For some, it's incomprehensible and unreachable, but for others, it's as close as one can get on this Earth to the Heavenly Father.
It's the traditional Latin High Mass, in which the priest sings the scriptures in Latin and the choir sings Gregorian chant. It was the norm in Catholic churches throughout Europe until about 1700. Today, it can be experienced at only a handful of Catholic churches in North America, and two of those are in southwestern Connecticut.
One is the Saint Stanislaus Church, in New Haven at the corner of State and Eld Streets. The other is St. Mary Roman Catholic Church, 669 West Ave., Norwalk.
"It's very elevating and transcendent," said Anna McCabe, who regularly attends the Latin High Mass at St. Mary's. "We're blessed to have it here in Norwalk."
It's at these churches where Catholics participate in an Easter Mass almost identical to what was practiced in the churches of Europe more than 600 years ago.
"What we do is to maintain a living tradition," said Nicholas Renouf, the founder of the St. Gregory Society, a choral ensemble that performed the Latin High Mass, or Gregorian chant, at Saint Stanislaus Church Easter Sunday.
"A lot of people think that the Gregorian chant ended with Vatican II," Renouf said in reference to the Second Vatican Council (1962-65), which encouraged reciting the liturgy in the vernacular, rather than in Latin. "That's not true at all, and Pope Benedict XVI has strongly suggested that the old rite be kept alive," he said.
Still, the Catholic churches that offer chant are few and far between. This is because it takes money, time, training and practice to pull off, according to Paul Zalonski whose blog, Communio, reports on the Catholic church matters in the Northeast.
For starters, Zalonski said, most priests in North America today lack sufficient training in both Latin and music.
"And the High Mass takes time, energy, talent and some money to do and to do it well," he said.
To 21st century ears hearing it for the first time, the Gregorian chant will seem at once inaccessible and yet strangely compelling. Because it's a chant, there's no recognizable rhythm, harmony and counterpoint. And, for the most part, there's no accompaniment either.
David Hughes, the choirmaster and organist of St. Mary Church in Norwalk, readily admits that for people used to the likes of Rihanna, Elton John or even Mozart, the Gregorian chant might not sound like their cup of tea, especially at first. Hughes directs St. Mary Schola Cantorum, literally the "school for singing" but today refers to a choir that specializes in medieval music.
"The reason that it might sound unusual when you first hear it is precisely because it's the music of Catholic worship," Hughes said. "The chant is so immediately striking as being sacred music, it simply can't be anything else. But it's that strangeness that draws the listener in, and by the very act of listening, you're praying the very same texts that are being sung."
The sheet music still uses medieval "square note notation," as opposed to modern musical notation, which didn't appear in present form until about 1700.
Renouf said that those who attend a High Mass with a Gregorian chant choral group should think of it as a liturgical drama that has a theatrical aspect to it. "There is awesomeness to it, and there's something for all of the senses," he said.
The Gregorian chant is derived primarily from the Psalms and secondarily from other scripture. To the untrained ear, it's difficult to determine whether you're listening to the beginning, middle or end of the chant.
"That's true to an extent, and that's precisely why it's important -- because it's timeless," Hughes said. "What's important is that this is part of an unbroken tradition that goes back to the earliest days of the Catholic church."
CHANT OF THE PAST
Gregorian chants performed today, also called plainsong or plainchant, are essentially identical to ones performed in European Catholic churches in the 15th and 16th centuries, perhaps earlier. The name is in reference to Pope Gregory I or Gregory the Great, who was pope from September 540 until his death in March 604.
"When you hear it, it all clicks...the right way to honor our Lord," said Lynn Haffey, who attends St. Mary, and who has an 11-year-old daughter who sings in the "student cantorum," which trains children, some as young as five, to sing Gregorian chant. "My kids love it....they would much rather attend High Mass than play baseball or football. Just the whole 1,500 years tradition of it... the normal Mass is just not the same."
According to Hughes, the little ones are quick studies when it comes to learning chant, all in Latin.
But for the Rev. Greg Markey, the priest at St. Mary, getting his flock to accept the Latin High Mass didn't happen overnight. "It took awhile to get everyone used to it," he said. "We had to conduct classes to teach people about its significance."
Joseph Longo who worships at St. Stanislaus agrees. "It's serious and reverent, and that's what we like about it," he said.
"It's more contemplative, and something that's unchanged in hundreds of years," said Donald Cleary, who also attends High Mass at St. Stan's.
While the chant can be traced back to even pre-Christian times, it was St. Gregory who is believed by some to be responsible for organizing the thousands of chants then in existence, and assigning them to dates in the annual cycle of feasts, or holidays. Still, historians say that Gregory's role in the chant named after him is, at best, murky.
The chants spread throughout the churches of Europe and Eastern Europe in the next 200 years thanks to the influence of Charlemagne, the emperor of Rome from 800 to 814. It's believed that all of the Gregorian chants with us today originated not from Italy, but from what is now France and Germany.
"It's important for us to sing the sacred music intended for the Mass," said Hughes, "and the Gregorian chant lies at the very heart of that."
Some of the source material for this story was from the book "Gregorian Chant" by Willi Apel, Indiana University Press (1990).