WASHINGTON, D.C. — When Catholics return to their churches as coronavirus-induced lockdowns ease up, they’re not likely to be confronted with a bunch of unfamiliar words in Latin printed in some medieval-era typeface with notes in the shape of squares rather than ovals.
That said, those who monitor these kinds of things say there’s a “modest resurgence” over the past decade in the use of chant at Mass, while devotees of the idiom can’t get enough of it.
“It’s fair to say that there is that small — a relatively small — group of congregations who embrace chant because of its musical appeal to them,” said Michel Silhavy, a senior project manager for GIA Music in Chicago.
Silhavy finds three audiences for chant. For one audience, he told Catholic News Service, it’s “a code, it’s a flag, a marker, that ‘we’re this type of parish.’ For those who want to show their particular theology, they rally around chant.”
Another group, he added, is “people who are truly concerned about liturgical music because of its (chant’s) ability to be flexible, to accompany the ritual action” of the Mass. The third group, Silvahy said, is made up of church musicians who “really try to manifest a diverse musical library repertoire, saying that’s part of our tradition.”
The renewed interest in chant, according to Silvahy, “started to appear with the release of the (new Roman) Missal in 2010. All that stuff was there originally — antiphons and introits. It was as if people were reading the owner’s manual for the first time.”
He added, “It’s funny that the release of the English training roused this modest resurgence in chant. Yet those same directives and guidelines were there in the 1970” Roman Missal.
GIA originally stood for “Gregorian Institute of America,” but that changed not long after the company’s sale in 1967, according to Bob Batastini, who was a senior editor at GIA at the time of the sale, working there until 2007, and serving as a consultant to the company since then.
Sales of chant by GIA “at the time of the sale — very little,” Batastini told CNS. “We were already four years into the revised rites … the vernacular liturgy, and at that point everybody was maneuvering to figure out how to deal with the revised liturgies. There were attempts to redo a lot of Gregorian chant in English — and frankly, that didn’t fly.”
Batastini added, “What has happened since Vatican II is that the definition of church music has greatly expanded. Before Vatican II, it all fell into what we would call ‘classical music’: chant, polyphony, in a formal music style. After Vatican II, the church began to experiment in a lot of directions. Forty, 50 years later, there is wide variety of styles of music that has found its way into the repertoire of the church. And chant is certainly part of that.”
When the priest intones, “The Lor-ord be with youuuu”? That’s chant. When the people arise after the Eucharistic Prayer and start singing, “Our Fa-therrr, who art in hea-vennn?”? That’s chant, too.
With the exception of one year, Batastini, 78, has been playing organ or conducting choirs at Catholic churches since age 13. He remembers when “if you couldn’t sing a High Mass, you weren’t going to be ordained” — and in the pre-Second Vatican Council church, he had to play four High Masses every day. The same is largely true for the Eastern churches, whose divine liturgies can take on the character of a sung dialogue between the priest and the assembly.
At his current parish in Holland, Michigan, “the people are accustomed to the priest singing the entire liturgy, and the people in the pews, they sing like a bunch of Methodists,” Batastini said, quickly adding he’s complimenting Methodists. “It’s exhilarating.”
“The big deal with Gregorian chant is not only as a style of music the texts, the propers,” said Richard C. Clark, director of music for the Archdiocese of Boston. “This is our Catholic identity.”
Upon getting the job in 2018, Clark told CNS, “we immediately began singing the introit chants every week, followed by a hymn. It’s a great way to start the Mass.” He added, “It becomes normative. It becomes part of the normal part of living, the rhythm of the liturgy.”
Clark likes to load up on chant for archdiocesan events at the Cathedral of the Holy Cross in Boston, where he is also music director, including ordinations, the Rite of Election, and the Holy Thursday chrism Mass. “It’s a big, big deal in any cathedral,” he said.
But that’s not the experience in most parishes in the archdiocese, Clark acknowledged. At the typical parish, “it’s also a lot of time, you have a boss — or multiple bosses — and you have to deal to an extent to what their preferences are. You’re dealing with a congregation. Every parish is going to have a certain history to it, like it or not, where people come from,” he said. “The reality is, maybe you can introduce one or two things.”
He added, “You have to have support from your pastor. You have to be sensitive to the people that you serve.”
Clark said, “I’ve always joked that it’s going to take 100 years to fully implement Vatican II. And that’s not a criticism. It takes a long time for our understandings to evolve. And to find what the best practices are.”
Alfred Calabrese has had the support of pastors — three of them — in his 13 years as music director at St. Rita Parish in Dallas.
A cradle Catholic, Calabrese said he was introduced to chant in a secular setting: His graduate studies in conducting at Indiana University. He didn’t apply it to his music ministry until taking the St. Rita music job.
At the parish, it’s “one of those slowly germinating kinds of experiences. Bit by bit, bit by bit, slowly over the years, and still in the process of introducing it today, 13 years later. We don’t use it at every Mass, but we do it more. Some of our Masses are more chant-heavy than others,” Calabrese said.
“Even in our one Mass to be more contemporary, in various parts of the year they even do some chanting in English and in Latin, especially in Lent and Advent in the acclamations, so that’s a good thing.”
But Calabrese still gets resistance from parishioners, he said. “To this day, there still is some. There still is some. And it’s just a matter of educating people, and having the backing of the pastor. We don’t do the ‘extraordinary form’ Latin Mass (long known as the Tridentine Rite). We’re not doing everything Latin, but at the appropriate time.”