Guest Post by Allison Salerno
I grew up in the years immediately following the Second Vatican Council. Nothing in my religious training at Mass or in our parish’s CCD program taught me about the treasure chest of Catholic worship, devotions, or music. My fondest Catholic memory from those years was sitting on the floor in a darkened classroom with my teenaged peers for Tuesday night youth group. A few times, we listened to a recording of whale songs. (This was to teach us that just as whales had a language to communicate with one another, God wanted us to communicate with others.)
I did understand that music was an important part of the Catholic liturgy. I took to heart the message of one of the felt banners in the converted gym that was my church growing up: “Singing is Praying Twice.”
As a product of the well-intentioned, but often misguided reforms that came in the wake of Vatican II, however, my childhood was robbed of my Church’s musical traditions. Polyphony? Antiphons? The Graduale? Never heard of any of this until about a year ago.
The folksy religious songs of my Catholic childhood, most of them culled from the still-ubiquitous Oregon Catholic Press songbooks, were sweet. They made me feel good. But they didn’t illuminate Catholic beliefs; in fact, some of them misrepresented Catholic doctrine. Consider this Eucharistic tune from my childhood.
Bread, blessed and broken for us all
Symbol of your love, from the grain so tall
(Michael Lynch, “Bread, Blessed and Broken,” text © 1978, 1979 Raven Music, published in OCP Publications)
The Eucharist isn’t a symbol; it is the Real Presence of Christ.
When it came time for our sons to begin their religious instruction, my husband and I switched from a church affiliated with the nearby university to our neighborhood parish. We liked the idea that the boys would attend CCD classes with neighbors, and we hoped to meet more couples in our town who shared our faith. What we didn’t realize was that the pastor is a man with a passion for reviving the Church’s rich musical traditions. My family of four began singing hymns and occasionally a song in Latin in church. When I joined the church choir earlier this year, my education began in earnest.
My perspective is more than a matter of personal taste. It turns out Vatican II is with me on this one. The council names chant and polyphony—not folk tunes and ballads—as the two forms of sacred music specifically appropriate to the Roman Rite of the Catholic Church.
In Sacrosanctum Concilium (SC), the Council’s document on the liturgy, the Council said, Gregorian chant should have a “pride of place” and “sacred polyphony was by no means to be disdained.” Vatican II did not promote the use of guitars during Masses. The SC states, “The pipe organ is to be held in high esteem, for it is the traditional musical instrument which adds a wonderful splendor to the Church’s ceremonies and powerfully lifts up man’s mind to God and to higher things.”
This leads me to Guido. Last month, at a meeting of our parish’s fledgling Chant Club, I learned about Guido D’Arrezzo, a medieval choirmaster and Benedictine monk, born outside Paris about 991. He invented modern musical notation by creating the four-line staff. He did so because he noticed his fellow monks were having trouble learning Gregorian Chants. His system of staff-notation only used four lines instead of the five we now use because they fit the range of Gregorian Chant melody. He also invented the solfege system, which in English-speaking countries we know as do-re-mi. Before Guido’s inventions, monks had to rely on their memory and oral transmission to learn the dozens of chants they sang daily as part of the Divine Office and also as part of the liturgy.
The chants we are singing, in addition to being beautiful and easy to learn, also are instructive.
Ave, verum corpus
natum de Maria Virgine,
Vere passum immolatum
in Cruce pro homine,
Cujus latus perforatum
Unda fluxit (et) sanguine,
Esto nobis praegustatum
in mortis examine.
Hail, true body
born of the Virgin Mary,
Who truly suffered, sacrificed
on the Cross for man,
Whose pierced side overflowed
with water and blood,
Be for us a foretaste
In the test of death.
What do these lyrics tell us? We’re all going to die. Christ, born of the Virgin Mary, suffered and sacrificed his own life so that we might have the possibility of eternal life. In the Eucharist is the Real Presence of his body and blood, and a foretaste of heaven.
Our boys love the music. Gabriel, 13, joined the Chant Club without any prodding from us. He loves learning the chants and the history and theology behind them. Recently, we attended Mass at our former parish for the Sunday night student Mass. My husband and I thought it would be good for our boys to see hundreds of college students worshipping. And I figured they’d find the music, contemporary Catholic tunes played on guitars and drums and tambourines, cool. Instead, our teenager was dismayed. “Where’s the organ?” Gabriel asked.
So it turns out that we are raising, as a friend in the choir puts it, “an authentic son of the Second Vatican Council.” Whether anyone knows it or not.