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Sacred music is catechesis

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Gregorian chant is ancient, spiritual, mysterious, and moving — and according to 18-year-old Bridget Crnkovich, it is also “so cool.”

“What’s so cool about it is there is more than one tone and no regular pace,” Crnkovich says. “There are silences there, to think about.” Gregorian chant is at once “very spiritual” and easy-going, “like conversation,” she said.

Crnkovich knows whereof she speaks. She is the diocese’s newest and no doubt youngest qualified music director, having successfully passed a yearlong Sacred Music Apprenticeship by leading the choir at her home parish, St. John the Beloved in McLean, at Sunday Mass May 26. Accompanied by organ, Crnkovich led the congregation through a full range of hymns, complemented by antiphons and motets chanted a cappella by an eight-member choir.

The apprenticeship was co-created by Elizabeth Black and James Senson. What Senson termed Crnkovich’s “capstone” project was made more special — and challenging — by the occasion: the first Mass offered by newly ordained Dominican Father Paul Clarke.

“Bridget did great,” said Senson, director of music at St. John the Beloved since 2015. “There was a lot going on there and she had to deal with it, (like timing) the communion hymn to (an exceptionally long) communion line.”

By the time its second year is completed in June, the Sacred Music Apprenticeship will have graduated four young people, including Crnkovich, qualified to lead choirs in schools, concert halls and local parishes, Senson said. 

The course requires an hour a week of special study during the academic year, with additional time if the student wishes to qualify as a church organist or cantor. Five students have enrolled already for the upcoming academic year.

 

Senson and Black began the program, he says, to create opportunities for young Catholics and to promote what he terms the “comeback” of Gregorian chant in contemporary liturgy. Though numbers aren’t available currently, Senson believes more parishes are reverting to plain chant that traces its roots to the ninth and 10th centuries, A.D., when it was developed by choirs of medieval monks and nuns not just to complement worship, but as a part of worship itself.  

In contrast to much modern church music, Senson says, chant re-orients the focus of liturgy to the praise of God rather than the recognition of the earthly community.

“Sacred music ought to be catechesis,” said Senson, who was raised Catholic in Virginia Beach but left the church in his teens. There was little in the music he heard at Mass that distinguished Catholicism from the Protestant denominations he drifted through and played music for before returning to the church seven years ago.

“My only exposure to Catholic teaching was through the Mass,” said Senson, now 35. “I never learned the ‘Hail Mary’ prayer. I never heard ‘Holy God, We Praise Thy Name.’ ”

In a talk he gave in 2018, Senson quoted from Sacrosanctum Concilium (1963), a Vatican II document. The church, he said, acknowledges that Gregorian chant “as proper to the Roman liturgy, and therefore, other things being equal, it holds the principal place in the liturgic action.”

For Crnkovich, pursuing chant was a logical next step. Home schooled by parents Robert and Elizabeth Crnkovich, she has been a member of the parish’s Our Lady of Ephesus choir, composed of seventh-through-12th-grade girls led by Black. 

This fall, she will attend Christendom College in Front Royal, uncertain where her path may take her. But she is certain of one thing — sacred music and especially Gregorian chant will likely have a part.

“I love it,” she says, simply.

Willing is a freelancer from McLean.

© Arlington Catholic Herald 2019