Wasting the Presider’s Time

One sure way to assess the priest’s attitude about singing the Mass versus singing at the Mass is to uncover his approach if liturgy runs a little longer than usual. Or is expected to do so.

Long before reform2 musicians made it their rallying cry, good music directors learned the difference between singing the Mass and singing at the Mass. They knew where their art and craft stood in the pantheon of sacred virtues. Let one of our readers tell it:

One of my pet peeves as a choir director is the very common practice of Priest rushing through the liturgy (except for their homilies?). It is very common for my priest for example to say, “no sung Gloria”, or “no sung Kyrie” because we have a special speaker (or some other reason). I occasionally get that “why are you wasting my precious time?” look from my priest if the gathering song goes too long or if he has to wait for the choir after the presentation of gifts. It is my understanding as a choir director, that a song should normally be sung from start to finish…meaning, if the gathering song has five versus, they should all be sung. The rationale being that a song is a prayer that shouldn’t be done only part way.

I’ve been fortunate to work for priests who were very supportive of music. I haven’t encounter this too often since 1991 or so. In fact, at my current parish, I have the opposite problem: musicians who worry and cut hymns short after two verses or even one. No amount of reminder that the boss likes singing and wants to sing more will break ingrained habits and expectations. I’ve no doubt it has contributed to his assessment that music at our parish needs a serious upgrade.

If a special speaker or another reason will lengthen the liturgy, it is the responsibility of the priest or liturgist to communicate that to the music director before the choir rehearsal at the absolute latest. Last minute decisions reflect the poor planning of the priest.

With hymn-singing, I look to the integrity of the text. If the writer has an idea with four-verse integrity, I sing all four verses. If I’m in a parish where that’s frowned upon, I never program such hymns in the first place. Psalm-based songs I feel I can play with a bit.

Singing the Kyrie and Gloria should be seasonal decisions, unless there’s a standard practice for doing them all the time. Dropping the music whenever there’s a second speaker or something sends the message right from the chute that music at the Mass is not a priority. For the priest to regularly send that message a few minutes before Mass is unprofessional and in my book, would qualify as a serious liturgical abuse.

As for preparation of the gifts, I never plan anything that will leave the priest waiting. It’s just not as important as the other sung parts of the Mass. My personal preference is to improvise instrumentally during this time. It’s the mark of the priest’s own professional attitude if a once or twice-a-year transgression for a limited number of seconds gets the “look.”

Have you run across this issue? I’d be interested to hear what you and your readers think. Am I being too sensitive or am I holding the music we sing during the liturgy in too high of a place?

I don’t think this is rashly sensitive. Music is that important. We all know some priests who have a problem being team players. Music and liturgy are important enough that this gets talked out as a policy way ahead of time, and particular needs are taken care of days before Sunday Mass.

That said, it’s also a music director’s responsibility–even volunteers– to acquaint themselves with not only the liturgical calendar, but also the parish’s particular calendar for things like speakers, visiting clergy, Scout Sundays, and other non-liturgical items that potentially impact the liturgy.

I still get surprised by strange requests, but they’re rarely real surprises because I make it a point to know what’s coming up.

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Todd and his family live in Ames, Iowa. He serves a Catholic parish of both Iowa State students and town residents.
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6 Responses to Wasting the Presider’s Time

  1. Jeff Pinyan says:

    I’m finding it more and more odd when certain parts of Mass are spoken and others are sung. For instance, why is the mysterium fidei and the concluding doxology of the E.P. (almost) always sung, when the other parts of the E.P. with music aren’t? Does the priest feel bound to sing those two parts?

    As for hymns, when there is a four-verse hymn with a trinitarian conclusion, I prefer singing the complete hymn.

  2. Gavin says:

    I should point out that “singing the Mass” is more than just the priest singing his parts, but additionally (perhaps more importantly) singing the part of the Mass that goes “Let all the Earth cry out to God with joy…”, that is the propers. If the propers are not sung in one way or another, you’ve neglected to sing part of the Mass, and I’d say it’s worse than having the canon recited. I’m probably wasting my finger strength here, but I KNOW that’s not how even the best American parishes have worked for the past… oh, forever. Singing the Mass is what I did Sunday when I chanted the proper “The Lord is risen…” at Communion. Singing at Mass would be “Songs of Thankfulness and Praise” at communion – commendable, but still not singing the Mass.

    Aside from historical revisionism and back on topic, you’d fit in well with the NLM crowd with your “blame the music director” solution. Most of us musicians are told time and time again through word and action that music isn’t an important part of the Mass. The priest will complain if the Entrance hymn doesn’t stop when he reaches the chair. He’ll talk over the offertory hymn if it goes over. He’ll run out during the introduction to the closing hymn. So even if Todd the Liturgist winks and says “It’s ok, you can play 3 verses of the Entrance”, a lot of my colleagues are still wary of provoking the priest’s wrath.

    With my priest, I told him in my first month of the job, “You hired me, so it’s my duty to tell you that as long as I’m here we WILL sing every verse of every closing hymn.” Furthermore, I played a looong offertory (an offertory written for the old Mass) last week, and he stood at the altar and waited for the piece to end, enjoying the music. Not only was the respect shown to the music wonderful, but he also showed a good example to the congregation that the music is there for prayer and was just as important as any of the ritual actions going on at the offertory.

    Yet I don’t think the tired stereotypes work: conservative/young priests aren’t better about music, and priests aren’t entirely to blame. Priests aren’t to blame because they have ENORMOUS consequences to running Mass long. People may not change churches over heretical sermons, language, music, or liturgical abuse. But they WILL leave over a “long” Mass. And many priests don’t have the backbone to lead the parish on such a basic issue, and so they just give in and celebrate the 40 minute Mass they’ve had since before the Council. Furthermore, while there are some better young priests being ordained lately, not all of them are properly formed on or care about music. I’ve known quite a few accustomed to talking over the music. Some are of the opinion that “no music is better than having music I don’t like.” It seems some of that can be fixed by maturity, but still it shatters the stereotype.

  3. I agree with Gavin that…

    …People will leave a parish over Mass being “too long” and complain about too much emphasis on music.

    …And that priests don’t often stand up to this.

    …And that a lot of priests, regardless of conservative or liberal, don’t care enough about music–either they don’t value it and don’t emphasize it’s role, or they have a music program but don’t care to be involved, as if to say, it something to have, yes, but what it is, and how it forms us over time, big deal?

    I generally agree a hymn is a composition and should be treated with respect, and I am fine with singing verses after I arrive at the celebrant’s chair, and there are times when a hymn really only makes full sense when one sings all the verses…but one can overdo that point; a lot of our hymns are serviceable, and popular, but not great compositions. Sometimes, when I have Mass, and no one to lead music, I might lead two verses of a hymn on the procession, and conclude with the same hymn on the recession. More and more, I simply chant the entrance antiphon and leave with silence. Sorry if splitting the hymn causes cringes.

    We always sing the Gloria if we have someone to lead it. At Masses without a musician (one on Sunday, several during the week), it’s no difficulty leading the people in singing a Sanctus, the Our Father and the Agnus Dei, but we don’t have a familiar enough setting for the Gloria for enough people to do that as well. Someday.

    We have three priests, the other two older than I, and they don’t sing nearly as much as I do. I think it is difficult for them, and of course I never insist.

  4. Todd says:

    “Aside from historical revisionism and back on topic, you’d fit in well with the NLM crowd with your “blame the music director” solution.”

    And I thought I was being hard on the clergy. Go figure. I think it’s practical to have a team approach to these matters, squaring it all out with the priest(s) ahead of time.

    Gavin, I don’t think you’ve been around long enough to read 80’s issues of Pastoral Music. It’s wishful thinking to promote that singing the Mass was an invention of reform2 musicians. Sorry, but Mike Joncas and David Haas were promoting it in 1982. I know; I was there to hear it.

    It is heartening that conservative musicians have picked up on this as well. I welcome them to the table.

  5. Gavin says:

    I have found the archives interesting, but I always get the impression that there was a lot of optimism that led to the disappointing situation today. Which is what gives me pause about the CMAA’s work succeeding if NPM was (in my opinion) such a failure.

    The issue, as always, is NOT who takes credit for promoting singing the Mass. In my book, that’s just an exercise in pride. I try to look at the results. We have to look at the text: if “Let all the earth cry out…” was not sung at Entrance, “Bless the Lord, O My Soul…” (I think, I don’t remember) was not sung at offertory, or “The Lord is risen and has appeared to Peter, alleluia!” was not sung at communion, then the Mass was not sung. At the majority of American parishes, even those with a strong NPM influence, this is not the case in any way shape or form. And I admit my culpability in this as well; although before I announced my departure in June I was prepared to begin having all antiphons sung at the Mass. I don’t care who’s promoting this, from David Haas to Pope Benedict. If it doesn’t happen, each group can pat themselves on the back all they like, and all that’s been helped is their own egos. For anecdotal evidence, I received first communion at the school parish, which had the big latest and greatest 90’s contemporary/folk musician in the area. The communion song? All Are Welcome. If anyone, progressive/trad/reform2/liberal, was out there fixing the Church, this guy didn’t get the memo.

    Many of the NLM crowd are interested in the blame game. I’m not (except priests who don’t care about music). Let’s get work done in singing the Mass, and then instead of congratulating ourselves let’s keep improving the quality of our music.

  6. FrMichael says:

    Jeff: there is an instruction somewhere (couldn’t find it during a brief such of GIRMs old and new) about which parts of the Mass should be chanted above all others. The Mysterium Fidei and Great Doxology are two of those parts of the Mass. At seminary we learn those chants– not that priests always use them :(

    Gavin, music is the servant of the Mass, not its master. Even though I agree with some of what you have written and deplore the mentality of priests who pit music vs. time, this particular paragraph really got to me:

    “Not only was the respect shown to the music wonderful, but he also showed a good example to the congregation that the music is there for prayer and was just as important as any of the ritual actions going on at the offertory.”

    Er, the music is NOT as important as the ritual actions. If the Mass is unduly delayed because of an offertory hymn continuing on while the ritual actions of the Preparation of the Gifts were long completed, then the music ministry has hijacked the Mass. The US appendix to the old GIRM (n. 50) spoke about the offertory song accompanying the ritual actions and ceasing thereafter.

    The Concluding Song is a different case– since it is not part of the Mass, I would have no heartburn about a “long” song. But whether I choose to stay and sing at the chair or in front of the sanctuary or depart is not in the purview of the music director. Generally speaking, my decision to stay is based more upon my subjective like/dislike of the hymn than any other factor.

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