ROME, 23 DEC. 2003 (ZENIT).
Answered by Father Edward McNamara, professor of
liturgy at the Regina Apostolorum Pontifical Athenaeum.
Q: I am involved in a Latin schola, consisting mostly of people in their
20s and 30s, which sings Gregorian Masses, Latin hymns, as well as
appropriate songs in English, our vernacular. It has been my experience
that young people, used to contemporary music at Mass, quite appreciate
Latin and other beautiful liturgical hymns when they hear them. / What
guidelines could you give for the use of Gregorian chant in a parish Mass?
Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, and others
A: Gregorian chant may be used in any parish, even when Mass is celebrated
in the vernacular. Not only is it appropriate, but Church documents
positively recommend that all Catholics know at least some Gregorian
To cite only the most recent documents, the Holy Father's recent letter on
liturgical music reiterates the importance of Gregorian chant and No. 41
of the new General Instruction on the Roman Missal, published in 2002,
"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."
Therefore any parish may sing, for example, the Kyrie, Glory, Creed,
Sanctus, Pater Noster, Agnus Dei and even some newer parts such as the
acclamation after the Mysterium fidei and the "For yours is the Kingdom"
which follows the embolism of the Our Father.
Some Gregorian melodies are very simple. From personal experience I have
found that if repeated for a while most parishioners can pick up more
complex melodies such as the Missa de Angelis and readily join the choir.
Eventually the assembly even becomes capable of alternating with the
choir. The people may also learn some of the simpler eucharistic and
Other Gregorian motets from the proper of the Mass, as well as many hymns,
would probably be beyond the ken of the average assembly but may be sung
by the choir. Of course, some space should be reserved for singing by the
whole assembly. But there is no reason why the people should have to sing
There are some moments, such as the preparation of the gifts or just after
the distribution of Communion, when a Gregorian or polyphonic piece can
create a climate of prayer and meditation.
While all should know some chants, from a pastoral and practical point of
view it might be better to reserve the habitual use of chant to one of the
principal Masses so that those who wish to worship using vernacular
settings have the opportunity to do so…. ZE03122323
Gregorian Chant in Parish
In a question that could
complement my Dec. 23 column, a Belgian reader asked about where a choir
should be positioned in a church.
"As a member of a Gregorian choir," he writes, "I am wondering at what
place in the church a singing choir is allowed to take place. We are
singing regularly in five churches. In one of them we take place between
the altar and the tabernacle [behind the priest]. We do so because there
is not really an alternative location possible (mainly for acoustical
reasons). In another church we do not do so because the priest there says
it is "not allowed" to sit between the altar and the tabernacle, but he
does not mention a specific reason for his judgment. So, what are the
rules and what is the best we can do?"
No. 312 of the General Instruction of the Roman Missal (GIRM) briefly
treats this theme saying: "The choir should be positioned with respect to
the design of each church so as to make clearly evident its character as a
part of the gathered community of the faithful fulfilling a specific
function. The location should also assist the choir to exercise its
function more easily and conveniently allow each choir member full,
sacramental participation in the Mass."
Clearly a document destined for the whole Church cannot enter into details
given the vast array of church designs. But the principle is clear.
The GIRM reminds us that the choir is fulfilling a specific and worthy
liturgical service yet at the same time remains a part of the assembly.
Thus the choir's location should avoid being so prominent as to distract
the rest of the assembly or give the impression of its being mere
At the same time, the location should safeguard the choir's mission to
guide and uplift the assembly through its music, while allowing its
members full, conscious and active participation in the eucharistic
The choir should thus seek to strike a balance between the demands of
acoustics and the far more important element of full liturgical
So, may the choir be situated behind the altar, between priest and
tabernacle? This position would appear to be incorrect, above all due to
the excessive prominence given to the choir and the real danger of
distracting the assembly's attention from the mystery celebrated on the
altar itself. This would probably be true of most churches even for those
where the tabernacle is not directly behind the altar.
Some church designs may allow for this disposition however
for example, if the altar is somewhat elevated, or is located toward the
front of a deep presbytery, making the choir less conspicuous.
A further consideration regards the respect due to the tabernacle. GIRM
310, although it refers to the location of the priest's chair and not to
the choir, does throw some light on the Church's thinking: "[T]he best
place for the chair is in a position facing the people at the head of the
sanctuary, unless the design of the building or other circumstances impede
this: for example, ... if the tabernacle is in the center behind the
If the tabernacle is considered an impediment for the location of the
priest's chair behind the altar it deduces that the same would be true for
Another text that assists us is the Holy See's document "On Concerts in
Churches" (Nov. 5, 1987).
This document deals with the norms governing the use of churches to offer
free concerts of sacred music. Even though the choir is not participating
in a liturgical celebration the document recommends that it avoid
occupying the presbytery and specifies that the Blessed Sacrament be
removed from the tabernacle for the duration of the concert (No. 10). The
of the choir not occupying the presbytery
would hold true during a liturgical celebration.
Therefore the priest who said that such a location is "not allowed" is
following sound liturgical principles.... ZE04011323