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Forget ‘kiddie music’, children love plainchant

Participants in the week-long chant camp at Epiphany parish in St Louis, MO

In Epiphany parish, where I’m the parochial administrator, reports are streaming in of children chanting Kyrie Eleisons while playing with toy blocks, warbling the Agnus Dei from the branches of trees they’ve climbed, and even putting their baby dolls to bed with the lullaby of a gentle Sanctus.

You see, we recently completed our second annual week-long chant camp with more than 50 young Catholics between the ages of four and 13. Last year they learned the Missa de Angelis. This year they sang the gorgeous Missa Cum Jubilo. Both years, they completed the week by chanting the entirety of one of the parish’s Sunday Masses. It has quickly become my favourite Mass of the year.

During the week, the children display an energy level that is quite intimidating, although they require a certain amount of break time, snack time and even random breaks in the middle of a singing session. Their vocal warm-ups are a full calisthenic workout, and the younger children in particular have a tendency to tackle the practice sessions while lying flat on their backs and waving all four extremities in the air. Each year, I count myself blessed to be able to spend time with such wonderful children, but I must admit that it is quite different than working with an adult choir, and there’s always a moment mid-camp when I wonder if the Sunday Mass is going to be a giant, glorious disaster.

These are children who have varying degrees of musical talent. Very few have experience singing in a choir. Some of them are chanting for the very first time. Their energy is difficult to focus and our teachers impress me beyond belief. This year they sang the final Mass with such gentleness and beauty it almost made me want to cry at the altar.

Our experience has proven that children can learn chant, even difficult chant, and they can do so beautifully. They don’t need watered-down kiddie music. They don’t need hand motions and clapping. They don’t need gimmicks. They will rise to a challenge. They will sing the Missa Cum Jubilo, in Latin, from a choir loft, in a way that gives glory to God and helps the congregation to pray better.

After a usual Sunday Mass, one of the complaints I hear from adult parishioners is that they have never learned Latin or how to chant. Because of this, they are uncomfortable joining in the singing. Those who are willing to learn can catch on fairly quickly, but I also understand that for some of us chant is always going to feel somewhat foreign, to an ear that has been formed for decades by a certain style of metrical hymnody and modern folk-influenced music at Mass. This means that one of the best ways (maybe the only way) to truly restore a vibrant cultural tradition of chant is to work with the children and help form their musical experience from a young age.

Some doubt the value of spending time teaching the children to chant. This is a sentiment with which Second Vatican Council disagrees, maintaining in Sacrosanctum Concilium that chant “should be given pride of place in liturgical services”. Redemptionis Sacramentum, an instruction issued by the Congregation for Divine Worship, adds: “It is the right of the community of Christ’s faithful that especially in the Sunday celebration there should customarily be true and suitable sacred music…” In other words, if I do not help my parishioners to learn sacred chant, I am failing them as their pastor.

Pope St Pius X explains in his encyclical Inter Sollicitudines that chant is the pinnacle of sacred music because it is holy, of high artistic merit and universal. For this reason, he writes, “Special efforts are to be made to restore the use of the Gregorian chant by the people.”

The beauty of sacred chant is as important as truth when it comes to revealing the gospel and evangelising our culture. For instance, St Augustine learned the truth of the Catholic faith through sacred chant. He writes in his Confessions, “The voices flowed into mine ears, and the truth was poured forth into my heart.” He further explains, “I am moved, not with the singing, but with the things sung.”

If we desire to hand on our faith to our children, we can do no better than to teach them chant. Beauty creates love, and the more beautiful our Masses are, the more inclusive they are of children creating beauty, the more they will instil an abiding love of God. Chant cuts to the heart and spills out of us at the most unexpected times, such that a child at play might – and absolutely will – spontaneously lift up a voice in prayer.

Fr Michael Rennier is associate editor of Dappled Things, a quarterly of ideas, art and faith (dappledthings.org)