When we compare our world to that of the past, it is apparent that there are many things we possess which were yet to even exist in their world. We could make a list of these differences that stretches till the iPhone runs out of juice or till the cows come home. Yet there is one important thing which Catholic communities of the past possessed that we have generally lost: the Catholic musical tradition. Sure, we have records and tapes, CDs and MP3s, bluetooth, Spotify, headphones and AirPods. We sing pop songs, attend concerts, and record music using Logic Pro X or GarageBand. We can even find Catholic songs on platforms like Spotify and iTunes. But we have lost our relation to the living musical tradition possessed by the Catholics who lived before our day. And we desperately need to recover it, for this tradition is part of our Catholic heritage. It is one of our most valuable possessions.
Imagine the seventh century A.D. A number of monks are wandering across Europe at the bidding of Pope Gregory the Great. They have been sent to discover the melodies inherent in the regional musical traditions which were nestled amongst the hills and valleys of the European landscape. They travel to region after region, each of which possesses a unique musical tradition that has been developed and passed down generation after generation. They find the shepherds singing while tending their flocks; the laborers of the fields too, cloak their work in song. At times, they find whole communities singing together. Attending to the various melodies and committing them to memory, the monks return to Rome and work together to create a new type of chant out of the melodies they had discovered. This chant is Gregorian chant, a musical form that would rise to become one of the most prominent forms of liturgical music for centuries thereafter.
This story is important because it touches on the things we have lost. On one hand, we have lost the songful community. For centuries, each Catholic community possessed its own musical tradition unique to itself (recall St. Gregory’s monks gathered the melodies of these various traditions during their travels). Imagine growing up in one of these communities, learning its melodies during the earliest years of your youth, singing with your community during times of celebration, during times of work, during times of worship, and eventually passing these same melodies on to your own children. This is what it means to have an oral tradition that is lived and shared. A community’s melodies were completely its own, giving the community a sense of identity in time and place. These melodies were passed down from generation to generation as part of the enculturation process, establishing continuity between generations. In this sense, music was a wholly social event. Furthermore, a community’s musical tradition was an active, oral event, participated in by the various members of the community. Instead of passively listening to music in a slick pair of air pods, the people of the community created and produced the music itself using their voices and material instruments. In this sense, the musical tradition was a wholly human event, using intellect and body both for the making of melodies. Yet unfortunately, we no longer have such communal musical traditions. We no longer have nor sing songs in this way. We no longer have a songful community.
Furthermore, we have, for the most part, lost our liturgical tradition of music. As Catholics who are members of the body of Christ, we are part of a community which has inherited a longstanding musical tradition in its own right: liturgical hymns and melodies. We not only have as our inheritance Gregorian chant, but everything from requiem Masses to polyphony to the thousands and thousands of exultant hymns. Like the regional musical traditions, our Catholic liturgical tradition provides us with a sense of identity in the cosmos. The lyrics of hymns, insofar as they reveal to us in the simplest manner the most profound truths of the faith, are a vehicle of enculturation. Finally, the liturgical musical tradition has an added element; it most directly raises our minds and our hearts to God, bringing things human upon the threshold of things divine. Yet, in recent decades, this tradition, too has remained mostly untouched. Scores upon scores of breathtaking liturgical music have remained mostly under a pile of dust for decades. Our liturgical musical tradition remains unknown to us.
What are we to do therefore? Two things! Seek to revive the songful community. Hold evenings of song around the piano or at the hearth with your friends. Discover the hymns of the Church and sing them. Sing them joyfully! Sing them reverently! Sing them together with others! Let the foundations of the house reverberate with song. I’ll give you two hymns for starters: The King of Love, and Let All Mortal Flesh Keep Silent. Second, if you have any influence in music ministry, look up some of these traditional liturgical pieces and use them for your Masses. If you know someone who leads a music ministry team, invite them to rediscover the treasure trove that is the liturgical musical tradition of the Church.
And so I exhort us all: let us ardently praise God with our voices, again drawing from the wellspring of our Catholic musical tradition.