universal rule. Sunday Mass is now dominated by songs which are quite often musically inferior, thematically inappropriate, and lyrically shallow. The result is a lack of unity in God’s family and a watering down of the Mass’s inherent beauty.
The Picture of Mass
Just as the Scripture readings are formally set and repeated in cycles throughout the ages, so also is the music we are meant to hear and share in. It is all for a reason, of course—it all works together to form a particular picture.
For example, at the Mass for the first Sunday after Easter last year Catholics heard specific readings from Acts of the Apostles, the 1st letter of Peter, and the Gospel of John. The homily expounded on those readings (one hopes) and in some way exhorted parishioners to imitate the first disciples spoken of in those readings. The Church thought all of this through a long time ago for the sake of the faithful—in general, everything at that specific Mass should celebrate these particular themes and subjects. That is the “picture” it forms.
The music should add even more color and texture to the overall picture. The best way to do this is what the Church has prescribed for centuries: chant. Gregorian chant is the best, most common way of singing what are called the “Propers” of Mass: the Introit, the Gradual, the Alleluia, etc.
Changing to Chant
This would amount to a revolution in parish music programs, and Ostrowski is sensitive to the seismic disturbances this would cause.
“I would suggest a two-step program,” he says. “Firstly, every secular, undignified, emotionally-driven song needs to be gradually banished from our churches. Secondly, we ought not to instantly take away hymns, because we have become so accustomed to them—and many are truly beautiful and they enhance worship. However, we should remember that chanting, especially the Mass Propers, is our ultimate goal.”
“Musicologists,” he goes on to say, “have pointed out that the very form of metrical hymns, with their predictable upbeat and downbeat, tend to remind us of the passage of time and (by extension) the world. Whereas Gregorian chant, which is completely free in its rhythm, takes you into another world: prayerful, reverent, eternal, holy.”
On top of this, it is the preferred music of the Church—not the hymns to which we have all become so accustomed. Gregorian chant “should be given pride of place in liturgical services,” wrote the Council Fathers in 1963’s Sacrosanctum Concilium (par. 116) and yet this mandate has largely been ignored for decades.
It seems, however, that chant’s time has come. Corpus Christi Watershed has achieved amazing success as the go-to place for any and all resources having to do with chant, and the Vatican II Hymnal is a crown jewel of that success. The hard work and persistence of the staff, board members, composers and performers associated with CCW is all an effort designed to meet a modern resurgence of interest in the ancient forms of liturgical music. New scholas, or liturgical musical groups, are springing up in dioceses across America and they are often comprised of young, enthusiastic folk with very little formal training—they only know that they love the music that Corpus Christi Watershed is making available.
At this point, the biggest obstacle for the average Catholic is simply a lack of confidence. They are unfamiliar with the traditional music and so they are not sure if they will be able to learn it or perform it correctly. Again, that is what Corpus Christi Watershed was created for: to assist Catholics everywhere in rediscovering and implementing ancient polyphony and chant in their parishes.
Imagine the glorious beauty of every Catholic Church on earth joining in harmony to hear the ancient Scripture readings assigned to a particular Sunday, to be pondering and fixating on the same themes and ideas, and to share in the one, holy sacrifice of the Mass all to the music of sacred chants that have been sung by Catholics on that day since the first centuries of Christianity? That is a more profound sharing in and realization of the unity of God’s family, and a foretaste of the heavenly reality that waits for all of us at the end of time.
The Vatican II Hymnal, like everything Corpus Christi Watershed produces, is done with no other purpose in mind than to bring us all into closer contact with God and with each other at Mass. It is high time that music directors stop thumbing through missalettes in search of mediocre songs that may or may not be prescribed by the Church. It is time to rediscover the ancient glory of the chants that the Church gives us.