Sunday, March 8, 2009

Maybe there is hope for liturgical music in our parishes: Latin at the Basilica!

One of my more common rants has been about the choice of music that certain parishes select for their Masses. On more than one occasion I have proposed a Canon Law that would prohibit any hymns composed after 1950.

There seems to be some light at the end of the musical tunnel. The Director of Liturgy and Sacred Arts at the Basilica of St. Mary in downtown Minneapolis, Johan von Parys, has made some changes for the Sunday Masses for Lent and has provided his thinking on the subject in a recent parish bulletin. (Not found on the internet as it is mailed to all parishioners, I guess).

It is a very nice and short summary of the role of Latin and Gregorian chant in the 2000 year old life of the Church.

  • You will have noticed that we are using a bit more Latin and Gregorian chant in the liturgy during Lent. Some of you are undoubtedly delighted by this and desire even more. Others may be less pleased and would prefer that there were none.

    Whether we like it or not, Latin has been the language of the liturgy for some 15 centuries and Gregorian chant has been the musical norm for nearly as long.

    The origin of Latin in the Mass goes back to the early centuries of the Church when Christianity became the religion of the Roman Empire. In the Western part of the Empire, commoners did not know Greek, so the original language of the gentile Church (Greek) was replaced with the language of the people: Latin.

    Note that the language used for the liturgy in other parts of the Mediterranean was the language spoken by the people of the area. As a result, the liturgy was celebrated in Syriac, Greek, Latin, Coptic, etc. Latin was used long after the empire had collapsed and long after people stopped understanding this original vernacular language of the liturgy.

    Despite this “stability” in language in the Roman Rite and although the perception may be completely opposite, the reality is that the liturgy of the Church has never been absolutely static; on the contrary the liturgy has adapted itself to every time and every place. Sometimes this happened in very dramatic ways; at other times, the change was more subtle and hardly perceptible to the untrained eye.

    As a result we have a repository of liturgical texts, rituals, art, architecture and music that is extraordinarily rich and diverse. Every generation of Christians has interpreted the time proven ritual in light of the contemporary context. Sometimes this was accompanied by a moment of iconoclasm of sorts when the “old” was thrown out in favor of the “new.” At other times the old was merely adapted and reformatted.

    In terms of music we are heirs to an enormous repository of liturgical music composed for use in the Roman Rite over nearly 2000 years. Although not all of it is of the quality that would warrant use in the liturgy today, some of the old favorites surely have their place in today’s celebration and Gregorian chant is part of the latter.

    Gregorian chant indeed “is a living connection with our forbears in the faith, the traditional music of the Roman Rite, a sign of communion with the universal Church, a bond of unity among cultures, a means of diverse communities to participate together in song, and a summons to contemplative participation in the liturgy.” (Sing to the Lord, par. 72) Because of this, it is good to use Gregorian chant in the liturgy, albeit with care and moderation.

    “Each worshipping community in the United States, including all age groups and all ethnic groups, should at minimum” learn some of the easier chants of the Mass (Sing to the Lord, par. 75). These include the ones that are being used during the Season of Lent.

    Let us embrace our Tradition, old and new, learn from it and inspired by it journey to the Easter celebrations.
So I moseyed on over there this morning to experience the traddie movement of the Basilica back towards the Church's heritage. It wasn't that long ago that their congregation ceased standing and praying during the Canon of the Mass (the Eucharistic Prayers) so I was hopeful of hearing some wonderful hymns of yore. The Basilica does have a wonderful choir, schola, organist and musicians and the acoustics (when the church is full) are wonderful.

While the schola and the choir did sing a couple of hymns in Latin at the beginning of the Mass, the congregation, sounding like they had been singing in Latin all along, sang just the Sanctus and the Agnus Dei and responded in Latin at the conclusions of the Readings and the Gospel. Nobody walked out. Neither did I hear "Gather Us In" or "On Eagle's Wings."


Unknown said...

Count me in as a mostly traditional catholic who actually likes the St. Louis Jesuits and stuff like "Gather Us In." This stuff followed some really really terrible dreck in the late 60s "folk masses" and is Mozart in comparison. It's a wonder anyone my age is still Catholic if they grew up singing that. That said, I think the newer stuff has it's place as does the Latin chant and 18th and 19th century hymns. The most important thing is that it be appropriate and consistent with the season or feast. A lot of musical preference is taste but anything that distracts from the liturgy is inappropriate.

peter b nelson said...

This really makes me miss my Basilica. We used to be members before we moved, in fact our daughter was baptized there. Here's a pet peeve of mine: parish liturgists who think they are modernizing by throwing out all the great old stuff, when in fact that is a very 1970's kind of thing to do. The new cutting edge is to rehabilitate classic Catholic music, as the Basilica is doing. And it's not only about musical taste, it's about what we think the mass is for. If it's about "fellowship" then we sing kumbaya camp songs about the "people of God". If it's about reverence and worship then we sing chants and old hymns about glory to God in the highest. Your loyal follower...