On a recent Monday at the Abbey of Regina Laudis here, about 35 nuns gather in a dim chapel to chant, as they do every day at noon. Making their way through Psalm 118, the nuns sit or stand; some face different directions, while others bow steeply. Throughout, their voices remain in unison.
Pope Benedict XVI would approve. After a concert of 16th- and 17th-century music recently, the pope said he would prefer to hear Gregorian chant and other traditional types of music play more of a role during Mass.
That’s good news for the cloistered nuns at the Bethlehem abbey, which is known around the world for its devotion to Gregorian chant and is one of the few places where it is sung with such frequency and intensity. The nuns sing seven times a day; some interrupt their sleep to chant at 2 in the morning.
But the pope’s comments also raise certain questions: What is sacred music supposed to sound like? And what’s wrong with new music in church?
It’s a debate that has raged since 1963, when Vatican II reforms brought contemporary music to Catholic churches. Just as the Latin Mass almost immediately disappeared amid attempts to modernize, chants gave way to guitars and snappy folk tunes.
The new music helped fill pews, but it left church conservatives and formally trained musicians reeling. How could the church that brought about Gregorian chant, polyphony and musical notation — all profound influences on Western music — be the same one leading sing-alongs of "Love Is Colored Like a Rainbow" and songs from hit musicals? What, bemoaned the purists, had the folkies wrought?
The new music helped fill pews? In what alternative reality was this? There has been a consistent decline of Catholics going to Mass over the last forty years. There of course are a lot of cultural factors explaining this besides a change in the liturgy. But to assert that contemporary music is filling the pews when there has been a decline in Mass attendance is plain mistaken. I can’t recall one conversion story that mentions comtemporay music as a factor. Though I have read some where they come into the Church despite comtempoary music at Mass.
"There’s a sense of mystery and religious atmosphere that seems to be lost in the new days," says Scott Turkington, the choirmaster at St. John the Evangelist Roman Catholic Church in Stamford. "The fact is that the older music is better. Ask any serious musician, and he’ll agree with that."
The chants sung at Regina Laudis are more than 1,000 years old. But Sister Elizabeth Evans says "old" doesn’t mean "irrelevant."
Sister Elizabeth, 46, was a corporate securities attorney and law professor before she came to the abbey in 1997. Each of the nuns is assigned certain responsibilities; hers are music and dairy. Sitting in a small room behind a wooden screen (which symbolically separates the nun’s world from the visitor’s, though there’s enough space to shake hands), Sister Elizabeth remembers stumbling onto the sound of chant when she was 14. To her, it was anything but off-putting. She played it for her friends, who were equally taken.
"And I mean, these were 14-year-old gum-chewing delinquents like myself," she says.
To the untrained ear, the unaccompanied chant named after Pope Gregory the Great can sound emotionally muted, droning at times and otherworldly. That it’s sung in Latin doesn’t help.
But to Sister Elizabeth, it sounds more recognizably human than any other music, down to earth and in tune to the rhythms of life.
It’s based on the Scriptures, after all, which are filled with human foibles. She says chant is like bluesman Muddy Waters — a comparison that conjures the improbable image of nuns chanting "Baby Please Don’t Go." She explains that both have a certain earthiness and deal with the nitty-gritty of life.
What they chant depends on the time of the day (the morning lauds, for instance, often celebrate beginnings and creations; at noon, they chant the sext, which deals a lot with chasing down noonday demons). Subjects also change along with the seasons. Lately, they’ve sung about taking in harvests, filling storage houses and other day-to-day concerns.
So if chant is like Muddy Waters, what’s contemporary Christian music?
"Donny and Marie," Sister Elizabeth says, laughing.
Amen to that.
Roc O’Connor, one of the St. Louis Jesuits — a musical group of then-seminarians at St. Louis University that led the folk Mass movement in the 1970s — says he recently visited a poor church in Brazil where the parishioners sang local songs.
"I thought, `How can these people make sense of Gregorian chant or polyphony?’ " says O’Connor, whose group still raises the hackles of musical purists. "The cultural and economic issues that are tied to it all make the issue more complex. Not everyone can afford an orchestra or singers who can handle it."
Yes Brazilian are too stupid to learn Gregorian Chant or least that what it sounds like what the condescending Roc O’Connor is saying. He obviously has no idea of the history of when Gregorian Chant was first introduced to Catholic converts who were natives of South America. That not only did they take to it, but composed their own Chants.
Nobody’s expecting Gregorian chant to fill churches en masse. But many say the pendulum had been swinging toward traditional music even before the pope weighed in on the subject.
"You had one generation in the 1960s that had the general mode of questioning authority," says Kurt Poterack, editor of the journal Sacred Music. "Now you have, not quite the children, but the grandchildren. They tend to be people in their 20s who are saying, `Hey, this is kind of beautiful stuff."’
As Fr. Tucker said on his blog today "I’d be hard pressed to think of anything written after 1960 that’s worth teaching a congregation to sing."