On the night he was betrayed, Jesus and his disciples broke bread together, prayed, and sang. From the beginning, Christian gatherings have involved music and singing. Our religious instinct urges us to honor God by means of music and other arts, heightening our religious exaltation through joyous and reverent singing.
For two millennia, the Catholic Church has taken a deep interest in music. Through Church councils and papal encyclicals, the Church has defined music that is “sacred” and, therefore, worthy of use in the Liturgy.
In book 10 of his Confessions, St. Augustine writes that sacred music is a powerful aid to devotion, and that in song “our souls are moved and are more religiously and with a warmer devotion kindled to piety.” Similarly, St. John Chrysostom said that, “Nothing elevates the soul, nothing gives it wings as a liturgical hymn does.”
Over the past several decades, the use of sacred music in Mass has greatly diminished. Choirs have been dismissed, and polyphonic music has been abandoned. Most Catholics today have had no exposure to Gregorian Chant—the type of music that the General Instruction of the Roman Missal says “holds pride of place because it is proper to the Roman liturgy.”
Pope Benedict XVI has encouraged new efforts to promote excellence in sacred music. In 2006, for example, the Holy Father said that, “An authentic updating of sacred music can take place only in the lineage of the great tradition of the past, of Gregorian chant and sacred polyphony.”
To answer the Church’s call for a renewal of sacred music, the Thomas More College of Liberal has launched several programs aimed at restoring an appreciation for the history and beauty of sacred music, as well as its role in leading to greater devotion and reverence to Christ during Mass.
The College’s flagship effort is its two-week Workshop in Gregorian Chant, held from June 27th thru July 9th as part of a series of Way of Beauty Ateliers in sacred art and music.
Participants will learn how to sing Gregorian chant through training in sight-singing and the study of chant theory. To this end, participants will chant the Divine Office and the Mass daily. Each class day is centered on and receives its fruition in the liturgy, with classes culminating in a fully sung final Mass in the Thomas More College Chapel.
Studies will also include a survey of chant history, a discussion of the principles of Sacred Music, and their implementation in parish life.
“There is no question that students will leave with a deeper understanding and appreciation of Sacred Music and with the tools necessary to continue chanting on their own,” said Elizabeth Black, Director of the Workshop in Gregorian Chant.
Formal training in music is not required to participate in the Workshop in Gregorian Chant, said Black.
“The program was developed to benefit choir directors, music teachers, and priests, as well as those with little or no exposure to sacred music who simply desire a firm introduction to Gregorian Chant. The program is open and accessible to anyone.”
In addition to hosting workshops for the public, Thomas More College offers its students formal instruction in chant from Tom Larson. Larson is the director of the Shuler Singers, an adult choir that is committed to preserving and promoting Gregorian Chant and Renaissance polyphony within the Sacred Liturgy.
Each week, Larson takes the students through the Ordinaries (those parts that are in the Mass each week such as the Kyrie, the Gloria and the Sanctus) and the Propers (those parts that vary depending on the particular Sunday, for example the Introit). While the choir leads the singing at Mass, all members of the College are learning as well simply through regular exposure to many of these chants, and all are encouraged to join in.
Larson’s classes are open to students at any level of knowledge and experience. Plainchant is difficult to sing well and through his guidance the students learn the melodies of the Ordinaries and Propers, as well as the techniques of singing, such as breathing properly.
“Each morning and evening during the week I lead students in chanting the Liturgy of the Hours,” said David Clayton, director of the Way of Beauty Program. “Students not only learn how to chant, they are also led to apply the liturgy of the Church to their daily lives by structuring life around the rhythms and patters of the liturgy. In this way, they are breathing with the Church.”
Clayton noted that Pope Benedict XVI has spoken of the spiritual value of music in leading us to God.
In 2008, the Holy Father said, “It is no coincidence that Christian tradition shows the spirits of the blessed as they sing in chorus, captivated and enraptured by the beauty of God. But true art, like prayer, is not foreign to everyday reality, rather it calls us to ‘irrigate’ that reality, to make it sprout that it may bring forth fruits of goodness and peace.”