In his recent motu proprio Traditionis Custodes, Pope Francis called the Novus Ordo Mass the “unique expression of the lex orandi of the Roman Rite.” But he did not state his intention that celebrations of this Mass be beautiful.
Perhaps the principle of beauty in liturgy was assumed. Many pre-conciliar Catholics would have taken it for granted. A pre-conciliar convert, too, has told me that he was drawn to the Church through the beauty of her liturgy. Yet today, U.S. Catholic liturgies in English are mostly beige. Many of them feature terrible music. No wonder people are walking away.
In the U.S., unfortunately, the secular bourgeois ethos of 1970s America has come cascading over the faithful at Mass. Consider some facts about the music U.S. Anglophone Catholics typically use today. The most-played piece of liturgical music at English-language Masses in U.S. Catholic churches is Marty Haugen’s Mass of Creation, which is neither liturgical nor musical. Its rendition of “Glory to God in the Highest” is particularly ignominious. Hymns from Gather Comprehensive 2 like “All Are Welcome” and “Sing a New Church” belong more in a Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion office than in the Roman liturgy. And the Gloria from Dan Schutte’s Mass of Christ the Savior, as many have pointed out, really does sound like the theme from My Little Pony.
The Novus Ordo liturgy doesn’t have to be this way. According to the introduction to the 1970 Missal beloved by Francis himself, “The main place should be given, all things being equal, to Gregorian chant, as being proper to the Roman Liturgy.” Gregorian chant is monophonic, without meter, and without accompaniment; these qualities lend it a sense of timelessness and universality. It is where the human and the divine meet, imitating the Incarnation, as all it needs are the human voice and the Latin text of the liturgy. To sing in the eight Gregorian modes throughout the Mass is to allow God’s Spirit to breathe in us as we join ourselves to his Word made flesh.
Benedict XVI, who has decried the secularization of present liturgical music, urges us to locate a renewal of this music “only in the lineage of the great tradition of the past, of Gregorian chant and sacred polyphony.” Gregorian chant has been handed down to us by the ancient Church Fathers; in singing Gregorian chant, we are joined with the great ascetics who wrote the melodies that are about Christ and proper to the Mass of the day that we are celebrating. And just as the composers of chant efface themselves, their music does not insist on changing the Father’s gift about which it sings. It glides in, like a breath, to the very heart of Christ. To hear is to agree: Ág-nus Dé-i. . . .
The Vatican II Fathers, who desired the whole world to be drawn into Christ’s Church, knew of St. Paul’s warning that the Church not be conformed to the world. The Church that preserves Gregorian chant, even as it inaugurates a Novus Ordo Mass, returns to the fundamentals of her worship and to an exquisite sacramental encounter with Christ in the Incarnation. As the Church calls the world to return to Christ through her, Dostoevsky’s dictum comes true, and the world is saved by beauty.
Those who want to keep playing the Missa My Little Pony in the liturgy are well-intentioned. But the silent majority of faithful Catholics are tired of this practice and embarrassed by it, in light of the Church’s enormous treasury of chant, polyphony, and worthy music from our own time.
The American Church is bleeding members and has a massive public image problem. Those who insist that we begin Mass with “All Are Welcome” and follow it up with “Sing a New Church” at the offertory don't seem to understand that the millennial and Gen-Z populations are not clamoring for tunes that are as banal and corporate as they are sappy. The U.S. Church should ban certain common hymns and lead a wide-scale restoration of chant in the liturgy.
The generations leaving us in droves are craving community and inclusion. A Novus Ordo liturgy with Gregorian chant combines an otherworldly mystagogy and an experience of the sublime with a version of the Roman rite that is easy to understand.
While the liturgy wars rage, the litigants do little about a glaring problem: People are leaving our communities of worship. The worship at our parishes is often awful, or at least uncompelling. So, let’s complete Christ’s saving work on earth today. Let’s make the Novus Ordo so compelling that no one will want to leave.
John T. Knowles writes from Irving, Texas.
First Things depends on its subscribers and supporters. Join the conversation and make a contribution today.
Click here to make a donation.
Click here to subscribe to First Things.