First Article: One of the biggest prejudices and fears about Gregorian chant 

For a few weeks, we will be sharing a series of articles for the general public who wish to learn to pray by singing with the use of Gregorian chant. This series will be entitled “Gregorian Chant from a Beginner’s Perspective”. In addition, we will delve into what Gregorian chant should be for a member of the Church and a person of faith. I hope this will be of benefit to you, above all, for your spiritual growth, and to know and understand the place of Gregorian chant in the universal Church. 

But before entering fully into what Gregorian chant itself is (its history and origin, its spirituality, its notation, its place in the liturgy, and its present situation in the universal Church), it is necessary to expose in detail one of the greatest prejudices about Gregorian chant, and the fears harbored by many of the faithful who do not know it.

If we speak of prejudices about Gregorian chant, it is to be noted that there are many. However,  first of all, I am going to address the one that stands out the most: the prejudices and fears about Latin. I dare to affirm that they are, more than the music and the chant itself, the main reason why Gregorian chant is not cultivated in all churches and religious communities worldwide. Moreover, nowadays it is common for someone to suggest a Latin chant for the liturgy and immediately be looked at with dissatisfaction, incomprehension, and rejected with a definite “no”. Excuses such as people will not sing it, no one will understand it, it is not well pronounced, it is a chant for the Tridentine Mass and traditionalists, it is an involution that makes us go backward, the Second Vatican Council banished it to promote the vernacular language, and other unfounded excuses and fears are ingrained. Unlike what happens with other religions that have preserved an ancient, venerable language exclusively for their liturgy, in the Apostolic and Roman Church since the Second Vatican Council we have been preferring the vernacular language following the trend of the Protestant Church. This gives us a lot to think about…

However, not only fears come to light, but also the lack of formation, ignorance, and prejudices of the faithful about something as valuable to the Church as Latin and Gregorian chant. I prefer to believe that it is from insufficient knowledge that people who are in charge of liturgical ministries express their intention of wanting to promote “unity” through the vernacular, but they are in reality causing disunion and openly contradicting what the magisterium of the Church exhorts us.

Unfortunately, one could compare Gregorian chant and Latin to a person who is the victim of a bad rumor, even calumny, and whom one wants to move out of the way and dishonor. The truth, far from all that, is that Gregorian chant is an anointed chant, for it is purely for God; every prayer is imbued with His word and holiness. And when the faithful go to abbeys, parishes, courses, and workshops where Gregorian chant is cultivated, they question all those prejudices and fears. At last! They seek to know if the Church truly supports such affirmations, and they turn to the sources: the reading of ancient texts of the Fathers of the Church themselves who proclaimed over and over again the sanctity of Gregorian chant and Latin.

Today, in the 21st century, the official documents of the Church clearly instruct the faithful the same on the use of Latin in the liturgy. In this regard, Pope Benedict XVI in the post-synodal apostolic exhortation Sacramentum caritatis writes, “In order to better express the unity and universality of the Church, I would like to recommend what the Synod of Bishops suggested, in harmony with the norms of the Second Vatican Council: except for the readings, the homily, and the prayer of the faithful, it would be good if these celebrations were in Latin; the best-known prayers of the Church’s tradition could also be prayed in Latin, and, eventually, some parts could be sung in Gregorian chant. More generally, I ask that future priests, from the time of the seminary, prepare themselves to understand and celebrate the Holy Mass in Latin, as well as to use Latin texts and sing in Gregorian; and that the faithful themselves know the most common prayers in Latin and sing in Gregorian some parts of the liturgy.” It is evident that there is a great ignorance of the existence of these texts that shed light on the matter, and that people tend to give their opinion according to what they hear and without any foundation, like it happens with rumors.

If we look back to discover when Latin was introduced into the liturgy, we will see that in the third century, the transition from Greek to Latin was made and hierarchically this language is still in effect in the Church. I respectfully dare to mention the bishops and priests, because they are the ones who have the authority and responsibility in this whole situation, and in what happens during the liturgical celebrations. They should be aware of the Second Vatican Council and know that Latin and Gregorian chant have primacy in the Church. Then, how can we justify the lack of the use of Latin in the Holy Mass and Divine Office? Perhaps, a lack of formation in the seminaries and secular tastes that distance the faithful from the sacredness that should be lived in the Church. Now, one might ask, why would the use of Latin be detrimental if the liturgy has been celebrated in this language for more than a thousand years? Today there are very few priests, religious orders, and faithful who put forth effort to defend the dignity of the language of Divine Worship, when in fact it should be all of us. Sadly, by eliminating Latin due to a lack of sensitivity and not recognizing what is uniquely created for God, we automatically eliminate something that is part of us as the mystical body of Jesus: the chant and prayerful voice of the Church, Gregorian chant. The most concerning thing is that as a consequence the liturgy is secularized. There are even some who dare to justify the unjustifiable by affirming that the important thing is that the Eucharistic consecration is carried out and that the rest is not important. 

Nevertheless, the Church has always, since its beginnings, recognized Latin as the liturgical language of prayer, of elevation, of solemnity that leads to unity in a universal way, and of a sacred character, “something that vernacular languages do not possess because they do not have the sacred stylization,” as the famous Dutch Latinist Christine Mohrmann would say. If Latin were to be used in a parish, it would be as it happens with everything: with time, the faithful would learn the meaning of what is being proclaimed. For example: Pater noster is “Our Father” or Santus is “Holy”. But the prejudice has reached such a point that it is believed that Latin is exclusive to the Tridentine Mass, when in fact it is for the liturgy of the Roman Rite, and the Ordinary or Novus ordo form does not become Tridentine because Gregorian is sung and prayed in Latin. 

At Notre-Dame de Fidélité Abbey in Jouques, the Benedictine nuns, those of the Neumz project, show by their example that it is possible to enter into the paschal mystery and glorify God, even if at first the young women do not understand Latin well. The nuns of Jouques, who celebrate the liturgy in the Ordinary form of the Roman Rite, offer and glorify God with Gregorian chant at Holy Mass and in the Divine Office every day of the year. Latin and Gregorian chant fulfill their liturgical function in this monastery. Those who visit or make retreats can experience the grace of total union with the universal Church and heavenly fullness because everything is celebrated and fixed upon God. This alone should be enough for us.

This leads me to ask myself about something that occurs daily in the Church: to what extent does the vernacular language benefit us and promote universality? Especially when liturgical texts are constantly being altered and secularized, and it is alarming that no one says anything, or if anything is said, it is ignored. Why do so many say they do not understand the Latin Mass, and cannot pronounce Latin? If one knows the Mass, then one knows and understands that the sacrifice of the Paschal Mystery is what takes place and that one comes to glorify God. For that, one does not need to understand Latin, but to have faith and to be sensitive to the liturgical signs. In the end, there has to be a will, a will to promote the unity of the Catholic Church and to protect the Sacred Liturgy in what is essential, which is the mystery of Christ. This corresponds to all of us because the call as a Church is not to be parishes with individualistic and personalized practices, and according to the tastes and preferences of each community: this does not make us a universal Church. 

Finally, I conclude this article by sharing the words of Sister Rocío de Jesús, a nun from Daimiel: “Know and give in to facilitate union with others.” I believe that God gives us the answer in very simple words through her, that is to surrender our will for the greater good of the Church. If we strive to learn so many things in life, then knowing that Latin is within our reach postconciliar and that it is a matter of taking it and accepting it can benefit us spiritually and make it easier to learn Gregorian chant. This is the beginning that can open the door to the union between the human and the divine, the earthly and the heavenly, that is the meaning of religion, the union between the finite and the infinite… And as a common denominator of heaven and earth comes the Gregorian chant to glorify the Eternal Father.