Gregorian chant: the cultural front line of the new evangelisation

Timothy McDonnell, director of music ministries at the Institute of Sacred Music, Benjamin T. Rome School of Music at The Catholic University of America in Washington, conducts a Gregorian chant rehearsal at the school's St Vincent Chapel. (CNS photo/Chaz Muth)

Recently I spent many hours on the front line of the new evangelisation. In a formerly Christian country, Britain, where the cultural achievements of the Church are still remembered and appreciated, at least by some, I was working on the via pulchritudinis: the “way of beauty”.

As Pope St John Paul II expressed it in 2003 (Ecclesia in Europa 60):

“Nor should we overlook the positive contribution made by the wise use of the cultural treasures of the Church. … artistic beauty, … a sort of echo of the Spirit of God, is a symbol pointing to the mystery, an invitation to seek out the face of God made visible in Jesus of Nazareth.”

Where was I? At Oxford University’s Freshers’ Fair, as I am every year, recruiting singers for a Gregorian Chant schola named after an Oxford student who died for the Faith, Blessed Thomas Abel.

Oxford University is large, by the standards of elite institutions: last year we had more than 23,000 students. Most degrees are three years or less, so the number of people arriving in Oxford each year to commence studies is huge.

Freshers’ Fair resembles a shopping mall during a sale, with the difference that few seem to be buying anything. The narrow aisle down which attendees are forced to walk, in order to get out of the cavernous but increasingly stifling Schola Magna Borealis (the “North School”: a lecture hall the rest of the year), had choirs on one side and dance societies on the other, and inevitably most students are interested in neither.

I was next to the Hip Hop Society (did this amuse the student organisers, I wonder?) We had a running joke between us that people who weren’t interested in one of our groups would have to be interested in the other. If you reject both hip hop and Gregorian Chant, what else has life to offer? But of course Freshers’ Fair has a bewildering variety of societies – 400 are registered with the University – offering every kind of ideological, artistic, charitable and academic activity for students’ free time. And even by the high standards set by the Quidditch Club and the Knitters’ Guild, the Oxford Gregorian Chant Society is, as several students remarked to me, “niche”.

This has its advantages. For those who have heard of Gregorian Chant at all, it immediately identifies us with the Catholic liturgy, and at the same time with something whose cultural and artistic value exercises a powerful attraction. We are the people who take chant seriously, and we sing it – naturally – in the Catholic liturgy. If you want to hear it being sung, or sing it with us, that’s where we’ll be. We always get interest from medievalists and musicologists, as well as from Catholics with liturgically conservative inclinations.

Another group we have consistently drawn in are members of Wycliffe Hall, an evangelical Anglican seminary which is part of the University. This seems a little mysterious; one of them remarked that he wanted to experience a liturgical tradition which contrasted with his own. How this experience will work on him through a lifetime as a non-Catholic minister, only providence can tell.

The effect of the schola on its members is not, of course, its main purpose. It exists for the glory of God and the salvation of souls, by supporting the celebration of Mass. Specifically, I founded it to facilitate the celebration of Sung Masses in the Extraordinary Form in the Oxford area. In this Form there is a very clear distinction between said and sung Masses, and for the latter singers are necessary for the complex “proper” chants, those specific to the Sunday or feast. The stakes are high: if a badly played violin has been said to sound like a soul in torment, and a well-played one like the harmony of the spheres, something similar can be said about Gregorian Chant.

It is natural to ask, given the time, sweat, and money required to make beautiful sacred music, in the context of the new evangelisation: does it work? The liturgy works on us at a subtle level, one not normally visible. It was good, therefore, to read this account concerning a young woman from Miami, who attended a Mass supported by this same Schola in Oxford when she was passing through:

During her post-collegiate travels she became resolute in converting to Catholicism after attending a Missa Cantata, or sung Mass, in the parish of her favorite author, J.R.R. Tolkien, a devout Catholic who penned the “Lord of the Rings” series.

When she heard Latin hymns coming from the choir loft, Tavakoli said, it felt like “hearing angels on high.”

She was mesmerized. “It truly is extraordinary,” she said. “There is something beautiful and sacred about this form of the Mass.”