An area of contention and debate surrounding the state of the Roman liturgy today is sacred music. Many today will point out that Sacrosanctum Concilium, the Second Vatican Council’s Constitution on Sacred Liturgy, states, “The Church acknowledges Gregorian chant as specially suited to the Roman liturgy: therefore, other things being equal, it should be given pride of place in liturgical services” (116). It is safe to say that Gregorian chant hasn’t taken hold in the typical suburban parish in North America (or most other places in the world, for that matter), but many Traditionalists apparently seem to believe that chant was taken away as a consequence of the post-conciliar liturgical reforms.
Is this true? Well, yes and no. In November 1969, on the eve of the implementation of the new Roman Missal, St. Paul VI spoke about the decision to allow the celebration of the liturgy in the common tongue, he said, “We will lose a great part of that stupendous and incomparable artistic and spiritual thing, the Gregorian chant.” Certainly Pope Paul recognized that the exclusive use of the vernacular in most Catholic churches around the world would mark the end of a century-long attempt within the Church to revive Gregorian chant. That said, it would be incorrect to assert that Gregorian chant had successfully taken hold, especially when we explore the state of liturgical music in the 19th and 20th centuries.
What, precisely, is Gregorian chant? It is the oldest surviving form of sacred music in the Western Church. It is a form of plainchant, which means it consists of a single melody, with no harmony or use of instrumental accompaniment. It is called “Gregorian” because Pope Gregory the Great is said to have played a role in its arrangement. Gregorian chant encompasses chants of the Mass and other liturgical rites, as well as the Psalms, which made up the office that was prayed daily by Benedictine monks. Gregorian chant proliferated throughout the Church up through the Middle Ages, when other forms of sacred music (many of which were frowned upon by the hierarchy) began to emerge. Later forms of sacred music, such as polyphony (which includes multiple vocal parts) and music that uses the pipe organ, have been praised and promoted by popes, but Gregorian chant traditionally has pride of place. In recent centuries, this pride of place has rarely meant prevalence, however. In fact, the history of sacred music reveals an ongoing tug-of-war between the preferences of the composers preferred by ordinary Catholics and those of the hierarchy.
Indeed, by the time of the second Vatican Council, it was more common for Catholics—at least in the US—to encounter (often saccharine) hymns throughout the Mass, or even no music at all, than to hear the chanted propers and prayers of the preconciliar Missal. If you look at the 1959 Missal scanned and posted on the Corpus Christi Watershed website, you can see that these English-language hymns were clearly intended to be sung where chanted collects and antiphons should appear in the Mass. Other examples of the type of music common prior to Vatican II include this 1926 hymnal from the Diocese of Cleveland and this 1955 “Mediator Dei” hymnal published by Gregorian Institute of America, which seemed to have already moved away from its “Gregorian” roots prior to becoming GIA Publications, a liturgical music publisher that still exists today.
It is also true that popes after Vatican II encouraged efforts to promote and preserve the use of Gregorian chant in the Masses of the new Roman Rite, and even supported its incorporation into Mass that is otherwise in the vernacular. During the 1988 ad limina visit of US bishops from the states of Washington, Oregon, Idaho, Montana and Alaska, St. John Paul II told them, “The use of the vernacular has certainly opened up the treasures of the liturgy to all who take part, but this does not mean that the Latin language, and especially the chants which are so superbly adapted to the genius of the Roman Rite, should be wholly abandoned.”
In recent years I have been fortunate to hear Gregorian chant during Mass in basilicas, cathedrals, and in ordinary parishes. It’s true that sometimes you have to go looking for it, and there are some parishes where the adoption of Gregorian chant as a regular part of the musical repertoire seems unlikely to happen anytime soon. But sometimes you’ll be surprised, as I was when visiting a historic Black Catholic church, where the inspiring sounds of Gospel music predominated, but where the choir broke into the traditional Agnus Dei chant following the Sign of Peace. In some ways, we might even say that we are in the midst of a great revival of Gregorian Chant.
In his great books on the two Vatican Councils, (Vatican I: The Council and the Making of the Ultramontane Church and What Happened at Vatican II), the Jesuit historian John O’Malley describes the state of liturgical music in the years leading up to and following Vatican I in 1870, and the attempts of the ultramontanes and St. Pius X to revive Gregorian chant. Illustrating the overall state of liturgical music in the mid-19th century, O’Malley explains how traditional plainchant was nowhere to be found, not even in the Vatican,
“In the Sistine Chapel the focus was on Renaissance polyphony, which for the ultramontanes sounded as secular as Rossini. With the exception of the Sistine Chapel, visitors to Italy and Rome with an interest in music, which included great composers such as Berlioz and Mendelssohn, were unanimous in describing the music in the churches as almost blatantly secular. One visitor reported that in the middle of a High Mass at a Roman church, a priest stood up and sang an aria from Donizetti.”
Efforts to resurrect Gregorian music faced many challenges, not least of which was the fact that hardly anyone knew how it was supposed to sound:
“Gregorian was a difficult musical form and virtually unknown except among a few specialists. Outside Guéranger’s circle there were indeed very few capable of teaching it or even performing it properly. Gregorian, altogether unfamiliar to churchgoers, sounded alien to their ears. It proved difficult to persuade ordinary Catholic congregations of its merits.”
Subsequently, more efforts were made to revive this ancient form of sacred liturgical music. More than 30 years after the council, St. Pius X promulgated his 1903 motu proprio Inter Sollicitudines. In this document, Pius decried the “vulgar” and “theatrical” forms of music that were commonly heard during the liturgy. He asserted that, “The ancient traditional Gregorian Chant must…in a large measure be restored to the functions of public worship.” In this document, he called for its use in ordinary parishes. But was he successful?
O’Malley certainly didn’t think so. He wrote, “Because Gregorian Chant and polyphony were musical styles with which very few people were familiar, this provision was not easily or widely implemented.” Yet even with this Petrine “boost,” O’Malley says the resurgence of Gregorian chant was extremely limited in its success in influencing how Catholics worshipped.
Pope Pius XI even noted the mixed success of implementing his predecessor’s vision. In his 1928 motu proprio, Divini Cultus (On Divine Worship), he wrote, “It is, however, to be deplored that these most wise laws in some places have not been fully observed, and therefore their intended results not obtained. We know that some have declared these laws, though so solemnly promulgated, were not binding upon their obedience.”
Many contemporary traditionalists seem to lack a strong grasp on the history of Gregorian Chant. Vatican II did not strip chant away from the Mass, but rather (once again) affirmed its pride of place in the Church’s liturgical tradition. You can’t take away something that’s not there. It can be said, therefore, that this part of Sacrosanctum Concilium was simply following in the centuries-old ecclesiastical tradition of the Catholic faithful being told to incorporate Gregorian chant into the liturgy and promptly failing to do so.
The primacy and importance of Gregorian chant have been promoted by the postconciliar Popes, including Pope Francis, who in 2019 told the Scholae Cantorum of the Italian Association of Saint Cecilia that chant is “Not just any music, but a holy music, because the rites are holy; adorned with nobility of art, because for God we must give the best; universal, so that everyone can understand and celebrate.” He commended them in their work to “promote the presence of the schola cantorum in every parish community.”
On chant, St. John Paul II embraced the message of his predecessor St. Pius X, when he wrote, “I make my own the ‘general rule’ that St Pius X formulated in these words: ‘The more closely a composition for church approaches in its movement, inspiration and savour the Gregorian melodic form, the more sacred and liturgical it becomes; and the more out of harmony it is with that supreme model, the less worthy it is of the temple’” (emphasis added).
We have to keep in mind human nature, however, and maintain a realistic (and evangelization-minded) perspective when it comes to sacred music. It’s a fact of life that “high” forms of art and music rarely exceed the popularity of, well, popular forms. The opera is not going to sell more albums than Taylor Swift. More people are going to read The Hunger Games than Ulysses. Mozart isn’t going to fill more concert seats than Garth Brooks (and as far as Pius X was concerned, Mozart’s music was too vulgar for the liturgy anyway). And does it truly matter? In the wider scheme of things, what matters is our conversion of heart and our relationship with Jesus. If Gregorian chant—as beautiful and sacred as it is—is lost on you, but praise and worship or Gospel music bring you closer to the heart of Christ, then by all means, listen to the music that enlivens your faith.
Of course, the preservation of Gregorian chant is important to our Church, and we are fortunate to have many Catholics who are devoted to its promotion and preservation. We can actually look around today and note how many Catholics—perhaps in greater numbers than at any other time in recent centuries—have actually taken up this request of the Council. Many Catholics are now composing and singing music in this sacred form for the liturgy, and at a higher skill level. In other words, we should not assume that the “pride of place” (or lack thereof) held by Gregorian Chant reflects a betrayal of the state of liturgical music prior to the Council, but rather another chapter in the ongoing struggle of the hierarchy to convince Catholics to use it in worship.
I want to leave you with a final point to consider. A few years ago, Corpus Christi Watershed unearthed a recording of Gregorian chant from 1904, the year after St. Pius X published Inter Sollicitudines. Listening to this and comparing it to the beautiful sacred music of our great scholas of the present day, perhaps the state of Gregorian chant today is (at least comparatively) better off than we think:
Mike Lewis is a writer and graphic designer from Maryland, having worked for many years in Catholic publishing. He’s a husband, father of four, and a lifelong Catholic. He’s active in his parish and community. He is the founding managing editor for Where Peter Is.
With thanks to Where Peter Is and Mike Lewis, where this article originally appeared.
 O’Malley, John W. Vatican I (p. 77). Harvard University Press. Kindle Edition.
 O’Malley S. J., John W. What Happened at Vatican II (pp. 72-73). Harvard University Press. Kindle Edition.
 O’Malley S. J., John W. What Happened at Vatican II (p. 73). Harvard University Press. Kindle Edition.