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Why Gregorian Chant Has “First Place” in the Liturgy

The following guest post was written by Father Noah Carter, a priest of the Diocese of Charlotte, North Carolina.  Fr. Carter is currently in Rome completing his studies for his Licentiate in Sacred Theology (STL) with a focus on Liturgical Studies.

Since the publication of the Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy Sacrosanctum Concilium by the Second Vatican Council, the Catholic Church has continued to experience liturgical diversity which ranges from legitimate variety to outright abuse.  More particularly, music used in the liturgy has since varied in form, style, and genre, and the previous forms of sacred music composed for the liturgy have fallen widely into disuse, especially in parishes.  

After many decades which have seen an analysis of the Conciliar documents, however, the Church’s will in the direction of the liturgy has been seen to concur with the same direction that existed before the Council spoke on the issue of her different forms of worship.  It will be shown below what paragraph 116 of Sacrosanctum Concilium means by giving Gregorian chant “principium locus” through an examination of the pre-Conciliar magisterial texts concerning sacred music and then the post-Conciliar magisterial texts concerning the use of music in the liturgy.

The Second Vatican Council published its treatment of Roman Catholic worship on December 4, 1963, under the name Sacrosanctum Concilium.  It was the fruit of many years’ work by preparatory commissions, scholars, and Roman curial congregations.  While its scope extends to many details of the Church’s liturgical celebrations, its treatment of Gregorian chant, introduced by paragraph 116, is quite terse:

“The Church acknowledges Gregorian chant as specially suited to the Roman liturgy: therefore, other things being equal, it should be given pride of place (principem locum obtineat) in liturgical services. But other kinds of sacred music, especially polyphony, are by no means excluded from liturgical celebrations, so long as they accord with the spirit of the liturgical action…”.[1]

The translation provided above is the official English translation given by the Vatican. The first part could be rendered into English more accurately as, “The Church recognizes Gregorian chant as characteristic of the Roman liturgy: therefore, in liturgical celebrations, other things being equal, it is to hold first place.”[2]  With this more literal rendering of the passage, one can see the obvious force carried by the original Latin text.

There are a few particular Latin words and phrases which are noteworthy.  

The word proprium evidences an intrinsic connection between Roman-Gregorian chant and Roman liturgy.  Also, the present subjunctive (obtineat) is used in statements to assert a desired ideal.  Lastly, and most importantly for the present study, principem locum is not just a special or fair place, but the first place.  Just as the principes (literally, “first citizen”) in Rome was the leader of the people and all looked to him for guidance, so Gregorian chant is the leader of sacred music from which principles are formed to govern the sacred arts.

The phrase principem locum does not introduce a novelty to the Church’s liturgical tradition.  Gregorian chant was born from the Roman liturgy and will always be fitting to the Roman liturgy (liturgiae romanae proprium).  During liturgical services, then, Gregorian chant should be the first choice for the principal parts of the liturgy, if this is possible and does not detract from the congregation’s participation (ceteris paribus).  

The second part of the paragraph continues the Church’s allowance of other types of sacred music—as long as it is liturgical—to ornament the liturgy.  To understand the paragraph better, it is necessary to show the notions which were laid down before the Council concerning Gregorian chant, notions which give content to the phrase principium locus.


While the document’s treatment of the place of Gregorian chant in the liturgy is brief, the gravity of the paragraph is not miniscule.  No more need have been said in Sacrosanctum Concilium concerning the first place of the Roman Church’s chant, since other magisterial texts had already established and gave reasons for its first place among forms of liturgical music.  

In the history leading up to the Second Vatican Council, many pontiffs wrote concerning the importance of Gregorian chant.  These papal documents, addresses, and letters refer back to the monumental motu proprio of Pius X, Tra le sollecitudini, in which the Holy Father writes:

“[Il canto gregoriano] concorre ad accrescere il decoro e lo splendore delle cerimonie ecclesiastiche, e siccome suo officio principale è dì rivestire con acconcia melodia il testo liturgico che viene proposto all’intelligenza dei fedeli, così il suo proprio fine è di aggiungere maggiore efficacia al testo medesimo, affinché i fedeli con tale mezzo siano più facilmente eccitati alla devozione e meglio si dispongano ad accogliere in sé i frutti della grazia, che sono propri della celebrazione dei sacrosanti misteri.”[3]

According to Pius X, then, Gregorian chant—and indeed all music considered sacred and used in the liturgy—shares in the same ends as the sacred liturgy and, ornamenting the sacred texts so that they are more easily understood by the faithful, moves all to greater devotion and piety.  He proffers the general principles which should guide the selection and composition of sacred music, “La musica sacra deve per conseguenza possedere nel grado migliore le qualità che sono proprie della liturgia, e precisamente la santità e la bontà delle forme, onde sorge spontaneo l’altro suo carattere, che è l’universalità.[4]  Holiness, excellence of forms, and universality are the qualities which will guide the magisterial teaching on sacred music until the present day.  According to William Mahrt, this Motu proprio provides the seminal ideas necessary to reestablish “the intimate relation of music and liturgy in Gregorian chant….”[5]  Indeed the future statements by popes and bishops in pastoral instructions and letters return constantly to Pius X’s description of sacred music.

As the 20th Century Liturgical Movement gained momentum in the Church and scholars began calling for liturgical reform, Pius XII reiterated some of the cautions against replacing Gregorian chant with other forms of music in his Encyclical Letter Mediator Dei et hominum:

“Gregorian chant, which the Roman Church considers her own as handed down from antiquity and kept under her close tutelage, is proposed to the faithful as belonging to them also. In certain parts of the liturgy the Church definitely prescribes it; it makes the celebration of the sacred mysteries not only more dignified and solemn but helps very much to increase the faith and devotion of the congregation.”[6]

Gregorian chant, then, does not belong to the priest or the schola cantorum alone, but to all those who participate in the liturgy.  It was born from the Roman Church’s celebration of the sacred mysteries and evolved with the rites themselves throughout history.  It fosters the participation of all and, therefore, aides the devotion and sanctification of all.  Gregorian chant is universal in time and place as it ornaments the universal texts and prayers of the Church.

Almost a decade later, in his Encyclical Letter Musicæ sacræ, Pius XII treated again of Gregorian chant being the prime example of holiness in music:

“[The chants and sacred music] must be holy. It must not allow within itself anything that savors of the profane nor allow any such thing to slip into the melodies in which it is expressed. The Gregorian chant which has been used in the Church over the course of so many centuries, and which may be called, as it were, its patrimony, is gloriously outstanding for this holiness.”[7]

The holiness here is not an added characteristic, but the purity of faith and worship by the centuries-old decoration of the texts which the priest and people pray.  For Pius XII, this holiness can resound in every church in the world:

And if in Catholic churches throughout the entire world Gregorian chant sounds forth without corruption or diminution, the chant itself, like the sacred Roman liturgy, will have a characteristic of universality, so that the faithful, wherever they may be, will hear music that is familiar to them and a part of their own home. In this way they may experience, with much spiritual consolation, the wonderful unity of the Church. This is one of the most important reasons why the Church so greatly desires that the Gregorian chant traditionally associated with the Latin words of the sacred liturgy be used.

With these words, he has highlighted the one-to-one correspondence between the Roman liturgy and the Roman chants.  From an historical point of view, he has well established what the papal texts had been teaching for over five decades, namely that Gregorian chant is the standard upon which the guiding principles are founded for other types of sacred music.  Therefore, since the Church had been clear about the first place of Gregorian chant in liturgy, the Council Fathers found no need to elaborate further once they expressed that Gregorian chant should be given first place in worship.


It cannot be denied that the exterior celebration of the Church’s worship changed quite dramatically after the Council.  Much change may be attributed to the reform of liturgical books, and some can be attributed to the illicit introduction of cultural characteristics which do not agree with the Church’s liturgical spirit.  

In terms of the present study, many celebrations saw the introduction of secular music, rather than a continuation of the sacred music of ages past.  The Church, as it will be shown, continued to teach the same message regarding the use of Gregorian chant and true sacred music in her celebrations.  She continued defending—both in word as well as in deed—the primacy of Gregorian chant’s place in the liturgy, despite decades of objections.

For example, some had objected to the intelligibility of Gregorian chant and questioned how the faithful may participate with texts that they could not comprehend.  Francis Cardinal Arinze, responding to this objection in an address at the 2006 Gateway Liturgical Conference, said:

“Good music helps to promote prayer, to raise the minds of people to God and to give people a taste of the goodness of God. …[Gregorian Chant] touches the depths of the soul. It shows joy, sorrow, repentance, petition, hope, praise or thanksgiving, as the particular feast, part of the Mass or other prayer may indicate. It makes the Psalms come alive. It has a universal appeal which makes it suitable for all cultures and peoples.  … It is not true that the lay faithful do not want to sing the Gregorian Chant. What they are asking for are priests and monks and nuns who will share this treasure with them.”[8]

We see, then, that members of the Church’s hierarchy continued to confront the baseless objections that Gregorian chant is no longer suitable for the faithful of this age.

Another common, post-Conciliar objection to Gregorian chant having first place, however, lies in the phrase “other things being equal” or, in the original, ceteris paribus.  Some liturgists, rightly concerned with the pastoral implications of reintroducing an unacquainted musical form into the parishes, had applied this phrase to other musical genres: “other things being equal” becomes “other musical forms being equal.”  This interpretation would be incorrect, and Kurt Poterack gives a corrected interpretation of ceteris paribus:

“Therefore…‘since Gregorian chant is specially suited to the Roman liturgy it should be included in liturgical services, assuming an equality of situation in all churches.’ However, since the situation is not equal in all churches…there are cases where it may not be possible to include Gregorian chant.”[9]

The “other things” are the situations in all the churches: the ability of the faithful, the training of the clerics, and the expertise of the choir.  In other words, all things would be equal if all the standards laid out by the Second Vatican Council were met by those entrusted with sacred music, the formation of the clergy and faithful, and the care of souls.  As Poterack signals, though, there are some cases in which the introduction of Gregorian chant would be a burden and, therefore, not assist the faithful’s participation.

In a word, the Second Vatican Council dedicated a whole instruction to sacred music.  What the Fathers did not expound upon in Sacrosanctum Concilium’s paragraph 116 was further explained in the Instruction on Music in the Sacred Liturgy Musicam Sacram.  

Gregorian chant cannot influence the holiness and active participation of the faithful if it remains an artifact of music history or becomes solely part of concert choir repertoires.  While the Church does allow a broader definition of sacred music than in previous centuries,[10] she continues to promote clearly the place of Gregorian chant and the necessity of keeping it alive within the liturgical celebration:

“Above all, the study and practice of Gregorian chant is to be promoted, because, with its special characteristics, it is a basis of great importance for the development of sacred music.

“New works of sacred music should conform faithfully to the principles and norms set out above. In this way they will have ‘the qualities proper to genuine sacred music, being within the capacities not merely of large choirs but of smaller choirs, facilitating the participation of all the faithful.’”[11]

This Instruction, therefore, calls not only for the study of Gregorian chant, but its implementation in the sacred liturgy so that it may aide the faithful.

John Paul II further strengthened the command of Musicam Sacram when he made the following communication in honor of Pius X’s motu proprio:

“Among the musical expressions that correspond best with the qualities demanded by the notion of sacred music, especially liturgical music, Gregorian chant has a special place. …[I]t should be given, other things being equal, pride of place in liturgical services sung in Latin. St Pius X pointed out that the Church had ‘inherited it from the Fathers of the Church,’ that she has ‘jealously guarded [it] for centuries in her liturgical codices’ and still ‘proposes it to the faithful’ as her own, considering it ‘the supreme model of sacred music.’ Thus, Gregorian chant continues also today to be an element of unity in the Roman Liturgy.”[12]

The pontiff clearly communicates that Gregorian chant cannot be locked in history as proper to a certain century or period.  For all times and all peoples, Gregorian chant unifies the Church because it is characteristically universal.

More than giving mere lip service to the primacy of Gregorian chant, the Church acted in accord with said principles.  The Second Vatican Council decreed the reform of the chant books so that the treasures of Roman chant might once again be restored to the faithful.  With the discovery of new manuscripts and new methods of chant, it became necessary to take a closer look at what had been received by the Church immediately before the Council in order to ensure that the heritage received might be the heritage passed on.  Immediately connected to paragraph 116 of Sacrosanctum Concilium is the order for study and reform:

“The typical edition of the books of Gregorian chant is to be completed; and a more critical edition is to be prepared of those books already published since the restoration by St. Pius X.

“It is desirable also that an edition be prepared containing simpler melodies, for use in small churches.”[13]

The first part of the above-quoted paragraph orders the continuation of a project already underway at the time of the Council’s proceedings.  The Council Fathers wanted a more thorough study of the compositional principles behind the development of Roman chant.  This project did continue—thanks to the diligent work of the Benedictine Monastery of Solemnes—and finished with two new and revised editions of the Roman Gradual.[14]  The second part is of particular noteworthiness.  

After calling for Gregorian chant’s first place in the liturgy, when other conditions are equal, the Council orders simpler melodies for smaller churches—that is, those churches which do not have conditions that are equal with the large parishes, cathedrals, collegiate churches, oratories, etc.  That is, the Church desires that even in the places that cannot support the technique needed to sing the traditional Gregorian melodies, Gregorian melodies and techniques are used in singing the sacred texts of the Church’s liturgy.  From this reform decree, the Graduale Simplex[15] was drawn up under the inspiration of Gregorian modes and melodies for use in smaller churches that cannot sustain a full repertoire of the traditional Gregorian chants.  These actions undertaken by the Church show forth her will in conserving the primacy of Gregorian chant’s place in the liturgy.


At present, there seems to be honest scholarship concerning the reintroduction of Gregorian chant in pastoral contexts.  John Paul II and Benedict XVI did not mince words when they spoke of sacred music and its valuable use even today in the liturgy.  John Paul II reminded the Church of his own desire to heavily promote sacred music in the liturgy, and especially Gregorian chant:

“On various occasions I too have recalled the precious role and great importance of music and song for a more active and intense participation in liturgical celebrations. I have also stressed the need to ‘purify worship from ugliness of style, from distasteful forms of expression, from uninspired musical texts which are not worthy of the great act that is being celebrated,’ to guarantee dignity and excellence to liturgical compositions.”[16]

During John Paul’s pontificate, Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger carried on the same promotion of sacred music.  He wrote in support of John Paul’s push for sacred music and Gregorian chant in the liturgy.[17]  Upon his election to the Roman cathedra, he continued to promote and encourage the use of chant and polyphony in liturgical celebrations.[18]  With this in mind, principium locus has always meant “first place” and is practically understood to mean that Gregorian chant should be the first choice when selecting musical settings for individual liturgical celebrations.

While the Church has always valued Gregorian chant as the ideal form of music for the sacred liturgy, this point has been explicitly repeated for more than 100 years by the Roman pontiffs, especially in light of Pius X’s push in 1903 to make sacred music a priority in the Church.  Moreover, recent scholarship and studies—some of which have been cited above—show that the Church still views Gregorian chant as the most ideal form and most appropriate for the Roman liturgy. 

Paragraph 116 of Sacrosanctum Concilium may be quite succinct, but it contains a rich content of anterior magisterial texts and looks forward to further explanation by the Magisterium, which have been offered by the post-Conciliar pontiffs.  Through the above exposition of the scholarship and magisterial texts, one can easily see that the Church never abandoned her rule that Gregorian chant is to be taught to all members of the Church, especially the clergy so they may teach their flocks, and used as the first choice when planning a celebration of the Roman liturgy.  

Looking toward the future, one may hope that pastors of souls continue to implement the will of the Church in the liturgy by using Gregorian chant and sacred music inspired by the Gregorian tradition.


[1] Second Vatican Council, “Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy Sacrosanctum Concilium” (Libreria Editrice Vaticana, December 4, 1963), para. 116.  “Ecclesia cantum gregorianum agnoscit ut liturgiae romanae proprium: qui ideo in actionibus liturgicis, ceteris paribus, principem locum obtineat. Alia genera Musicae sacrae, praesertim vero polyphonia, in celebrandis divinis Officiis minime excluduntur, dummodo spiritui actionis liturgicae respondeant.”
[2] Translation is the author’s.
[3] Pius X, “Motu proprio de restauratione musicae sacrae Tra le sollecitudini,” in Acta Sanctæ Sedis, vol. 36 (Rome: S. Congr. de Propaganda Fide, 1903), 332.
[4] Ibid.
[5] William Mahrt, “Gregorian Chant as a Paradigm of Sacred Music,” Sacred Music 133, no. 1 (Spring 2006): 5–14.
[6] Pius XII, “Encyclical Letter on Sacred Liturgy Mediator Dei et Hominum,” November 20, 1947, para. 191.
[7] Pius XII, “Encyclical Letter on Sacred Music Musicæ Sacræ,” December 25, 1955, para. 42.
[8] Francis Arinze, “Address of His Eminence Francis Cardinal Arinze” (presented at the Gateway Liturgical Conference, St. Louis: Libreria Editrice Vaticana, 2006).
[9] Kurt Poterack, “Vatican II and Sacred Music,” Sacred Music 125, no. 4 (Winter 1988): 5–19.
[10] Second Vatican Council, “Instruction on Sacred Music Musicam Sacram” (Libreria Editrice Vaticana, March 5, 1967), para. 4b. Mark Daniel Kirby argues that this broadened definition is lamentable since it allows the introduction of musical forms that have not previously been considered sacred; more specifically, it allows liturgical music that is not sacred art since it does not accord with all the characteristics that the Church has always held as principles.  He argues that the definition provided by Musicam Sacram “reflects a compromise between two opposing factions: those who, holding to the ‘ministerial function’ of sacred music advanced in the Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy, sought to foster the collective participation of the assembly in the sung liturgy; and those who, defending sacred music as ‘art,’ feared, above all, the loss of the treasured repertoire of the Roman Cappelle.”  See his article: “Toward a Definition of Liturgical Chant,” Sacred Music 136, no. 2 (Summer 2009): 5–39.
[11] Second Vatican Council, “Musicam Sacram,” para. 52–53.
[12] John Paul II, “Chirograph for the Centenary of the Motu Proprio Tra Le Sollecitudini on Sacred Music” (Libreria Editrice Vaticana, November 22, 2003), para. 7.
[13] Second Vatican Council, “Sacrosanctum Concilium,” 117.
[14] Graduale sacrosanctæ romanæ ecclesiæ de tempore & de sanctis primum sancti Pii X iussu restitutum & editum, Pauli VI pontificism maximi cura nunc recognitium, ad exemplar «ordinis cantus missæ» dispositum, & rhythmicis signis a solesmensibus monachis diligenter ornatum (Paris­-Tournai: Abbaye Saint­Pierre de Solesmes & Desclée, 1974); Graduale Triplex, Seu Graduale Romanum Pauli PP. VI Cura Recognitum & Rhythmicis Signis a Solesmensibus Monachis Ornatum Neumis Laudunensibus (cod. 239) et Sangallensibus (codicum San Gallensis 359 et Einsidlensis 121) Nunc Auctum (Paris­-Tournai: Abbaye Saint­Pierre de Solesmes & Desclée, 1979).
[15] Graduale Simplex in usum minorum ecclesiarum, editio typica altera (Rome: Libreria Editrice Vaticana, 1975).
[16] John Paul II, “Chirograph for the Centenary of the Motu Proprio Tra Le Sollecitudini on Sacred Music,” para. 3.
[17] Cf. Josef Ratzinger, “Liturgy and Church Music,” Sacred Music 112, no. 4 (Winter 1985): 13–22.
[18] Benedict XVI, “Post-Synodal Apostolic Exhortation on the Eucharist Sacramentum Caritatis” (Libreria Editrice Vaticana, February 22, 2007), para. 42.

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