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Monday, January 2, 2012

Singing the Mass

While perusing through the online editions of my former parish's bulletin, I found this surprising piece, written by the current pastor.  I say surprising because, although the parish is famous for having quality music, there is a bit of a "progressive" (for lack of a better word) slant insofar as certain liturgical practices are concerned.  That the pastor wrote this was a good sign that maybe, just maybe, the Reform of the Reform may well be hitting my beloved former spiritual home.

“The Lord be with you. And with your spirit.”
We are now fully immersed (or nearly drowned?) in the New Roman Missal. In addition to the changes in the words, you as a perceptive observer have no doubt noticed that we are also singing more of the Mass than before. This is partly because of the belief that some of the prayers, such as the Collect or Opening Prayer, sound better sung than read. More fundamentally, we are singing more as another step in a decades-long attempt to “sing the liturgy.”

The first of several National Pastoral Musicians Conventions that I attended was held at San Francisco around 1980. Even back then the emphasis was on singing the liturgy. This concern arose even earlier, out of Vatican Council II, with the reform of the liturgy. The problem at that time, however, was that Catholics
did not sing. The people in the pew were not accustomed to it and were uncomfortable with singing. Some observers thought Catholics would never sing. It took a long time, and many battles, to get to where we are today.

First we had the Four Hymn Syndrome: an opening hymn, an offertory hymn, a communion hymn and a closing hymn. This was the first baby step taken towards the eventual goal of singing the liturgy. The next was to get the people to sing the acclamations: the Kyrie (Lord have mercy), the Alleluia, the Sanctus (Holy, Holy), the Memorial Acclamation, the Agnus Dei (Lamb of God), and eventually the Gloria, and in more liturgically involved places, even the Our Father. Over the years we have gotten very good at this. At this parish people sing well! But we are still just singing at the liturgy, rather than singing the liturgy, which is the ultimate goal of the reform of Vatican Council II.

Back in 1967 the Bishop’s Committee on the Liturgy published “The Place of Music in Eucharistic Celebrations.”  In it they stated:

“Among the many signs and symbols used by the Church to celebrate its faith, music is of preeminent importance. As sacred song united to the words it forms an integral part of solemn liturgy” (para 23).

As we now implement the new translation of the Roman Missal (3rd ed.), here at St. Austin we are also using this as an opportunity to take another step towards the long awaited goal of singing the liturgy. You will notice that more often the opening Sign of the Cross, the penitential rite, even the declaration “the Word of the Lord” at the end of Scripture readings, and so on, will now be sung. Not only the choir, but even lectors and the celebrant are singing!

At first this may be a bit slipshod and clunky. Well, we have been there before, with each addition of more singing to the liturgy. We will live through it. Eventually we will become accustomed and even enjoy it. St. Augustine (of Hippo) apparently also struggled with his congregation to get them to sing more. He told them, “Do not allow yourselves to be offended by the imperfect while you strive for the perfect.” So hang in there, and you will get the hang of it.

Now I confess that I like to sing. I don’t sing well, but I do sing loud. As a priest friend of mine in Alaska used to tell his parish, “If God gave you a bad voice, plague Him with it!” I encourage you to join in the singing of the sacred liturgy with all the talent and enthusiasm you can muster. You ought to get used to it, because after all, singing the praises of God is what we hope to do for all eternity!
While Father makes some very solid points, there might be one important factor that he is missing.  Part and parcel of singing the Mass is the chanting of the Propers.  He makes the point that we've had to deal with the four-hymn sandwich for the last 40 or so years.  We've used the fouth option that the General Instruction of the Roman Missal provides without ever exploring the default.  

47. When the people are gathered, and as the Priest enters with the Deacon and ministers, the Entrance Chant begins. Its purpose is to open the celebration, foster the unity of those who have been gathered, introduce their thoughts to the mystery of the liturgical time or festivity, and accompany the procession of the Priest and ministers.

48. This chant is sung alternately by the choir and the people or similarly by a cantor and the people, or entirely by the people, or by the choir alone. In the Dioceses of the United States of America, there are four options for the Entrance Chant: (1) the antiphon from the Missal or the antiphon with its Psalm from the Graduale Romanum, as set to music there or in another setting; (2) the antiphon and Psalm of the Graduale Simplex for the liturgical time; (3) a chant from another collection of Psalms and antiphons, approved by the Conference of Bishops or the Diocesan Bishop, including Psalms arranged in responsorial or metrical forms; (4) another liturgical chant that is suited to the sacred action, the day, or the time of year, similarly approved by the Conference of Bishops or the Diocesan Bishop.
The parish in question has several capable choirs and cantors who can sing beautifully.  In fact, this particular church enjoys a solid reputation of having excellent music.  If anyone group could be considered the standard bearer for using the Propers at the Mass, it would be this one.

It certainly is laudable that Father wants to chant "Verbum Domine", the Collects and everything else.  That is a very good, first step.  But, it should not be seen as a matter of one and done.  If he, and the rest of us, want to begin to really sing the Mass, then, we need to use the words that the Church has given us, the texts that are proper to the Mass.

I am not writing from a "Say as I do" standpoint; at my father's parish, we've been chanting the propers for the better part of six months now.  The faithful seem to have gotten used to it.  For me, it is work to learn a new set of propers each week, especially since I do not yet know how to read music.  However, thanks to the fine folks at the Corpus Christi Watershed, who have posted video tutorials, it is not as laborious as it would seem.  If someone like me who cannot read music can learn the propers, certainly a well trained and directed choir, such as the one at my former parish, can quickly and masterfully pick these up.

I have to thank Jeffrey Tucker, Adam Bartlett and the folks at the Chant Cafe for introducing me to the Simple English Propers.  It would not be a bad New Year's Resolution for parishes to pick up this essential volume and sing it.


  1. In our parish, we have replaced the Agnes Dei with a little ditty that, while cute, is a significant deviation from the prayer itself. Once we have sung "Lamb of God, you take away the sins of the world - have mercy on us" we launch into as many as four or five verses such as "Prince of Peace . . . " "Bread of Life . . . " etc. Someone said it was to avoid a "pregnant pause" during the preparation of the gifts. But then I heard our music minister, when he knew there would only be three versus, insert one of the "ditty" verses as the middle verse, instead of singing it the way it was written! This drives me to distraction and is something I just don't understand! Any ideas on how to "take back" the agnes dei?

  2. One idea would be to maybe gently suggest using the ICEL chants. Since we have a revised Ordinary, introducing musical settings that have the correct form would not be hard to do. The ICEL chants lend themselves readily, since these are the default in the Roman Missal.

    The norms are quite clear from the Congregation for Divine Worship. In Liturgiam Authenticam, the CDW writes that:

    60. A great part of the liturgical texts are composed with the intention of their being sung by the priest celebrant, the deacon, the cantor, the people, or the choir. For this reason, the texts should be translated in a manner that is suitable for being set to music. Still, in preparing the musical accompaniment, full account must be taken of the authority of the text itself. Whether it be a question of the texts of Sacred Scripture or of those taken from the Liturgy and already duly confirmed, paraphrases are not to be substituted with the intention of making them more easily set to music, nor may hymns considered generically equivalent be employed in their place.39

    I do not know if your parish has a liturgy committee, but, that might be one place to start. Another might very well be having a discussion with your pastor. Pray over it and go over both the GIRM and Liturgiam Authenticam. While the GIRM notes that additional tropes may be allowed, this means that the text "Agnus Dei, qui tollis peccata mundi, miserere nobis" is to be repeated, not an anamoly like "Prince of Peace" or "Bread of Life". The Agnus Dei does not have the clause "These or similar words" attached to it.

    I hope this helps.

  3. I understand and appreciate your broader point on the propers most definitely being a part of "singing the Mass," but it almost sounds like you think that this parish doesn't because of the pastor's column. I'm a parishioner here and the choir does sing the Introit and Communion Antiphon EVERY Sunday from a variety of sources (Graduale, Simple Choral Gradual, SEP). I just wanted to make that clear since it seems as if you have not been here in quite some time.

  4. Well, that is good to know. We are speaking of the same parish, right, the one just across the street from my beloved UT (on the Drag)?

    If that is, in fact, the case, I am quite pleased and greatly relieved.