The tradition of sacred music: ‘Holy, beautiful, and universal’

By Dan McWilliams

A “treasure of inestimable value” is found in some East Tennessee Catholic parishes that carry on the sacred music tradition of the Church.

Gregorian chant and polyphony, or multiple-part vocal music in which each part is an independent melody, can be heard during Mass at the Basilica of Sts. Peter and Paul in Chattanooga and at Holy Ghost Church in Knoxville, for instance.

More than 100 lovers of sacred music gathered July 22-23 at the basilica for the second Summer Sacred Music Workshop.

Father David Carter, rector of the basilica, addressed what makes sacred music special.

“Sacred music is the Church’s own expression of faith throughout the centuries, melded with beauty of form,” he said. “The sacred music of the Church is that which has been produced through prayer and through the tradition of the Church worshiping God. It has honed itself. And sacred music is beautiful, it’s universal, and it has a sense of holiness that is unmistakable.”

Mary C. Weaver, director of the Pope Benedict XVI Schola at Holy Ghost, said there is a distinction between religious music and sacred music.

“All music that expresses religious feelings or thoughts can be called religious music,” she said. “That could include contemporary Christian music, music in a folk style — like much of what was composed for the Church in the late 1960s and ’70s — Gospel, hip-hop, you name it. But not all religious music is also sacred music.”

The word sacred means “something that is set apart, dedicated to, consecrated to the worship of God,” Ms. Weaver said.

“What is sacred is not ‘secular,’ not ‘of the world,’” she added. “So sacred music should be something set apart — something that is not secular, that is not in a secular style and has no secular associations.”

For a definition of sacred music, Ms. Weaver turned to William Mahrt, president of the Church Music Association of America (CMAA), who quoted Pope St. Pius X in a recent article.

“Pius X, in his Tra le Sollecitudini, the [1903] motu proprio in which he authorized the revival of Gregorian chant, defined three characteristics of sacred music: it is holy, beautiful, and universal,” the article stated.

Both Father Carter and Ms. Weaver pointed out that Hollywood typically uses chant in the soundtrack when it depicts a Catholic Church scene.

“And that immediately elicits thoughts of holiness, of beauty, of universality, of transcendence,” Father Carter said.

“Those are the things that make sacred music distinct from other types and genres of music.”

Ms. Weaver said movies and TV shows use chant and other forms of ancient sacred music in the soundtrack “because Gregorian chant and Renaissance polyphony are unmistakably Catholic.  You can’t possibly hear that music and be unclear about what the filmmaker is trying to communicate. Chant and polyphony — the ideals of Catholic sacred music — evoke no secular associations.”

That does not mean that “religious but not sacred music is unworthy for other purposes,” Ms. Weaver said, citing the world of architecture.

“Not all architecture, for example, is fit for church buildings,” she said. “When you walk into Walmart, you can tell you’re in a completely secular space. When you walk into a beautiful cathedral, it is obvious you are in a very different kind of space — in sacred space.”

The Catholic Church “has been very specific about her musical preferences in documents issued during and after the Second Vatican Council,” Ms. Weaver said.

In Sacrosanctum Concilium (The Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy), issued in 1963, the Church focuses on two types of sacred music: Gregorian chant and sacred polyphony. No. 116 in Sacrosanctum Concilium reads, in part: “The Church acknowledges Gregorian chant as specially suited to the Roman liturgy: therefore, other things being equal, it should be given pride of place in liturgical services. But other kinds of sacred music, especially polyphony, are by no means excluded from liturgical celebrations, so long as they accord with the spirit of the liturgical action …”

Ms. Weaver pointed out Sacrosanctum Concilium’s statement that “the musical tradition of the universal Church is a treasure of inestimable value.”

A key principle of the sacred music revival is a preference for singing the propers of the Mass — not just hymns. The propers are specific musical texts for each Sunday and feast day that accompany important liturgical actions, such as the offertory and Communion. The propers are not familiar to everyone, Father Carter said.

“It’s a reaction that most people have — they have never heard this word: the propers of the Mass,” he said. “And that’s one of the things that we hope to remedy in our exposing people to the sacred music tradition of the Church — that the Church gives to us very beautiful biblical passages. Most of the time, they are direct quotes from the Scriptures. Sometimes they are biblical passages, or poetry of the Church that’s been held from age to age.”

Father Carter emphasized that the use of sacred music does not make one parish “superior” to another.

“The challenge that’s out there is that people who have not been exposed to the sacred music tradition of the Church often feel inadequate or overwhelmed by it,” he said. “It may not be their ‘cup of tea.’ It may not be their preferred style of singing, for instance. They may have learned only one particular genre of musical expression or another. But the Church does challenge us to sing in this way, and very clearly in the documentation challenges us to learn this sacred music tradition, and to preserve it for generations to come.”

Smaller parishes and smaller budgets should be no obstacle to a choir director’s incorporation of sacred music into the liturgy, Ms. Weaver said.

“So many resources are available online at no cost now: pdf books of Gregorian chant, thousands of scores of polyphonic music at,” she said. “Low budgets are not a barrier. It is more difficult to sing polyphonic music with very small choirs, but there’s no choir too small to begin learning Gregorian chant, since it is unison music.”

In 1974, Pope Paul VI promulgated a document called Jubilate Deo, which can be found and downloaded online, Ms.Weaver said.

“It is a collection of chanthymns that he said should be the minimum repertory,not for Catholic choirs, but for all Catholics, period,” she said. “So, if I were the director of a very small and modest music program, I would start with that minimum repertory.”

Some parishes already have the“foundation for sacred music” in place, said basilica sacred music coordinator Maria Rist.

“There are parishes everywhere that are chanting some of the dialogues of the Mass between clergy and people, and/ or singing the Lord’s Prayer,” she said.

“These parts comprise the primary parts of the sung Mass and are a worthy, solid foundation for sacred music in the liturgy. Every parish has access to them, even those without a choir.”

In Musicam Sacram (Sacred Congregation of Rites, 1967), “which is the current musical law of the Church, the Church delineates degrees, or priorities, for singing the parts of the Mass,” Mrs. Rist said. “The first degree includes the dialogues between the clergy and people, such as the Preface, the Doxology, and the Dismissal, and the Lord’s Prayer.

“Once those dialogues are incorporated, the Church asks us to sing the congregation’s prayers (Kyrie, Gloria, Sanctus, Agnus Dei, and even the Creed and the Prayer of the Faithful), and finally the propers of the Mass (the responsorial psalm, Gospel acclamation, and the entrance, offertory, and Communion chants — each consisting of text that is designated by the Church for the Mass being celebrated). Hymns and other non-essential songs are not even mentioned in the order of precedence, though these are the only parts some Catholics are used to singing,” she said.

Learning sacred music is possible for any parish, Mrs. Rist said.

“While it may not be realistic for a parish to immediately begin singing the Mass in themost ideal way presented by the Church, small steps and great strides toward the idealare possible for every parish,” she said.

Mrs. Rist recommends supporting the clergy in any attempt to begin implementing sacred music.

“Our primary chant instructor at the workshop, Dr. Jennifer Donelson, who has a Ph.D. in music and teaches priests, seminarians, and choirs around the world, surprised us all at the workshop by revealing that she got her start in Church music by playing synthesizer in a folk band,” Mrs. Rist said. “Eventually, through the example of a dedicated priest who chanted the Mass, she came to an appreciation of the spiritual benefits of conforming to Church teaching about liturgical music. When our priests and deacons lead the congregation in singing the ordinary dialogues of the Mass, they are leading us to sing the Mass.”

Any parish with a willing priest can sing the Mass, “even a parish without a music budget,” Mrs. Rist said.

She added, “There are a couple of optional but sound investments that can help a congregation to actively participate in the way that Vatican II encouraged: a hymnal that contains the standard Catholic repertory, and a hardback pew Missal/lectionary that includes the translations of the propers of the Mass — including the Church’s prescribed entrance, offertory, and Communion chant for each Sunday and feast day of the three-year cycle.”

Promoting understanding and knowledge is important, too, Mrs. Rist said.

“One of our deacons preaches, ‘God does not call the qualified. He qualifies the called.’ Only a small percentage of Catholics are professional musicians, and yet we are all called to pray the Mass and encouraged to sing it. Even experienced directors with Ph.D.s in music, or talented opera singers, may be at the same starting point as an average parishioner when it comes to learning to sing Gregorian chant.

“In this way, chant is a great equalizer! Dedicate yourselves to learn what the Church asks. There are many online resources to help people learn by ear. With study and practice over time, the musical notation becomes familiar. Harmony and sacred polyphony can be developed once the chants are embraced. Learning and studying the music of the Church can be a form of prayer, and a holy offering.”

The basilica employs sacred music at all of its Masses, Father Carter said.

“Every single one of them, includingour Spanish Mass,” he said.

The basilica sacred music groups include the Gloria Dei Schola, the Basilica Choir, the Jubilate Deo Youth Schola, and the Spanish-speaking choir.

Ms. Weaver’s Pope Benedict XVI Schola sings for the 8 a.m. Mass at Holy Ghost on second and fourth Sundays.

“We are always looking for new members, so I encourage any singer who can read music to email me,” Ms. Weaver said. “It’s easy to learn the basics of Gregorian chant, and I am happy to teach people as we go.”

The Knox Latin Mass Schola, directed by Mary Garner, sings Gregorian chant and polyphony every Sunday at the noon Mass at Holy Ghost, and is now recruiting for a children’s schola.

The sacred music workshop drew well, Father Carter said. Attendees came from Tennessee and six other states.

“We had 115 registered participants, and then we had quite a few more for the vespers and the Mass at 4 p.m., people who came just because we had advertised that we were going to be doing these beautiful liturgies,” he said.

Workshop presenters also included Mrs. Garner, Ms. Weaver, Mrs. Rist, Father Carter, Bruce Ludwick Jr., Bridget Scott, Ericka McCarty, Joseph D’Amico, and Andrea Tierney.

Is sacred music “alive and well” in the Church today, or is it in need of a comeback? Ms. Weaver cited Pius X’s 1903 document Tra le Sollecitudini as an answer.

“You could change a few of the words and it could have been published yesterday,” she said. “[I]n 1903, Pius X complained about secular music in church and called for a revival of Gregorian chant. His document helped get a chant revival going in the Church. … We need a similar revival of chant and other truly sacred music now.”

Mrs. Rist said, “Over the past century, our popes and the teachings of Vatican II have clearly called for a return to the ‘treasure of inestimable value’ of our sacred music, subsisting in Gregorian chant and polyphony.

“Many Catholics over the last century have not heard the beautiful tradition of our Catholic heritage expressed musically at Mass. They may not even realize that the songs we commonly sing at Mass today are not the primary music intended for the Mass. In that sense, the treasure has been buried and we need a ‘comeback’ involving leadership, catechesis, study, and practice. However, sacred music is very much alive in Church teaching and in current practice at some parishes.”

There are multiple resources for those interested in learning more about sacred music.

“The workshop we held at Sts. Peter and Paul was hosted by our newly formed regional chapter of the Church Music Association of America, Southeastern Sacred Music,” Mrs. Rist said.

“To network directly with other group members, join our Facebook group and join our Facebook page. Additionally, to form a network within our diocese, we have started a directory of music leaders from the Diocese of Knoxville.”

There is “a wonderful support network available through the Church Music Association of America [visit],” Mrs. Rist said. “This nonprofit organization is run by sacred music scholars and open to all interested in sacred music.”

The “real beneficiaries” of efforts to keep sacred music alive “are the parishioners, especially the children who now have a chance to grow up being immersed in the musical tradition that is rightly theirs,”

Ms. Weaver said. “And if those children begin to participate in choirs as they grow up, so much the better for our future.”

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