Music matters in liturgy. Ever since the resumption of public Masses last summer, however, we have been using a different style of music in the parish than what we were accustomed to hear prior to the COVID shutdowns. We can’t use the popular hymns that we’d otherwise hear at Mass because the current health protocols prohibit congregational singing during liturgies in order to prevent the spread of Coronavirus. Because the music we’ve been using during our liturgies is probably unfamiliar to most people, an explanation is long overdue.
The main change in the music has been the greater use of chant in our liturgy in place of hymns. The word “chant” essentially means “to sing,” but it has come to be associated with a particular kind of singing, namely the singing of the Psalms. As part of Sacred Scripture, the Psalms are the inspired word of God and have been sung as part of the worship of God for millennia. Sadly, the use of chant in Catholic liturgy largely fell out of practice for a while, but was “rediscovered” in the 19th century and for the past 100 years its use has been strongly encouraged by the Church in sacred liturgy. In fact, the Second Vatican Council teaches as part of its reforms that Gregorian Chant should be given pride of place in liturgical services. The reason that chant is particularly suited for liturgical worship is because, unlike most hymns, its music is at the service of the Word. Ok, so what does that mean? The hymns that one typically hears at Mass tend to tailor the words to fit the melody and the meter. When it comes to chant, however, it is the music that is tailored to the sacred words. One way to think about what chant does is to consider the illuminated manuscripts produced by monks in medieval monasteries. To enhance the beauty of the Word contained in these manuscripts, the monks would adorn the text with gold leaf and images of scenes from the Bible as well as intricate designs involving flora and fauna – all of it serving the purpose of “dressing” the Word in beautiful artwork. This is what liturgical chant does too. Upon first hearing, we might find chant somber or even sad. Indeed, many of the Psalms express these feelings, as well as feelings of wonder, awe, and gratitude. The whole spectrum of human experience is expressed in the sacred texts. The music, tailored to fit the Psalm, is supposed to help us enter into the Word, and actually participate more fully as the Mystical Body of Christ in the prayers and supplications eternally offered by the Son to the Father, joined by all the angels and saints in heaven.
At some point I will write more about this, but I want to conclude here by giving a brief explanation of the particular chants that we are using. In place of the Entrance Hymn at the beginning of the Mass, we now sing what’s called the Entrance Antiphon, a phrase from the Sacred Scriptures chosen by the Church to express something that relates to the liturgical season or the feast being celebrated, with the purpose of setting the tone of the celebration. The antiphon concludes with the “doxology,” giving glory to the three Divine Persons of the Most Holy Trinity. In place of the Responsorial Psalm, we sing what is called the Gradual Chant. While the Responsorial Psalm has become over the past few decades the more familiar option to have between the first and second readings, the Gradual Chant has always been an option at this part of the Mass. It too is a phrase from the Psalms that expresses a theme of the liturgical season or feast. During the distribution of Holy Communion, instead of a Communion hymn we sing the Communion Antiphon. This Antiphon is a phrase (also provided by the Church) that is repeated, like a refrain or the chorus of a song, with the verses coming, once again, from the Psalms. The Communion Antiphon concludes with the doxology (Glory be to the Father…). Eventually, when the current liturgical restrictions are lifted, we will restore the use of some hymns, singing them together with the chants of the Mass, as a way of adorning our offering of prayers to God with song and making them more beautiful.
Here is a clip of Catholic monks singing Gregorian chant: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CBwh1OXw6uI. The following is a particularly beautiful clip of a blind Orthodox monk chanting the psalms in the Slavonic language: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YqMwuMAWFRA. Chant, of course, is not intended just for monks in monasteries. It belongs to all of us as members of the Church as a way to worship the Lord, and the Church wants us to use this treasure that has been handed down to us through the ages.