Timeless Music: Chant as a Medium for Catholicity

Michael Cooney/ May 28, 2013/ Chant/ 0 comments


Chant as a Medium for Catholicity


: a transformative change of heart; especially : a spiritual conversion

I have recently come to embrace a broadening spiritual awareness and appreciation for the rich musical heritage of the Catholic Church- namely, sacred chant. The impetus of this awakening was the realization that my knowledge of ‘classical’ music history does not honestly consider any music prior to the late 17th century. This invariably led to an even more unsettling revelation that, even after twenty years in ministry, I had but a miniscule understanding of sacred liturgical music.

Having been involved with church music since I was a child, many of my formative years were immersed in the folk mass of the 80′s, and I continually developed my talents and grasp of the liturgy through to the modern worship music of today. Then there was college and graduate school, where I majored in piano performance, and embraced “serious” music. I grew tremendously as a well-rounded musician and, consequently, became a more effective church musician. I was exposed to, and performed, a vast amount of repertoire that encompassed a wide range of genres. But, I have recently come to terms with a now obvious fact that you can’t possibly learn everything in school.

Specifically, I was never really exposed to the rich tradition of sacred music. As an ongoing student of music, it seems that my recent experiences with ancient chant, particularly on this past feast of Pentecost, resulted in a musical and spiritual metanoia. As a music director and organist, I now realize that the opportunity to fill the aforementioned musical void has been present for quite some time- I just didn’t see it. By exploring some of our rich musical tradition from the earliest days of the church, I have a found a means to expand my musical person and, at the same time, bring a sense of historical perspective and unity to the liturgy. While this has to be done carefully, being mindful that most people might not understand why they are suddenly being exposed to this “old stuff,” there is a prescribed responsibility to connect with our rich past.

Considering the stagnant state of music in many parishes, I have to believe that I am not the only music director that has, more often than not, failed to think beyond the scant selection of hymnal resources made available by an equally limited assortment of publishers. We are given planners and hymn suggestions that point to a very narrow repertoire of music, the majority of which was written within the last 30-40 years. Even though a careful reading of the scriptures for the Sunday mass is the best means for finding a theme to prescrbe to the music, the relevant musical offerings are severely lacking in variety, style and depth. For instance, the music of the 70’s and 80’s is now widely considered traditional. On one level, I agree with that delineation since this music comprises my early spiritual and musical formation as a child. It is the basis of my catholic tradition. While some of the modern worship music is excellent, truly helps convey the spirit of the liturgy, and communicate what cannot be expressed in words alone, we need to explore why this is the case. I suggest we can better appreciate and understand contemporary music, and achieve that fully conscious, and active participation in the liturgy, if we incorporate what came before. In order to fulfill this mission, the current state of liturgical music needs to be lifted beyond predictable norms and out of stagnation. Richard Rice explains in his foreword to The Parish Book of Chant, Expanded Second Edition (2012), that we should “…realize that the Church’s liturgy, like her faith, comes from somewhere far beyond any one language, culture, or personality.” (PBC, xv). I propose that the American-Catholic culture has predominantly lost the connection to the profound and rich tradition of our ancestors in the faith; our Catholicity. America is the melting pot that infused the heritage and traditions of people from the world over. Why, then, should our musical tradition in the American catholic church be so limited as to not embrace the musical treasure of our universal church?


Veni Creator Spiritus written in the original “Nuemes”

The ancient chants, not much a part of my own past, seem fresh and have a certain transcendent authenticity to them. “Veni Creator Spiritus,” this Pentecost, struck me as rather poignant since most in the congregation were likely unaware that the music was written over a thousand years ago. By the same token, though, most instantly recognized it and felt compelled to join in singing. This newfound appreciation for the “ancient” has been brewing for some time. A good friend’s invitation to sing the Office of Compline started this awakening last year, and every time we repeat it, I find something new (actually, quite old) that inspires my musical and spiritual being. The centerpiece of this retrieval for me, however, has been my now-annual experience at Lourdes. I witnessed a genuine manifestation of the liturgy as a truly living entity in the underground basilica of St. Pius X. About 20,000 People from all over the world participated in their own language, and miraculously, the liturgy made complete sense. This made me appreciate the uniqueness and diversity of humanity on a much deeper level. In a matter of speaking, it was a real Pentecost. But, the most fascinating moments occurred when some of the ancient Latin chants were sung. It proved to be a truly unifying element in the liturgy- as if the auditory of the liturgy was tangibly brought into crystal-clear focus. Most people knew the Latin which made the music just as familiar and comfortable as the structure of the mass itself. I had to ask myself in that moment: “How have I neglected the importance of this tradition for so long?”

This all strikes me anew, but Vatican II was there first:

The musical tradition of the universal Church is a treasure of inestimable value, greater even than that of any other art. The main reason for this pre-eminence is that, as sacred song united to the words, it forms a necessary or integral part of the solemn liturgy. (Sacrosanctum Concilium 112)

All this time, I’ve been focused on the music of the American Church and have unwittingly neglected the universal Church. Similarly, the recent changes to the Roman Missal corrected some of the same shortcomings of our connection to Her rich liturgical tradition. To embrace the changes is a chance to connect with the faithful from the earliest days of the church. This is, in and of itself, a modern idea. The notion of appreciating ‘that which has preceded, has shaped the present,’ should be embraced as enriching and rewarding.

While the chant and early music of the church can aid in communing with our ancestors in the faith, then by extension we should carefully consider the liturgy itself as the most unifying element of our faith. This brings me back to Lourdes. How else could so many people from such a rich diversity of heritage feel completely at home during a mass? The simple answer is tradition. The mass is the same no matter where in the world you may be. The responses, which were mostly sung in Latin, were the unifying element that afforded the congregation a chance to commune together in one common language, to come together with others in the present and the past. It is apparent that this connection to our past extends beyond the musical realm, but to the liturgy itself. If we can, therefore, embrace the traditions and sacredness of the music in that context, the liturgy can truly become a vehicle for a living and vibrant faith. John F. Baldovin, S.J. touched on this idea in his recent article in America Magazine entitled “An Active Presence: The liturgical vision of Vatican II 50 years later.”

Catholics need to be helped to understand more deeply and more explicitly the connections between their lives and what they celebrate in church. As the great contemporary liturgical historian, Robert Taft, S.J., has said: “The liturgy is the Christian life in a nutshell.” Nothing more—but nothing less. Our liturgies themselves, albeit in a ritualized fashion, play out the way we are called to live. They are the summit of Christian living as well as its source. As that reality enters more deeply into the Catholic consciousness, we will achieve by God’s grace the full, conscious and active participation the council called for, and we will be on our way to celebrating more fully the baptismal priesthood we are called to live.

I’d add that our “Catholic consciousness” could be more fully realized through exploring our musical traditions. It’s easy to become complacent, and accept the status quo of liturgical music, but musicians need to give some contextual consideration to our place in history to achieve, “in a nutshell,” a truly living faith as expressed through liturgy. The mission is twofold: connect the liturgy with our daily lives, and experience that present-day worship as an extension of our heritage.

We should embrace the liturgical reforms, along with the natural progression of music as it relates to our culture. New music has much to offer, but particularly when it recalls the sacredness of our musical tradition. After all, Gregorian Chant was considered new music at one point, but it included within its form, the promulgation of the sacred and was born from the musical tradition that preceded it. The fact that this music was so intricately woven into the liturgy helped establish its timelessness, and is the reason why it can still feel so relevant and fresh today. I’m not proposing that we return to a fully Latin mass all the time (although, I’d love to try it someday), but that we include, from time to time, some of the chants, like the Kyrie, Gloria, Agnus Dei, the sequences, or even singing the Divine Offices. It may seem a small pittance to give back to our tradition, but it is something tangible and meaningful. We need to hear this music as a worshipping community in order to witness a deeply divine manifestation of the sacredness of scripture and music. My mandate as a music director is not solely to bring people together in communal praise, but to foster prayer, reflection and peace. As a composer, as well, I hope that looking back will pave the way forward to creating new music that feels as fresh as Veni Creator Spiritus felt on Pentecost; as unifying as the music in Lourdes; and as an inspiration for a true Catholicity in our communities. As a music director, a minister of the church, this has to become a guiding principle: In with the old and the new. I look forward to exploring the former which will in turn give me a more focused perspective on the latter. Veni Creator Spiritus – You’re my only hope.

*update: I am forming a Schola Cantorum and a Junior Schola so that we can truly explore chant and offer it to the parish when the time is “rite.” Stay tuned.

Michael A. Cooney is an adjunct professor of music at Fairfield University and the Music Director at Our Lady of the Assumption Church in Fairfield, CT.


Baldovin, John F. S.J., “An Active Presence: The liturgical vision of Vatican II 50 years later.” www.americamagazine.org. America Magazine. 27 May 2013


Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy, Sacrosanctum Concilium. Vatican II, 4 December 1963


Rice, Richard, ed., “The Parish Book of Chant,” Church Music Association of America. 2012





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