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Chiming in on the Church’s Changeless Chant Challenge

MusicNormally I attend a parish that has excellent music—the best in town, actually. However, last Christmas Eve I ended up at a Mass that included a strange musical prelude. There were great voices in the choir, but the instruments employed (drums and an electric guitar) were out of place. The pounding and grinding were like dirt in an operating room, rocks in a salad, or a slap in the face at a hotel’s front desk.

Perhaps the incongruence was clearest when “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen” was performed. A nice song from nice voices, yet those voices were beaten down and drowned out by the drums and guitar: Imagine (or ear-magine) an undercurrent of guitar-grinding throughout these words, punctuated every so often by aggressive hits of a drum: “God rest ye merry gentlemen, let nothing ye dismay. Boom! Boom! Remember, Christ our savior was born on Christmas day. Boom! Boom!…” I couldn’t help but wonder, “Just how are those merry gentlemen supposed to get any rest amidst all that noise?”

Kidding aside, I really did wonder if I was the only one who was dismayed by all the noise. I wouldn’t be able to tell at the Mass itself, since I couldn’t reasonably expect people to start tossing tomatoes at the choir. However, three main questions arose: 1.) Does anyone here know the Church’s teachings on sacred music? 2.) Does anyone here understand the Church’s teachings on sacred music? 3.) Does anyone here pray?

As for the first question, the Church’s teaching is plain enough for anyone who wants to look it up. If reading Papal Legislation on Sacred Music would takes too much time, there’s the short cut of reading chapter VI of Sacrosanctum Concilium, the Second Vatican Council’s Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy. (A preparatory hint: Drums and electric guitars are not endorsed, while Gregorian chant and pipe organs are.)

As for the second question, I don’t intend to impose a false standard, such as giving a detailed historical and theological analysis of why the Church teaches what she does on sacred music. I can’t do that myself. What I wonder, though, is whether people know that the Church’s musical teachings are not arbitrary, but directed to a very specific purpose: the glory of God and the salvation of man.

As the Church lets us know which books make up the Bible and which Sacraments we are to avail ourselves to, so she tells us which music is appropriate for liturgical celebrations. The singing at Mass should inspire the congregation to pray. In fact, the singing itself should be a prayer.

We’re now at the third question, which concerns a topic unsurpassed in importance when it comes to salvation. It is through prayer that we obtain the graces necessary to overcome any obstacles that would get in the way of doing God’s will. So powerful is prayer that St. Charles Borromeo referred to it as “the beginning, the growth, and the completion of all virtue.” St. Alphonsus Liguori said prayer was “an indispensable and certain means to obtain eternal happiness.”

Yet how many people make use of this great means of prayer during entertaining liturgies? I’d guess very few, not because of a lack of will, but because it’s almost impossible to pray when the grinding of guitars prevails. Even if someone had the intention to pray, he would be prevented from doing so by the noise around him.

Entertaining liturgies do little to advance the cause of our salvation, mainly because they prevent us from praying. Recollected liturgies, on the other hand, do a tremendous amount of good for our salvation, because they provide a noble and prayerful atmosphere for the faithful. Remember that Jesus spoke in Matthew 21 of the temple as a house of prayer, not a house of entertainment.

With that in mind, I want to encourage everyone to heed the Church’s changeless chant challenge. If your parish is not doing this already, two ways that might help make it happen are sending this essay to the music director, or by giving sacred music CDs to that director. Paraclete Press has plenty of outstanding music, such as these beautiful Palestrina renditions from Gloria Dei Cantores and this collection of popular chants from the Monastic Choir of St. Peter’s Abbey in Solesmes, France.

The recorded music and the teaching of the Church are both readily available. The only thing lacking in many parishes is the will to put these treasures to use. This is the challenge: If you really desire to glorify God and save your soul, why not manifest that desire by helping to implement the music meant for this purpose?

I’ve started to do my part at the parish mentioned in the opening, and will continue to encourage recollected liturgies there. If I end up at that church next Christmas Eve, I hope their musical aspirations will have soared above and beyond what they were last year. If so, the merry gentlemen can get some rest, and the congregation can get some praying done.

May it be so, for the glory of God and the salvation of souls!


Trent Beattie is the author of the new book Fit for Heaven, published by Dynamic Catholic. He also wrote Scruples and Sainthood and chose the mediations for St. Alphonsus Liguori for Every Day and Finding True Happiness. He is best-known for his sports interviews with the National Catholic Register, and has also written for Catholic Digest, Inside the Vatican, Columbia (of the Knights of Columbus), The Latin Mass magazine, and Catholic Men’s Quarterly. Trent lives in Seattle, Washington.


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  • GuitarGramma

    I am getting old. I am growing ever more weary. I am especially growing weary of the intolerance of those who hate guitars and drums at Mass. Mr. Beattie, as you might suspect from my handle, I do not share your opinion against guitars at Mass. Your article has been the most insulting of any I’ve read. To say that those who attend Masses with electric guitars and drums are prevented from praying is beyond the pale.

    The truth is that you were prevented from praying because of the music. I am sorry that happened to you. But to extrapolate from there and presume that NO ONE can pray in the presence of guitar music is simply too much.

    I am a conservative Catholic and an adult convert. I did not grow up hearing Gregorian Chant at Church; it is not a part of my personal background. And, in fact, when I attend a chanted Mass, I have trouble praying. The lack of rhythm and the quiet chant tones lull me away from prayer and cause my mind to wander away from my Lord. I find myself mentally writing shopping lists and I have to jerk myself mentally back to the Mass.

    And then, I do not write an article saying that Gregorian Chant prevents all people from praying. That would be a falsehood, obviously. Please know that contemporary music aids me in prayer. The rhythm keeps me focused, and the words are more comprehensible. This is what I need to stay focused in my prayers.

    The Catholic Church is big enough for us both.
    P.S. While it’s true that drums and electric guitars are not endorsed by Sacrosanctum Concilium, the fact is that they are not mentioned. SC actually states that “other instruments [than the organ] may be admitted for use in divine worship” provided they “are suitable, or can be made suitable for sacred use” (120). This decision is left in the hands of the local bishops. The bishops of the United States state in “Sing to the Lord” that “stringed, or percussion instruments” may “also enrich the celebration of the Liturgy” (90).

    The Catholic Church is big enough for us both.

    • Kevin Symonds

      That is an argument from silence.

      • GuitarGramma

        Kevin, I know that Disqus abbreviates long comments, so perhaps you did not read to the end of mine. Let me repeat and expand: Sacrosanctum Concilium, pp120, sates that “other instruments may be admitted for use in divine worship, with the knowledge and consent of the competent territorial authority.” The Bishops of the United States in their document “Sing To The Lord,” pp 90, state “Many other instruments also enrich the celebration of the Liturgy, such as wind, stringed, or percussion instruments ‘according to longstanding local usage, provided they are truly apt for sacred use or can be rendered apt.’ ” That is hardly silence. That is a direct support of apt use of stringed and percussion instruments in the United States.

        Yes, there can be less than apt uses of guitars and drums. Therefore it’s a judgment call of the Bishop. Mine says it’s OK, yours may say not. This is not our call to make.

        • lmgtfy
          • GuitarGramma

            Dear Imgtfy, I’m still waiting to hear what Kevin meant by an “argument from silence.” Perhaps the problem is that Disqus cut off my comment with a “see more” tag at the end and no one has read past that tag. I shall repeat:

            Sacrosanctum Concilium states that “other instruments [than the organ] may be admitted for use in divine worship” provided they “are suitable, or can be made suitable for sacred use” (120). SC leaves this decision in the hands of the local bishop. The bishops of the United States state in “Sing to the Lord” that “stringed, or percussion instruments” may “also enrich the celebration of the Liturgy” (90). The documents are thus NOT silent on guitars and drums as they are, respectively, stringed and percussion instruments.

            The most important aspect of this discussion is that the decision, yay or nay, on guitars and drums is the purview of the bishop. My bishop allows guitars, yours may not. We are all called to listen to our competent territorial authority, including in matters of controversy about appropriate musical instruments.