Catholics Get ‘Chants’ of a Lifetime at Sacred Music Symposium

Joint project of Corpus Christi Watershed and the Priestly Fraternity of St. Peter aims to teach people how to make sacred music at Mass and vespers come alive in parishes.

The June symposium included days filled with sacred song and Masses.
The June symposium included days filled with sacred song and Masses. (photo: Courtesy of Jordan Pacheco)

LOS ANGELES — More than 70 Catholic men and women gathered from across the United States and countries abroad for an intensive week at the Sacred Music Symposium to bring alive a powerful form of evangelization in their parishes: sacred chant at Mass and vespers.

“The marriage of music and the word is incredibly powerful and transforms people’s lives,” Richard Clark, director of music for the Archdiocese of Boston and one of the conductors teaching at the weeklong music-immersion program, told the Register.

The Sacred Music Symposium is a joint project of Corpus Christi Watershed and the Priestly Fraternity of St. Peter (FSSP) held yearly in Los Angeles. The event is geared toward choir directors and choristers, especially those who sing at Roman Rite liturgies in both the ordinary or extraordinary form of Mass and vespers.

The theme for this year’s symposium, which was held June 24-28, focused on “Hymnody and Your Volunteer Choir.”

Participants immersed themselves in the singing of medieval music, plainsong (unaccompanied Western chants), hymnody (the singing of hymns), and polyphony (music with two or more lines of independent melody) throughout the week and sang solemn vespers every day.

Students had opportunities to sing a new composition by Kevin Allen, as well as sacred music written by medieval and Renaissance composers such as Palestrina and Father Cristóbal de Morales.

The week also gave participants the opportunity for private study in composition and conducting, and included break-out sessions on topics such as how to propose and implement successfully Gregorian chant in parishes and schools, or how singers and choir directors can thrive amid the challenges of the sacred-music vocation.

At the end of the week, participants sang for the first Mass of a newly ordained FSSP priest, Father Luc Poirier, at the Mission San Fernando founded in Los Angeles in 1797. The final day concluded with the production of a rehearsal video by the students for Corpus Christi Watershed.


Sound Evangelization

Clark said sacred music is “an important part of evangelization” and that, for him and the other conductors and composers, it was a “privilege” to teach the students at the symposium.

 “The purpose of sacred music, as Pope Pius X talked about, is the sanctification and edification of the people.”

Sacred music reaches back in sacred history to the Israelites chanting the Psalms in Hebrew in the Temple.

The symposium gathered people of all ages, but Clark said it was significant that participants, on average, were in their 20s and committed to carrying on this beautiful tradition.

“What they’re doing with music is helping the transmission of faith,” he said.

“It’s an incredible experience to get them all to sing in one voice,” Clark also said, adding that after 24 hours the unified sound of the participant choir emerges, and “after three to four days it’s incredibly powerful.”

Thomas Quackenbush, dean of students and a teacher at St. Monica’s Academy in Montrose, California, told the Register he is directing the high-school choir program next year and joined the symposium “to immerse myself in the beauty of sacred music with Catholics who believe what they sing.”

“Probably more than anything, it has been a real experience of the sacred,” he said, and a “huge blessing.”

Quackenbush said it was a “wonderful experience” to sing sacred music as a form of prayer. The experience introduced him not only to Gregorian chant, but also to vespers.


Practical Approach

The symposium’s teachers aimed to give participants, whether they were choristers or music directors, “the best tools” that would empower them to pass on the knowledge of sacred music to their parishes — a kind of “train the trainer” approach — according to Kevin Allen, conductor of the Schola Laudis at the Monastery of the Holy Cross in Chicago and one of the symposium’s teachers.

“The most important reason was to give people in parishes, people in the trenches, real tools from practitioners who are quite accomplished in the field,” he said.

The conference was also an excellent platform for networking, fellowship, and shop-talk among its participants, Clark said.

“You make a lot of friends, and it feels like you’ve known them forever, even though it’s been three or four days,” he said.

Nicole Sutherland, who is directing a children’s choir at St. Sebastian School in Santa Paula, California, told the Register that the symposium provided ample time, particularly around lunch and dinner, to talk with others who are passionate about sacred music and form friendships. Overall, she said, the symposium was “eye-opening.”

“I was expecting a lot, and it was more than I expected,” Sutherland said.

 “Personally being immersed in the music, singing all day every day, I feel that my skills have been really developed with this focus,” she added.

Allen said it was also humbling to see participants’ enthusiasm and eagerness to learn, because they clearly intended to absorb this knowledge to share it with others. Their aim is to help people realize the beauty of what takes place on the altar at Mass by immersing them in the beauty that comes from the choir loft.

“The absolute best tool for evangelization is the Mass, and the Mass is the most beautiful thing we can do to soften and win souls for Christ,” he said.


A Church in Harmony

Allen said the Sacred Music Symposium aims at fulfilling the vision of the Second Vatican Council in Sacrosanctum Concilium that called for the restoration of Gregorian chant, as well as the Church’s Liturgy of the Hours, morning prayer (lauds) and evening prayer (vespers), in regular parish life.

“Church documents state very clearly that vespers should be offered for the people, particularly at the cathedral,” Allen said. Most people know, he added, that vespers is “a very rare occurrence at cathedrals, let alone our parishes,” but the hope is that training people to chant vespers “would help that practice become more widespread, as the Church wants us to do.”

Clark said anyone can pick up sacred music with the right direction and instruction. Whether it is “simple or more ornate,” sacred music is a prayer that speaks to people about God, and choirs are meant to take that prayer out into the world.

Clark said, “I tell people that you’ll affect people in ways you may never know.”

Peter Jesserer Smith is a Register staff writer.