Today, from Pope John Paul II’s chirograph, a look at Gregorian chant:
7. Among the musical expressions that correspond best with the qualities demanded by the notion of sacred music, especially liturgical music, Gregorian chant has a special place. The Second Vatican Council recognized that “being specially suited to the Roman Liturgy”[SC 116] it should be given, other things being equal, pride of place in liturgical services sung in Latin[Musicam Sacram 50]. St Pius X pointed out that the Church had “inherited it from the Fathers of the Church”, that she has “jealously guarded [it] for centuries in her liturgical codices” and still “proposes it to the faithful” as her own, considering it “the supreme model of sacred music”[TlS 3]. Thus, Gregorian chant continues also today to be an element of unity in the Roman Liturgy.
Like St Pius X, the Second Vatican Council also recognized that “other kinds of sacred music, especially polyphony, are by no means excluded from liturgical celebrations”[SC 116]. It is therefore necessary to pay special attention to the new musical expressions to ascertain whether they too can express the inexhaustible riches of the Mystery proposed in the Liturgy and thereby encourage the active participation of the faithful in celebrations[SC 30].
Some people wonder about the loss of that “special place” for Gregorian chant. How did it happen? Who’s to blame? How can we fix it?
My speculation is that it happened when music became more a domain for a semi-priestly class, part of the western movement toward music as a specialty item that was more important to do correctly than it was to place it in the mouths of worshipers. Singing and music-making was still a vital part of people’s lives all through the Tridentine era. It was a sad coincidence that just as music-listening was taking off through hi-fi-stereo, vinyl records, and eventually the Walkman, people were being asked to disengage from listening to church music in order to sing it.
Blame is of little interest to me, but part of it surely must lie with the poor quality of chant performance in many parishes.
By the Church’s own admission, Gregorian chant is an identifying mark of the Roman liturgy. That’s important, but not quite as important as the value of “express(ing) the inexhaustible riches of the Mystery proposed in the Liturgy and thereby encourage the active participation of the faithful.” Did John Paul II encourage chant because he was expected to do so? In this section of the chirograph, he concedes that expressing the Mystery–any form of participation–is of value to the liturgy. And which is more important to our faith? One more expression of union with Rome, or the praise of Christ?