Why the Latin Music?

During the holy season of Lent things change:  vestments are the purple color of penance, the Gloria and the Alleluia are omitted, and the bells are sometimes replaced by a wooden “clacker.” In the last days of Lent crosses and statues are covered during Passion Week to show that Jesus now “goes into hiding” because He is now hunted.  They are also covered because often crosses and statues were adorned with precious gems, so Passiontide would obscure their beauty during this time of darkness.  These are all beautiful and ancient traditions carried on for centuries.  They have very deep and profound meaning.

The church is ancient, and as a result she has a vast history of tradition which is all quite beautiful and deeply meaningful.  In case you disbelieve, just go to any museum in the world and the most beautiful of the ancient art is predominantly Christian in theme.  This is called the “treasury” of the Church.  It is the vast collection of the gifts of history bestowed through the goodness of the Church.  It is said that the history of the Church is the history of Western civilization.  I was speaking with someone recently who wished to leave the Catholic Church for another religion.  I asked the person if they realized the immense treasury of history, culture and faith they were about to abandon.  Had they ever delved into that treasury of the Church which they were about to leave?

One of the great gems in that treasure chest of our faith is Gregorian Chant which comes to us from the 8th century.  Roman plain chant goes back even farther to the 3rd century, but it was Saint Gregory the Great who gave us the music of the church which had been sung from the 8th century through to the Second Vatican Council of the 1960s—when it was abandoned for the trendier guitar Rock Masses.  It seems that centuries of tradition were suddenly thrown into the dustbin.  Imagine throwing all your family photos for generations into the garbage in favor of cartoons.  For 17 centuries we had filet mignon, and now were being served McDonalds.  Moreover, there was a radical shift from singing about God, to now singing about “me.”  Look at the words of the ancient songs:  they were all directed to God and His majesty.  Twentieth century music centers around “me”; it is anthropocentric.  This was all done through an ignorant misunderstanding of the directives of Vatican II, which called for the preservation of the traditions of the Latin Rite.

Let us look at Sacrosanctum Concilium, for example which is the Church’s universal directives on music in the Mass.

112:     “The musical tradition of the universal Church is a treasure of inestimable value, greater even than that of any other art.”

114:     “The treasury of sacred music is to be preserved and fostered with great care.”

116:     “The Church acknowledges Gregorian chant as specially suited to the Roman Liturgy; therefore, it should be given pride and place in liturgical services.”

120:     “In the Latin Church the pipe organ is to be held in high esteem, for it is the traditional musical instrument which adds a wonderful splendor to the Church’s ceremonies and powerfully lifts up man’s mind to God and to higher things.”

In order to implement what was given in Sacrosanctum Conocilium the church issued “Musicam Sacram.”  This document reaffirms the use of ancient and sacred Gregorian chant as well as sacred organ music.  Even further, it mandates that secular tunes not be used in the Mass.

There are different kinds of sacred music, but clearly the church continues to hold ancient Gregorian chant as primary in the Roman liturgy.

During this past season of Lent, we had extracted a few gems from our ancient and magnificent treasury of faith.  We sang the Sanctus, the Pater Noster, and the Agnus Dei at Sunday liturgies.  They might not be as toe-tapping and trendy as pop-music, but they have the exalted and indeed highest place in the music of the Divine Liturgy.  It took a bit of getting used to and a few made unpleasant comments.  “De gustibus non disputandum est.” As Lent progressed, so did our singing.  The Sanctus, Pater Noster and Agnus Dei, like Lent, are put back into the treasury after Lent…for now.’

– Fr. Gerard Gordon