A Benedictine community of monks from Norcia, Italy, has released an album of heavenly strains of Gregorian chant that is enjoying extraordinary success. The CD not only debuted at number 1 on Billboard’s classical chart, but has held top billing for the third straight week.
The success of their new record, BENEDICTA: Marian Chant from Norcia, has not been limited to the classical crowd; it has also seized the top spot overall at Barnes and Noble and no. 2 on Amazon, beating out big-name recording artists such as Taylor Swift and Willie Nelson.
The album features a group of 18 monks with an average age of just 36, half of whom are American citizens and the other half multinational.
Father Cassian Folsom, a native of Massachusetts who attended Indiana University’s School of Music, is the founder and prior of the Monks of Norcia, a Benedictine order in the very hometown of Saint Benedict and his sister Saint Scholastica. Norcia’s monastic community is one of the most authentically active singing communities of Gregorian chant today.
According to Father Cassian, “Chant is the Church’s love song to her Lord.”
The priest says that the high number of Americans in the community can be explained by the “amazing vitality” of the Church in the U.S., as well as Americans’ spirit of adventure. “There’s also a certain pioneer spirit in the American character that doesn’t shrink from charting a new path, from starting out on a new journey. Refounding the monastery at the birthplace of Saint Benedict has required lots of pioneer qualities!” he said.
This is not the first time monastic chant has garnered rave reviews from the secular crowd. In 1994, a CD called “Chant,” featuring music by the Benedictine Monks of Santo Domingo de Silos in Spain, became a pop-culture sensation, selling more than 6 million worldwide.
Along with chanting, the Benedictine monks of Norcia also operate a craft brewery on the grounds of the monastery, called Birra Nursia, which has contributed to bringing new visitors to Saint Benedict’s birthplace.
The motto of their brewery is taken from Psalm 103: ut laetificet cor, “that the heart may rejoice.” The psalm, says Father Cassian, “praises God’s providence in giving good things to his people: bread, wine, and oil.”
“Our beer is very good,” the prior modestly admits, and “it’s even more enjoyable in the context of a common meal with confreres, family, or friends.”
Gregorian chant, on the other hand, is part of the air the monks breathe. “There’s a lot of pollution in our world, and so the pure oxygen of Gregorian chant is like a breath of fresh air,” Father Cassian said.
“The chant is beautiful, and our souls need beauty in order to grow and thrive,” he said.
Apparently, a good number of listeners agree.
Follow Thomas D. Williams on Twitter @tdwilliamsrome.