Chant and Antiphons: Still Relevant in a Post Vatican II Church?

At St. Francis Borgia, we started chanting the antiphons a few years ago and have been incorporating more chant in general into our Masses. Some people have asked why we’ve been doing this and have been concerned that we’re going back to a pre-Vatican II world. Why do we use chant in our Masses? What are the antiphons and why do we sing them? And are we reverting to a pre-Vatican II Mass?

To answer the first question, we sing chant because according to the Second Vatican Council, Gregorian chant is “specially suited to the Roman liturgy: therefore, other things being equal, it should be given pride of place in liturgical services.” This quality of being specially suited to the Roman liturgy comes from a few different reasons. First, it is intrinsically sacred, being completely uninfluenced by secular trends or pop culture. When a person hears Gregorian chant, they may like it or not like it but they know to associate it with Catholic liturgy. Second, the Catholic Church has a well-developed theology regarding the relationship of language in the liturgy and music. In most sung music, the words are made to fit the music. In chant, both the rhythm and the melody are derived from the text itself. Thus, the music is born from the religious text, making them even more fitting to the liturgy.

In answer to the second question, the antiphons are texts given to us by the church for each Mass. These are the sort of “official” songs for each Mass and they are as much a part of a particular Mass as the readings and the prayers. Prior to Vatican II, there was really only one main source of music for the antiphons: the Graduale Romanum. These Latin settings were difficult and almost unattainable for many parishes, leading to the popularity of the low Masses at which the faithful began to sing devotional hymns. While the faithful were at Mass and were devoutly “participating” physically, they were not truly engaging in the actual liturgical action happening at the altar but rather engaging in their own activity separate from the priest.

One of the goals of the Second Vatican Council was to make the propers accessible to the average parish and it called for simpler settings to be created and for vernacular settings of the antiphons to be written. In the years since Vatican II, we’ve seen an explosion of these simpler settings in the Vernacular by composers such as Fr. Samuel Weber, Adam Bartlett, Fr. Columba Kelly, and many others. In this way, they’ve answered the call of Vatican II by helping the average parish in the suburbs to celebrate the Mass as it was intended to be celebrated by the council by singing the texts of the Mass itself rather than just singing unrelated songs at Mass. Thus, by singing chant and the antiphons we are not straying from the vision of Vatican II but rather implementing its vision of drawing people into the liturgy itself.

~ Susan DeMarco
Director of Liturgical Music