The Case for Gregorian Chant: The Spiritual Benefits of Singing in the Voice of the Church

“He who sings prays twice.” – Saint Augustine

An important aspect of vocal prayer that shouldn’t be missed is the singing of prayer. The singing of hymns and prayers has been an essential part of personal and liturgical prayer for thousands of years, even before Christianity. The Psalms are a great example of this tradition, as they were meant to be sung. But how should we sing while we pray? Is there a preferred way of singing?

In a word, yes. The Roman Catholic Church favors the style of Gregorian Chant above all other musical styles that have surfaced over the centuries. The Church does not favor it for no particular reason, but does so because of its ability to foster prayer. Let us look at the reasoning of the Church and come to understand why this outdated type of music is still relevant today.

Before we begin, what is Gregorian Chant? Here is a brief overview:

“The name is often taken as synonymous with plain chant, comprising not only the Church music of the early Middle Ages, but also later compositions (elaborate melodies for the Ordinary of the Mass, sequences, etc.) written in a similar style down to the sixteenth century and even in modern times. In a stricter sense Gregorian chant means that Roman form of early plain chant…The name Gregorian chant points to Gregory the Great (590-604), to whom a pretty constant tradition ascribes a certain final arrangement of the Roman chant” (Catholic Encyclopedia)

Essentially, it is an ancient form of singing that has been passed down to us from St. Gregory the Great.

But wasn’t it abolished at Vatican II? Let us open-up the documents of Vatican II to see that Gregorian Chant was never abolished, but instead promoted:

“The Church acknowledges Gregorian chant as specially suited to the Roman liturgy: therefore, other things being equal, it should be given pride of place in liturgical services.

The typical edition of the books of Gregorian chant is to be completed; and a more critical edition is to be prepared of those books already published since the restoration by St. Pius X.”

(Sacrosanctum Concilium, 116-117, emphasis added)

In the General Instruction of the Roman Missal, revised in 2011, we see written:

“41. The main place should be given, all things being equal, to Gregorian chant, as being proper to the Roman Liturgy. Other kinds of sacred music, in particular polyphony, are in no way excluded, provided that they correspond to the spirit of the liturgical action and that they foster the participation of all the faithful.

48. This chant is sung alternately by the choir and the people or similarly by a cantor and the people, or entirely by the people, or by the choir alone. In the Dioceses of the United States of America there are four options for the Entrance Chant: (1) the antiphon from the Missal or the antiphon with its Psalm from the Graduale Romanum as set to music there or in another setting; (2) the antiphon and Psalm of the Graduale Simplex for the liturgical time; (3) a chant from another collection of Psalms and antiphons, approved by the Conference of Bishops or the Diocesan Bishop, including Psalms arranged in responsorial or metrical forms; (4) another liturgical chant that is suited to the sacred action, the day, or the time of year, similarly approved by the Conference of Bishops or the Diocesan Bishop.”

But what is so special about Gregorian Chant? It is traditionally known to correspond to the three vows of religious life, poverty, chastity and obedience:

“Gregorian chant draws its beauty and practical strengths from three memorable characteristics: chastity, poverty, and obedience. Gregorian music is pure, chaste melody, with no underlying harmony or accompaniment necessary. As such, one person or ten thousand can perform it with ease. Gregorian music takes the vow of poverty: it uses a comfortably limited range of notes. It requires no expensive instruments or expensive copyrighted sheet music; it requires only the willing voice and a photocopier (all Gregorian music is in the public domain). Finally, Gregorian music is obedient to the sacred text” (What Makes Music Catholic by Joel Morehouse).

Of particular note is the ability of Gregorian Chant to help us grow in obedience. Our sinful nature makes us prideful of the things that we make and Gregorian Chant humbles us in its simplicity as well as by the fact that it is the preferred way of singing in the Roman Catholic Church. While we certainly can use other genres of music to pray/sing and are allowed to by the Church, in her wisdom she prefers Gregorian Chant.

Saint Pius X found three other spiritual attributes of Gregorian Chant, sacredness, beauty and universality:

“These qualities [sacredness, beauty, universality] are to be found, in the highest degree, in Gregorian Chant, which is, consequently, the Chant proper to the Roman Church, the only chant she has inherited from the ancient fathers, which she has jealously guarded for centuries in her liturgical codices, which she directly proposes to the faithful as her own, which she prescribes exclusively for some parts of the liturgy, and which the most recent studies have so happily restored to their integrity and purity.

On these grounds Gregorian Chant has always been regarded as the supreme model for sacred music, so that it is fully legitimate to lay down the following rule: the more closely a composition for church approaches in its movement, inspiration and savor the Gregorian form, the more sacred and liturgical it becomes; and the more out of harmony it is with that supreme model, the less worthy it is of the temple.

The ancient traditional Gregorian Chant must, therefore, in a large measure be restored to the functions of public worship, and the fact must be accepted by all that an ecclesiastical function loses none of its solemnity when accompanied by this music alone” (St Pius X, Tra le sollecitudini paragraph 3).

Above all things, it is a simple and solemn way of praying. Instruments are not needed and the most basic chant can be learned by anyone. It is not “trendy” or “hip” in any way and so does not distract away from the sacred words being sung. Gregorian Chant focuses on the text and is really meant to highlight the beauty of the word itself. In that way, it is designed to point us all to the Word Himself, Jesus Christ.

While it is traditionally used with the Latin language, various adaptations have been made so that a person can chant the Mass or Liturgy of the Hours in the vernacular. This is most beneficial and can help us enter into the sacredness of the liturgy.

It is the voice of the Church and can greatly help our own personal prayer. Singing while you pray can “lift up your hearts” to the Lord and is a beautiful way of expressing our love of God. Singing has always been seen as a special sign of love for another person. For example, culturally speaking a man who sings to his girlfriend/wife is seen as “romantic.” Why not express our love for God in a way that the Church has done for centuries?

For those not familiar with Gregorian Chant, here are a few videos to give you examples of this beautiful (and ancient) way to pray:

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