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Gregorian Chant: Back to Basics in the Roman Rite

by Piunno John C.


While Gregorian chant has been sung in the Catholic Church for centuries, in the space of a few years since Vatican II it seems to have vanished. It is difficult to believe that the intent of the Council Fathers was that Gregorian chant and Latin would totally disappear from the liturgy. John Piunno provides suggestions on how the Church can bring Gregorian chant back and educate the clergy, liturgists and musicians on the Church's teachings, directives and sacred tradition.

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The American Organist Magazine

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American Guild of Organists, June 2005

The Church acknowledges Gregorian chant as proper to the Roman liturgy; therefore, other things being equal, it should be given pride of place in liturgical services. [Vatican Council II Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy, No.116]

In 1994, the Benedictine Monks of Santo Domingo de Silos in Spain released a recording entitled Chant. To the astonishment of many, this seemingly esoteric offering climbed to the Top 5 on the U.S. pop charts. A few years later, the monks released another recording for Christmas entitled Chant Noël. a collection of ancient Christmas music. Chant II was then released in response to the popularity of the first recording.

Why have Chant and its sequels captured so much attention? Many young people are asking where this beautiful music originated and how it came to be used in the Church.

Gregorian chant has been sung in the Catholic Church for centuries. In fact, until the end of the Second Vatican Council in 1965, one could hear Gregorian chant on almost any given Sunday in any diocese in this country. In the space of just a few years, however, it seemed to have vanished. Where did it go, and why is chant so infrequently heard at the parish level today?

Gregorian chant is unfamiliar to many people and should be listened to carefully. Aside from its intrinsic beauty, one should also appreciate its historical value and, more importantly, its liturgical value and purpose. In chant, the solemnity of the text is raised to an exalted level by being cantillated, or intoned, to a musical line. The rhythm of chant is free and is governed more by the rhythms of speech than by imposed musical patterns. The melody is indicated by small signs above the text, sometimes square or diamond-shaped notations called neumes, first written down in the tenth century. It was not until the end of the eleventh century that the pitches were accurately written using a system of letters. The first few chants of the Church were sung in Hebrew and then in Greek.

A legend dating from the ninth century tells how Pope Saint Gregory I (590-604) compiled the body of plainchant. It is said that he carefully collected and wisely arranged music that had been handed down over the centuries. This music, called Gregorian chant, spread to all parts of Christian Europe and is still sung daily in many religious houses throughout the world.

While it has been tradition to attach Gregory's name to chant, the available evidence does not support this. Apart from insufficient documentation, liturgical and musical analysis has found no strong evidence that the melodies first written down in the ninth century could be as old as Gregory. Nevertheless, we are certain that Pope Saint Gregory is responsible for assembling a liturgical book (antiphonus cento), and also for protecting the purity and integrity of sacred chant by prescribing laws and regulations over it.

Prayer, meditation, reverence, awe, and love — Gregorian chant carries them in rhythm and melody. More than any other music with lyrics, chant is "heightened speech." In chant the music and prose are perfectly integrated. Its function is to add solemnity to Christian worship. In sacred music, the text is at the heart of the composition.

The chief duty of sacred music is to clothe the liturgical text so that it moves the faithful to devotion and prayer. Chant does this in a most splendid and reverent way. This becomes apparent while listening to a recording of the Vexilla regis or the Pange lingua. Sacred chant is a heightened form of prayer.

Church musicians, liturgists, and the clergy should reflect on the reasons for the renewed interest in Gregorian chant, and what it means in terms of prayer and the evolution of liturgy. Possibly the renewed interest in chant reveals a desire to immerse oneself in a world of serenity and peace, away from the distractions of a hectic and sometimes discordant daily life.

Hearing chant can be a moving experience, but how does one go about learning it? A quick review of the Church documents on sacred music provides guidance on how and when sacred chant may be sung during various parts of the Mass, the Liturgy of the Hours, and during other liturgies. The documents tell us what should be attained when we present music for divine worship; and chant is the supreme model the Church fathers encourage the faithful to use.


In the past 40 years, a variety of music has been tolerated in the Roman Church. Contemporary, folk, polka, country, and other forms of inappropriate secular music have infected the liturgies; and some of this music has also crept into our hymnals. In light of the instructions on sacred music from the Holy See, it is odd that non-sacred music continues to permeate our liturgies. Perhaps the bishops and pastors who abdicated their authority over these matters now need to correct them.

It is difficult to believe that the Council Fathers and those responsible for the liturgical reforms 40 years ago, envisioned a total absence of Gregorian chant and Latin from the Order of the Mass. It is doubtful that today's liturgies are the intended product of the spirit or the intent of the Second Vatican Council. Still today, many Catholic musicians, liturgists, and the clergy are reluctant to embrace the timeless traditions of the Church and the directives of the Holy See. Gregorian chant, sacred polyphony, and the use of Latin in the Mass are frequently viewed as being incongruous with the liturgy, and are sometimes greeted with antipathy and even outright hostility at their mere suggestion.

In 1947, Pius XII's encyclical, Mediator Dei, confirmed the norms established by Pius X (Motu proprio Tra le sollecitudini) and Pius XI regarding sacred music. Some 15 years later, the Second Vatican Council's document on the liturgy, Sacrosanctum concilium, reiterated and futher expanded the norms for sacred music. The new directives contained in the General Instruction on the Roman Missal provide instruction on the use of chant in the Mass.

The reluctance on the part of the clergy and musicians to embrace Gregorian chant is very apparent. Perhaps the reason is that they [the clergy, musicians, and liturgists] are no longer trained in liturgy, sacred music, aesthetics, and the history of the Roman Rite. The last 40 years have left an indelible mark on our liturgies. It is a mark of confusion sprinkled with secularism and other agendas. Many of our liturgies have lost the sense of sacredness. The sense of awe and mystery formerly associated with the Mass is no longer present.

For 40 years, the Catholic Church has experienced a tumultuous change in nearly every aspect of her liturgical and musical life. The Council Fathers wisely drafted instructions specifically designed to protect sacred tradition and the law. And the bishops, as caretakers of that tradition, in cooperation with the clergy and musicians as collaborators, should always strive to improve the quality of music used in the liturgies. More imporatantly, they should adhere to the Rite and what has been promulgated by the Holy See.

Perhaps a Third Ecumenical Council is needed to correct some aspects in the Order of the Mass, our liturgies, and also redefine sacred music. Just as the clergy are obligated to follow the rubrics established by the Holy See, church musicians and liturgists should follow the directives regarding sacred music and liturgy.

Sacred music needs to be clearly defined with guiding norms and discipline. This is best accomplished at the diocesan level. The cathedral should set the standard for the diocese. Improving the quality of the liturgies and music will occur when the bishops and pastors are willing to embrace the directives of the Holy See (Instruction Redemptionis Sacramentum, March 25, 2004).

In retrospect, a number of outside factors influenced and perverted the intent and spirit of the Second Vatican Council. in many instances the wishes of the Council Fathers were ignored, and some documents may have been misinterpreted.


So how does the Church bring Gregorian chant back into her liturgies? How do we re-Catholicize two generations of clergy and laity influenced by secular music that has become part of their spiritual fabric? It is a monumental task for any organization to change its culture and value systems. The changes in the 1960s and 1970s occurred with such velocity that in many cases little or no thought was given to the implications of the liturgical adjustments. It was an era in which musical and liturgical aberrations would find fertile ground in the formation of future priests and bishops.

Today, many of our clergy, liturgists, and musicians are ignorant of the Church's teachings, directives, and even her sacred traditions. Cultural and other external influences have had a devastating effect on the liturgies and music of the Church. Pope John Paul II has urgently appealed that the liturgical norms for the celebration of the Eucharist be observed with great fidelity (Ecclesia de Eucharistia Chapter 5). The author is not advocating a return to an all-Latin Mass — that would be regressing — but rather a back-to-basics approach focusing on improving the liturgies and music in the Church.

Given the desire of so many to hear Gregorian chant, perhaps now is the time for its gradual re-introduction into the liturgies. Obviously, pastoral judgment governs the use and function of every element of liturgical celebration. If one were to take into account the various teachings and directives of the Church with respect to the use of chant, sacred music, and Latin, it is possible to suggest a formula (a baseline) that would further enable the liturgical reforms hoped for in the Second Vatican Council:

  • Conserve and gradually restore sacred chant and polyphony as recommended in the Holy See's documents on sacred music (Vatican II's Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy and also the General Instruction on the Roman Missal), so that the faithful may once again take a more active part in the sacred mysteries;
  • Restore chant to the parts of the Ordinary of the Mass (i.e. the Kyrie, the Credo, the Sanctus, and the Agnus Dei), because it has always been looked upon as the supreme model of church music and reflective of the universal nature of the Church;
  • Re-introduce sacred music and liturgical pedagogy in Catholic seminaries and other religious institutions in accordance with the directives from the Holy See;
  • Restore use of the Kyriale, Graduale Romanum, Psalter, and the Liber cantualis (simple chants can easily be used by the congregation);
  • Restore sung Vespers in our principal churches, such as cathedrals or basilicas, as directed in the Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy, No.100, and in accordance with the General Instruction on the Liturgy of the Hours;
  • Provide a means for clergy, musicians, and liturgists (via workshops, correspondance courses, etc.) to be properly trained in sacred music, liturgy (Redemptionis Sacramentum), tradition, and the Roman Rite;
  • Standardize the music of the Order of the Mass to "maintain the universal dimension of the Roman Rite among the people." "And to take steps so that the faithful may also be able to say or sing together in Latin those parts of the Ordinary of the Mass which pertain to them" (Sacrosanctum concilium, No.54);
Liturgy and music in the Catholic Church are in need of reform. However, for the reform to be successful, it must begin with the clergy and, most especially, during seminary formation. The clergy, liturgists, and musicians have a special obligation to follow the Roman Rite and at the same time uphold the standards of quality and sacred tradition. Music used for sacred rites must have sanctity as its point of reference and should be devoid of any political agenda.

The Church with its special obligations toward sacred chant, that splendid music of the medieval Church, must manifest them whenever the occasion is presented. Chant is from the beyond — it is not of this world, because it allows us to transcend our thoughts in prayer and speak to God. Chant is a form of sacred art that stems from the pure spiritual, theological, and biblical inspiration that emanates from the heart.

Gregorian chant never left the Church — we left it. Fortunately, many of these sublime pieces are once again being sung during the Liturgy of the Hours and at Mass.

Sacred chant seems to have been misplaced. But we can distinguish the sacred from the unacceptable and, with proper disposition, return Gregorian chant to its proper place in the liturgies of the Church.

Copyright © 2005, The American Guild of Organists.

John C. Piunno is a freelance writer living in Washington DC.

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