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Gregorian chant ‘lifts the heart and soul to God’

The sacred sounds of Gregorian chant, a centuries-old tradition of the Church, are creating new excitement at one Edmonton church.

The distinctive monophonic chant may have the traditional “pride of place” in Catholic liturgy, but it has been relatively rare at masses in Edmonton, heard only at one Sunday morning Mass at St. Joseph’s Basilica and at the city’s only Traditional Latin Mass.

Now St. Andrew’s Church in northwest Edmonton is offering a Gregorian chant Mass once a month, and parishioners are loving it.

Karen de WeeKyle Greenham, Grandin Media

“The support from the congregation has been overwhelming,” said Karen de Wee, St. Andrew’s music director.

“I’ve had people hug us after Mass. One lady was crying and hugging me saying she had never experienced something this beautiful. Others thanking us for bringing this music back, and how good it is to have access to this beautiful music. People have been phoning the parish office, demanding to know when this Mass is happening.

“It’s reaching people on a very spiritual level.”

Dating back to the 9th century, Gregorian chant is produced by a choir of voices in a unified melody and key, singing prayers and texts taken directly out of the Scriptures. Although it is not mandatory to use, the Catholic Church lists Gregorian chant as the music most suitable for worship.

Roderick Bryce

For Roderick Bryce, music director at St. Joseph’s Basilica, chant lifts the heart and soul to God in a way that is unmatched by any modern instruments and melodies.

“Chant itself is a sort of musical incense, it spirals up to heaven in the way incense does in the liturgy,” said Bryce, who was immersed in the world of Gregorian chant as a child, singing in his home parish in Edinburgh. “Even if you don’t understand the Latin … it can lift you and transport you to heavenly places.”

When hymns at church sound like something you might hear on the car radio or listen to in ordinary life, he said, “there’s no separation between holiness and the secular. Chant has that unique sound that you associate immediately with Church.”

St. Andrew’s Gregorian Chant Mass is celebrated every third Sunday of the month. Since it started in September 2018, word has spread and attendance has grown to about 300, including people from across the Edmonton area who come specifically to experience the celebration.

When de Wee started as music director at St. Andrew’s over a year ago, she was given a list of proposals from the pastor, Rev. Andrew Bogdanowicz. One stood out to her — a Mass with Gregorian chant held every month.

“I’d taken lessons on reading Gregorian chant as part of my music degree, but I didn’t know how to put together a Mass with it,” she said. “I really liked the idea of taking on this challenge – extending my music knowledge and my faith further.”

She started her research in the north Edmonton parish of St. Edmund, where the Vital Grandin Chaplaincy Latin Mass Community gathers for worship. She soon began singing at the Latin Mass and even directed the choir last summer to prepare for her work at St. Andrew’s. Her interest in Gregorian chant grew from an assignment into a deep spiritual passion.

“It feels like a pilgrimage; the music has really caught my heart,” de Wee said.

“I’ve grown as a musician, as a director and as a Catholic through this experience. I went into this to create this choir and I came out with a deeper understanding of my faith, as well as a deeper understanding of the history of the Catholic faith.

“There’s a beauty unique to this music that I hadn’t experienced ever before. It brings the emotions of our faith out more clearly, without anything extra being added to it.”

Matt Long

She put together a 12-person choir, drawing members from within and outside the parish. Matthew Long had heard about it through a friend and decided to check out the choir in early January. Up until then, his singing experience began and ended with karaoke nights at Rosie’s Bar & Grill.

Now the Gregorian chant has brought his faith and admiration of the Church to a whole new level.

“It just presses upon the historicity and universality of the Church —  just how long these traditions have been going on faithfully and joyfully,” he said. “We’ve been worshiping the Lord in this consistent way for centuries. It’s really awe-inspiring to the faithfulness of the Church and how beautiful it is.”

Kevin NaporaKyle Greenham, Grandin Media

Kevin Napora, who has been singing in the Latin Mass for 11 years, decided to lend his voice to St. Andrew’s as well. His love for Gregorian chant has only grown stronger over the years  — even when he’s on the road, he’ll often rock out to 9th-century jams on his car stereo.

“It can be very uplifting,” he said. “Especially when you’re in a Church, there’s some beautiful reverberations. It’s powerful because your voice is resonating these prayers and bouncing them throughout the Church.”

Despite Long’s lack of musical experience, learning chant came surprisingly easy. The choir members receive their music a week in advance of rehearsal so they can familiarize themselves with the melodies and particularly with the Latin words.

At 35, he is part of a growing demographic of millennial Catholics who are drawn to the more ancient and reverent customs of Catholicism.

It’s something Bryce has noticed in his ministry at the Basilica. The younger parishioners are often the ones most interested in Gregorian chant, and he believes this revived interest can lay the foundation for bringing it to other parishes in the Archdiocese of Edmonton.

“There is a greater interest in reverent liturgy in general, not just in music and chant, and that’s a good thing,” he said. “I’ve personally wanted to see this for a long time, and we’re seeing it now in the young laity and the young priests being ordained these days.”

Young people drawn to tradition

Both Long and Bryce believe young people are drawn to Gregorian chant because of how authentically Catholic it is. It’s a style of music that fully embraces the Church’s traditions and gives them a definitively Catholic identity.

“I think it has to do with ownership — they’re taking back what is rightfully theirs and has actually been denied them, really, by some of the older generations,” said Bryce. “Younger folks especially want that identity and chant gives them that. It inspires them. It calls them into the Church. It calls them closer to God, to holiness, to an increased sanctity in their lives. It bring us closer to that love song that the Trinity sing to each other.

“It doesn’t blur the lines between pop music and the things you hear in secular society; it’s uniquely the music of the Church.”

Archbishop Richard Smith has identified worship as the focus for his teaching in the third year of reflection on his 2017 Pastoral Letter, Living in the Word of God, and the importance of sacred music will be part of that focus.

Not all parishes are prepared to embrace chant as part of their music ministry. The common obstacles Bryce has seen are the language barrier and the perceived difficulties in singing chant. As well, many priests are not familiar with the music, and often music directors have no experience or training in it.

The choir at St. Andrew's church practises Gregorian chants under the direction of Karen de Wee.Kyle Greenham, Grandin Media

But St. Andrew’s approach has made this ancient language and sacred music more accessible. Through chant, the Mass incorporates elements of the Latin, or Extraordinary Form Mass, into what is still a Novus Ordo Mass.

“We take the Novus Ordo framework and take out the English music portions  — the Lord Have Mercy, the Glory Be, the Gloria, the Holy, Holy, Holy  — and insert the Latin Gregorian Chant pieces in their place,” de Wee said. “What it does for the congregation is it allows them to have a gentle understanding along the way as to what is happening in the Mass and to easily understand the prayers. It also makes everyone feel comfortable enough with singing some of the Latin, because they know the presiding parts are still in English.

”People feel like this Mass is attainable for them. They can understand it, and I think that’s important that people understand the words of the Gospels that day.”

Through this format, Bryce says the use of Latin chant may come more naturally to some. There are also songbooks like the Graduala Simplex available that offer a simpler and more accessible form of Gregorian chant.

“People sometimes say, ‘If it’s Latin, we don’t know what we’re saying.’ Well, you’ve been speaking these same words in English for years, so you do know what you’re saying,” he said.

Step 1 to any change in the liturgy is to start a dialogue between pastor, parishioners and music director, says Bryce. Even in a parish that has hesitations about Gregorian chant, he stresses that it’s important music directors stand up for the liturgical laws of the Church.

“The Church tells us very clearly, and has done so for well over a hundred years, that chant is the music that has pride of place in the liturgy,” said Bryce. “It doesn’t exclude other things or disparage those other forms of music, but it may be that those others are not as wonderfully suitable for the Mass.

“We all have a responsibility as the body of Christ to respond to the priest when he says things and for us to be active participants in the liturgy. We have to give of ourselves, and by singing, we are giving a heightened expression of ourselves.”

The Gregorian chant Mass at St. Andrew’s is currently on a short summer break but will return on Sept. 15. As she prepares for its second year, de Wee aims to grow the choir and Mass attendance even further this fall.

The positive response from St. Andrew’s is something Bryce hopes will encourage other parishes that have an interest in chant. It offers a particular benefit in a multicultural country like Canada, he says.

“Many masses have people who do not speak the same native language, especially in Canada. Here Latin and Gregorian chant can be a force of unification between Church members.”