Gregorian Chant: The Foundational Sound of Christian Ritual Music

By Kelly, Columba | Sacred Music, Winter 2010 | Go to article overview

Gregorian Chant: The Foundational Sound of Christian Ritual Music


Kelly, Columba, Sacred Music


Pope Benedict XVI has often spoken about the role of sacred music, such as Gregorian chant, in the spiritual growth of the Universal Church. He has done this as early as November 17, 1985, in a talk he gave as then Cardinal Ratzinger at the Eighth International Church Music Congress in Rome. I would like to share with you some of the remarks from that talk on the role of music designed for use in the liturgy:

He said:

Liturgical music results from the claim and the dynamics of the Incarnation of the Word. For it means that also among us the [incarnate] Word cannot be mere talk [i.e.: theologizing about the Word of God!]. The sacramental signs are certainly the central way in which the Incarnation continues to work. But they become homeless if they are not immersed in a liturgy that as a whole, follows this expansion of the Word into the realm of the bodily and all our senses. From this there comes, in opposition to the Jewish and Islamic types of cult, the right and even the necessity of images [cf. the Iconoclast heresy]. From this there also comes the necessity of summoning up those deeper realms of understanding and response that disclose themselves [especially] in music.

The "musification" of faith [a new word! meaning "faith becoming music"] is a part of the process of the Incarnation of the Word. But this musification is at the same time also ordered to that inner turn of the incarnational event which I tried to indicate before: in the cross and resurrection, the Incarnation of the Word becomes the "verbification" of the flesh. Each penetrates the other. The Incarnation is not taken back; it first becomes definitive at the moment in which the movement, so to speak, is reversed. The flesh itself is "logicized" [i.e.: becomes the very Logos of God], but precisely this verbification [this becoming musical sound] of the flesh effects a new unity of all reality, which was obviously so important to God that He let it cost Him His Son on the cross.

On the one hand, the musification of the Word is sensualization, Incarnation, attraction of pre-rational and transrational forces, attraction of the hidden sounds of creation, discovery of the song that lies at the bottom of things. But in this way, this musification is now itself also the turning point in the movement: it is not only Incarnation of the Word, but at the same time "spiritualization" of the flesh [music becoming the theological virtue of faith in us]. Wood and metal become tone, the unconscious and the unreleased become ordered and meaningful sound [a form of the Divine Logos]. A corporealization takes place which is a spiritualization, and a spiritualization which is a corporealization. The Christian corporealization is always a spiritualization at the same time, and the Christian spiritualization is a corporealization into the body of the incarnate Logos. [Like the phrase in the Third Eucharistic Prayer, our faith filled music becomes "one body, one spirit in the Risen Christ!]. (1)

In an address Benedict XVI gave as pope on June 24, 2006 in the Sistine Chapel he said:

   An authentic updating of sacred music cannot occur except in line
   with the great tradition of the past, of Gregorian chant, and of
   sacred polyphony. This is why in the musical field, as well as in
   that of other artistic forms, the ecclesial community has always
   promoted and supported those who investigate new expressive
   ways--without rejecting the past--[this has been] the history of
   the human spirit, which is also the history of its dialogue with
   God. (2)

In an address given at my alma mater, the Pontifical Institute of Sacred Music in Rome on October 13, 2007, he concluded his address on the role of sacred music by saying:

The ecclesiastical authority must work to guide wisely the development of such a demanding type of music, not "freezing" its treasure, but by seeking to integrate the valid innovations of the present into the heritage of the past in order to achieve a synthesis worthy of the lofty mission reserved to it in the divine service. …

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