NOT MUSIC BUT PRAYER – Blessed Paul VI, Gregorian chant and the snuffed candle

– Aurelio Porfiri

In the years of the post-conciliar period, one of the themes that most occupied the polemicists’ pens was that of the loss of Gregorian chant. This repertoire that the Church recognizes as its own had been ousted from liturgical celebrations, just like Latin, the language of Gregorian chant (or Frankish-Roman chant, as it would be better to call it from a musicological point of view).

Supporters of the view that Gregorian chant should be removed from the Mass often support their thesis claiming that they are applying what Popes from the time of the Council to our day have asked. But the Popes, in truth, always supported the idea that in the Mass one should sing music that is really sacred. One of the Popes most quoted to support the setting aside of chant is Blessed Pope VI, very soon to be canonized. We may be surprised to know that this Pope authored some documents that say quite the opposite of what a certain narrative want him to say. He was a complex man in many regards and probably he did not foresee the risks of the liturgical reforms he was undertaking. Certainly, as I will say later, some of the people working for him had an agenda and in a certain way they have used their influence on the Pope to fulfill some of their goals. Popes are men too, and they need collaborators. But Pope Paul VI was also the Pope of Humanae Vitae, of the Credo of the People of God and of Sacrificium Laudis.

In the 1966 letter Sacrificium Laudis Paul VI wrote: “In present conditions, what words or melodies could replace the forms of Catholic devotion which you have used until now? You should reflect and carefully consider whether things would not be worse, should this fine inheritance be discarded. It is to be feared that the choral office would turn into a mere bland recitation, suffering from poverty and begetting weariness, as you yourselves would perhaps be the first to experience. One can also wonder whether men would come in such numbers to your churches in quest of the sacred prayer, if its ancient and native tongue, joined to a chant full of grave beauty, resounded no more within your walls.”

The answer is that men and women are no longer so numerous in attending the liturgy and in spite of this, an attempt has been made to embrace things of the world in the most blatant way, consigning a lot of liturgical and musical tradition to oblivion. So it is like a drunkard going to the doctor asking to be cured and the doctor prescribing more alcohol! I think there was a fundamental misunderstanding of the huge problems that were plaguing the Church and that are now still unresolved.

But let us read again from Sacrificium Laudis: “We therefore ask all those to whom it pertains, to ponder what they wish to give up, and not to let that spring run dry from which, until the present, they have themselves drunk deep. Of course, the Latin language presents some difficulties, and perhaps not inconsiderable ones, for the new recruits to your holy ranks. But such difficulties, as you know, should not be reckoned insuperable. This is especially true for you, who can more easily give yourselves to study, being more set apart from the business and bother of the world. Moreover, those prayers, with their antiquity, their excellence, their noble majesty, will continue to draw to you young men and women, called to the inheritance of our Lord. On the other hand, that choir from which is removed this language of wondrous spiritual power, transcending the boundaries of the nations, and from which is removed this melody proceeding from the inmost sanctuary of the soul, where faith dwells and charity burns—We speak of Gregorian chant—such a choir will be like to a snuffed candle, which gives light no more, no more attracts the eyes and minds of men.” A snuffed candle … really a beautiful image that in a vivid way gives us the perception of what we are experiencing until now. As I have said many times, even if we want a good repertoire in the vernacular we cannot avoid relying first on the models, and Gregorian chant is the supreme one. Only the familiarity, the knowledge of this repertoire can make one capable of composing new sacred music that is worthy of consideration in the liturgy. Due respect to Gregorian chant is required if we want a good vernacular repertoire. Let us remember the precious rule give to us by Saint Pius X in his 1903’s Motu Proprio: “[T]he more closely a composition for church approaches in its movement, inspiration and savor the Gregorian form, the more sacred and liturgical it becomes; and the more out of harmony it is with that supreme model, the less worthy it is of the temple.” This is still relevant today and we can see where we are disregarding this very rule.

As stated by the well-known Gregorian chant expert Giacomo Baroffio to Alessandro Beltrami in the Italian daily Avvenire in 2016: “One of the accusations made against Gregorian Chant is that it prevents people from singing. But even in many churches where you sing in Italian the assembly participates little, with the ‘chorus’ that does everything by itself … On Gregorian Chant there is a great misunderstanding: its crisis is not musical but cultural. The problem is to welcome the word of God according to a formula tested by tradition. Gregorian Chant is not music, it is prayer.” And certainly Gregorian chant pays a prejudice against what is perceived as Tradition. We must always innovate, always and in every case, even if at the expenses of what our fathers have left us.

Chant is not European, it is Catholic first. I always remember a story from my days in Macau. I was invited to a dinner with former students of Saint Joseph Seminary, after we had a rehearsal together. These men were older than me, I would say in their 60s or 70s. A good part of them were Chinese. After the dinner ended they asked me if we can sing together, in the tonus simplex, the Salve Regina. I can never forget that night. I was very happy for their request and we sang beautifully together in Latin to the Virgin Mary.

Blessed Paul VI, still addressing religious men and women, cannot refrain almost to implore them to preserve the Tradition: “From the good will which we have toward you, and from the good opinion which we have of you, We are unwilling to allow that which could make your situation worse, and which could well bring you no slight loss, and which would certainly bring a sickness and sadness upon the whole Church of God. Allow Us to protect your interests, even against your own will. It is the same Church which has introduced the vernacular into the sacred liturgy for pastoral reasons, that is, for the sake of people who do not know Latin, which gives you the mandate of preserving the age-old solemnity, beauty and dignity of the choral office, in regard both to language, and to the chant.” Can we believe this? Of course this is not very popular among those that pretend that this Pope was against Latin, against chant.

Certainly the oppositions to chant are parallel to those against Latin. The two go together. Benedict XVI in 2012, with his Motu Proprio Lingua Latina has affirmed: “The Latin language has always been held in very high esteem by the Catholic Church and by the Roman Pontiffs. They have assiduously encouraged the knowledge and dissemination of Latin, adopting it as the Church’s language, capable of passing on the Gospel message throughout the world. This is authoritatively stated by the Apostolic Constitution Veterum Sapientia of my Predecessor, Blessed John XXIII.”

Gregorian Chant and Latin are treasures of the Church, treasures that require studies and efforts but that for sure will repay with a great deal of spiritual growth.


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