Monday, November 09, 2015

René Girard and Gregorian chant.

French literary theorist René Girard died last week at the age of 91. Though I've read some of Girard's work during my studies in theology in Toronto, the news of his passing made me think not of his writings but of the one time I saw him in person, at St. Thomas Aquinas Church in Palo Alto, California, where the longtime Stanford professor was a parishioner. Encountered on the steps of the church following the noon Mass, Girard's features were unmistakable - the distinctive nose and cheekbones, bushy eyebrows, and shock of white hair gave him away immediately, with the telltale rosette of the Légion d'honneur on the lapel of his blazer offering a reminder that this French expatriate was still deeply esteemed in his homeland.

Though he was a practicing Catholic who integrated theological concerns into his work, Girard's interest in liturgy and sacred music is little-known. Girard's public statements on liturgical questions were rare but telling: in 2006, for example, Girard joined a group of other French intellectuals in endorsing broader public celebration of the Tridentine Mass, something that became a reality the following year after Pope Benedict XVI released the motu proprio Summorum Pontificum. In an earlier interview with James G. Williams, published in The Girard Reader, Girard denied that he was "ritualistic" but nevertheless acknowledged his affection for Gregorian chant:
I am not really ritualistic. I pray, but I don't really enjoy ritual that much. I do enjoy the Gregorian Mass. We are lucky to have the Gregorian Mass at Stanford, thanks to William Mahrt, who has been devoted to it since 1963. I attend Mass every Sunday of course, as well as on the obligatory holy days. I am an ordinary Christian.
What Girard called the "Gregorian Mass" in this interview was not the older form of the Roman liturgy but rather the Novus Ordo celebrated in Latin with Gregorian chant, which has long been offered weekly in Palo Alto thanks to the dedication and effort of Professor William Mahrt and the St. Ann Choir. A leading chant scholar as well as a practitioner, Mahrt has written eloquently on the place of Gregorian chant in the Roman Catholic liturgy and lectures widely on topics related to sacred music. Having led the St. Ann Choir without interruption since the time of the Second Vatican Council, Mahrt's efforts have also received the attention of the secular media as well as plaudits from the Stanford community to which he belongs. René Girard may be gone, but Bill Mahrt's work happily continues - and hopefully will for a long time to come. AMDG.


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