A Seminarian’s Experience
in Bringing Sacred Music to a New Audience
By Pat Fiorillo
[The following article was published in the commentary section of Sacred Music, Spring 2013, Volume 140 No. 1. Sacred Music is the quarterly journal of the Church Music Association of America (CMAA).]
This past fall I had the pleasure of being asked to provide music for a Catholic young adult event in Boston’s North End. For the past three years, the music at this monthly event had been exclusively of the “praise and worship” style. When I direct music for special events like this, I am very particular about each piece of music selected, always trying to draw that fine line between doing what is truly sacred and ideal, and what is accessible enough that the congregation will not be left feeling totally disconnected. With my choir of twelve brother seminarians and four lay friends, the program turned out as follows:
Opening hymn – I Heard the Voice of Jesus Say; introit—Simple English Propers, Kyrie VIII; offertory—Simple English Propers, Sanctus & Agnus De—O’Connor, Mass of St. Michael; communion—Pange Lingua in English, Jernberg’s St. Michael chant, and closing hymn—All People That On Earth Do Dwell.
The liturgy turned out to be a great success and the music was well received. I had a similar experience a year ago directing the Eucharistic Congress Mass. The main thing that this proves is that young people are open to experiencing the beauty of sacred music when it is presented well and in a context they can understand. Some of the event organizers were a bit nervous about me prior to the event; I suspect that when they found out I was going to have chant as part of the music program, the first thought that ran through their mind was, “Here is another traditional seminarian who just wants to turn this into a Latin Mass!” But I believe I dispelled those fears by showing them that chant can fit perfectly well into a normal liturgy without feeling totally foreign (especially thanks to CMAA’s free online resources). Many well-meaning Catholics think there is either “boring, old traditional music” or “Spirit-filled contemporary music.” But I dare say, after these events, very few were complaining that what we sang was old and boring, and many may have acknowledged for the first time that the “traditional” music was truly uplifting!
In order to more directly convey some of my ideas about sacred music to the congregation, I decided to write a brief reflection to be included in the program (or “worship aid” as they say), which I will share here. Please bear in mind that the ideas of sacred music and liturgy as discussed in Sacred Music were totally foreign to most people present at this Mass. I also realize that some statements may be a bit over-simplified, but I needed this to be short and concise enough that people could read it in two minutes before Mass.
Some Reflections on Tonight’s Music
At tonight’s Mass, the choir will be singing two of the official “chant propers” of the Mass. A liturgical text is “proper” when it is given for a specific day (e.g. the readings, prayer after communion, etc.). Three of these traditional sung propers – the introit, offertory, and communion chants – almost completely fell into disuse in the 1960’s. They are one or two scriptural sentences that provide a spiritual and theological reflection of the day’s feast or liturgical season. The collection of these chants for the entire liturgical year form the Roman Church’s most ancient repertoire of music; many date back to the 6th century and earlier and have been used ever since!
With the reformed liturgy of 1970, there is now the freedom to substitute other texts in order to aid in congregational participation. Since then, Catholics have generally interpreted that key phrase from the Second Vatican Council, “full, active participation,” to mean that an increased amount of singing always leads to fuller participation. However, nearly all of the popes in the 20th century have challenged the faithful to come to a more precise meaning of this.
Pope Pius XII instructed the Church, “the chief element of divine worship must be interior” (i.e., “union with Christ the Priest; offering with and through Him”). Pope Benedict XVI, as Cardinal, wrote: “Listening, the receptive employment of the senses and the mind, [and] spiritual participation are surely just as much ‘activity’ as speaking is. Are receptivity, perception, and being moved not ‘active’ things too?” Blessed John Paul II said that active participation “demands” … “the active passivity of silence, stillness and listening.”
This interior participation is exactly what is required for praying with the sung propers of the Mass, since they are generally not intended to be sung by the congregation. And so I invite you, while the choir chants the introit and offertory tonight, to allow the beauty of the chant to wash over you, and to allow the melody to speak the ancient text to you in a way that spoken words and hymns cannot.
I will leave you with a reflection by Pope Benedict, quoting Simone Weil: “In all that awakens within us the pure and authentic sentiment of beauty, there, truly, is the presence of God. There is a kind of incarnation of God in the world, of which beauty is the sign. Beauty is the experimental proof that incarnation is possible.”
 Dom Daniel Saulnier, O.S.B., Gregorian Chant, tr. Mary Berry, (Brewster, Mass.: Paraclete Press, 2009), p. 4.
 Second Vatican Council, Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy, Sacrosanctum Concilium, ¶14 <http://www.vatican.va/archive/hist_councils/ii_vatican_council/documents/vat-ii_const_19631204_sacrosanctum-concilium_en.html>
 Pope Pius XII, Encyclical Letter Mediator Dei, ¶24.
 Coleman E. O’Neill, O.P., “The Theological Meaning of Actuosa Participatio in the Liturgy,” in Sacred Music and Liturgy Reform after Vatican II: Proceedings of the Fifth International Church Music Congress, Chicago-Milwaukee, August 21-28, 1966, ed. Johannes Overath (Rome: Consociatio Internationalis Musicae Sacrae, 1969), pp. 89-110, here p. 97, summarizing the Instruction of the Sacred Congregation of Rites, De Musica Sacra et Sacra Liturgia, ¶22-23 <http://www.adoremus.org/1958Intro-sac-mus.html>; quoted in Mahrt, “Active Participation and Listening to Gregorian Chant,” in The Musical Shape of the Liturgy, (Richmond, Va.: Church Music Association of America, 2012), p. 148; I am grateful to Professor Mahrt for organizing these ideas as he did in the this article, which has become the foundation of many of my personal views on the matter.
 Joseph Ratzinger, The Feast of Faith, tr. Graham Harrison, (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2006), p. 123.
 Pope John Paul II, Ad Limina Address to the Bishops of Washington, Oregon, Idaho, Montana, and Alaska, October 9, 1998 <http://www.vatican.va/holy_father_john_paul_ii/speeches/1998/october/>; cf. Mahrt, “Active Participation,” 157.
 Pope Benedict XVI, Speech in Sistine Chapel, November 21, 2009 <http://chiesa.espresso.repubblica.it/articolo/1341070?eng=y>