STEUBENVILLE, Ohio — According to three notable college professors, a comeback for sacred music is well under way on many Catholic campuses.
"Students enter with varying degrees of exposure to the Church’s musical patrimony," observed Nicholas Will, first-year professor of sacred music at Franciscan University of Steubenville, Ohio. "Yet I’ve found that almost all of them, regardless of their current knowledge level, are receptive to the Church’s treasury of sacred music and her teaching on the subject."
Will attributes this receptivity largely to the influence of Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI, whose knowledge of and love for sacred music has sparked a genuine reform in the Church. "Pope Emeritus Benedict has a refined taste for good music, especially sacred music. He was able to clearly identify worthy sacred music, and he was also able to clearly convey that message to the world through his writings, but also, and more especially, in his example as pope."
The highest form of song, as expressed in Sacrosanctum Concilium, the Second Vatican Council’s dogmatic constitution on the sacred liturgy, is Gregorian chant. The form, history and performance style of this centuries-old liturgical practice are taught by Will to Franciscan music majors.
"The students with the greatest exposure levels enjoy learning even more about the art, and those with lesser exposure quickly recognize the timeless beauty and universality of Gregorian chant, as well as its relevance today," Will explained. "Not only do students accept Gregorian chant as a legitimate expression of liturgical music, but they appreciate why the Church values it above all other musical forms. This mindset is remarkable when one considers the state of liturgical music even 10 years ago."
"It’s so significant that we are teaching students about sacred music, not just from the standpoint of a hobby, but as an integral part of their lives in the Church. The Church’s musical patrimony is an essential part of the liturgy, and the liturgy is a living, breathing entity," he added.
Will takes this to heart while leading the Schola Cantorum Franciscana and serving as director of music at St. Elizabeth Ann Seton parish in Carnegie, Pa. He is able to live out, in close connection with other worshippers, the reality that liturgical music is not simply a matter of singing our favorite hymns: "The liturgy itself is musical, and by singing it excellently, we glorify God. Participating in beautifully sung liturgy is both a foretaste of the eternal heavenly liturgy and the principal means of nurturing our faith in the heart of the Church."
Susan Treacy, former professor of music at Franciscan University, brought her expertise to Ave Maria University in Naples, Fla., in 2005. In addition to teaching at Ave Maria, which is now located in Ave Maria, Fla., she is a board member of the Church Music Association of America and a regular contributor to the St. Austin Review.
Reviewing her many years of teaching, Treacy said, "More students are now aware of what the Church teaches about sacred music."
Treacy is able to witness more immediate results with her Women’s Schola Gregoriana at Ave Maria. The schola provides music for the extraordinary form of the Mass on most Sundays during the school year. Many members have been in the schola for several semesters, and this fall saw the entry of new members with a good deal of previous chant experience in their own parishes.
"I am very blessed to have such a great group of young ladies," Treacy enthusiastically stated. "They’re bringing the beauty of grace to the lives of others through the liturgy. It’s so pleasing to see ‘the beauty that saves’ implemented on a regular basis in our lives. Music has a wonderful way of opening us up to grace, so that we become more like Mary, the first disciple, who is full of grace."
Kurt Poterack is a professor of sacred music at Christendom College in Front Royal, Va., and editor at large of the journal Sacred Music. In his 15 years at Christendom, he has found most students to be fairly uninformed about, but receptive to, the Church’s sacred music teaching and practice.
He thinks the college setting is the perfect place to learn about this music: "A liberal arts college has the responsibility to train students in the contemplation and, ultimately, the rational discussion of music and of all the arts. However, the experience of beauty has to come first, which means the development of tastes for higher things precedes their discussion. Otherwise, students are ill-equipped to discuss things they don’t know well."
In this same vein, Poterack believes the best argument for Gregorian chant is the actual demonstration of it.
After his work and that of his colleagues, Poterack has been able to witness the departure of well-equipped music minors (there is no music major available at Christendom) to parishes across the country. This is what he enjoys most about teaching: "My biggest joy is seeing my students go on after graduation to be involved in parish music programs, sometimes directing. They are part of a new liturgical movement which is aimed in the direction of a more traditional liturgy."
This movement has influenced and been influenced by sacred-music programs at colleges. The symbiotic relationship has resulted in what Poterack calls "a real explosion in the number of organizations, publications and conferences that embrace the Church’s musical tradition."
He cites the resurgence of the once-dormant Church Music Association of America, the publication of the various hymnals and the sacred music of Church societies and religious orders as examples of a renewal that "would have been unthinkable 20 to 30 years ago."
Poterack is grateful for the advances in sacred music, and he is very hopeful for the future. "We’ve made noteworthy progress," he said, "and I think as long as we stay focused and promote sacred music with charity, it will not only continue to grow in popularity at colleges, but it will become the accepted norm once again in parishes."
writes from Seattle.