Why Callista Gingrich can sing

First a confession: I am a choir guy.

At most schools (high school or college) there are band types, athletes, drama people, book fanatics, math/science geeks (and proud of it), etc., etc. Sometimes, these groups can overlap, such as the common book/band hybrid or the choir/drama type. I was a book/choir guy.

During my stay at Baylor University, I sang way over my head as a freshman in an audition and landed a slot in the Baylor Chorale, a classical ensemble led by the classical composer Robert H. Young, who, I am sad to say, recently passed away. I stayed in the choir all through my undergraduate years (journalism and history majors) and during my two years in graduate school (church-state studies) — even though I was not a music major.

I missed three rehearsals in six years. I was a choir guy. That choir was my sanity.

Enough said. I’m still a choir guy and, frankly, I would be lying if I didn’t say that this played a role in my pilgrimage to Eastern Orthodox Christianity. The music of Dimitry Bortnyansky knocked me out as a 19-year-old and it still does. You see, beauty has theological content.

I bring all of this personal stuff up for a reason.

The Washington Post Style people recently ran a rather stunning story with the following headline: “Callista Gingrich Brings Attention to Basilica of the National Shrine Choir.”

The story talks about Callista Gingrich as a candidate’s wife, of course. It talks about the tensions of having a political celebrity in the ranks of a top-flight, professional choir in the District of Columbia. Yes, it talks about the mixed blessing of the Gingrich marriage and its history.

But, to my shock, the article devotes most of its ink to two serious subjects: (1) What it’s like to have great chorale music in your blood, and (2) the role that beautiful music can play in a person’s journey from one faith to another.

This is bizarre. I mean, find me another political story in which Palestrina, Byrd, Thomas Tallis and Arvo Part (click here, I dare you) play a crucial role.

Here’s a crucial chunk of the story, pivoting on the point that Callista is a professional musician — period. That leads back to this choir and this particular sanctuary:

Callista’s training pinpoints exactly what makes the choir at the shrine so distinct from other choirs at Catholic churches. It is unabashedly good, routinely cited as one of the best Catholic choirs in the nation.

Catholic choirs don’t always receive such acclaim.

Poor musical quality is a relatively new development in Catholicism, a religion that patronized the likes of Bach, Haydn and Scarlatti. Some blame modernization. When the Mass changed in the early 1960s, the music changed, too. Others blame funding cuts. In recent decades, sacred music, not required at Catholic Mass, has become less traditional, less serious, easily produced by guitars, bongo drums and eager volunteers who try really, really hard.

“Music is a priority here,” said Mon­signor Walter R. Rossi, rector of the shrine. … “This is a pilgrim church. A tourist church. And everyone who comes here wants to come here because they find the worship fulfilling.”

Believe it or not, there’s more — focusing on the role that choir director Peter Latona plays in the larger picture of worship in this shrine.

You see, classical excellence isn’t enough. It is not the ultimate goal in the context of worship.

Latona prefers to curate the musical selection every week, selecting pieces that span styles and centuries. Palestrina. William Byrd. Thomas Tallis. Arvo Part. Even preferred composers must pass his strict litmus test for sacred music.

An organist and composer, Latona selects music with academic and formulaic precision. Even renowned composers, such as Mozart, often fail to meet Latona’s standards. “Mozart tends to bring you out of church,” he says reluctantly. “It reminds me of a classical music station too much. A piece has to have intrinsic beauty, but there are other factors. Is it the right text? The right key? How will it sound in this space?”

The Shrine has the only all-paid professional choir in the Catholic Archdiocese of Washington. All members are paid the same amount, $80 for each Mass and rehearsal, and must re-audition every year.

Ultimately, even an artistic and theological subject this grand must be linked to politics, somehow, or it wouldn’t be getting this much ink in the Post. Believe it or not, the bridge between music and the soul of one very controversial man is taken rather seriously.

There’s an elephant in the church, a question that those who know the Gingriches are reluctant to ask. Spouses sometimes lead their spouses to conversion. But can music? In popular culture, images of choirs belting out Handel’s “Hallelujah Chorus” are sometimes associated with good fortune and epiphany. But is there a link between conversion and sacred music?

That question makes some Catholics nervous. It oversimplifies everything. Choirs don’t convert people or presidential candidates.

“Music can help with conversion,” said Rossi, who served as Gingrich’s sponsor, alongside Callista, in 2009. “I’m not sure it’s the entry point or cause of. Conversion is a lifelong process. It’s rare that people have experiences like Saint Paul, who got knocked off his horse on his way to Damascus.”

“Did [Newt] hear the choir sing a piece of music and have a ‘Road to Emmaus’ moment? No. Obviously, lots of thought and life experience goes into that decision,” Latona said. “However, had he followed Callista to a Catholic church where the liturgy was poorly done and the music was abysmal, would he have converted? I don’t know. The chances of that happening are less.”

By all means, read it all.

In particular, I would be interested in knowing what our Catholic readers think of this story’s treatment of the “Why Catholics Can’t Sing” material. That’s a huge subject and worthy of in-depth coverage, just on its own.

PHOTO: From the press office of the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception.

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About tmatt

Terry Mattingly directs the Washington Journalism Center at the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities. He writes a weekly column for the Universal Syndicate.

  • Joe

    Poor musical quality is a relatively new development in Catholicism, a religion that patronized the likes of Bach, Haydn and Scarlatti.

    Slight nitpick: I don’t think Bach had Catholic patrons, even though his music would be adopted by Catholics after his death.

    On the ‘Catholics can’t sing’ aspect, I find it striking that the article acknowledges (albeit in passing) the mediocrity of much contemporary Roman Catholic liturgical music. The author does well to note the exceptional nature of the Basilica’s music program and the possibility that it influenced Gingrich’s conversion in a way that the average parish music program would not. If the article had been exclusively focused on the music program and not about the Gingriches, I wonder whether the article would have gone deeper on the aesthetic and liturgical issues involved. (In a way, I’m glad they didn’t, as it spared us from having to read quotes from Marty Haugen types whom the reporter might have then felt compelled to call upon to defend the mediocre mainstream.)

  • http://!)! Passing By

    “That’s Newt Gingrich’s wife, the bright blonde,” an attendee whispered …
    “Reeeaaallly?” A woman reacted…

    How do reporters get quotes like that? Luck? In the right place at the right time?

    Poor musical quality is a relatively new development in Catholicism

    Is that a retrospective bit of fantasy? Ok, they named three composers, one a Lutheran. The Latin Rite tradition does not include hymn-singing at Mass. We have inserted hymns where Psalms, with the proper antiphons, should go. It’s been awhile since I read Thomas Day, but if memory serves, his point was, partly, that Catholics can sing, if you give us something worth singing, and a chance to learn it, we sing rather well. Listen up when the Our Father is sung, in either of it’s major tones.

    …easily distinguish Gregorian chant from Renaissance polyphony.

    Yes, graduate student stuff there. ;-)

    But then, I’m a choir guy, too.

  • http://leitourgeia.wordpress.com Richard Barrett

    …I don’t think Bach had Catholic patrons…

    I could be wrong, but the B Minor Mass was, I believe, written for the King of Poland. I think that qualifies as a Catholic patron.

  • Martha

    tmatt – Arvo Part! Yes!

    A serious living composer of religious music! For those of you who think Karl Jenkins or John Rutter qualify, sorry to be offensive, but no. Jenkins is a pop musician (and no harm there, I like pop music myself) and Rutter does lollipops (one downside to Christmas is that every blinkin’ station starts playing his carols, which leaves me in serious danger of sugar overload).

    Em, this was supposed to be about the journalism, right? I can only speak from the Irish experience, but I’d say it’s fair enough – Catholics don’t sing. I think this probably is a combination of the Reformation, where the Protestant reformers made a deliberate effort to get participation by the laity in services combined with catechesis by writing hymns for everyone to sing, whereas the Mass in Latin needed trained choirs.

    When the Mass changed, it’s correct that the music did also, and it’s correct as well that a lot of enthusiastic amateurs with guitars took over, though that still didn’t mean Catholics wanted to sing. Not Irish Catholics, anyway. Other Catholic nations may have had better luck.

  • Joe


    I could be wrong, but the B Minor Mass was, I believe, written for the King of Poland. I think that qualifies as a Catholic patron.

    I’ve heard that before, though I think there is dispute on that point among scholars. Apparently some Lutherans in Bach’s time also used Latin in the liturgy, so he could have composed in Latin for them as well. I’ll concede that Bach could have had Catholic patrons for some of his works, though he probably would have been surprised at the posthumous reception of his Lutheran works among Catholics. (For example, isn’t there a hymn in Catholic hymnals set to the music of “Ein feste Burg”? I think so, but I can’t remember what it is.)

  • Deacon John M. Bresnahan

    It is apparently not mentioned in the article,but there is a strong movement in the Catholic Church to give chant (as opposed to hymn singing) a much bigger role in the liturgy itself).
    When I was a youngster the Sunday Mass was where the choir sang. Congregational singing was done at novenas. But that might just have been my parish.
    And as one commenter said–it seems to be an Irish Catholic thing not to sing. I think she is right. For years I helped out at a nearby Polish Catholic Church when they wanted a deacon at the Mass for special occasions–And the congregation sang everything they could, from parts of the Mass (the Gloria) to Polish hymns–with gusto. It got to the point I could at least mouth the Polish hymns–and parishoners began to believe I had learned Polish. Sadly, this beautiful church was closed in the archdiocese of Boston’s downsizing.

  • Pete

    If you’ve got a Slavic Orthodox church nearby (Russian, Ukrainian) stop by on a Sunday morning. The music is the most beautiful on earth. It’s what is surely being heard in heaven.

  • Julia

    I grew up in an Irish parish with a pastor born in Ireland, but we had the best choirs in the diocese. I think it was due to the wonderful organist/choir director for the men and boys choir who did Sunday high Mass and the Sisters of Loretto (who always have a bent for the arts) who drilled the girls every day for an hour to do weekday Masses, funerals and special Holy Days.

    But I have read that the Irish don’t sing due to a history of secret Masses in the hedges where you didn’t want the English constables to know a Mass was going on. That, and it was such a poor country that they didn’t have time or energy for choir practice. But – boy, did we have some great Irish tenors and sopranos.

    As someone else pointed out, the Mass used to have propers that changed every day that were mainly taken from Scripture and were chanted. This required a trained choir. When we did the regular parts of the Mass from the Kyriale, the people could and some would sing along, as well as the recessional, but the rest was the choir- maybe a hymn at the Offertory and another at Communion. In fact there are still propers, but most parish choirs have take the new option to substitute “appropriate” hymns or psalms.

    So – I’m a choir gal in about 3 singing groups. My small diocese has a diocesan schola which does the kind of music that Callista sings in D.C., and have a devoted but small following. At a recent Christmas concert, among other things we sang O Magnum Mysterium by Tomas Luis de Victoria from the 1500s. We only do special events. I used to be in the archdiocesan choir across the river in St Louis, which also does some very good music.

    Recently, due to my experience singing chant funerals I was able to lead a small group doing the Dies Irae at a 1962 era Requiem Mass for St Louis seminarians to learn the old Mass. That was a real treat. Nobody else had ever sung it.
    Many of the younger priests and people, who never experienced the old Mass with its Propers and chant are intrigued and becoming interested in recovering the Catholic musical heritage.

    But – this is an example of very fine new music that we did as a prelude to a recent ordination. There is good music out there. Even Dave Brubeck wrote sacred music.


    Here’s a new Kyriale for chanting in English.

    And a new Vatican II Hymnal with Latin & new English translations for the congregation. Be sure to click the explanatory short video.


  • Jerry

    It sounds like some people don’t know the history of music in the Catholic church reaching back to Pope Gregory:

    Gregorian chant is the central tradition of Western plainchant, a form of monophonic liturgical music within Western Christianity that accompanied the celebration of Mass and other ritual services. It is named after Pope Gregory I, Bishop of Rome from 590 to 604


  • Julia

    Who is it that you mean are not aware of Catholic musical history?

    In fact chant was there from the beginning as a continuation of synagogue-type sacred music. Gregory did not begin it.

    In the US, many modern English chant collections are heavily influenced by the Anglican tradition b/c of the difference in singing English instead of Latin with all its vowels.

  • D
  • Jerry


    I assumed it because no one had mentioned it upstream.

  • Dan

    I would say that article misses the centrality of music to worship. The Bible speaks often of signing, typically signing that expresses joy and praise (e.g., Ps 57:8 (“Awake O harp and lyre! … Oh Lord among the peoples; I will sing praises to you among the nations”). St. Augustine wrote that signing is something that one does when one is in love. During the Mass, Catholics join with all the angels and saints in singing the heavenly liturgy that Isaiah describes (Hosanna). In its purest and best form, liturgical music arises from, and is a form of, prayer. Byzantine Catholics sing the entire Mass. In the Latin rite the priest can, and sometimes does, sing parts of the liturgy of the Eucharist. In early Christianity a separate choir sang the psalms (but not others). I believe (liturgical scholars correct me if I am wrong) that the practice of a choir and/or the laity singing separate hymns that are not directly part of the liturgy is of Protestant origin.

    But this is not a “journalists don’t get it” issue. Very few Catholics (Catholic readers of getreligion excepted of course)have an informed understanding of why music is part of the liturgy. This is, I think, part of the reason why Catholic music in most Catholic parishes is so abysmal (“mediocre” is far too generous a description).

  • Jennie

    Here’s a vote for Arno Part — what wonderful choral music – haunting and lovely — would love to hear it sung live.

  • Julia

    In case anybody is still reading, this is a link to what is called the Kalenda at the Christmas Eve Mass at the Vatican. It’s the ancient yearly announcement of the birth of the Savior related to the history of the world. My parish’s best singer does this in English with a chant that fits better with English words.


    The parish also does the ancient Exultet at the Easter Vigil in English using the chant in this link. All is not lost.


    [from last Easter before the new translations]

  • http://Faith&Reason Cathy Grossman

    Hey Matt, what’s with your snotty tone of wonder that a WashPost writer could do a fine and thoughtful story? Could you do without the “believe it or not” stuff and still point GRistas to a piece worth reading?

  • Jay

    C’mon, Bach was the quintessential Lutheran kapelmeister. And even the aforementioned King of Poland was previously Lutheran, to the point that his wife refused to become queen rather than give up her religion.


  • Ellen


    I think it is okay for Terry to be amazed. The article was not snide and seemed to evince more of an understanding of the real dynamics in Catholic liturgical music than almost anything else I’ve ever read in the secular press.

  • Maureen

    “In the Latin Rite, the priest can, and sometimes does, sing parts of the liturgy of the Eucharist.”

    Actually, the default Latin Rite Mass format (OF or EF) is for the priest to sing or chant the whole Mass, and for the people to chant or sing their part. Readings? Chanted. Prayers? Chanted. Chanted, chanted, chanted, from beginning to end. That’s the normal ordinary generic Mass, at least according to the rubrics. Quick, easy, often known by heart by older generations of laypeople and priests alike. Heck, I was a child of the Seventies, and I still know how to chant huge amounts of Mass. It’s mystifying that anybody stopped doing it.

    The fact that lifelong Catholics often don’t know that the Mass is primarily to be sung, and never have experienced this perfectly normal Mass format, is evidence of the depth of the problem.

  • Carolee Pastorius

    The Catholic Church had no connection with Bach… JS Bach submitted his b Minor Mass as an audition piece for the King of Saxony… not Poland…. Bach wanted to be the Kapellmeister in Dresden. I found the article disquieting… both Latona and Rossi were a bit too “chuffed” for my taste. Having sung there from 2000-2002, I do qualify as a professional chorister. I would not have appreciated the amount of my compensation to be made public as is has been for these promotional bits about the Shrine Choir. I did sing with Callista, and found her to be a very nice woman: she is highly regarded as a musician and good person.