A ZENIT DAILY DISPATCH
GREGORIAN CHANT IN THE PARISH
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? — JMG, 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 melodies.
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, specifically states:
"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 Marian hymns.
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 everything.
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
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Follow-up: Gregorian Chant in Parish [01-13-04]
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 entertainment.
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 mystery.
The choir should thus seek to strike a balance between the demands of acoustics and the far more important element of full liturgical participation.
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 altar."
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 the choir.
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 same principle — 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
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