James MacMillan says chant is the perfect musical expression of Pope Francis’s vision of humility
The new papacy of Francis has brought great joy and renewal to the Church and a huge wave of good will from non-Catholics. What will this new Pope bring to our sacred liturgies, which are the beating heart of the Church’s philosophy of love?
Baroness Warsi, the Minister for Faith and Communities, attended the
papal inauguration Mass in Rome and spoke of the way that Pope Francis’s
simplicity resonates with people and singled out “his concept of
humility, simplicity and going back to values”.
What does a “poor and simple Church” need in its divine praises?
Is there humility in the Americanised, over-the-top, sub-Broadway pop
music, dripping with sentimentality, that now infests so much of our
liturgy? [No.] Is there simplicity in the here-am-I-Lord egotism of so many of our dreadful modern hymns? [No.]
How does the upholstered, fatuous and banal secularity of so much of
Catholic contemporary “praise music” succeed in “going back to values”? [It doesn't.]
The dawning of a more austere period in the Church’s mission requires liturgical music of a more austere and simple design: a music that humbly deflects attention from “the music ministry”, a music that is based in Catholic heritage and values, and a music that sounds both Catholic and sacred. The good news is that we have this already, and it is the music that Pope Benedict has been urging us to rediscover over the last decade: chant. [Singing Francis Through Benedict.]
Music for a sacred ritual needs to project sacredness. In the liturgy “sacred” means “the glorification of God and the sanctification of the faithful”. Gregorian
chant gives an elevated tone of voice to the texts of our sacred
praises, conveying the special character of the words and of the
specific holy nature of what is being enacted and undertaken.
The chanting of the holy texts raises them up from the mundane and presents them “as on a platter of gold”, in the words of the Jesuit liturgist Fr Josef Jungmann.
Gregorian chant is unlike anything from the everyday world but conveys
the clear impression that there is something uniquely holy in the
actions of the liturgy. Gregorian chant is holy. [As
I picked up from the late Msgr. Schuler, sacred music must be sacred
and it must be art. It must be artistically written and performed, but
it must have both a sacred text and a sacred idiom. Gregorian chant is perfect in those criteria.]
Gregorian chant is universal as it is supra-national
and thus accessible to those of any and every culture equally. It rises
above those musics which are either associated only with localised
cultural experience, on the one hand, and operates separately from
those other musics which are associated with high, artistic, classical
derivation and aspiration, on the other. Therefore, it is essentially anti-elitist and simultaneously pure. Gregorian chant is for all.
The beauty of music is a crucial element in the
“edification and sanctification of the faithful”. Beauty is the glue
which binds together Truth and Goodness. To paraphrase the Swiss
theologian Hans Urs von Balthasar, without beauty, truth does not
persuade and goodness does not compel. The general function of music in the liturgy is to draw together a diverse succession of actions into a coherent whole. [Not just draw them together, but draw them together in prayer raised to God. Enough of "Gather Us In"!] That is what makes Gregorian chant beautiful.
The Gregorian sound, and the practice of chanting, whether by specialist or non-specialist, gives the most perfect context for the hearing of the words of the Sacred Scripture. It provides an elevated tone of voice that takes the texts out of the everyday and confirms them as sacred.
It provides a goodness of form, which is in itself beautiful, which in
turn adds a sense of delight to prayer. It takes our divine praises into
the realm of the transcendent and the eternal, and it is the music’s
sacred character which enables this.
There is a melodic and rhythmic freedom in chant which is hard to find
in any other music. Chant not only enhances the text, but it also breaks
free from the restraints of metre. It is the antithesis of rock and pop
with its incessant and insistently mind-numbing beat. It embodies the
ethereal and spiritual aspects of the liturgy. It is the freest form of
The Church would stop being the Church without its liturgy.
The liturgy is the pinnacle and summit of our entire Christian life. It
has to be of our highest and best, whatever the circumstances. Our
liturgical music has to be more than mere utility music. Before he was
Pope, Joseph Ratzinger said: “A Church which only makes use of ‘utility’ music
has fallen for what is, in fact, useless … for her mission is a far
higher one. As the Old Testament speaks of the Temple, the Church is to
be the place of ‘glory’, and as such, too, the place where mankind’s cry
of distress is brought to the ear of God. The Church must not settle down with what is merely comfortable and serviceable at the parish level.
She must arouse the voice of the cosmos and, by glorifying the Creator,
elicit the glory of the cosmos itself, making it also glorious,
beautiful, habitable, and beloved.”
He went on to say: “The other arts, architecture, painting, vestments,
and the arts of movement each contribute to and support the beauty of
the liturgy, but still the art of music is greater even than that of any
other art, because it forms a necessary or integral part of the solemn liturgy,
because it is so intimately bound to the sacred action, defining and
differentiating the various parts in character, motion, and importance.”
The new papacy is a welcome opportunity for us to renew and
revitalise our attempts at maintaining and continuing the sacred
dimension of our liturgical celebrations. Let us follow Pope Francis’s
example in being humble, in being simple, and in rediscovering our basic
core Catholic values.
James MacMillan is a leading composer. Musica Sacra Scotland, a new
national advisory group for music and the liturgy in Scotland, is
planning a one-day conference with helpful, practical workshops in
November. Full details will be released nearer the time