100 Years of Church Teaching on Gregorian Chant

In 2003, Pope John Paul II commemorated first centenary of the promulgation of Pope Saint Pius X’s motu proprio on sacred music, Tra le Sollecitudini. Below you will find excerpts on Gregorian chant from the major Vatican documents on sacred music from the 1903 Motu proprio of Saint Pius X, down to the chirograph of Pope John Paul one hundred years later. The chant is a major and recurring theme in the Church’s teaching on music for the liturgy. In the following excerpts, the Church teaches us that not only should this music be a part of every Catholic’s experience and liturgical life, but also that Gregorian chant is the highest model of what music for the liturgy should be. It is the wish of the Church that the chant, in its movement, its rhythm and its spirit be the inspiration for contemporary composers in the creation of new music to embellish the liturgical texts and the sacred action of the her official worship. The following compilation shows, at least over the last century, how the Church’s teaching on Gregorian chant, has remained consistent. This makes me ask the question: Why the scenario expressed in the Church’s teaching is so far away from the usual experience of the vast majority of Catholics today?

excerpts from . . .
Tra le Sollecitudini
Encyclical on Sacred Music
Pope Pius X
Encyclical promulgated on November 22, 1903

II. The different kinds of sacred music
3. These qualities are to be found, in the highest degree, in Gregorian Chant, which is, consequently the Chant proper to the Roman Church, the only chant she has inherited from the ancient fathers, which she has jealously guarded for centuries in her liturgical codices, which she directly proposes to the faithful as her own, which she prescribes exclusively for some parts of the liturgy, and which the most recent studies have so happily restored to their integrity and purity.

On these grounds Gregorian Chant has always been regarded as the supreme model for sacred music, so that it is fully legitimate to lay down the following rule: the more closely a composition for church approaches in its movement, inspiration and savour 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.
The ancient traditional Gregorian Chant must, therefore, in a large measure be restored to the functions of public worship, and the fact must be accepted by all that an ecclesiastical function loses none of its solemnity when accompanied by this music alone.

Special efforts are to be made to restore the use of the Gregorian Chant by the people, so that the faithful may again take a more active part in the ecclesiastical offices, as was the case in ancient times.

excerpts from . . .
Encyclical on Sacred Music
Pope Pius XII
Encyclical promulgated on December 25, 1955

14. The choral chant began to be called “Gregorian” after St. Gregory, the man who revived it. It attained new beauty in almost all parts of Christian Europe after the 8th or 9th century because of its accompaniment by a new musical instrument called the “organ.” Little by little, beginning in the 9th century, polyphonic singing was added to this choral chant. The study and use of polyphonic singing were developed more and more during the centuries that followed and were raised to a marvelous perfection under the guidance of magnificent composers during the 15th and 16th centuries.
16. Thus, with the favor and under the auspices of the Church the study of sacred music has gone a long way over the course of the centuries. In this journey, although sometimes slowly and laboriously, it has gradually progressed from the simple and ingenuous Gregorian modes to great and magnificent works of art. To these works not only the human voice, but also the organ and other musical instruments, add dignity, majesty and a prodigious richness.
42. It must be holy. It must not allow within itself anything that savors of the profane nor allow any such thing to slip into the melodies in which it is expressed. The Gregorian chant which has been used in the Church over the course of so many centuries, and which may be called, as it were, its patrimony, is gloriously outstanding for this holiness.
43. This chant, because of the close adaptation of the melody to the sacred text, is not only most intimately conformed to the words, but also in a way interprets their force and efficacy and brings delight to the minds of the hearers. It does this by the use of musical modes that are simple and plain, but which are still composed with such sublime and holy art that they move everyone to sincere admiration and constitute an almost inexhaustible source from which musicians and composers draw new melodies.
44. It is the duty of all those to whom Christ the Lord has entrusted the task of guarding and dispensing the Church’s riches to preserve this precious treasure of Gregorian chant diligently and to impart it generously to the Christian people. Hence what Our predecessors, St. Pius X, who is rightly called the renewer of Gregorian chant, 19 and Pius XI 20 have wisely ordained and taught, We also, in view of the outstanding qualities which genuine Gregorian chant possesses, will and prescribe that this be done. In the performance of the sacred liturgical rites this same Gregorian chant should be most widely used and great care should be taken that it should be performed properly, worthily and reverently. And if, because of recently instituted feast days, new Gregorian melodies must be composed, this should be done by true masters of the art. It should be done in such a way that these new compositions obey the laws proper to genuine Gregorian chant and are in worthy harmony with the older melodies in their virtue and purity.
45. If these prescriptions are really observed in their entirety, the requirements of the other property of sacred music – that property by virtue of which it should be an example of true art – will be duly satisfied. And if in Catholic churches throughout the entire world Gregorian chant sounds forth without corruption or diminution, the chant itself, like the sacred Roman liturgy, will have a characteristic of universality, so that the faithful, wherever they may be, will hear music that is familiar to them and a part of their own home. In this way they may experience, with much spiritual consolation, the wonderful unity of the Church. This is one of the most important reasons why the Church so greatly desires that the Gregorian chant traditionally associated with the Latin words of the sacred liturgy be used.

excerpts from . . .
Sacrosanctum Concilium

Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy Second Vatican Council Promulgated by His Holiness Pope Paul VI On December 4, 1963

Chapter VI – Sacred Music
116. The Church acknowledges Gregorian chant as specially suited to the Roman Liturgy: therefore, other things being equal, it should be given pride of place in liturgical services.

excerpts from . . .

Musicam Sacram
Instruction On Music In The Liturgy
Sacred Congregation of Rites March 5, 1967

4. It is to be hoped that pastors of souls, musicians and the faithful will gladly accept these norms and put them into practice, uniting their efforts to attain the true purpose of sacred music, “which is the glory of God and the sanctification of the faithful.”

(a) By sacred music is understood that which, being created for the celebration of divine worship, is endowed with a certain holy sincerity of form. (Cf. St. Pius X, Motu Proprio ‘Tra le sollecitudini,’ n. 2.)
(b) The following come under the title of sacred music here: Gregorian chant, sacred polyphony in its various forms both ancient and modern, sacred music for the organ and other approved instruments, and sacred popular music, be it liturgical or simply religious.3

IV. The Language To Be Used In Sung Liturgical Celebrations, And On Preserving The Heritage Of Sacred Music

47. According to the Constitution on the Liturgy, “the use of the Latin language, with due respect to particular law, is to be preserved in the Latin rites.”

50. In sung liturgical services celebrated in Latin:

(a) Gregorian chant, as proper to the Roman liturgy, should be given pride of place, other things being equal. Its melodies, contained in the “typical” editions, should be used, to the extent that this is possible.
(b) “It is also desirable that an edition be prepared containing simpler melodies, for use in smaller churches.”

52. In order to preserve the heritage of sacred music and genuinely promote the new forms of sacred singing, “great importance is to be attached to the teaching and practice of music in seminaries, in the novitiates and houses of study of religious of both sexes, and also in other Catholic institutes and schools,” especially in those higher institutes intended specially for this.37 Above all, the study and practice of Gregorian chant is to be promoted, because, with its special characteristics, it is a basis of great importance for the development of sacred music.

Excerpts from….

Letter to the Bishops on the Minimum Repertoire of Plainchant
“Voluntati Obsequens”
Sacred Congregation for Divine Worship April 14, 1974

The following is a translation of a letter that was sent to all bishops and heads of religious orders, together with a book of chants, “Jubilate Deo”. The letter was published in Latin in the April 1974 issue of Notitiae, (pages 123 126) and in French in “La Documentation Catholique” June 2, 1974.

Eminence, Excellency,
Our congregation has prepared a booklet entitled, “Jubilate Deo”, which contains a minimum selection of sacred chants. This was done in response to a desire which the Holy Father had frequently expressed, that all the faithful should know at least some Latin Gregorian chants, such as, for example, the “Gloria”, the “Credo”, the “Sanctus”, and the “Agnus Dei”.

It gives me great pleasure to send you a copy of it, as a personal gift from His Holiness, Pope Paul VI. May I take this opportunity of recommending to your pastoral solicitude this new initiative, whose purpose is to facilitate the observance of the recommendation of the Second Vatican Council “…steps must be taken to ensure that the faithful are able to chant together in Latin those parts of the ordinary of the Mass which pertain to them.

In effect, when the faithful gather together for prayer they manifest at once the diversity of a people drawn “from every tribe, language and nation (Ap. 5:9) and its unity in faith and charity. Their diversity is manifested in the present multiplicity of liturgical languages and in the vernacular chants which, in the context of one shared faith, give expression to each people’s religious sentiment in music drawn from its culture and traditions. On the other hand, their unity finds particularly apt and even sensible expression through the use of Latin Gregorian chant.

Down the centuries, Gregorian chant has accompanied liturgical celebrations in the Roman rite, has nourished men’s faith and has fostered their piety, while in the process achieving an artistic perfection which the Church rightly considers a patrimony of inestimable value and which the Council recognized as “the chant especially suited to the Roman liturgy.”

One of the objectives of the liturgical reform is to promote community singing in assemblies of the faithful, so that they might the better express the festive, communal and fraternal character of liturgical celebrations. In effect, “the liturgical action becomes more dignified when it is accompanied by chant, when each minister fulfills his own role and the faithful also take part.

Those who are charged with responsibility for the liturgical reform are particularly anxious to achieve this difficult objective. To that end, the Sacred Congregation for Divine Worship appeals once again, as they have often done in the past, for the proper development of singing by the faithful.

Gregorian Chant
At the same time, the liturgical reform does not and indeed cannot deny the past. Rather does it “preserve and foster it with the greatest care.” It cultivates and transmits all that is in it of high religious, cultural and artistic worth and especially those elements which can express even externally the unity of believers.
This minimum repertoire of Gregorian chant has been prepared with that purpose in mind: to make it easier for Christians to achieve unity and spiritual harmony with their brothers and with the living traditions of the past. Hence it is that those who are trying to improve the quality of congregational singing cannot refuse to Gregorian chant the place which is due to it. And this becomes all the more imperative as we approach the Holy Year of 1975, during which the faithful of different languages, nations and origins, will find themselves side by side for the common celebration of the Lord.
Those who because of their special vocation in the Church need to have a deeper knowledge of sacred music ought to be particularly careful to observe a proper balance between popular chant and Gregorian chant. For this reason the Holy Father recommended that “Gregorian chant be preserved and be sung in monasteries, other religious houses and seminaries, as a special form of chanted prayer and as something of high cultural and pedagogic value.”
Further, the study and the performance of Gregorian chant remain “because of its special characteristics, a very useful foundation for the cultivation of sacred music.”

In presenting the Holy Father’s gift to you, may I at the same time remind you of the desire which he has often expressed that the Conciliar constitution on the liturgy be increasingly better implemented. Would you therefore, in collaboration with the competent diocesan and national agencies for the liturgy, sacred music and catechetics, decide on the best ways of teaching the faithful the Latin chants of “Jubilate Deo” and of having them sing them, and also of promoting the preservation and execution of Gregorian chant in the communities mentioned above. You will thus be performing a new service for the Church in the domain of liturgical renewal.
The contents of this booklet may be reproduced free of charge. To help people understand these texts, one may add the normal vernacular translation.

Excerpts from…

General Instruction of the Roman Missal
(Third Typical Edition)2002

41. All other things being equal, Gregorian chant holds pride of place because it is proper to the Roman Liturgy. Other types of sacred music, in particular polyphony, are in no way excluded, provided that they correspond to the spirit of the liturgical action and that they foster the participation of all the faithful.

Since faithful from different countries come together ever more frequently, it is fitting that they know how to sing together at least some parts of the Ordinary of the Mass in Latin, especially the Creed and the Lord’s Prayer, set to the simpler melodies.

103. Among the faithful, the schola cantorum or choir exercises its own liturgical function,
ensuring that the parts proper to it, in keeping with the different types of chants, are properly
carried out and fostering the active participation of the faithful through the singing.87 What is said
about the choir also applies, in accordance with the relevant norms, to other musicians, especially
the organist.

excerpts from . . .

The Fitting Role of Sacred Music in the Holy Liturgy
Pope John Paul II

Description: Pope John Paul II published this study of sacred music, called a chirograph, for the 100th anniversary of the Motu Proprio, ‘Tra le Sollecitudini’.
Larger Work: L’Osservatore Romano, January 28, 2004

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”17 it should be given, other things being equal, pride of place in liturgical services sung in Latin18. 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”. Thus, Gregorian chant continues also today to be an element of unity in the Roman Liturgy.

8. The importance of preserving and increasing the centuries old patrimony of the Church spurs us to take into particular consideration a specific exhortation of the Constitution Sacrosanctum Concilium: “Choirs must be assiduously developed, especially in cathedral churches” . In turn, the Instruction Musicam Sacram explains the ministerial task of the choir: “Because of the liturgical ministry it exercises, the choir (cappella musicale or schola cantorum) should be mentioned here explicitly. The conciliar norms regarding the reform of the Liturgy have given the choir’s function greater prominence and importance. The choir is responsible for the correct performance of its part, according to the differing types of song, to help the faithful to take an active part in the singing. Therefore,… choirs are to be developed with great care, especially in cathedrals and other major churches, in seminaries and in religious houses of study”. The schola cantorum’s task has not disappeared: indeed, it plays a role of guidance and support in the assembly and, at certain moments in the Liturgy, has a specific role of its own.

From the smooth coordination of all the priest celebrant and the deacon, the acolytes, the altar servers, the readers, the psalmist, the schola cantorum, the musicians, the cantor and the assembly flows the proper spiritual atmosphere which makes the liturgical moment truly intense, shared in and fruitful. The musical aspect of liturgical celebrations cannot, therefore, be left to improvisation or to the arbitration of individuals but must be well conducted and rehearsed in accordance with the norms and competencies resulting from a satisfactory liturgical formation.

10. Since the Church has always recognized and fostered progress in the arts, it should not come as a surprise that in addition to Gregorian chant and polyphony she admits into celebrations even the most modern music, as long as it respects both the liturgical spirit and the true values of this art form. In compositions written for divine worship, therefore, the particular Churches in the various nations are permitted to make the most of “those special forms which may be said to constitute the special character of [their] native music”. On the lines of my holy Predecessor and of what has been decreed more recently by the Constitution Sacrosanctum Concilium, I have also intended in the Encyclical Ecclesia de Eucharistia to make room for new musical contributions, mentioning in addition to the inspired Gregorian melodies, “the many, often great composers who sought to do justice to the liturgical texts of the Mass”.

12. With regard to compositions of liturgical music, I make my own the “general rule” that St Pius X formulated in these words: “The more closely a composition for church approaches in its movement, inspiration and savour the Gregorian melodic 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”. It is not, of course, a question of imitating Gregorian chant but rather of ensuring that new compositions are imbued with the same spirit that inspired and little by little came to shape it. Only an artist who is profoundly steeped in the sensus Ecclesiae (mind of the Church) can attempt to perceive and express in melody the truth of the Mystery that is celebrated in the Liturgy. In this perspective, in my Letter to Artists I wrote: “How many sacred works have been composed through the centuries by people deeply imbued with the sense of mystery! The faith of countless believers has been nourished by melodies flowing from the hearts of other believers, either introduced into the Liturgy or used as an aid to dignified worship. In song, faith is experienced as vibrant joy, love and confident expectation of the saving intervention of God”.

About Didobonaparte

A Roman Catholic priest of the Archdiocese of Vancouver, I am the parish priest of Saint Joseph's Catholic Church, Langley.
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5 Responses to 100 Years of Church Teaching on Gregorian Chant

  1. I’ve long wondered about this same subject and the answer to the questions; someday I hope to find out why we have, for over 100 years, ignored the Popes. I contend that had the desires of Popes Pius X, XI and XII on Gregorian chant, actuoso partiricpationem and the Dialogue Mass including the possibility of even reciting the Propers in 1958 been implemented, the radical reformers who destroyed the liturgy would never have been able to do so.

  2. Sorry for the clerical error; of course I meant actuoso participationem which comes directly from the great Motu Proprio Tra le sollecitudini by Pope St. Pius X and which has been poorly understood as “active participation.”

  3. I wish I knew the answer to the question as to why, in the vast majority of cases, we are so far away from the situation that is expressed in Vatican docs on the subject. Probably there are many factors. At best, it is probably lack of knowledge of these writings. I would have to say that I have met very few priests and laymen who have even read the Church’s statements, let alone even take to heart what is contained therein. Could there be a mind set that what the Church proposes is so out of step with the modern mentality that its vision for liturgy and sacred music is impossible. There is an excellent address by Archbishop Chaput that treats of the modern secular mentality, in which we Catholics at least in the West, swim, and the difficulty it poses for evangelization and the renewal of the liturgy. It bears reading. Archbishop Chaput’s address: http://www.archden.org/index.cfm/ID/4113. It doesn’t help that practically all liturgical and sacred music workshops put on by diocesan liturgy and religious education departments ignore the Church’s vision expressed in her documents. Does it seem that the organizers cherry pick the ideas they like, or design their programmes to harmonize with the illusive version of “the spirit of the council” that ignores what was actually voted on by the VCII council fathers and the official documents that were meant to guide the implementation of the directives of the council?

  4. Dear, as you like gregorian chant I invite you to visit my site: http://www.gregoriano.org.br where you will find a lot of music, videos, scores etc.
    Thanks, from Brazil.

  5. Pingback: Sung Latin Mass on the eve of All Saints (All Hallows Eve) @ St Jude’s Parish and Shrine, Vancouver at 7:30PM | A Son of Saint Philip

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