For the Solemnity of All Saints Day, I was privileged to cantor at two different parishes, my maternal ancestral parish for the Vigil and my own parish for the actual day. I used the Introit and Communion Antiphon from Adam Bartlett's magnificent opus, Simple English Propers.
As someone who does not read any kind of musical notation, I found these settings to live up to the name and more. The online tutorials provided by the Church Music Association of America, both on YouTube and Vimeo, made following the tune and the text quite easy.
On a deeper level, the Simple English Propers allows for one to both sing the Mass and pray the Mass. Often, those in charge of music for the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass review hymns trying to determine which piece "fits" the liturgy. What one might fail to realize is that the Church has already given us the music and the text for just about any given Mass. Let's look at the Introit for the Solemnity of All Saints:
The sacredness of the chant, coupled with the text of the Introit, which comes to us from the Roman Gradual, sets the tone that something extraordinary is beginning. It conveys the sense of the divine act more clearly than a hymn. In fact, if we look at the General Instruction of the Roman Missal, this is certainly the intent of the Church:
The Entrance47. 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.
If there is no singing at the Entrance, the antiphon given in the Missal is recited either by the faithful, or by some of them, or by a reader; otherwise, it is recited by the Priest himself, who may even adapt it as an introductory explanation (cf. no. 31).
The Introit, Antiphon, if you will, is the default music of the Church. It constitutes the liturgical prayer of the Church as found in the Roman Gradual. Sadly, the fourth option, the use of hymns, has taken over the rightful place of the Propers. In some parishes, for example, "Table of Plenty" usurped the Introit for All Saints Day. Inasmuch as the theology of that particular song is somewhat suspect and the musicality is not quite sacred, the idea that it would stand in for something that is part of the Church's liturgical treasury makes no sense.
The same holds true for the Communion Antiphon, which is supposed to begin as the celebrant consumes the Sacred Species. Here is the Communion Antiphon from the Simple English Propers:
Communion Antiphon All Saints Day
B lessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see
God; * blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called
sons of God; blessed are those who suffer persecution for
the sake of justice, for theirs is the kingdom of hea-ven.
While there are modern settings of the Beatitudes (Blest are They), these do not contain the corresponding Psalm 126(125). The musicality of the modern hymns also does not lend itself to the sacred nature of the Communion Chant. Again, we turn to the GIRM for guidance:
87. In the Dioceses of the United States of America, there are four options for singing at Communion: (1) the antiphon from the Missal or the antiphon with its Psalm from the Graduale Romanum, as set to music there or in another musical setting; (2) the antiphon with Psalm from the Graduale Simplex of 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) some other suitable liturgical chant (cf. no. 86) approved by the Conference of Bishops or the Diocesan Bishop. This is sung either by the choir alone or by the choir or a cantor with the people.
However, if there is no singing, the antiphon given in the Missal may be recited either by the faithful, or by some of them, or by a reader; otherwise, it is recited by the Priest himself after he has received Communion and before he distributes Communion to the faithful.
As with the Introit, the Communion Antiphon is the default music of the Church for this particular moment in the liturgy. Yet, in the United States, publishing houses promote the fourth option, the usage of hymns, instead of what the Church has already provided for us to use. The Communion Antiphon forms part of the Church's liturgical prayer. It is not a mere song.
After yesterday's Mass, someone came up to the celebrant and commented on how different the liturgy was. She told him that she found the Mass "more prayerful" and that the music seemed to her to set a sacred tone. The celebrant seemed pleased with the reaction and he noted that it was because the Introit and the Communion Antiphon are the prayers of the Church.
The problem with using hymns is that, more often than not, we wind up with music that has both questionable theology and substandard musicality. It's more along the lines of what we (or the publishing house) thinks that the theme of the Mass should be. When this issue came up in the Catholic Answers Liturgy Forum, one of the participants, a parish music director, defended the use of hymns, stating that the USCCB had given the green light for hymns. However, to cheat the liturgy out of the music that is proper to the Mass constitutes a great disservice to the liturgy. Furthermore, the manner in which hymns are composed in this day and age turns the liturgy into being at the service of the music instead of the other way around.
Yes, learning the Introit and the Antiphon requires a bit of work, especially if one does not know how to read music; however, we owe it to the integrity of the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass to give it our best. The fact that the Church Music Association of America has already made tutorial videos makes things a lot easier.
Let us reclaim what is Proper to the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass!