Story by S.L. Hansen
(SNR) - Cantors and choir directors of St. Mary Parish in Nebraska City gathered recently for a pilot workshop in Latin chant, led by certified music educator Jessica Happold. Happold is the adult choir director at the Cathedral of the Risen Christ in Lincoln, as well as vocal music instructor at Cathedral School.
“It was was essentially a ‘train-the-trainers’ clinic,” explained Father Steven Thomlison, St. Mary’s assistant pastor.
After Bishop James D. Conley requested that Latin be sung at Confirmations in the Diocese of Lincoln, Father Thomlison approached Happold for help implementing a plan to teach chant effectively within the parish and at Lourdes Central Catholic School in Nebraska City, where he teaches theology.
Happold, who has a master’s degree in music education from UNL, was trained to read, sing and teach Gregorian chant at the Sacred Music Colloquium, sponsored by the organization Musica Sacra. The organization, founded in 1874, is an association of Catholic musicians and others who have a special interest in music and liturgy, active in advancing Gregorian chant and other forms of sacred music, including new composition, for liturgical use.
With this training, Happold has been able to introduce Gregorian chant to middle-schoolers at Cathedral School in Lincoln.
“We take the time to learn the Latin, as well as reading the chant notation and singing the chants,” she said. “We also learn about the history of music in the Church.”
Happold was happy to help out at St. Mary Parish.
“I grew up in a small parish, where our resources were scarce compared to those that I now have being involved at the Cathedral in Lincoln,” she said. “My goal is to help other parishes, particularly the smaller ones, prepare and make the transition to singing Latin at Masses.”
She explained the difference between chant and the typical singing normally heard at Mass.
“Chant is more related to speaking than it is to singing,” she said. “When we speak, there is a natural rise and fall to the tone of our voice. This rise and fall is present in the simple chant tones.”
Gregorian chant is named after the 6th century Pope Gregory the Great. He both simplified and arranged the sacred music of the Church used throughout the year. Gregorian chant holds primacy of place within the Mass.
Because acquiring a new language takes a great deal of time and isn’t practical or necessary for most parishioners, Happold is systematic in how she teaches Latin.
“I focus only on the words that people will need for the parts of the Mass,” she said. “Any more information would feel like drinking out of a fire hose!”
Happold also wants to help people understand why it’s essential to be able to sing the Mass parts in Latin.
“It’s more than just ‘because our bishop said to do it’,” she stated. “It goes back to the Second Vatican Council and what those documents say about chant.”
The Second Vatican Council document on the Constitution of the Sacred Liturgy, Sacrosanctum Concilium, states that “steps should be taken enabling the faithful to say or to sing together in Latin those parts of the Ordinary of the Mass belonging to them.”
Msgr. Joseph Nemec, chairman of the Diocesan Commission on Liturgy and Music, sees the chanting of the Latin Mass parts as a connection to the rich tradition of the Church.
“The sacraments of Christian initiation hearken back to the beginning of the Catholic Church, where the early Christians rejected sin and professed the faith,” he said. “Through the use of the Latin Mass parts, we connect back in a profound way to this tradition of our faith.”
Diocesan Chancellor Father Daniel Rayer, former diocesan master of ceremonies, agreed.
“In my own life experience,” he said, “when I was first exposed to the use of the Latin chants in Mass, I didn’t care for it too much because I wasn’t familiar with it. But the more I was exposed to chant and other forms of sacred music, the more I began to grow in my appreciation for the Church’s rich heritage of beautiful sacred music.
“Chant and other forms of sacred music have a great ability to calm and elevate the soul to God,” he continued. “I recognize that some, like myself, may not like it initially, but I would recommend to them to give it a chance to grow on you.”
At St. Mary Parish, Happold’s three-hour chant clinic was attended by about 10 people from the area. Members of the Franciscan Sisters of the Sorrowful Mother were among those who attended the session. The Sisters direct the choir at St. Benedict Parish in Nebraska City, which has been using Latin Mass parts for some time, as the parish has a large Spanish-speaking population, and they find the Latin useful to blend and unite everyone into one common language of prayer and worship.
The Sisters also teach at Lourdes Central, and help with music for the school Masses, so they, like the other attendees from St. Mary Parish have been sharing with others what they learned at the clinic.
“They have gone back to train the full choir groups; both for Lourdes School and the parishes,” Father Thomlison reported. “We’re learning a new Latin Mass part every two weeks for the parish and the school.”
He added, “The parish already knows the English plain chant, so everyone knows the hymnody. It’s just learning the pronunciation, which isn’t hard at all.”
Rather than exhibiting any sort of apprehension about Latin, St. Mary Parish has embraced it.
“Kids are excited to learn a new language and to be prepared to participate in World Youth Day events,” Father Thomlison said. “Many parishioners remember the Latin Mass parts from their childhood, so for them it’s been like riding a bicycle: A little shaky getting started right at first, but then the memory kicks in and it all comes back!”
For adults who came into the Church after Vatican II – either cradle Catholics or converts – it’s admittedly a bigger learning curve, but Father Thomlison said they are enthusiastic.
“Many of them have expressed a real curiosity about the foundational heritage of Catholic worship and better understanding our roots,” he said.
With the Agnus Dei and the Sanctus under their collective belt, the parish is now working on the Mystery of Faith.
“We rehearse the pronunciation for three to four minutes as a congregation before the Mass begins, so it’s been an easy learning experience,” Father Thomlison said.
The parish also has printed materials in the pews that provide the Mass parts and certain prayers in both Latin and English. It includes an explanation titled, “Why Latin?” as well as a pronunciation guide.
“In the crazy, hustle and bustle of daily life, the Latin helps to remind us that… the Mass is unlike anything else we do on earth,” Father Thomlison said. “The Latin helps to prepare our senses, hearts and minds to enter more deeply into this mystery!”