To teach the art of sung prayer
Chant is a special form of prayer where the word of God is sung. When sacred scripture is sung, prayer is elevated and imbued with a profound reverence that satisfies the deepest desires of the heart. The experience is transformative for singers and listeners alike.
Whether Gregorian chant in Latin, or contemporary chant in the vernacular, sung prayer inspires devotion, evokes gratitude, provides consolation and instills fortitude. The melodies, like the words themselves, were inspired by God for our benefit.
To share sacred beauty online
You know it when you see it. You know it when you hear it. The good, the true, and the beautiful stand in absolute opposition to the wicked, the false, and the ugly.
When you see depressing modern art, hear music better described as noise, or swallow a dose of toxic pop culture, do you feel as if you’ve become a little less of a human being? Do you want to reclaim your dignity, and help others do the same? ChantWorks videos, webinars, and podcasts help bring beauty back.
Is beauty only in the eye and ear of the beholder? Or is beauty an objective reality we can apprehend through our God-given powers of reason? If beauty is real, independent of our subjective whims, can we learn how to discern the differences among the good, the bad, and the ugly? ChantWorks articles and interviews will help you explore these questions and “put on the armor of light.”
We’ve entered a new “Dark Age” where knowledge of God, the Christian way of life, goodness, truth and beauty are almost completely unknown. A culture that turns its back on God reaps the whirlwind, evident in the current plague of chaos and acrimony. Only when the people repent and turn back to God does society begin to heal.
This turning back begins with right worship: when we gather the courage to cast out the worthless idols of our time and restore liturgy to its proper end: to glorify God. And Sanctify His people. Christ transforms us through His sacred liturgy. Beautiful sacred music, art, and architecture support the reverent celebration of the sacraments, and light the way out of chaos and darkness.
To build a community of kindred spirits
To listen to sung prayer is good,
To sing with friends is better,
To sing it and share it is best of all.
The ChantWorks is a lay apostolate, an online community that includes professional Catholic musicians, volunteer singers, patrons, friends, and interested lay people, plus supportive priests, deacons, and religious.
What does it mean to Sing the Mass?
Sing the Mass refers to singing the texts of the Mass as found in the Roman Missal and the Roman Gradual. In many parishes, typically four hymns are sung at Mass. This practice is at odds with Church teaching on sacred music.
The entire congregation should sing the Ordinary, the actual texts of the Mass that are the same every week: the Kyrie (Lord Have Mercy), the Gloria, the Pater Noster (Our Father), the Sanctus and Benedictus, and finally the Angus Dei. In addition, the Church asks us to sing the Dialogues, the exchanges between priest and the people.
Often missing are the Propers of the Mass. The Propers are texts specific to each Sunday, Feast Day and weekday. These chants are sung by the choir, since they take more practice and change every week. Parishioners listen and pray along silently while the choir sings the Propers. Think of the Propers as the fourth reading of the Mass; these texts connect the two or three scripture readings and give the Mass context within the liturgical year.
The Propers include the Introit (beginning of Mass), the Gradual (before the Gospel), the Offertorio (at the Offertory) and the Communio (at Communion). Many, but not all, Sundays and Feast Days also include a Tract and/or an Alleluia chant.
The sung Propers are found in the Roman Gradual (Graduale Romanum). These texts (most scriptural) and melodies have been set down by the Church over the centuries. They are sung in Latin Gregorian Chant, but they may also be sung in English or other languages.
The Propers is the first choice in the General Instruction of the Roman Missal (GIRM). Singing another hymn—the most common choice—is the fourth and last choice given in the GIRM.
Fun fact: The name Quasimodo, taken from the novel, The Hunchback of Notre Dame, is derived from the Introit of the Second Sunday of Easter: “Quasi modo géniti infántes alleluia: rationábiles, sine dolo lac concupíscite, alleluia, alleluia, alleluia.” (As newborn babes, alleluia, desire the rational milk without guile, alleluia, alleluia, alleluia). In the novel, this was the day when the foundling child was discovered on the church steps.
What is sung prayer?
“And I, when I am lifted up from the earth will draw all to myself.” (John 12:32)
The Mass—beginning to end—is designed to move one’s spirit upward. Classically designed churches, where stairs mark the church’s entrance, are a physical symbol of this intent. Stairs remind us of “the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus.” (Phil 3:14).
Higher ground, sometime in the form of stairs, symbolize transformational moments in the Bible when the living God comes in contact with humans, such as Abraham and Isaac on Mt. Moriah. There was Jacob in the desert where he saw a staircase leading to heaven with angels ascending and descending. Moses received the Commandments governing worship on Mt. Sinai. Elijah was on Mt. Horeb when he received the divine mandate by way of a “still, small voice” giving him courage to continue the God’s mission.
In the New Testament there’s the Sermon on the Mount and the mount of the Transfiguration where Peter, James and John saw the splendor of the divine glory shining through Christ. Even Jesus’ concern with earthly matters such as healing the sick, driving out demons or feeding the hungry had an upward or heavenly purpose: To the paralyzed man he said, “Rise. Take up your pallet and go home” and to the twelve-year-old girl who had died, “Talitha cum; little girl, I say to you, arise.”
Rising is inherent of Christian life. It begins in the baptismal font and continues throughout one’s life. It is even anticipated in the burial of the dead when, strangely enough, the casket is lowered into the grave: “Lord Jesus Christ, by your own three days in the tomb you hallowed the graves of all who believe in you and so made the grave a sign of hope that promises resurrection.”
From the moment of Christ’s ascension Christians have valued upward mobility of the spiritual kind. St. Paul exhorted the Colossians, “Since you have been raised with Christ, seek the things that are above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God.” (Col. 3:1).
Christianity, and hence the essential purpose of the Mass, is to keep us oriented toward heaven.
“The blessed company [of the apostles] had a great and inexpressible cause for joy when it saw man’s nature rising above the dignity of the whole heavenly creation, above the ranks of angels, above the exalted status of archangels. Nor would there be any limit to its upward course until humanity was admitted to a seat at the right hand of the eternal Father, to been enthroned at last in the glory of him to whose nature it was wedded in the person of the Son,” wrote Pope St. Leo the Great (d. 461) of the Ascension. Jesus’ Ascension did not pertain to him alone but applies to all who are part of his body, the Church.
Humans are made for heaven. As Genesis tells it, man was created on the sixth day, the same day as the animals. But man was made for the seventh day: the Sabbath, a day without end and eternal rest with God. Jesus’ Ascension means that human nature itself has been raised up, and where the head has gone the body must follow.
This upward mobility does not minimize the importance of Mass, yet that is not its main purpose. The main purpose of Mass is to worship God. Without God there is no ekklesia, no koinonia, no cohesion, just a gathering of people.
It is the vertical dimension of worship that supports the social dimension of the church, just as the vertical beam of the cross supports the horizontal beam. If the vertical, divine purpose of worship is muted, missing or distorted, the social element is degraded. Focus on the social element of worship and you get neither God nor a place where relationships thrive. Focus on the transcendent, however, and you get both God and a place where the soul is lifted and relationships flourish.
As such it is our mission to lift up your hearts and praise the Lord. Truly divine worship imparts hope. And nothing inspires truly divine worship as does beautifully executed chant and reverent prayer.
How chant helps us pray
Why is it beneficial for lay people to chant the Ordinary, and to listen to the choir sing the Propers? In most Catholic parishes, the choir carries the whole musical load, usually contemporary worship songs. Most of the congregation just stands and listens, disengaged: only a small percentage even picks up the song book and attempts to sing. The priest doesn’t chant his part, either. The result is often deadly.
We should know better, because this state of affairs is contrary to Church teaching. Sacred music at Mass is supposed to function as a “tri-alogue”, where the priest, the congregation, and the choir all support each other because all do their part to Sing the Mass.
Sung prayer changes us for the better—from the inside out. It’s a gateway to resilience.
Unlike the angels, we have earthly bodies, the benefits of which begin with our very breath. As singers learn to master breathing and proper use of the diaphragm, their voices shape the musical phrase. This exercise presses oxygen to the bottom of the lungs and stimulates the parasympathetic nervous system—the source of the “relaxation response.” Everyone who sings regularly feels these improvements.
Singing calms and energizes. In contrast, shallow breathing only using the top of the lungs is part of the “fight or flight” response. This is physiologically associated with rapid heartbeat, scattered thoughts, anxiety, fear, and depression.
Like the angels, we possess intelligence and will. As such, our mind benefits from sung prayer even more than the body. When we sing the Scriptures, we enter the calm, focused zone that’s simultaneously physical, emotional, and mental.
When concentration improves, we think more clearly. Within the calmness of sung prayer, it’s easy and natural to memorize God’s Holy Word. It just happens as the combination of word and music gets super-glued into the memory. Think of the “Alphabet Song” you learned as a child. If you need to alphabetize a list, does the song run through your head? In order to understand anything, first we must remember it.
Scripture memorized via sung prayer makes Scripture available when we need it most. In moments of temptation or confusion, the Holy Spirit will prompt a memorized Bible verse or prayer. Then it becomes clear what to do.
To sing in a schola or choir is even more powerful. As choir members coordinate their breathing to blend their voices, heartbeats synchronize. Quite literally, all hearts beat as one. The same thing happens as the congregation chants the Ordinary. As the priest, the choir, and the congregation all Sing the Mass, everyone experiences emotional and spiritual unity. We become resilient, strengthened to persevere through difficulties, and full of gratitude.
Lay people who gave it a try: The Hangtown Schola
The city of Placerville is nestled in the foothills of Northern California, a bit more than an hour away from Lake Tahoe. Placerville is a rural mountain community with one Catholic parish, St. Patrick’s. The town earned its nickname, “Hangtown”, in 1849 because of the many hangings that occurred there during the California gold rush.
Not long ago, parishioners Diana and Mike Silva approached the pastor of St. Patrick’s with the goal to start a parish schola cantorum. Fr. Gomez was enthusiastic and gave the plan his full support. As a professional church musician and choir director, Diana was uniquely qualified to start the schola, having studied Gregorian chant in Rome and Solesmes, France.
Announcements were made at Masses and in the bulletin, and before long a number of interested people had joined the new schola. Half of the people who joined were in their 20s or 30s, including the 20-something youth director of the parish.
Since almost none of the new singers had any experience singing chant, Diana had to start at the very beginning. She taught both the technical aspects of reading and singing chant, and the place that the texts and melodies hold in the liturgy. The schola made steady progress. First the schola learned some Gregorian Mass Ordinaries; later, the schola’s repertoire expanded into the Propers, in both Latin and English. The “textbook” was the excellent work by Fr. Samuel Weber, “The Proper of the Mass”. The singers chose a name for themselves, the “Hangtown Schola”.
Eventually the Hangtown Schola was ready to sing for Mass. Diana has always maintained that liturgical music done badly is worse than no music at all, so the schola worked for a long time to reach the necessary level. Since the parish already had choirs and song leaders for all the Sunday Masses, the schola was asked to sing for the Feast of the Assumption. The schola acquitted itself very well — the congregation was surprised and delighted! After this debut, the schola has sung on Feast Days, plus once a month for the Saturday Vigil Mass. The repertoire always included a Latin Ordinary, along with Propers in both Latin and English. Diana expected at least some pushback in the parish, but neither she nor the priest heard a single negative word. Instead, the schola received many grateful comments from both parishioners and visitors from out of town. The schola’s favorite comment was from a woman who said, “I had to open my eyes when you started singing, to see if I was in heaven.” High praise, indeed!
During Advent 2019, the tiny Hangtown Schola from the tiny mountain town of Placerville was invited to sing at the Cathedral of the Blessed Sacrament in Sacramento. The Director of Worship for the diocese attended this Mass, and later he wrote an article about it for the diocesan website. Among the things he wrote were,
“Without the aid of any artificial amplification the melismatic music rose above the congregation like a cloud of incense. It hovered for a moment and then slowly descended and enveloped the assembly like a warm blanket. The congregation became very quiet. The introit had had its effect. The music had gently led the people of God into a state of prayerful readiness, which was especially fitting for a Sunday in Advent. The mystical melody of the chant created exactly the right mood, preparing people for the sacred mystery about to unfold.”
Then Covid hit, all singing in church was banned, and the Hangtown Schola went into temporary hibernation. Diana hopes to get everyone back together as soon as possible.
Graber’s education career included curriculum development, non-profit management, and volunteer Board work with a charity that serves homeless boys. A former Episcopalian, she crossed the Tiber in 1998 thanks to St. John Paul II. Graber and her husband celebrated their 50th wedding anniversary in June 2019. They have two adult children.
Diana Silva has a Master of Music degree from Westminster Choir College (conducting and viola da gamba principals), and then studied viol and choral music at the Sweelinck Conservatory in Amsterdam. She has taught viola da gamba at UC Davis, and was the founding chair of the Music Department at Ave Maria University, where she directed a program for choir directors from around the world to study Gregorian chant at St. Pierre Abbey in Solesmes, France. She was the chant scholar at the Cathedral of the Blessed Sacrament, and directed the Hangtown Schola in Placerville, Calif.
Linda Hoffman has spent a career proving fiscal value as an entrepreneur and advisor on building and growing businesses. She’s founder of Image Advertising (1985) and Yield Pro (1999), a national trade publication in the real estate space with a print readership reaching 50,000 and digital readership of 60,000/month. Hoffman has grown and positioned companies for IPO and sale, while meeting a wide range of owner goals. Image primarily focuses on making its national and international clients profitable.
Hoffman has sat on the Board of for profit and non-profit organizations including Bay Area International Adoption for a number of years. She helped grow BAAS from a couple hundred annual adoptions to thousands. She and her husband, Michael, run the Rudy Rudy Foundation, an organization focused on inserting Biblical principles back into today’s culture.
Hoffman holds a BS in Mass Media, emphasis in Psychology and Journalism, minor in Philosophy. She earned her degree by age 19 and started her first company 5 years later.
James Cavanagh was the director of worship for the Diocese of Sacramento, 2013 – 2020. Prior to that he was the Director of Evangelization and Catechesis for the Archdiocese of Denver from 2006 – 2013; and before that he was an Episcopal priest for eighteen years. He was received into the Catholic Church and confirmed by Archbishop Charles Chaput, OFM.Cap, in December, 2005.