Pope Benedict XVI’s Musical Legacy

One of the many lasting legacies of the papacy of Benedict XVI concerns liturgical music. Enormous progress has been made in his papacy. Incredibly this progress has happened without new legislation, new restrictions, new mandates, or firm-handed attempts to impose discipline on musicians and artists. The change has happened through the means that Benedict XVI has always preferred: he has led through example and through the inspiration provided by his homilies and writings.

You can observe the difference by watching any Papal liturgy, whether live or on television or through webcast. Gregorian chant is back but not just as a style preferred to the pop music that still dominates parish liturgy. More importantly, chant is back in its rightful place as the sung prayer of the liturgy. Viewers can now depend on hearing the chanted introit from the liturgical books at every Mass. The communion chant is sung. The offertory chant has made a return in many Masses. Incredibly, even the ancient version of the Psalm between the readings has more recently been employed as a deeply contemplative alternative to the responsorial version most people hear at Mass.

The musical legacy turns the tide and foreshadows a future of beauty in Catholic art.

The musical issue in the Catholic Church has been fraught with controversy for many centuries. This is nothing new. Nor is the postconciliar crisis in music something particularly new in Church history. We tend to think it is just because we experience it so intensely. And this feature is precisely what makes liturgical music such a dicey issue. It affects everyone in the pew in the most profound way. Everyone has an opinion, and it is rarely positive.

Truly, you have to put yourself in the frame of mind of someone who doesn’t entirely understand what happened to liturgical music after 1965 to fully appreciate the shock that comes when one first encounters the parish reality. You step into the church with a hope for a profound religious experience, something like what you might have seen in a movie or heard about from popular chant CDs. Instead of solemn music, you are hit by an upbeat song about gathering as a community or a tune that seems to belong on an evangelical radio station. It can be deeply alarming for anyone who is not yet acculturated to the reality.

The question everyone asks is: how did this happen? The second question everyone asks is: why doesn’t someone stop it?

The answers to both questions are complex.

The musical agenda of the Second Vatican Council, as Benedict XVI well understood because he was there, was to more closely link the music with the liturgy, and to realize the hope of the Liturgical Movement that people would be actively involved in hearing and singing this music. The hope was to turn the tide away from “Low Mass” with four English hymns—which had become standard practice in many parts of the world—toward the liturgical ideal in which the core music of the rite was an extension of the liturgical text itself.

Gregorian chant is that ideal because it grew up alongside the Roman Rite ritual. It uses the text of that ritual. Its musical structure is a reflection of the liturgical purpose of the music. That’s why the chant between the readings is long and contemplative whereas the music of the entrance is more syllabic, thematically evocative, and forward feeling.

These features of chant have long been understood by competent experts in the field. It is an “inestimable treasure,” as the Council said. The Council even made a clear declaration, for the first time in Church history, that Gregorian chant should have the first place at Mass, and that people should sing the parts of the Mass that belong to them.

That agenda seems clear enough but there was a wrinkle. The Council also authorized a change in the language from all-Latin to some English, leaving the apportionment to the national conferences. Well, it didn’t take long before English was everywhere. Latin chant vanished over the course of only a few years. The common preconciliar practice of English hymns went on hyperdrive. By the late sixties, even before the introduction of the new Missal, pop music at Mass had become the norm. Gregorian chant was a distant memory. This was a case study in a plan that had gone very wrong.

And so it remained for forty years, which raises the question: why didn’t someone do something to stop this? I think often of the average parish situation. The pastor is not typically a trained musician. He doesn’t usually have money to hire trained musicians. He has to depend on the resources he has at his disposal. The last thing he can do is alienate the musicians in his parish, who are doing what they think is best. It does no good to march up to them and say: sing Gregorian chant. They can’t. They can’t read the notes. They can’t understand the language. The singers lack experience and the guitar players have no understanding whatsoever. Plus, the shift might be too much for the congregation. Lacking any clear way out, the pastor grits his teeth and learns to adapt. The same is true for the laity.

Popes since Vatican II have attempted to turn the tide. Paul VI saw what was happening and regretted it all greatly. His solution appeared in 1974. It was a book of Latin music that he sent to all Bishops in the world, giving them permission to freely copy and use it. It was a proposal for a new core music for liturgy. He wrote: please “decide on the best ways of teaching the faithful the Latin chants of Jubilate Deo and of having them sing them…. You will thus be performing a new service for the Church in the domain of liturgical renewal.”

This fell on deaf ears. The music ended up in the waste can. His successor John Paul II issued several very important statements that similarly urged a change. They were beautifully written and inspiring. But again, it had no effect. In the intervening years, a large industry of private publishers had already arisen to provide music to parishes on a subscription basis. Everyone was already hooked on this pop material. All the urges from Rome to embrace the musical ideals of the Second Vatican Council amounted to nothing.

Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger was different. He had written an entire book on the music issue. He had written another book on the liturgical question. He had spoken about the subject on many occasions. He never feared the subject and this is for two reasons: 1) he understood the goals of Vatican II and saw that they had been seriously distorted, and 2) he was a trained music of the highest calibre who understood the role of music in the Roman Rite.

When he became Pope, the changes began and they were relentless. We started hearing chant in Papal liturgy, just a bit at first and then more as time went on. With Summorum Pontificum (2007) he took away the stigma that had been attached to traditional chant by granting full permission to the liturgical structure that had originally given rise to chant. This was deeply encouraging for a generation that was ready to move forward. We started seeing chant workshops fill up. Groups began to form at the parish level. New resources started to be published by independent publishers. A real fire had been lit in the Catholic music world. And it all happened without any impositions or legislation.

The musical program of St. Peter’s Basilica began to attract the attention of serious musicians. A new standard came to be applied to visiting choirs: you must know the basics of Gregorian chant or you cannot sing at St. Peter’s. This was a gigantic decision that fundamentally upset the dynamic that had long developed between Rome and traveling choirs. Now choirs had to learn and discover chant if they hoped to take that long-sought pilgrimage to Rome.

Meanwhile, Joseph Ratzinger’s writings on music were selling more than ever, and having an ever larger influence. Benedict XVI spoke about the topic often in homilies and spontaneous remarks following concerts. He worked to elevate high art to a new status on his travels. His team worked hard to encourage groups that sang for liturgy for his trips to embrace chant and polyphonic music of the Renaissance. It didn’t always work but the progress was obvious.

Today we look at the situation and marvel. It is a beautiful thing to see and hear. The chant is back and not just in Latin. Some of the biggest-selling books in the English world are pushing English chant—forty years late but it is still a triumph. And we should not forget the huge importance of the new English Missal that came out in 2011. It has more music embedded in it than any Missal ever published, and it is entirely chanted. This was a bold move, pushed hard by Rome under the leadership of Benedict XVI.

The legacy is much larger and much long-lasting than that. A priest friend wrote the following:

I am a priest of the Benedict XVI Generation.

The way that I approach theology, liturgy, preaching, pastoral life, everything, has been profoundly influenced by this amazing man.  I will always thank God for his constant presence in my life, and in the lives of those I touch because of his example to me.  I have enough sentiment in me to want to write the Holy Father personally to tell him all this, but I know that he will never receive it.  But even in that he continues to teach me.

We are not out of the woods yet but the progress is very much in evidence. The future is clear. Chant will again be the universal music of the Roman Rite. New compositions will be inspired by it. It will have first place in the liturgy. Music appropriate to the liturgy will follow its inspiration.

What I find most impressive is the method that the pope used to achieve this. It was through inspiration and not imposition. For this reason, this change is fundamental and lasting. Mark my words: chant will come to a parish near you. We can thank Benedict XVI for his wisdom and foresight in achieving what most people thought was impossible.

As he has understood, the musical question is only superficially about style. The real substance of the question concerns what elevates the text and reflects the liturgical purpose of glorifying God. In the long run, there can be no separation between the Roman Rite and the music that is native to it. If that point seems obvious now, it is only because the papacy of Benedict XVI made it so.

Jeffrey Tucker


Jeffrey Tucker is managing editor of Sacred Music and publications editor of the Church Music Association of America. He writes a bi-weekly column on sacred music and liturgy for Crisis Magazine and also runs the Chant Cafe Blog. Jeffrey@chantcafe.com

  • Prof_Override


  • Kent

    I have been reading your articles for many years now and appreciate your enthusiasm. All is well and good in metropolitan areas where discerning Catholics can pick and choose from parishes and are probably able to find a church somewhat faithful to the standards set forth by the music documents of the Second Vatican Council and the examples of Pope Benedict, but in the real world sometimes things are not well and good. In my rural diocese the bishops and priests give no need to any of that. It’s St. Louis Jesuits to the hilt. Absolutely no chant and certainly no Latin. I can’t help but think that if Benedict had mandated more and led by example less the situation here would be different than it is. I’m afraid the “biological solution” is the only answer here.

    • musicacre


  • Ford Oxaal

    I can back up what you are saying with “anecdotal” evidence: I went to a different Mass the other day with — searching for kind words here — a less than stellar choir. But then the — searching for kind words here — less than naturally gifted voices sang in chant. The voices were somehow transformed, something came out that was hiding before. The chant led to a prayerful, meditative plane, a better plane.

    • musicacre

      Goodness, truth and BEAUTY always lead to a better place:) The modern Masses somehow forgot that we needed beauty also!

  • Thank you, Jeffrey. So beautifully written. I’ll post this in our vestibule.

  • sara

    i will forsure miss him

  • Barbaracvm

    When I attended a Catholic school my grade sang the 8am high mass on Sundays. We had to sing Chant. If grade school kids can do why are adults not doing it?

    The other side of the issue is there are to many musical leaders? ? who do not like Catholic hymns of any kind. They would sing songs they like even when it is not appropriate for the liturgical season. I know of instants where the priest had to order what was correct for the season.

    More non Catholic songs are being sang than Catholic. It has gotten to where no music would be preferred.

    • musicacre

      I think we are truly on the cusp where the banal campfire songs (non-liturgical, overly sentimental, nothing to do with Catholicism) are on the their way out and the truly beautiful inspiring chant is coming back to STAY!! Long-awaited for and it won’t be disappearing fast because once having lost it, we appreciate it more this time! We all have to admit there has been an anti-liturgical movement afoot for at least 4 decades which saw true iconoclasm happening (Statues were busted and done away with in our diocese, not to mention an axe taken to the main cathedral to the high altar), but they did not win. It is joyful and amazing how orthodoxy has survived the bleakness and ugliness of Modernism and is coming back with irrepressible energy!

      • John200

        Ditto on Modernism.

        We have a guarantee that orthodox faith wins. Modernism, other heresies, apostasies, etc. will be leaving us directly. And then they reemerge, to be defeated again by the truth.

        To read Church history leads to the same conclusion you would make from Scripture, and from Magisterial teaching: there is a plan at work here. It is brilliant. All we have to do is correspond with grace as we receive it.

      • So true. Don’t forget about the Communion rail. So many Catholics don’t even know what that was. So much nicer and reverent. I’ve been at Masses where there were so many Extraordinary Ministers of the Eucharist that people would be practically running to keep up. Not in my parish, thank God.

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  • I grew up Catholic in the 60s, mainly in the Midwest. As far as I could tell, our family were part of a vanishingly small number of people who actually SANG in the congregation– and I recall being stared at by people who apparently thought being audible was some kind of distasteful egotism! I wanted to sing the great old hymns– but at most, we got two verses of NOW THANK WE ALL OUR GOD, now and then, and that was without the chance to sing in parts, as it was out of that horrid “monthly missalette,” in which traditional hymns were printed as text only. What a thrill to discover congregational singing in Protestant churches, where people sang all kinds of great old hymns out of actual hymnals… and even sang in parts, because they were printed for all to enjoy. A musical person exposed to that kind of hymnal in childhood could actually pick up a lot about reading music.

    I’ve had a long career as a primarily classical singer, much of it in church music. I’m occasionally in a Catholic church, and with a few exceptions (which seem to be the really enthusiastic liberal congregations), note that Catholics still do not sing. It’s hard to imagine that an infusion of chant will change that, but my impression is that congregational singing isn’t all that important to Catholics. If it were, perhaps that goofy non-conducting hand gesturing could be abandoned– I pity those “cantors” who get stuck doing that! I don’t recall it from my youth– it must have started in earnest in the late 70s or beyond.

    I’ve been encouraged by a few high quality Catholic music programs in the Twin Cities– It’d be great to see that approach spread further out from the urban cathedrals.

    • musicacre

      Maybe if there is just one person in each church to encourage the beautiful (and legit) Liturgical music then things can change. We are supposed to be the salt in the loaf….not wait until the entire loaf is agreeable. What are you waiting for? Those that have the education (in this case music) have the obligation to pass it on to those who are ignorant. Let’s not be cowardly about setting things right. If it’s the right thing to do, God will give us the Grace to help with this type of evangelizing in the Year of Faith.

    • I have always grown up singing in church since I was little and I am blessed that many of the churches around me still have the songs with actual tunes that I can sing along with. There are a number of songs I have enjoyed all this time and so for me to replace them with chants devoid of melody is painful because I have known nothing else. Sadly, one local church lost its choir director and he has been replaced with a young man who is obsessed with chant and loud organ music. Now all the masses there have you chanting all the major parts of the mass and it is so strange to me that I have never returned. Thankfully other churches still continue on with as if The Pope never pushed for chanting (although some of the new Glorias are pretty bad melodically).

      • Phyllis McGuire

        My experience of chant has been this: less singing than ever from the people because the chants are either too hard for the layman to read (old style block notes) or just one short phrase the people sing ad nauseam while the only person who gets to sing anything is the cantor. I want to praise God in song as a community, not listen to an often off-key cantor while I sing my tiny little part over and over. At our church, there is no singing at the offertory: just loud, put-in-your-ear-plugs organ music. St. Augustine, the well-known 5th century bishop from North Africa said, “Those who sing pray twice.” I want to pray as I sing and I don’t get to do that with the chanting at my church.

        • Actually, the correct translation of St. Augustine’s quote is “He who sings well, prays twice.” I’m not sure if you’re talking about the Responsorial Psalm or the part of the Mass in Latin. (The Responsorial Psalm is an addition between the two readings of unrecalled origin on my part.) Chant is really very simple in melody, all whole notes. As I wrote in another reply, music at Mass is not just about singing (Protestants are good as singing because they don’t have much else at their services except for biblical readings with dubious interpretations.) It’s very much about listening. We pretty much have nothing but “low” Masses with four “songs”. If you’ll forgive the pun, Rome wasn’t built in a day so the reform of the reform of the Mass, so loved by Pope Benedict XVI, will take time. Maybe another 40 years. hang in there.

          • Black Friar

            Sorry, Phyllis and Noreen, but, just for the record, as far as we know St Augustine never said exactly either of those things. I know he is often claimed to have said something like that,but that phrase does not occur precisely in any of his (extensive) known works. He was all in favour of singing in Church, though …. plenty of evidence for that! The GIRM gets it right in n. 39:

            39. The Christian faithful who gather together as one to await the Lord’s coming are instructed by the Apostle Paul to sing together psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs (cf. Col 3:16). Singing is the sign of the heart’s joy (cf. Acts 2:46). Thus Saint Augustine says rightly, “Singing is for one who loves.”[48] There is also the ancient proverb: “One who sings well prays twice.”

            • Phyllis McGuire

              Thanks for correcting the quote source. My main point was that I want to sing as a community but am left with singing only a tiny part while the cantor takes center stage. Cantors can be good or bad but as a choir or congregation, we all blend together in perfect harmony. This is not just the responsorial psalm, but the entrance “chant” and the long communion “chant”. There is no singing at the offertory, just loud organ music. Many have left and moved to other parishes because of it.

  • I can’t share the author’s enthusiasm with the resurgence of chanting. When a local church started chanting the major parts of the mass it was deeply jarring for me and I have not been able to shake the uncomfortable feeling I get with the chants. Perhaps it is my musical background and the fact that I grew up singing the pop songs you so deplore but I find the melodies in the music get me engaged in the mass in a way only singing along can do. Many of the new chants are painfully lacking in melody, repeating a single note for most of it. I really hope that the churches I attend that haven’t started chanting stand their ground because I’m not sure I could stand it otherwise.

    • Titus

      Well, it’s not about you, now is it? If you need a pop melody to get “engaged in the [M]ass,” you’re doing it wrong.

      • Laura

        What is wrong to you may be right to another. Get off your judgement seat and move over for the real Judge.

    • Casey

      Pop culture and Catholicism do not mix.

    • It must be difficult for someone of your age who has grown up with the church “music” of the past 40 years to suddenly hear Latin music. I started singing in choir when I was 10 years old (52 years ago). I learned the English hymns but my first love was the Gregorian (Latin) Chant. You should listen to my favorite Veni, Creator Spiritus (Come, Holy Spirit). This type of music hopefully lifts the listener to the supernatural, sacramental. The Mass should lift us up to God not bring Him down to us. Check out this recording. I hope you’ll like it. http://search.aol.com/aol/search?q=veni+creator+spiritus+music&v_t=wscreen50-bb-ac&s_cs=-6339104996421548991&enabled_terms=&s_it=botm_grelsearch Close your eyes, listen and let God communicate with you. God bless.

      • That is at least a lot better than what I heard when a local church started chanting the major parts of the mass (there is actual movement in the music). I have some delightful recordings of some Latin chants on an album simply called Rainbow Suites (the first half is original music in English followed by Latin chants). http://moviescoremedia.com/rainbow-suite-the-choral-music-of-mikael-carlsson/

        I think there might also be some disconnect between the music the original author suggests is improper pop music and the hymns I enjoy singing in church regularly. Perhaps the music I enjoy is more accurately described as English hymns. Off the top of my head, one of my favorites is titled “On Eagles Wings” and I believe that and many others I enjoy are all lyrically based on scripture. The mass I have been attending for the last seven+ years usually has this music with nothing but piano accompaniment and it is wonderful.

        I would be afraid that moving to Latin chants in mass would take away my ability to sing along at least initially. The pronunciation of Latin is not always what it appears to a native English speaker and I would hate to improperly pronounce it all.

        • musicacre

          We all just follow the ones who are more experienced. Every time I go to a traditional Mass I get better at pronunciation. My daughter is a professional musician (and directs a Latin choir on Sundays), and she just sent me a link to some music called Miserere Mei Deus, (by Allegri) I think. It’s on you tube; very beautiful.

    • Zac

      I read an interesting comment somewhere that chant can indeed disturb us and make us uncomfortable: “Plainchant is “silent
      music,” “sounding silence” (St. John of the Cross, “The Spiritual Canticle,” 46). This silence emits its own inner power. But
      listening to these melodies “disturbs [people’s] inmost beings rousing
      them to meditation and prayer on the transcendent. They
      would rather not enter into the realm of solitude. At its core,
      plainsong suggests a world of aloneness, ineluctably insisting on one’s
      attuning oneself to one’s self” (Cott, “The Musical Mysteries of Liturgical Chant,” 34).”

      I don’t mean to imply that this is precisely what makes you feel uncomfortable, but I think it is worth reflecting on the role of music in the Mass – it may be jarring, but what is being jarred? It might make us very uncomfortable, but perhaps our comfort needs to be disturbed?

      It reminds me of the Confiteor, whereby some people have resented having to say ‘through my fault, through my fault, through my most grievous fault’, because it is ‘negative’ or guilt-inducing. But if they could see that the mystery of the Mass requires humility – demands we lower ourselves in order to recognise the greatness of the gift; then I think we can appreciate in a similar way how chant is supposed to function in the Mass.

      As a friend put to me, if you ask ‘what is the Mass for?’ then the question of the most appropriate music will hopefully become more evident.

    • Laura

      I agree with you. One style of music does not fit all.

      Those who enjoy chant – great for you; however, I can only take it in small doses and it needs to have melody to be effective. The “newly” written chants for our Responsorials and other areas that are a part of our “new improved” Mass are horrible. The writer has no sense of style, nor an ear for what is natural or pleasing.

  • Cindy Choo


    What a beautiful and honest tribute to Pope Benedict! It is appropriate to recognize his brilliance! I have been frustrated reading what the Associated Press has put out today. This is a breath of fresh air. Thank you so much!! I look forward to seeing you in SLC!

  • Marietta

    Jeffrey writes: “The hope was to turn the tide away from ‘Low Mass’ with four English hymns—which had become standard practice in many parts of the world…”

    I’m surprised by this sentence. I grew up in a small wood-working village in the Philippines and people there sang chant at Mass – perhaps not as smoothly as the monks of Solesmes, and not knowing exactly how it should sound – but they chanted Gregorian chant. They were unskilled carpenters, farmers, fishermen, schoolteachers, and day-laborers during the week but they sang chant on Sundays. They saved from their meager earnings to buy their own Liber Breviors and they chanted both the Ordinary and Propers.

    Children learned only one Mass setting at that time – the Missa de Angelis, for their First Friday Sacred Heart Mass, but their fathers knew all the settings and the Propers that changed from week to week. Hymns were sang only at Benedictions, novenas, processions, devotions (such as Stations of the Cross) and CCD assemblies – but not at Mass. I thought that was how it was all over the Catholic world? Apparently not.

    No wonder then that when the Mass was changed into the vernacular and everyone starts singing the horrid English hymns, people blamed Vatican II for the devastation. It was Vatican II’s fault.

    I’m really surprised and disappointed to learn that elsewhere in the Catholic world, they’ve already thrown away chant and went for hymns even before Vatican II. If uneducated laborers and little children in the Philippines could do chant then, why not Americans now? Americans are supposed to be better educated, more resourceful, and overall more sophisticated than third-world villagers. They should be able to do chant.

  • Beautifully put. I love your websites and visit them often. We have been in 2 parishes now where the pastor has asked my husband to teach the choirs how to chant. It’s interesting to note that the younger people are all for it as a general rule. The generation that is now between about 50 and 70, however, tends to be vocally opposed to chant. Those above 70 love it.
    Regarding the 50- to 70-year-old group, I recall one very talented musician complaining that chant “just didn’t move her.” I think she actually got right to the heart of the problem of music at Mass. She (and so many like her) had the misconception that the music at Mass (and presumably Mass itself) are primarily for the purpose of feeling warm religious sentiments rather than offering God worship and offering God the Father the sacrifice of Jesus Christ. It’s a lot like the difference between the idea of love as a feeling and love as an action–the first one is great, although it comes and goes, but the second is what love really is.

  • Ralph Canine

    Another good reason to learn to chant is that it helps people to memorize the prayers of the entire Mass. My professional background is in educational psychology. The cognitive neuro-scientists have discovered that the brain processes music in a different way than speech, and music stores in long term memory in a very powerful way. For example, do you remember the alphabet song from elementary school? If you have to alphabetize something, does the song suddenly pop into your memory? Chant represents the perfect union of music and speech. As an experiment, a few years ago when I was a volunteer CCD teacher, I taught my sixth grade class to chant the Nicene Creed. The kids and I had all become frustrated because they weren’t succeeding in memorizing the Creed just by reciting it and writing it on the classroom whiteboard. Once we chanted it, everyone got it, solid as a rock with just days! Storing up treasures of psalms, Bible verses, and prayers in our memories is an essential survival skill for all of us. When we’re tempted, or when we’re faced with a difficult decision of some kind, the Holy Spirit will prompt our memories and something will pop up that offers guidance. If our treasure storeroom is empty, it’s much harder to make the right choices. Thus, priests who lead their parishes in the revival of chant are offering their people a powerful form of pastoral care.

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  • Monica

    Thank you for this inspiring article!
    We live, as foreigners, in southern Spain and it was a true shock and source of indescribable sadness to discover that the only “music” during Mass there is – pop music. Usually, there is no song or music whatsoever, since there does not exist any choir tradition and if there is any song, it is done the flamenco way. In certain parishes, the amplifiers and microphones contribute to a climate where deep prayer and meditation is totally impossible. All of this even causes such frustration and disappointment that it sometimes can lead to anger, which, in turn, makes one feel even worse. We come to Mass to praise and thank God and what could be more contrary to this goal than banal pop music, performed by shrill, untrained voices, accompanied by someone who “masters” a few keys on the guitar.
    Elderly Spanish testify that gregorian chant was known and appreciated 40-50 years ago.
    Now, Latin during Mass, in any form, is unknown.
    A general problem, not only in Spain, but elsewhere, is the rise of self proclaimed “singers” and “muscicians”, amateurs, who would be utterly unwilling to leave their positions. And, not surprisingly, they feel threatened by professional musicians.
    God bless pope Benedict for his tremendous and brilliant genius, on all levels, and for his invaluable conribution to the change of the liturgy and music. He has underlined that the crisis in the Church, o a great extent, is connected with a deterioration in liturgy and music.
    Finally, he has said that what was earlier, during centuries, considered graet and holy, like the gregorian chant, cannot be considered wrong today.