Anyone who doubts the vibrancy and growth of sacred music in our time should consider the Chant Pilgrimage of 2009, held at the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in Washington, D.C., September 25-26. It was organized to provide a two-day chant tutorial in the Year of Jubilee of the Basilica.
It was sponsored by the Church Music Association of America and co-sponsored by the John Paul II Cultural Center and St. John the Beloved Parish in McLean, Virginia. Events took place in the Center and the crypt church of the Shrine.
Attendance was well above what any of the organizers had expected. More than 160 people came to hear a lecture by William Mahrt, editor of Sacred Music, and learn to read and sing chant under chant master Scott Turkington of St. John Evangelist in Stamford, Connecticut. Attendees came from seminaries, parishes, convents, and from cities and towns all over the country.
The diversity of the attending group was impossible to characterize. There were young people, older people, and everyone in between; some of whom had been singing chant for years and others for whom this was a completely new art. Many of the teens attending had already decided to take on the task in preparation for singing in their college and university chapels and preparing for a future starting parish scholas at home.
The pilgrims worked to prepare the ordinary chants for the Votive Mass of the Blessed Virgin Mary in the extraordinary form at the Shrine on Saturday evening. The choice was for Mass IX, a setting traditional for Feasts of the Blessed Virgin Mary. A chant schola sang the propers of the Mass so that pilgrims could focus on the ordinary chants for the Mass.
The lecture by William Mahrt spoke to the integral relationship between the liturgy and its music, which is connected to it historically and theologically. The rites are not only more noble when sung, but what music is sung matters just as much as the texts themselves. He stressed music as a means of interior and exterior participation in Christ's eternal sacrifice. This includes a reciprocal relation of perceiving beauty in sung music and singing from that perception. Chant, with properties that are unique to the liturgy, also feeds our soul, which seeks orderliness as a means to discover holiness.
What was most remarkable was the surprise that greeted everyone at the Mass. It was not the first extraordinary form Solemn Mass in the crypt in decades but it might have been the most well attended. The organizers had made 250 programs, thinking that this would surely be enough. Not only did they run out; the number of attendees including pilgrims might have exceeded 300 or even 350 or more. …