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Mark C. N. Sullivan is an editor at a Massachusetts university. He is married and the father of three children.

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Irish Elk
Friday, February 07, 2003  
The day the music died

Gregorian chant: Not participatory enough for the new pastor of St. Patrick's Church, Portland, Ore.

From the archdiocese that gave us the banal and ubiquitous Oregon Catholic Press hymnal, an account of a renowned Gregorian chant choir forced from its longtime parish home in the name of liturgical renewal:

David Kubiak e-mails:

Do you read "Sacred Music"? There was a note at the end of the most recent number about "Cantores in Ecclesia", a really splendid polyphonic choir that had been based at a church in Portland, Oregon, since 1985. They have now been forced out because they refused to stop singing the Gregorian Introit and Gradual at the weekly Latin Mass...

They were on tour a couple of years ago and sang Victoria at an old rite pontifical Mass in Chicago at St. John Cantius. I had several students in tow, and two of them eventually converted, partly, they told me, because of the splendor of that liturgy. I see no sign whatever that the descent of the American Church into complete philistinism is being retarded.

Use of the Gregorian Propers is of course one of the options in the newest Missal, but it is clear that if a pastor with the support of a local bishop chooses to impose the "Gathering Song/Responsorial Psalm" option, there is nothing that can be done about it.

Here's how The Oregonian described the choir's final performance at St. Patrick's Church on Oct. 19:

The day the music died. With tears in their eyes, worshippers stood and applauded Cantores in Ecclesia's final singing of Gregorian chant at St. Patrick's Church. A liturgical dispute between a reform-minded priest and a tradition-bound choir director led to the choir's withdrawal after 17 years. The choir is still seeking another home.

A member of the Oregon Guild of Organists commented on the choir's finale: "My heart is very sad. It is a sad day indeed for the status of Roman Catholic church music and lack of appreciation of historical musical modes."

Here, in its entirety, is a feature that ran in The Sunday Oregonian on Oct. 27:

By DAVID STABLER, The Oregonian

A dispute between the priest and music director has stopped the church's popular Latin service -- and raised questions about the role of music in worship

On Saturday nights, as cars roar past on a freeway yards away, the choir of St. Patrick's Church draws a single breath.

"Alleluia," they sing. "Confitemini Domino et invocate nomen eius."

Silver-haired men and mothers with babies kneel and bow their heads. The melody, created about 1,200 years ago by an illiterate monk, echoes through the 113-year-old church, the unison lines restrained and contemplative. Light from stained-glass windows blushes the walls rose while the sharp, woody smell of incense fills the air. The ancient song, the Latin, the humble surroundings and the devout parishioners create a sense of timelessness. This is worship as it might have been in any Catholic church since the seventh century.

But on Oct. 19, after 17 years of service, Cantores in Ecclesia chanted for the last time at St. Patrick's, a perennially poor parish in the heart of industrial Northwest Portland.

Some of the choir members didn't know that this was the group's last performance, but many parishioners did, and they packed the small church.

When the final notes faded, worshippers stood, turned their faces to the choir loft and, breaking a tradition at St. Patrick's, applauded the choir for several minutes. Many were crying, according to those who were there.

"It's a huge loss to the city," said Susan Koe, who attended the emotional service.

Koe converted to Catholicism two years ago precisely because of the choir. "I love that type of music. It's soothing and soaring. It kind of takes me away, like it's God, like it's being part of that."

Although St. Patrick's offers other Mass services, Saturday's Latin Mass drew a particular kind of worshipper. They came from 64 different Zip codes that included Olympia and Government Camp.

On the face of it, the dispute that led to the choir's departure was simply a clash of wills between a choir director, Dean Applegate, dedicated to the old music of the Catholic tradition and a new priest, the Reverend James Mayo, eager to embrace a new congregation and new traditions. Both men are almost the same age and converted to Catholicism as young men.

But their argument gets to central issues in the celebration of the Catholic Mass in a post-Vatican II world. And it raises significant questions about how religion and culture intersect.

Mayo versus Applegate Gregorian chant and the internationally acclaimed choir that sang it distinguished St. Patrick's from other American Catholic churches, where the majority celebrates Mass in English and with more contemporary music. When Cantores in Ecclesia began singing there in 1985, attendance at the church had dipped to alarmingly low levels. Many parishioners, drawn to the old style of Mass, credit the group with saving the church.

Chant is sung prayer, Scripture sung in Latin, and creates a powerful atmosphere of worship when sung in its original liturgical context. It has been a fixture in Roman Catholic worship at least since the seventh century. As a reservoir of about 3,000 melodies, it influenced Western music for centuries, forming the contours of vocal melody through composers ranging from the 16th-century's Giovanni Palestrina to today's Arvo Part.

Applegate, 56, a converted Catholic, has made his life's calling the study and performance of chant and the majestic Renaissance Masses of Palestrina, Victoria and William Byrd, music written specifically for the Latin Mass.

"It's the precious heritage of the Catholic Church," he said. "It is what this choir does."

And does very well. Besides a small but loyal following on Saturdays, attended by 100 worshippers, the choir, 30 adults and 30 children, regularly tours outside the country, to Mexico, England, France and Italy. Choir members scrape together funds from garage and bake sales, but once abroad they sing in glorious cathedrals, twice for the pope, and, in 1997, in a choir competition in which they won gold medals in all categories in the International Palestrina Competition in Rome. The group recorded a CD of music sung during that tour, and, every August, Applegate and the choir present a festival of Byrd's music, the renowned English Renaissance composer. Conductors and lecturers from the United States and England participate.

But Mayo favors a more modern approach to the worship service, or liturgy, calling for more participation by the congregation, including additional singing by worshippers. His disagreement with Applegate surfaced during the summer in memos to the choir director.

Specifically, Mayo requested two things: an entrance hymn that the entire assembly -- not just the choir -- could sing, and a psalm to which the congregation responds that comes between readings from the Old Testament and New Testament. The psalm would replace a section that the choir sang by itself. Mayo permitted the language of the hymn and the psalm to be in any language, even Latin, he said.

But Applegate viewed the changes as striking at the heart of his choir's mission, and rather than agree to them, ended his run at St. Patrick's.

"I've never compromised about that, ever," he said. "Not ever. And it probably isn't time for me to start.

"My struggle over the years has been to protect the heritage of Catholic sacred music," he said. "This was our raison d'etre. But I was powerless. My only power was to say 'No, I won't do what you're telling me to do.' "

The Latin Mass was no threat to the church culture, he said. "Other churches are free to pursue their music. Our music and liturgy sustained the church for years. It gave me an opportunity to fulfill a unique task. It just seemed to be my vocation in life."

Mayo, 55, is drawn to the Latin Mass himself, he said. "I love Latin, chant, incense," he said.

Raised a Southern Baptist, he converted to Catholicism at the age of 18, just before Vatican II, "just as everything I loved ended," he said. As a seminary student at Mount Angel Abbey, he sang chant regularly. He arrived at St. Patrick's 15 months ago.

But the liturgy requires the "full, active, conscious participation by everyone involved," he said, quoting church documents. "I think something happens when people participate. We become a common body. Our endorphins get engaged. I can participate in silence, but from my perspective, it can happen in a better way by participating, and I think that's my reading of church documents."

Mayo's requested changes came with the Archbishop John G. Vlazny's "full support," according to Mayo in a memo to Applegate.

Liturgy and culture Oxford-trained, Applegate is fastidious in dress and on the podium. He converted at the age of 26, but today, almost exactly 40 years to the week after Vatican II, he is a man out of fashion.

For the past 40 years, Gregorian chant and Latin Mass have fallen from favor in the church. Vatican II reforms, begun in the early 1960s, prompted priests to modernize church practices.

One of the most important changes adopted was to celebrate Mass in the vernacular and replace chant with more contemporary music. After centuries of the celebration of Mass in Latin, those two changes alone were considered enormous and controversial, but as the years passed, a majority of Catholics accepted them.

Still, Vatican II did not prohibit singing Gregorian chant or celebrating Mass in Latin, even though most Catholic churches adopted the reforms.

Many religions wrestle with making worship relevant, but after centuries of prescribed tradition, Vatican II's reforms felt cataclysmic to many Catholics. Mayo and Applegate symbolize the Catholic Church's continuing struggle.

"A lot of changes happened quickly without a lot of explanation," said Linda Weigel, a canon lawyer and director of canonical services for the Portland Archdiocese. "Things that were very important to people, like statues, candles, were suddenly removed. Symbols are important in our everyday life. If somebody came into your house and just announced you can't light your fireplace anymore, it leaves you bewildered. A lot of people are still adrift. Now, we're seeing that we need to do much better education."

Since 1963, the Catholic Church has moved toward a more inclusive liturgy.

Before that, priest and choir communicated in Latin, and the choir sang most of the music while the congregation passively listened. Since Vatican II, reform-minded priests celebrate Mass in the language of their parish and encourage more participation by worshippers. They now face the congregation from the altar, instead of keeping their backs to worshippers.

In addition to wanting to adjust the music of the Mass, Mayo made other controversial changes at St. Patrick's, in line with Vatican II. Women may now read portions of Scripture during Mass, for example, and girls may be altar servers.

"The Latin Mass can tend to be a time of private prayer rather than the priest and assembly worshiping together," said Weigel, who has extensive experience in church canon law. "I don't know if you can worship and pray to God if you don't know the language."

A contrarian view comes from Richard Proulx, former director of music for Holy Name Cathedral in Chicago, the largest archdiocese outside of Los Angeles. In its highest form, everything in the liturgy is sung, Proulx said. A founder of the Conference of Roman Catholic Cathedral Musicians in 1982, he is no fan of contemporary Catholic music.

"Now, you'll find music done just for entertainment value, a very informal approach to the whole thing. A lot of the music is prerecorded. A priest flips a remote control, and when he's had enough, he turns it off. One of the defects of the Roman Catholic Church is its propensity to allow only one way to do things, and surely there has to be some leeway."

At the same time that Cantores in Ecclesia has proven popular among the parishioners at St. Patrick's, it has also attained a high level of respect in Portland's secular music community. The choir rarely performs outside the liturgy, but it still attracts fans of magnificent choral music to St. Patrick's.

It is one of only two churches in the Portland area that still performs the Latin service (that choir, at Holy Rosary in Northeast Portland, also is led by Applegate).

Keeping the old music alive in the context of the liturgy -- for which it was composed -- has an undeniable appeal, and not just for musicologists.

In an e-mail, one of the parishioners asked the key questions. "The rather simplistic way in which the local church has apparently interpreted the mandates of Vatican II has meant the disappearance of this great music tradition," she wrote. "Is this music worth saving? What does it mean to save it only as museum pieces that are recordings or performances done outside of its religious context?"

Cantores in Ecclesia has recorded two excellent CDs, "In Rome" and "Faure Requiem," but they don't compare to the choir's singing at St. Patrick's, where the music is part of something larger.

Who wins? Most of the parishioners at St. Patrick's who agreed to talk about the dispute between Father Mayo and Applegate insisted, like the e-mailer, on anonymity. They were sharply divided -- some blamed Applegate, others Mayo.

Some wondered why Applegate couldn't accommodate Mayo's changes, if the alternative meant silencing the choir.

"Who is he serving?" one asked. "Dean, in his rigidity, makes it look like it's Dean's show. Now, there's no music and who does that serve? Is he so pure that he can't exist in today's culture? Father Mayo is operating in 2002, which means more participation by the congregation."

Another parishioner put it this way: "Do we worship communally or do we worship silently while others sing for us? For Catholics, the Eucharist is the heart of our faith. What happens at Mass is extremely important to us. Changes in liturgy can affect our ideas about God and our relationship to God, and that can be upsetting or enriching."

On the other side, one parishioner blamed Mayo and the archdiocese for the "extreme crisis." He said, "There's been no discussion. How is it that the Archdiocese has allowed this to happen? It's not clear why Father Mayo has decided his vision for the church is to have a more active Mass."

Another parishioner called it "an incredible tragedy for the city and the region and the church and for all religious music."

Some choir members were equally bewildered.

"It's very disappointing," said Kellogg Thorsell, who started singing with the group in the mid-1980s. Singing in the reverberant church was a memorable experience, he said.

"Acoustically, it's one of the easiest and friendliest buildings that I have sung in -- the presence to the sound, an immediacy, a warmth. As a singer, you're constantly trying to evaluate the sound quality that comes back at you. If the room makes that easier for you, it's more rewarding."

Financially, Cantores always has skated on the edge. The choir's income came from half the collection from Saturday services, individual donations and choir members. Ten singers received wages, Applegate said. He himself put in about 30 hours a week, preparing and conducting the choir. He did not receive a salary.

The choir's future is uncertain. Prompted by Mayo before the breakup, Cantores in Ecclesia recently became an independent organization, with its own nonprofit status. Applegate has moved his office out of the church, and the choir continues to rehearse Thursday evenings, at St. Mark's Anglican Church in Northwest Portland.

Its next public appearance will be Dec. 8 at Mount Angel Abbey, where the choir will sing music it has specialized in all these years: the three musical giants Claudio Monteverdi, Tomas Luis de Victoria and Palestrina. The boys and girls of Cantores will sing at Ascension Chapel in Portland on Nov. 10.

A group of parishioners hopes to meet with the archdiocese to resolve the dispute, but for now, the choir loft at St. Patrick's remains empty.

"I take no joy in any of this," Mayo said. "It is sad on every level. At St. Patrick's, the music is the finest I've heard in my life, and the finest choir I've ever heard in the context of Roman Catholic worship. Differences do not mean disrespect. My admiration for what Dean and the choir do is immense. They're extraordinary."

Sure, he admires the choir so much he is going to force it to change, for the good of the assembly, of course, which may have loved the choir the way it was, but will be brought around soon enough to a more enlightened understanding of their own liturgical needs. Because he says so: Nothing like the pastoral warble of the Passive-Aggressive Clericalist Wreckovator.

This is spiritual and cultural vandalism, Praise & Glory fascism. As one correspondent writes in the Cantores in Ecclesia guestbook:

I will never understand the totalitarian mindset of those on the Left who cannot tolerate one small Mass in one small parish that does not use the awful music from Oregon Catholic Press. Where is the threat to their hegemony of the liturgy?


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